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The 9/11 Reading List: Lessons from Malaya

Commentary, 9 September 2011
John Mackinlay reviews 'Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam' by John A Nagl and 'Peacekeeping in the Abyss: British and American Doctrine and Practice after the Cold War' by Robert Cassidy

John Mackinlay reviews

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam
By John A Nagl
Praeger, 2002

Peacekeeping in the Abyss: British and American Peacekeeping Doctrine and Practice after the Cold War
By Robert Cassidy
Praeger, 2004 

During the recent months of stabilization and counterinsurgency in Iraq, British officials and military officers have been uneasy about the problems of being ‘with Americans but not (behaving) as Americans’. At a policy level, US/ UK tensions were emphasized by a revolt of retired ambassadors during the summer and in Iraq by the disparate responses of coalition contingents to the surges of violence. However, information restriction in Whitehall has successfully obscured the precise causes and extent of British disquiet.


Two excellent studies by serving officers in the US military now explain the likelihood of a serious disparity of approach between the US and the UK with much greater conviction than the partially suppressed rumours from Whitehall. Both authors are young officers who possess the essential combination of hands-on military experience with a first class analytical capability. Both books are the published versions of PhD theses. Both conclude that British and American forces have radically different approaches to low level operations (referring explicitly to counter insurgency and the stabilization phase of a humanitarian intervention) which result from long standing differences of organization and culture.


John Nagl’s study analyses the British and American responses to counter insurgency during the Cold War, particularly Malaya and Vietnam. Robert Cassidy takes a similar approach to Somalia and Bosnia. Nagl describes the institutional learning capabilities of both armies and shows how they succeeded or failed to master the conditions of their respective insurgency. Cassidy sees the US/UK contrast more as a disparity of history and military culture, which continue to dictate different intuitive responses when either army is faced by an unscripted military situation.


Nagl, has an unusual Anglo–American perspective, which may have helped him to get inside the British military mind and at the same time have a developed view of his own institution. A West Point graduate and a Rhodes scholar in the 1980s , he returned a decade later to St Anthony’s Oxford to write his PhD, having commanded his tank platoon in the first Gulf war. Derived from his thesis, the book concerns the different learning cultures in the US and UK armies which respectively help or hinder them to succeed in the unknown territory of a newly encountered military challenge.  He is careful to avoid the idea that the Vietnam and Malaya campaigns were similar and is more concerned that both insurgencies faced the respective armies with comparable learning challenges.


Nagl’s assessment criteria for a successful learning institution hinge on whether the process is top down or bottom up. He asks how each army coped with suggestions from the field, whether they encouraged or discouraged subordinates to question institutional wisdom and develop their tactical procedures locally or have them dictated from above.


The British learning cycle had, for more than a century, been focussed at the battalion level whereas the US army, both in its smaller nineteenth century manifestation and as a mass twentieth century army,  had thought and organized itself by divisions.


In Malaya, Nagl explains that after a very rocky start, British innovators abandoned tramping through the jungle on massive search and destroy operations in favour of smaller patrols moving with greater stealth in response to better intelligence. Success also relied on a co-ordinated civil-military approach. It was not just luck that brought together Lyttleton, the enterprising Governor of Malaya, Robert Thompson as his Colonial Secretary, Generals Briggs and Templar as successive Directors of Operations and Major Walter Walker 1/6 Gurkha Rifles, bristling with ideas from the jungle. The long-term obligations of policing the Empire had created a milieu of similarly educated officers and civil servants. Military commands were decentralized and isolated garrisons learned to live with their civilian counterparts. Contrary to the habitual outsiders’ versions of the ‘British regiment’, these structures were not authoritarian. On the contrary, there was an easy familiarity between rank and age which encouraged informality and above all, the consideration of ideas from below.


Nagl characterizes the US military as the antithesis of the British post imperial phenomenon. In Vietnam an authoritarian US military culture triumphed over doctrinal innovation and marginalized Kennedy’s national directives. Its strength had become the greatest obstacle to its learning a new modus operandi. The centralized, mass-army environment that developed in Vietnam under General Westmorland was resistant to bottom up innovation. When Major General Walt deployed his combined action platoons to live among the local people and respond to their immediate security needs, Westmorland effectively stalled the initiative despite its success. Similarly ‘lessons-learned’ reports and official research groups commissioned from Washington were marginalized. Westmorland was screened from the reality of day to day failures in the field. The vigorous ‘can do’ mentality, greatly prized in the US military, discouraged the review of failure. Remedies were rationalized through their own cultural prism, they accepted only suggestions that fell within a pre-existing US Army concept of how wars should be won.


