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Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife – John A. Nagl | Hand of Reason

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Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife – John A. Nagl


John A. Nagl performs a comparative study in his book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, between the British Army’s response to Malaya and the American Army’s response to Vietnam. By examining each case study at length, Nagle concludes that the ability or inability to learn resulted in success for the British and failure for the Americans. While the British adapted to the insurgency, the Americans continued to apply conventional strategies to an insurgency. Even though Nagl admits that optimization for unconventional warfare results in a neglect of conventional capability, he concludes that the United States military should make itself more flexible than it currently is to be able to respond to the unconventional operations that dominate the international system. Since peace keeping, nation building, humanitarian aid, and insurgencies occur far more frequently than conventional conflicts between states, the American Army should move closer to the unconventional end of the spectrum.

Chapter 1 – How Armies Learn

Not only do militaries have different organizational cultures, these differences directly impact the ability for these organizations to respond to their environment (5-6).

The “institutional learning process” involves the recognition of the shortcomings in the institution followed by the pursuit of solutions. This process is repeated indefinitely. The “institutional memory” of an organization is the knowledge of how to perform in a given circumstance; militaries define their “institutional memories” within doctrine. Considering the lengthy bureaucratic process that accompanies a change in doctrine, changes in “institutional memory” often precede this (6-7).

The organizational culture of militaries makes doctrinal change highly difficult and typically follows a costly event that necessitates the change (8).

The British Army had developed a “learning institution” which allowed it to develop counterinsurgency doctrine in Malaya. In contrast, the American Army never established itself as a “learning institution” in Vietnam, which prevented necessary changes to doctrine and the adoption of effective British counterinsurgency strategy (11).

Chapter 2 – The Hard Lesson of Insurgency

For strategists, winning a conflict has depended on the elimination of the opposing force. This concept is mistakenly attributed to Carl von Clausewitz whom, as Nagl argues, actually claimed that the power of any given army rests within the government and the people. The prescription of focusing on the elimination of the enemy can be attributed to Henry Jomini and his interpretation of the wars of Napoleon (16-19).

This link between the people, government, and the army was used to greater utility by Mao Tse-Tung during the Chinese Communist revolution. Gaining the support of the people served as the most influential variable and created a true “army of the people.” Instead of the army being a separate entity, it would live among the populace and emerge to strike the enemy before returning within the fold of the populace (21-22).

Mao had a three-phase strategy for his protracted revolutionary war:

  1. Organization
  2. Progressive Expansion
  3. Destruction of the Enemy (23)

Several factors have made revolutionary conflicts far more prevalent following World War II including:

  • The rise of nationalism and communist ideologies
  • The decline of the imperial powers
  • The increased availability of firepower to non-state actors
  • The media’s ability to cover even the most remote conflicts in detail
  • The avoidance of casualties by great powers (24)

While Clausewitz believed a “people’s war” could be used as a defensive strategy, the above factors allowed it to become a viable offensive strategy. In other words, the Communist insurgency of Mao was not a new kind of war but an adaption of Clausewitz’s “people’s war” that was made available by the factors cited above (24-25).

There are two general approaches to counterinsurgency: Annihilation of the insurgents and winning the loyalty of the people. This distinction mirrors the two general approaches to conventional warfare as well. There is the “direct approach” which focuses on destruction of the enemy and the “indirect method” which attempts to obtain political objectives without a frontal clash of forces (26).

Applying the “direct method” to insurgencies stems from the assumption that the methods used to fight an unconventional war are similar to those used in conventional conflicts. Therefore, all wars are the same and should use the same strategy of elimination, which depends on the flawed interpretation of the wars of Napoleon by Jomini (27).

The “indirect approach” focuses on eroding the support of the insurgents by the people and is usually more effective over the long term (29).

