Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

Matt Coburn

Why can’t the U.S. Army figure out Iraq? Why are Special Forces detachments advising and employing Afghan National Army forces to conduct battalion- and brigade-sized cordon-and-search operations with less-than-actionable intelligence? Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl’s book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, answers these questions. Nagl, the current military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, analyzes two similar counterinsurgencies: the Malayan Emergency (19481957) and the U.S. Army’s efforts in South Vietnam (1950-1972). He shows how the British Army, faced with adversity during the Malayan Emergency, changed its strategy and won, while the U.S. Army, faced with similar difficulties in Vietnam, failed to evolve and lost.

Originally published in 2002, the book was republished after Nagl’s return from a year in Iraq, where he faced the challenge of executing his thesis in a real-world situation. As the operations officer for an armor task force, Nagl had to change the culture of his battalion, which had trained for tank battles in a conventional fight, to enable it to execute counterinsurgency operations against the insurgents. As evidence of the book’s potential long-term influence, General Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff, penned the foreword for this edition.

Nagl’s preface discusses the differences between his original scholarly work and what he experienced operating in Iraq. Nagl develops his thesis by describing how different armies learn and change. He provides a useful and easy-to-understand depiction the intricacies of insurgencies. Nagl discusses how the British and American armies differ at the fundamental cultural level: The British Army evolved conducting colonial police actions, while the U.S. Army mastered conventional maneuver warfare.

The British began their counterinsurgency in Malaya making classic counterinsurgent mistakes, such as executing battalion maneuvers to clear suspected insurgent areas. After 1952, the British changed their strategy to synchronize their political, economic and military elements. They placed emphasis on intelligence-collection and on advising Malayan local-security forces to provide protection to the populace. The British charged a single leader, either military or political, with coordinating all efforts at local levels. Nagl credits the efforts of General Sir Gerald Templer in overcoming bureaucratic resistance and forcing positive and effective change.

The U.S. began its counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam, using advisers to assist the South Vietnamese. Unfortunately, the conventionally trained advisers attempted to build the South Vietnamese army to mirror the U.S. Army, thus preventing the South Vietnamese army’s ability to effectively answer the Viet Cong. In 1965, the U.S. increased its presence in Vietnam and deployed conventional forces to attempt to destroy the Viet Cong insurgency. Nagl explains several effective techniques that the U.S. used, such as the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program and the Marines’ use of combined-action platoons. Both those programs provided the political and decentralized characteristics necessary for defeating an insurgency, but Nagl shows how the deep-rooted, conventional culture of the U.S. Army resisted those moves away from large-scale maneuver warfare.

Nagl closes by examining how the British were able to change in the middle of an unconventional war to defeat an insurgency, and how the U.S. could not. Nagl predicts that the U.S. Army will not change until it becomes aware that it needs to change. He says that upon achieving that self-awareness, the U.S. Army leaders must take advice from their subordinates about what really works or fails to work on the ground and then lead the organizational change into reality.

Nagl presents his thesis succinctly, clearly depicting the steps necessary for effecting change in the Army organization. Along the way, he provides excellent instruction on insurgencies and useful strategies for defeating them. The book’s only weakness is that Nagl stops just short of challenging senior Army leaders to begin effecting real change in our counterinsurgency efforts.

Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife gives SOF operators insight into the challenges of counterinsurgency and the best strategies for conducting it. Nagl’s book provides senior SOF leaders with lessons that can assist in implementing the SOF organizational changes needed to fight and win the “long war.”


By John A. Nagl Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. ISBN: 0-226-56770-2 (paper). 279 pages. $17.

Reviewed by: Captain Matt Coburn U.S. Army Naval Postgraduate School Monterey, Calif.

COPYRIGHT 2006 John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School

COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group