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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Armies are invariably accused of preparing to fight the last war. Nagl examines how armies learn during the course of conflicts for which they are initially unprepared in organization, training, and mindset. He compares the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and practice in the Malayan Emergency from 1948-1960 with that developed in the Vietnam Conflict from 1950-1975, through use of archival sources and interviews with participants in both conflicts. In examining these two events, he argues that organizational culture is the key variable in determining the success or failure of attempts to adapt to changing circumstances. Differences in organizational culture is the primary reason why the British Army learned to conduct counterinsurgency in Malaya while the American Army failed to learn in Vietnam. The American Army resisted any true attempt to learn how to fight an insurgency during the course of the Vietnam Conflict, preferring to treat the war as a conventional conflict in the tradition of the Korean War or World War II. The British Army, because of its traditional role as a colonial police force and the organizational characteristics that its history and the national culture created, was better able to quickly learn and apply the lessons of counterinsurgency during the course of the Malayan Emergency. This is the first study to apply organizational learning theory to cases in which armies were engaged in actual combat.

Excerpt

Two months to the day after the attacks of 11 September 2001, U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers played a critical role in the defeat of Taliban forces at Mazar-i-Sharif. The victors displayed a remarkable ability to improvise, calling in precision-guided munitions while riding horses into battle. This was not a war the American military had prepared to fight; none of the Special Forces soldiers were trained in horse cavalry tactics. But the circumstances of the war in Afghanistan demanded that the Army adapt its traditional way of fighting and the Special Forces were able to learn on the fly, leading to the collapse of the Taliban regime in a remarkably innovative campaign.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld uses the horse cavalry charge at Mazar-i-Sharif to make a telling point about the military in the twenty-first century. He writes, “The lesson from the Afghan campaign is not that the U.S. Army should start stockpiling saddles. Rather, it is that preparing for the future will require new ways of thinking, and the development of forces and abilities that can adapt quickly to new challenges and unexpected circumstances.” This book explains how to build military organizations that can adapt more quickly and effectively to future changes in warfare.

Otto von Bismarck suggested that fools learn by experience whereas wise men learn from other peoples' experience. This book examines how two armies learned when they were confronted with situations for which they were not prepared by training, organization, and doctrine: the British army in the Malayan Emergency and the American army in the Vietnam War. These cases are of particular interest today because both armies confronted . . .

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