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Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam Paperback – 15 Sep 2005

4.4 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 282 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; New edition edition (15 Sept. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226567702
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226567709
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 32,809 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"[A] highly regarded counterinsurgency manual" -- Michael Schrage "Washington Post" (01/15/2006)

"[A] highly regarded counterinsurgency manual." -- Michael Schrage "Washington Post" (01/15/2006)

"ÝA¨ highly regarded counterinsurgency manual." -- Michael Schrage "Washington Post" (01/15/2006)

"[A] highly regarded counterinsurgency manual."-- Michael Schrage, "Washington Post"


"[A] highly regarded counterinsurgency manual."

"[A] highly regarded counterinsurgency manual."2;Michael Schrage, "Washington Post"
-- Michael Schrage "Washington Post" (01/15/2006)

"One key army text is Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by Lt. Col. John Nagl, which focuses on counterinsurgency lessons from the 1950s war in Malaya and from the Vietnam War. The title phrase was used by Lawrence of Arabia in describing the messy and time-consuming nature of defeating insurgents. Nagl focuses on the ability of armies to learn from mistakes and adapt their strategy and tactics-skills in which he finds U.S. forces lacking. He shows how the British in Malaya were nimble enough to defeat a communist insurgency, while the U.S. military in Vietnam clung to a failing doctrine of force. Sadly, the Pentagon had not absorbed such insights before invading Iraq. Nagl himself says he learned a lot more during a one-year tour in Iraq. His ideas, if applied back in mid-2003, might have checked the growth of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and prevented Sunni Islamists from provoking a civil war with Iraqi Shiites. It may be too late for the Army''s new doctrine to stop Iraq from falling apart....It''s past time to make Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife required reading at the White House." -- Trudy Rubin "Philadelphia Inquirier" (08/16/2006)

"As the Baker/Hamilton club considers America''s options in the Middle East, its members would do well to browse currently hot books on counterinsurgency [including] "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam"...Stimulating, thoughtful and serious."--Michael Ledeen, "The Jerusalem Post"--The Jerusalem Post"Michael Leeden" (11/19/2006)

"The success of DPhil papers by Oxford students is usually gauged by the amount of dust they gather on library shelves. But there is one that is so influential that General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq, is said to carry it with him everywhere. Most of his staff have been ordered to read it and he pressed a copy into the hands of Donald Rumsfeld when he visited Baghdad in December. "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" (a title taken from T.E. Lawrence -- himself no slouch in guerrilla warfare) is a study of how the British Army succeeded in snuffing out the Malayan insurgency between 1948 and 1960 -- and why the Americans failed in Vietnam. . . . It is helping to transform the American military in the face of its greatest test since Vietnam. "--Tom Baldwin"Times (UK)" (03/28/2006)

"As the United States enters its fifth year of the war on terror, military leaders are conducting low-intensity and counter-insurgency operations in several different areas around the world. Of the different books produced on this subject, LTC John Nagl's "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" is an absolute must for those who want to gain valuable insight on some of the hard lessons of fighting an insurgency before actually getting on the ground. The book expertly combines theoretical foundations of insurgencies with detailed historical lessons of Malaya and Vietnam to produce some very profound and topical implications for current military operations. The true success of the book is that Nagl discusses all of these complex issues in an easy-to-follow and straight-forward manner. . . . I read this book upon returning from my tour in Iraq after commanding a company on the ground for a year. I was amazed at how insightful and 'true' the conclusions were and wished that I had read it before I deployed."--Nick Ayers"Armor" (01/01/2006)

"An extremely relevant text. Those interested in understanding the difficulties faced by Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who want to grasp the intricacies of the most likely form of conflict for the near future, will gain applicable lessons. ["Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife"] offers insights about how to mold America's armed forces into modern learning organizations. As the Pentagon ponders its future in the Quadrennial Defense Review, one can only hope that Nagl's invaluable lesson in learning and adapting is being exploited."--Frank G. Hoffman"eedings of the United State Naval Institue" (04/01/2006)

"Brutal in its criticism of the Vietnam---Greg Jaffe"Wall Street Journal" (03/20/2006)