Chapter 3 – The British and American Armies: Separated by a Common Language

There are several themes that pervade the British strategic culture:

  • An emphasis on the Royal Navy and a lack of commitment to the British Army. The army was not expected to engage in protracted conflicts but to be extracted when faced with mounting losses.
  • The need to police the extended British Empire
  • A lack of cohesive doctrine or theory for the British Army developed different regiments with completely separate operating principles created in response to local conditions (35-37).

After 1945, the British Army developed a doctrine of warfare that emphasized the importance of working alongside the local population, prioritizing political objectives, and gaining public support (41-42).

For counterinsurgency specifically, three principles were developed:

  1. Minimum force
  2. Civil-military cooperation
  3. Tactical flexibility

These principles were achieved through decentralized small-units (42-43).

In other words, the British Army has traditionally been involved in “limited war” to achieve specific objectives and has tailored its approach to local conditions while resisting any centralized military doctrine or theory. The successes of the British Army in the postwar era can be attributed to this approach to warfare (43).

In contrast, the American military has defined the army’s role as the elimination of existential threats to the nation. Additionally, politics is considered irrelevant as soon as war begins, allowing the military to maintain a large degree of control over military strategy and policy. This extends to a black and white perception of war in America; it is either at peace or at war but never in between (43).

Other themes of American warfare include:

  • Reliance on technology
  • Faith in the moral mission of the United States
  • An unwillingness to use unconventional strategy or tactics (43-44)

Despite numerous small wars throughout the history of the United States including the counterinsurgency campaign beginning in 1898 in the Philippine Islands, conventional wars between large armies became the primary focus of the US Army. The Civil War encouraged this perception, which was then solidified with World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War (46-47).

In contrast, the US Marine Corps had developed small war capability due to its assigned missions in Latin America and China, hence the publication of the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual. Before the Marine Corps could fully specialize in small wars however, it was directed to specialize in amphibious assaults (47-48).

By the Vietnam War, the United States Army had adopted a reliance on technology and firepower to achieve the absolute defeat of the enemy without concern for the political contexts of a conflict (49-50).

Chapter 4 – British Army Counterinsurgency Learning During the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1951

The Malayan Emergency exemplifies how the British Army abandoned ineffective counterinsurgency and ultimately defeated the Communist insurgency, proving itself as a learning institution (59).

The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) attempted to employ the same strategy used by Mao, focusing on the people for support in its attempt to convince the British to abandon its colony. The insurgent forces would come to be known as the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) (63-64).

Two schools of thought emerged amongst British officials for how to respond to the insurgency:

  1. The insurgency was purely a military problem with military solutions
  2. Economic and political factors were fueling the insurgency and must be addressed.

Due to the recent experience in World War II, most officers preferred conventional tactics to suppress the insurgency that produced lack luster results (66-68).

Some officers began to innovate tactically by using smaller patrols. Most notably, Walter Walker established the Jungle Warfare School to teach small war tactics. These innovations were incremental as conventional tactics continued to dominate the response of the British (68-70).

Lieutenant General Sir Harold Briggs further adapted the response of the British by establishing the Federal War Council to coordinate efforts and to reorient the focus of the campaign to separate the insurgents from the support of the population by focusing on small areas before moving on to the next. This constituted the “Briggs Plan” (71).

The most difficult problem was convincing the Chinese population that an independent Malaya provided a better future than a Malaya subordinate to Chinese communists (73-74).

The British were unable to engage the insurgents as a result of the unwillingness of the population to provide intelligence. To overcome this, “New Villages” were created and fortified to protect Chinese villagers. These villages were crucial to the Briggs Plan and greatly aided the counterinsurgency efforts. However, support for the MCP continued (74).

A disunity of command plagued the British and prevented a sufficient adaptation to the insurgency (78).

At the end of 1951, the British Army had yet to develop a successful counterinsurgency doctrine despite tactical innovations. In other words, the British Army exhibited a “learning process” from below but high levels of command continued to rely on the same conventional strategies they had employed in Europe (78-81).

