Glen's Reviews > Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by John A. Nagl
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Apr 06, 08

Read in September, 2007

This book attempts to compare and contrast the British approach towards insurgency in Malaya to the American style of war in Vietnam, with obvious repercussions for our current problems in Afghanistan and Iraq (though the book was published in 2002 before either conflict had really begun.) The title is an allusion to a quote from "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T.E. Lawrence, a sand-filled tome about the Arab insurgency against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Although the author makes some valid points about the importance of building a tight-knit learning institution that encourages intelligent action at the lowest level, it under-emphasizes some of the basic differences between British and American society that produced the eventual results of these conflicts. The preface to the paperback edition explains some of the shortfalls (after he had been a commander in Iraq) and also gives one of the best quotes for future counter-insurgencies:
"the fight to create a secure, democratic Iraq that does not provide a safe haven for terror is not primarily a military task. Counterinsurgency requires the integration of all elements of national power--diplomacy, information operations, intelligence, financial, and military--to achieve the predominantly political objectives of establishing a stable national government."
A couple other good quotes:
"In a battle against insurgents, persuading fighters to surrender and provide information on their comrades is much more effective than killing them; persuading the masses of the people that the government is capable of providing essential services-and of defeating insurgents-is just as important."
"The key to organizational learning is getting the decision-making authority to allow innovation, monitor its effectiveness, and then transmit new doctrine with strict requirements that it be followed throughout the organization."
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