Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam
John A. Nagl
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In examining these two events, Nagl—the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine cover story by Peter Maass—argues that organizational culture is key to the ability to learn from unanticipated conditions, a variable which explains why the British army successfully conducted counterinsurgency in Malaya but why the American army failed to do so in Vietnam, treating the war instead as a conventional conflict. Nagl concludes that the British army, because of its role as a colonial police force and the organizational characteristics created by its history and national culture, was better able to quickly learn and apply the lessons of counterinsurgency during the course of the Malayan Emergency.
With a new preface reflecting on the author's combat experience in Iraq, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife is a timely examination of the lessons of previous counterinsurgency campaigns that will be hailed by both military leaders and interested civilians.
the Special Air Service Regiment in 1950 for deep jungle operations. 58 As the MRLA moved farther from populated areas, receiving support from the aborigines in the deep jungle, the Malayan Scouts (SAS) endured long jungle marches to reach likely areas of MRLA base camps. Their effectiveness was limited by the number and capability of helicopters for transport of personnel and supplies.59 These tactical innovations, important as they were, were limited in their effectiveness by the lack of a
permanently dominated." 66 Not only was the Government in Whitehall not pressing for a quick solution to the problem, it also understood what that problem was—and recognized that previous efforts to overcome it had in many ways been counterproductive. Thus, Strachey speaks of "a certain tactical distortion . . . because of the way we formulated our task as the clearing up of gangs of bandits. This may have lead to a concentration on jungle patrols, etc., which inevitably pay comparatively small
until we get the British and Australian officers for whom we have been striving so long." 67 Although there were instances of terrorist intimidation and murder of Home Guard officers, in general the "Chinese Army" resisted effectively; of 89,000 weapons issued to the Home Guard by November 1954, only 103 had been lost.68 Perhaps Templer's greatest contribution to the conduct of the counterinsurgency campaign was his ability to coordinate all of the efforts—social, political, economic, police, and
were sent there with a mission, which they interpreted as 'make the new concept work.' And then there was an evaluation group that was established, and they interpreted their mission 'to make it w o r k , ' and they did their best." 1 2 6 Learning was handicapped by the fact that those w h o truly understood the problems of counterinsurgency, such as Vann and Lansdale, were ignored or worse by their conventionally minded supervisors: Americans attuned to this kind of war have not been very well
national goals No No Unity of command: military subordination to political objectives No No Minimum: minimum necessary force No No Mass: appropriate structure for threat No No Was the American Army in Vietnam a Learning Institution from 1965 Through 1972? The performance of the American army as a learning institution from 1965 through 1972 is similarly mixed. Suggestions continued to percolate upward from the field, most notably from the United States Marine Corps in its Combined