Chapter 5 The Empire Strikes Back: British Army Counterinsurgency in Malaya, 1952-1957

General Sir Gerald Templar was selected to lead a reorientation of the British approach to the insurgency. He had a dramatic impact and prioritized British the desire to make Malaya self-governing as soon as the insurgency had subsided. His single greatest achievement was to use nationalism to rally support against the insurgents (87-91).

The British also leveraged radio and film to spread an anti-insurgent message and help win the “hearts and minds” of the people (93-94).

Food denial was used extensively to root out insurgents. The British targeted areas that heavily supported insurgents, confiscated all food, and only distributed rationed, cooked rice from a central location. Small patrols with local trackers would then be used in the surrounding jungle to locate insurgents (97-99).

Templar also went to great lengths to fully coordinate all social, political, economic, police, and military policies to strengthen the local host government and reduce the desire to support an insurgency amongst the people. This coincided with a clear chain of command that was directed to specifically win “hearts and minds” (100-101).

Once the initiatives employed by Templar began to make an impact, support for an independent government grew rapidly which the British nurtured and encouraged. Increased security allowed many institutions to develop on their own and even though the Emergency lasted for another seven years, the turning point occurred under Templar’s leadership (101-102).

Compared to the doctrine and tactics used in 1951, the strategy used in 1957 represents an evolution of counterinsurgency doctrine within the British Military. Unity of command, increased governance by locals, the importance of local military leaders, and an integration of all races into a unified government represent the primary ways the British adapted its doctrine. The greatest difference within the military was the move from massive ground sweeps to targeted operations by small patrols using intelligence from locals and infiltration of the insurgents (103-105).

Under Templar, the British developed a successful counterinsurgency doctrine that was then used throughout the campaign. Templar’s emphasis on innovation and honest assessment were instilled into the British Army in Malaya and allowed them to continue to adapt to the insurgents over the following years (105-107).

Chapter 6 – The U.S. Army in Vietnam: Organizational Culture and Learning During the Advisory Years, 1950-1964

The US Army was not able to develop institutional learning between 1950 and 1972; it continued to attempt to eliminate the enemy without regard to the role of the populace. Instigators of change and adaption were largely ignored and an incredibly strong organizational culture repeatedly stifled institutional learning of counterinsurgency (116-117).

The US Army employed advisors in Vietnam to avoid large troop commitments while limiting the spread of Communist forces in the region. However, these advisors were only qualified to build a Vietnamese Army as a replica of the US Army with an emphasis on conventional capability. This neglected the types of conflict that the Vietnamese Army was likely to face (120).

A focus on conventional forces allowed insurgents to spread terror amongst the population, recruit, and gain the initial traction it needed (124).

John F. Kennedy was both familiar with Vietnam and had a sound understanding of the political nature of insurgencies. Even though Kennedy and his administration supported a typical counterinsurgency strategy, the military resisted any change and continued to request approval for conventional operations (124-125).

On the whole, the Army lacked both the knowledge and the desire to focus on anything other than conventional conflicts (126).

In contrast, the CIA was far more receptive to counterinsurgency strategies due to its short and varied institutional memory. In the 1960’s, the CIA developed the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) to focus on village security that represented an innovation in counterinsurgency that produced significant results. Even with such a success, the CIA was unable to spur any further innovation in the US Army (128-129).

The British Advisory Mission (BRIAM) led by Sir Robert Thompson responded to American requests for assistance and advice regarding the conflict with the Viet Cong. Even though BRIAM advocated for less emphasis on firepower and the need to address the political nature of the insurgency, it had little influence on American forces or doctrine (130-131).

Since the US Army could not adapt to the conflict, assassinations and kidnappings of South Vietnamese civilian officials proliferated and exemplified the failure of the US Army to provide stability and achieve its goal of a non-Communist Vietnam. The US Army continued to rely on a conventional strategy and firepower without increasing the capacity of local forces to respond to the immediate threat of an insurgency (137-138).

