COUNTERINSURGENCY LESSONS FROM MALAYA AND VIETNAM: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife

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COUNTERINSURGENCY LESSONS FROM MALAYA AND VIETNAM: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, John A. Nagl, Praeger, Westport, CT, 2002, 249 pages, $67.95.

The British Army developed a successful counterinsurgency doctrine in Malaya because of its success as a learning institution, whereas in Vietnam, the U.S. Army was not a learning institution and was opposed to learning how to fight and win a counterinsurgency.

John A. Nagl is too young to have served in Vietnam, but I served as a district senior adviser in South Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. Still, Nagl has a reputation of being a determined thinker and icon breaker. His book attempts to shake up the Army by getting it to seriously consider the neglected field of counterinsurgency. For this, Nagl deserves kudos. I have several concerns about the book, however.

The topic is too broad for such a short book. Nagl's treatment of the Malayan emergency and the Vietnam conflict is terse and general, and because it is so condensed, some vital issues get little consideration. Some information is inaccurate.

Conflicts in Malaya and Vietnam differed from each other. The war in Malaya was fought within a geographically distinct area where external support could be limited or eliminated. The Vietnam war was fought within an area that could not be cut off from necessary and ample external support. Internal and external political situations in the wars varied widely.

Logistics denial was key to counterinsurgency in both countries. The Malayan insurgency was self-contained and eventually vulnerable as the guerrillas were cut off from food. The Vietnamese insurgency received major external aid via the Ho Chi Minh Trail and small boat coastal resupply throughout the war.

Malaya remained a counterinsurgency throughout the conflict. In South Vietnam, the insurgency effectively committed suicide during the 1968 Tet Offensive and never recovered. The communist force that eventually conquered South Vietnam was a conventional force, not a guerrilla force.

In Malaya, the British used small forces for village and hamlet security while avoiding large operations, indiscriminate use of artillery, and fruitless jungle bashing. …