"Brutal in its criticism of the Vietnam-era Army as an organization that failed to learn from its mistakes and tried vainly to fight guerrilla insurgents the same way it fought World War II. In ["Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife"], Col. Nagl, who served a year in Iraq, contrasts the U.S. Army's failure with the British experience in Malaya in the 1950s. The difference: The British, who eventually prevailed, quickly saw the folly of using massive force to annihilate a shadowy communist enemy. . . . Col. Nagl's book is one of a half dozen Vietnam histories -- most of them highly critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam -- that are changing the military's views on how to fight guerrilla wars. . . .The tome has already had an influence on the ground in Iraq. Last winter, Gen. Casey opened a school for U.S. commanders in Iraq to help officers adjust to the demands of a guerrilla-style conflict in which the enemy hides among the people and tries to provoke an overreaction. The idea for the training center, says Gen. Casey, came in part from Col. Nagl's book, which chronicles how the British in Malaya used a similar school to educate British officers coming into the country. 'Pretty much everyone on Gen. Casey's staff had read Nagl's book, ' says Lt. Col. Nathan Freier, who spent a year in Iraq as a strategist. A British brigadier general says that 'Gen. Casey carried the book with him everywhere.'"--Greg Jaffe"Wall Street Journal" (03/20/2006)

"[A] highly regarded counterinsurgency manual."--Michael Schrage"Washington Post" (01/15/2006)"

"Thesuccess of DPhil papers by Oxford students is usually gauged by the amount of dust they gather on library shelves. But there is one that is so influential that General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq, is said to carry it with him everywhere. Most of his staff have been ordered to read it and he pressed a copy into the hands of Donald Rumsfeld when he visited Baghdad in December. "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" (a title taken from T.E. Lawrence himself no slouch in guerrilla warfare) is a study of how the British Army succeeded in snuffing out the Malayan insurgency between 1948 and 1960 and why the Americans failed in Vietnam. . . . It is helping to transform the American military in the face of its greatest test since Vietnam. "--Tom Baldwin"Times (UK)" (03/28/2006)"

"Nagl, currently a Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, focuses on organizational culture as the key to defeating insurgencies: successful militaries learn and adapt." "Recommended Readingon Counterinsurgency," Nathaniel Fick, "Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute"--Nathaniel Fick"Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute" (12/01/2005)"

"The capacity to adapt is always a key contributor to military success. Nagl combines historical analysis with a comprehensive examination of organisational theory to rationalise why, as many of his readers will already intuitively sense, 'military organisations often demonstrate remarkable resistance to doctrinal change' and fail to be as adaptive as required. His analysis is helpful in determining why the U.S. Army can appear so innovative in certain respects, and yet paradoxically slow to adapt in others." Nigel R F Aylwin-Foster, "Military Review"--Nigel R F Aylwin-Foster"Military Review" (11/01/2005)"

"One key army text is "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" by Lt. Col. John Nagl, which focuses on counterinsurgency lessons from the 1950s war in Malaya and from the Vietnam War. The title phrase was used by Lawrence of Arabia in describing the messy and time-consuming nature of defeating insurgents. Nagl focuses on the ability of armies to learn from mistakes and adapt their strategy and tactics skills in which he finds U.S. forces lacking. He shows how the British in Malaya were nimble enough to defeat a communist insurgency, while the U.S. military in Vietnam clung to a failing doctrine of force. Sadly, the Pentagon had not absorbed such insights "before" invading Iraq. Nagl himself says he learned a lot more during a one-year tour in Iraq. His ideas, if applied back in mid-2003, might have checked the growth of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and prevented Sunni Islamists from provoking a civil war with Iraqi Shiites. It may be too late for the Army's new doctrine to stop Iraq from falling apart....It's past time to make "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" required reading at the White House."--Trudy Rubin"Philadelphia Inquirier" (08/16/2006)"

"As the Baker/Hamilton club considers America's options in the Middle East, its members would do well to browsecurrently hot books on counterinsurgency [including]"Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam."..Stimulating, thoughtful and serious."--The Jerusalem Post"Michael Leeden" (11/19/2006)"

About the Author

Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl is a Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. Nagl led a tank platoon in the First Cavalry Division in Operation Desert Storm, taught national security studies at West Point's Department of Social Sciences, and served as the Operations Officer of Task Force 1-34 Armor in the First Infantry Division in Khalidiyah, Iraq.


Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book has received a number of 'must read' reviews in a number of publications - several of them military in-house magazines. I think some of those reviews are overstated now that I have had the benefit of reading the book. In particular the subtitle 'Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam' is misleading.