The institutional learning that did occur was confined to advisors in the field. Changes to the doctrine only began to occur in the 1960s and was also restricted to the United States while officers in Vietnam continued to resist any change (140-142).

Chapter 7 – The U.S. Army in Vietnam: Organizational Culture and Learning During the Fighting Years, 1965-1972

With optimism that U.S. troops would quickly defeat the Vietcong with their mobility and firepower, support for a U.S. troop deployment continued to grow. After the deployment, the Army focused on using its firepower in a strategy of attrition for several years (152-155).

Major General Lew Walt of the USMC used the experience of the Marines with small wars to form Combined Action Platoons (CAPs) that integrated American and Vietnamese forces and divided their time between patrols and civic programs. In 1967, the area controlled by the CAPs was the only one that didn’t experience an increase in Communist influence (156-158).

In 1965, the Army Chief of Staff commissioned a study to evaluate the effectiveness of the Army’s strategy in Vietnam. The program was called the Pacification and Long Term Development of South Vietnam group (PROVN). The study concluded that the emphasis on firepower and the “search and destroy” strategy was failing and suggested focusing on securing the support of the population. The report produced little in the way of change (158-160).

Even as political and military leaders began to endorse the need to focus on political and military objectives, few steps were taken in this direction before 1967 (164).

The Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program is the most prominent example of a shift towards integrating political and military objectives. It included personnel from the CIA, USIA, AID, State Department, the White House, and military as well as deployed small, unified civil-military advisory teams. Even though CORDS produced a large degree of success, it was too little too late (165-166).

While General Creighton Abrams attempted to abandon the “search and destroy” strategy in favor of focusing on security for the Vietnamese people, his efforts were also unable to overcome the Army’s strategic culture (168-169).

There are several key problems that the American Army was unable or unwilling to address:

  • A focus on firepower that was unsuited to the warfare of South Vietnam
  • No coordination between counterinsurgency efforts until CORDS
  • A preference for large-unit operations that is ineffective for counterinsurgency (174-176).

When the Army did undergo a self-evaluation and innovation did occur, the institutional culture that prioritized conventional conflict prevented any change from developing. CORDS was largely a result of the Tet Offensive exposing the obvious shortcomings of the Army’s strategy (179-180).

Chapter 8 – Hard Lessons: The British and American Armies Learn Counterinsurgency

Several factors unique to the British Army allowed them to more easily adapt to an insurgency:

  • The class basis of order in British society and the relaxation of rank structure
  • An unwritten and more flexible doctrine governing British military operations
  • An appreciation of the unique identities of foreign countries
  • The military experience of guerrilla fighting from Burma and Malaya during World War II (192)

An unwritten doctrine allowed young officers to innovate when dealing with an insurgency. Combined with receptiveness to suggestions from below, innovation was developed and then spread throughout the organization within a reasonable timeframe (194-195).

Harold Briggs and Gerald Templar were both incredibly influential in providing the strategic vision and leadership to respond to the political dynamics of the insurgency. However, Templar was very much a product of the British Army culture and cannot be considered an atypical officer. Many officers understood the importance of addressing political factors (195-197).

In contrast, the American Army culture prioritized conventional strategies to the insurgency and ignored any attempts at innovation regardless of their source. Young officers, the CIA, and even President Kennedy could not shift the dominant culture of the Army (198).

Innovation was directed primarily towards maximizing firepower while neglecting intelligence sources and the security of the populace (199-200).

With the majority of American officers garrisoned in the United States during noncombat periods, few had any chance to develop a background in addressing political concerns of foreign populations to the same degree as British officers (201).

The American Army’s reliance on a specific set of strategies that would impair any attempts to adapt to insurgencies particularly emphasized:

  • Firepower
  • Maneuverability
  • An organizational structure dependent on battalions and divisions (203)

Even though the official British military doctrine largely ignores counterinsurgency, this omission is secondary to the wealth of experience of its officers, focus on small units, and an understanding of political dynamics as well as the importance of minimal force. In other words, the British Army is well adapted to irregular warfare (205).

