Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife

Dr. John Nagl

As President Obama looks to the best options to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan, maybe he should consider some of the insights offered in Dr. John Nagl’s book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Dr. Nagl, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and the current Iraq war, examines how military forces adapt to the changing nature of conflicts that they did not train for by comparing the British counterinsurgency effort in Malaya from 1948 to 1960 and the US in Vietnam from 1950 to 1975. The title is taken from a quote by T.E. Lawrence (popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia) in which Lawrence said “To make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” The book represents a seminal work in counterinsurgency theory and is so highly regarded that former Chief of Staff for the Army, Peter Schoomaker, contributed a foreword to the second edition along with ordering copies of the book for each of his four star generals.

soupwithaknifeDr. Nagl closely examines the organizational structures of the British and US militaries, particularly their capacity for bottom up or top down changes. He concludes that the British military was a learning institution and the US military was not. The book is separated into four parts, in which Dr. Nagl first discusses how institutions learn followed by separate discussions of the counterinsurgency effort in Malaya and Vietnam and ends with a ‘lessons’ section. Dr. Nagl believes that the organizational culture in the US military was overly focused on technology and mass firepower, based on preparations for a massive land war against the Soviet Union. This culture prevented the US military from adopting appropriate counterinsurgency strategies in Vietnam. He concludes that the requirements for conventional versus unconventional warfare are so disparate that organizations best placed to fight one will have great difficulty in fighting the other.

Additional interesting reading, recommended by Dr. Nagl himself, includes recognition of a local government contracting executive, Dr. John Hilllen, who performed heroically in the Gulf War.  John Hillen was recognized in “Warrior’s Rage” by Douglas MacGregor, another Gulf War-era account.

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