Once I opened the book and understood that the main thrust was a study of organisational behaviour then it became clear to me that the author had researched the subject well and presented his arguments effectively and most impressively, as a serving US Army officer, made some critical statements regarding his employer.

For anybody seeking an in-depth analysis of the Malayan Emergency or the Vietnam War, or even a primer on counter-insurgency, this is not the book for you. If, however, you have slightly more than a passing knowledge of both the British and US Armies and the two conflicts, then this book offers well-argued and courageous insights and I recommend it on this basis.
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Format: Paperback
A well written contribution to the rapidly expanding stockpile of Counter-Insurgency literature available today. The focus on the organisational learning and behaviour remains particularly insightful and highly relevant in addressing the core focus. Nagl's experience as not only a COIN thinker but a COIN practitioner no doubt contributed to the quality of this study. 'Learning to eat Soup with a Knife' is a must read for military personnel, academics and anyone with a strong interest in field of Counter-Insurgent Policy.

On a final note to the general reader, the depth and style of analyse in this work is likely to go beyond the needs for everyday conversational knowledge and would not be largely useful for historical overview of either conflict. Nevertheless at a time where COIN is at the forefront of Policy, Nagl's work highlights timeless principles that remain relevant today and have the potential to provide useful insight in many modern conflicts.
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Format: Paperback
Colonel Nagl's book is an excellent study though inevitably is bears traces of its original existence as a Oxford University doctoral study.
I have no problem with the Vietnam section but in regard to what Colonel Nagl has written about the Malayan Emergency, the argument is advanced that the army was running the intelligence behind the counterinsurgency
operations. However, the supreme intelligence agency was the Malayan Police Special Branch which was responsibile for political, security and
operational intelligence. The army did not run its own agents and General Templer, the British High Commissioner and Director of Operations, made it quite clear on several occasions that the Special Branch was the supreme intelligence organisation. Although indeed some 30 or so military intelligence officers were eventually (around 1952) attached to the Special Branch, they were not in charge of intelligence, and they acted under the direction of the senior Special Branch officer to whom they were attached. Their role was limited to passing on operational intelligence obtained by the Special Branch to the army in a form that the army could readily understand. The reader should therefore bear this important qualification in mind in reading Colonel Nagl's otherwise commendable contribution to counterinsurgency warfare.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Seemingly the author's DPhil thesis, the book is more on an organization's ability to learn than on warfare or insurgencies per se. As long as you keep this in mind the book is a solid piece of writing, with a sensible analysis and well documented with a rich source material.

The author's main thrust is that the British army succeeded in Malaya due to their lower reliance on doctrine and higher acceptance of experimention and the understanding that each conflict is different and more specifically, that a political solution was needed to really win. Unfortunately, the US military was extremely reluctant to learn the same lessons - neither from the French, nor the British or their own troops, who understood that the firepower approach was often doing more harm than good.

So while you will perhaps learn less on counterinsurgency per se than in some other books (Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency (PSI Classics in the Counterinsurgency Era) comes to mind as a decent example) the book also works for people not interested in warfare per se but in the organizational obstacles to learning and adaptation in large established organizations.

While other reviewers have rightly criticized some detail errors creeping in to the account of the British experience, the book is still a fairly valuable addition to a library on counterinsurgency.
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Format: Hardcover
Seemingly the author's DPhil thesis, the book is more on an organization's ability to learn than on warfare or insurgencies per se. As long as you keep this in mind the book is a solid piece of writing, with a sensible analysis and well documented with a rich source material.

The author's main thrust is that the British army succeeded in Malaya due to their lower reliance on doctrine and higher acceptance of experimention and the understanding that each conflict is different and more specifically, that a political solution was needed to really win. Unfortunately, the US military was extremely reluctant to learn the same lessons - neither from the French, nor the British or their own troops, who understood that the firepower approach was often doing more harm than good.

So while you will perhaps learn less on counterinsurgency per se than in some other books (Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency (PSI Classics in the Counterinsurgency Era) comes to mind as a decent example) the book also works for people not interested in warfare per se but in the organizational obstacles to learning and adaptation in large established organizations.

While other reviewers have rightly criticized some detail errors creeping in to the account of the British experience, the book is still a fairly valuable addition to a library on counterinsurgency.
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