The American Army on the other hand has not accepted the need to respond to insurgencies with a different doctrine than conventional conflicts. Following Vietnam, the American Army intentionally abandoned any lessons from the experience to focus, once again, on conventional conflicts. The conclusion was to avoid insurgencies altogether. (205-207).

Chapter 9 – Organizational Culture and Learning Institutions: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife

Some international relations theories claim that states are interchangeable since every state focuses on the advancement of its own power. Therefore, states will respond in the same manner as each other if placed in the same position. Nagl contends that the international system is far more complex than this. One factor that can make states respond differently from one another is the organizational culture of their militaries. Even when civilian leaders attempt to impose change on the military, organizational culture can be incredibly resistant and impact the states’ effectiveness in the international system (214-215).

Even when faced with substantial external pressure, as was the case with the American Army in Vietnam, the organizational culture can override the ability of the military to acknowledge that its current policies are ineffective (217).

Since conventional and unconventional warfare are so different from each other, an army cannot be optimized for one without failing at the other. The organizational culture of the American Army may struggle severely with counterinsurgency but it is ideal for confronting a conventional threat. With the increased occurrence of unconventional conflicts, the American Army would do to well to make itself more flexible in a post-Cold War world where change is abundant (223).

The Bottom Line

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife is John Nagl’s doctoral dissertation, which means there is a great deal of depth, a lot of theory, and plenty of analysis. In other words, it is a very heavy read. If you are looking to dive into Vietnam and the Malayan Emergency, you will find Nagl’s book to be incredibly informative. On the other hand, if you want an introduction to counterinsurgency in general, we recommend The Accidental Guerilla by David Kilcullen.

Our Response

The vast majority of Nagl’s book is thorough, well structured, and clear. He systemically addresses each of his points in kind while offering a great deal of evidence to support his claims. Since popular wisdom is that Vietnam failed due to constraints enforced on the American military by their civilian counterparts, Nagl does an excellent job at providing a substantiated case that a strategy derived from conventional warfare proved to be far more detrimental. After completing the book, many readers will likely wonder how this has changed during the insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan. Does the American Army still prefer conventional strategies or has it begun to adapt to the demands of unconventional warfare over the last decade? David Ucko discusses this exact topic at length in The New Counterinsurgency Era.

Possibly the only shortcoming of the book resides in the conclusion. After discussing the details of the British and American responses to their respective insurgencies, he seems to rush through several of his more important claims at the end. He quickly covers several critical points that do not seem to have been given the attention they deserve. Within international relations, there are vibrant debates between how states act and respond to each other. Nagl uses his analysis of organizational learning to conclude that different characteristics within a state can radically alter its choice of action. Even though Nagl has more than enough evidence to back this claim, he briefly conveys this idea in his conclusion and then quickly moves on.

Furthermore, Nagl concludes that America has no choice but to adapt to unconventional warfare because of its inevitability. While this argument has a great deal of support behind it, Nagl only briefly discusses the logic behind this conclusion. As Nagl notes, the predominant form of conflict is within states, not between them. Considering the proliferation of insurgencies, civil wars, and failed states, it is reasonable to conclude that the United States should expect to be involved in these types of conflicts in the future and prepare accordingly.

The counter to this argument is to assert that the United States should simply avoid these conflicts altogether. Avoidance may be sound advice but the real question is whether or not it is possible. Neither the insurgencies of Iraq nor Afghanistan were expected. Even if the United States continues to focus on conventional warfare and adopts a formal policy to avoid unconventional conflicts, it may find itself embroiled in an unconventional conflict despite its best efforts at avoidance. Yet Nagl does not address this line or reasoning and explain the difficulty of avoiding unconventional conflicts despite genuine attempts by policy makers.


Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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