Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife(1)

By Nagl, John A. | World Affairs, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife(1)


Nagl, John A., World Affairs


BRITISH AND AMERICAN ARMY COUNTERINSURGENCY LEARNING DURING THE MALAYAN EMERGENCY AND THE VIETNAM WAR

From 1948 through 1960, the British army fought a counterinsurgency campaign in what was then called Malaya. Although its initial efforts were not particularly successful, the British army adapted over time, changing both its counterinsurgency doctrine and practice. In contrast, the American army was unable to change its counterinsurgency doctrine or practice during twenty-five years of fighting in Southeast Asia, from 1950 through 1975. I have argued elsewhere that it was the organizational culture of the British army that allowed it to learn counterinsurgency principles effectively during the Malayan emergency, whereas the organizational culture of the U.S. Army blocked organizational learning during--and after--the Vietnam War. In this article, I attempt to place these conclusions in the wider context of international relations as a discipline, evaluating the current literature on military innovation, examining the effectiveness of organizational learning theory as a tool with which to analyze organizational change, and discussing the impact of varying organizational cultures on the learning abilities of different organizations.(2) I will then discuss directions for future research into the impact of organizational culture on institutional learning and will conclude with a theoretical examination of how to make military forces adaptable in the light of changes in warfare. I will also look at the question of how to overcome institutional culture when necessary in building learning institutions.

IDEAS AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

This article is a look inside the "black boxes" that represent "realism" and "game theory" models of state behavior to examine a factor that affects the ability of states to achieve their goals and preserve their positions in the state system. It also affects those states on which they exercise their power.(3) The organizational culture of military forces is a decisive determinant in the decisions of whether to apply and of how to apply force in international politics, but it is a factor that to date has not been adequately examined.

The ability of military organizations to adapt to change--whether that change occurs in military technology, in the structure of the international system, or in the nature of war itself (or of our understanding of the nature of war)--is not an unimportant component of a state's ability to guarantee its own security and that of its allies. In short, military institutions that are "learning institutions" add to the influence of their states in the international system, as was the case for the United Kingdom in the wake of the Malayan emergency. Military organizations that are unable to learn can substantially damage the ability of their states to influence the international system, as was the case for the United States during and after the Vietnam War. Understanding the organizational culture of military institutions, and the effects of that culture on their ability to learn, increases our ability to understand how states act and react in the international system.

EVALUATING THE LITERATURE ON MILITARY INNOVATION

Current literature on military innovation focuses on the question of whether forces internal to armed services can modify military doctrine to deal with changes in their external environment,(4) or whether civilian leadership external to the military must exert pressure to force innovation.(5) Some authors have found that civilian reformers and members of the military combine to create changes in doctrine, an integrative model of military innovation.(6) Most of that research has been done on military innovation in peacetime rather than while military forces are engaged in conflict. It is an acknowledged fact, however, that the processes of innovation and the necessity to innovate are markedly different in wartime. …

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