Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife -Book Review

Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife
by Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl
University of Chicago Press

In writing Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife, LTC John A. Nagl set out to discover the lessons learned and not learned in counterinsurgency warfare with a comparative study of the experiences of the British and American armies fighting Communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia. Nagl has done so, admirably and concisely; even readers familiar with the extensive literature on the Vietnam War will find many of his examples instructive. More than that, in measuring British success against American failure in waging counterinsurgency, Nagl has pointed to a larger explanation on why complex organizations succeed or fail when faced with unexpected challenges.

Well crafted comparative histories are difficult, even for accomplished historians and Colonel Nagl succeeds brilliantly. The case studies are as well chosen as comparative history might permit; the 1950s’ “Malayan Emergency” of the largely ethnic Chinese and Communist revolt against waning British rule and incipient Malayan domination, and the 1960s’ Second Indochina War that featured massive American intervention in South Vietnam to crush the Viet Cong insurgency sponsored by North Vietnam. The superficial similarities of the British and Americans armies served Nagl well in highlighting the deep organizational and cultural differences separating the two militaries.

The former, operating on slender resources and a colonial tradition, was able to become ” a learning institution” and adapt to local circumstances, initiate needed changes in structure,personnel and tactics and seize the political initiative from the Communists. The latter, stubbornly refused to acknowledge failures of doctrine, strategy or leadership. Time and again, Nagl shows senior American military commanders in Vietnam sabotaging counterinsurgency and pacification programs, driving internal critics out of the Army, sidelining Special Forces units, destroying critical reports, enforcing a “party line” at HQ, ignoring advice from the CIA, State, the British and even presidential directives, to change or risk losing the war.

The attitude of Generals Harkins, Taylor, Johnson, DuPuy, Westmoreland and their staffs at MACV and the Pentagon,all former WWII junior officers trained to think of war only in conventional battlefield terms, toward counterinsurgency,was summed up by Nagl in the following quote:

The Special Forces were the only soldiers who had the knowledge and experience to point out the answer, but the Regular Army absolutely wouldn’t listen to them. They’d have listened to the French before they listened to our own Special Forces.”
– Dr. Robert K. Wright, Command Historian 25th Infantry Division

After the war was lost, these generals and their proteges would expend much effort in the 1970s in trying to purge the U.S. Army of any institutional memory of counterinsurgency warfare or of the numerous studies, reports and commissions that had documented the strategic errors of senior generals and weaknesses in Army doctrine. An institutional legacy that has come back to haunt the American Army in Iraq as lessons lost on how to fight insurgencies had to be painfully and expensively, relearned.

Nagl concludes his book with an outline of the challenges of building a ” learning organization” that can adapt successfully to changing circumstances and the qualities such organizations must have – tolerance of diverse views, open discussion of problems, education to promote intellectual curiosity and innovation, dissemination of information, doctrine as a constant evolutionary process rather than fixed rules, observation, reflection, listening to subordinates, welcoming inquiry.

Qualities desperately needed by most complex organizations still deeply influenced by the early 20th century Taylorist-Mass production-Bureaucratic mindset, not just the U.S. Army.

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