Robert Cassidy’s impeccable credentials (West Point, French Defence College and a PhD from Fletcher School, Tufts) encourage a more US-oriented perspective and although some of his conclusions about the disparity of the US /UK approach are interestingly similar to Nagl’s, he reaches them by a different logic.


Like Nagl he is concerned with differences of military culture, however his conclusions are more determinist and leave less possibility for either the UK or the US military to change their spots. Cassidy links military behaviour more directly to culture so that a significant change in one cannot take place without a commensurate change in the other. His thesis shows how national history, the army’s position in society and the operational instinct that develops as a result, determine their cultural preferences.


Cassidy emphasizes the long-term impact of particular military reformers. He shows how in the US Army Upton encouraged the adoption of a Jominian interpretation of the use of force and a preference for big wars, ideally fought as a purely military affair without the constraints of political leadership. This was reinforced by a US admiration for the French and later the Prussian military models. By 1945 after two successful continental wars , these cultural preferences became embedded to such an extent that even after a head on collision with the problems of insurgency and defeat in Vietnam, they survived. After Vietnam the ‘never again school’ of traditionalist thinkers urged for a return to the big wars mentality, fired up no doubt by writers like Colonel Harry Summers, who attempted to rationalize the defeat in Vietnam. Bush senior, Weinberger and Powell all helped to reinforce the prevailing US Army culture, the extreme reluctance to move away from the big war approach, the use of overwhelming force, the resistance to political oversight and the uncompromising reliance on technology. Westmoreland’s dictum ‘send the bullet instead of the man’ seemed to be surviving after all.


Explained in these terms, Somalia was an accident waiting to happen. Cassidy argues that doctrinal failure was also a factor weighing against a successful outcome. But following his own account of the overwhelming nature of a reactionary military culture, and faced with the extraordinary circumstances of Mogadishu 1993, US forces were bound to fall back on their intuition and use force in a way that had a completely opposite effect to that intended.


Using the same logic Cassidy asserts the British military culture turned out to be as influential on their development. Cardwell’s reforms left the British army with a regimental system that was good for small wars but hopeless when faced by industrial nations mobilized for conflict. The British apparently had muddled through the Napoleonic campaigns, the Crimea, South Africa and in two world wars with their regimental system intact and still resistant to change. After each campaign they returned to imperial policing duties. At the end of the Cold War, faced by the dynamic and uncharted landscape of a complex emergency in Bosnia, the British like the US in Somalia, fell back on their cultural intuition. Luckily in this case it turned out to be the right answer. Fresh from Northern Ireland, British troops were on culturally familiar territory in the Balkans emergency. Perversely the British military intuition, a consequence of an apparently repressive and outdated regimental system, had provided the right approach for operating in the Bosnian ‘grey zone’.


Nagl’s and Cassidy’s studies are very important. For British readers in particular they explain the intransigent nature of the US military’s institutional culture. Both writers emphatically agree that the US Army in particular seems to be in the thrall of its own culture. It champions a Jominian approach to conflict , a desire to win only by the overwhelming use of force, an irresistible dependence on technology and an aversion for political oversight. Nagl and Cassidy agree that this institutional culture is so strong that it has survived Vietnam and Somalia intact. How will it reconcile itself with the insurgency in Iraq?


For the first time British and American armies find themselves in the same operational space engaged in a protracted counter insurgency campaign. Writing this on a day when three ‘precision air strikes’ are reported on Fallujah, it is hard to refute Nagl’s and Cassidy’s evidence that the US military institution will prevail,  and for a third time thrust aside the principles of counter insurgency.

Meanwhile the British , whether by intuition (Cassidy) or as a result of a bottom up learning process (Nagl), have a adopted a more measured approach in Iraq. After generations of operating from an initial position of weakness, British forces in Basra are offsetting their lack of resources by soliciting, cajoling and manipulating the support of the local population. These efforts also rely on a cost-benefit attitude towards intrusive patrolling and the use of minimum force. They do not rely on a ‘sending the bullet instead of the man’. In the short term the US and UK operational concepts are antithetical and in the long term, mutually exclusive.
As the UK military now begin to reorganize their front line regiments to be more and more capable of fitting in with an American approach to war, it is important for the British to know what this is and to be sure that they want it.


John Mackinlay
King's College London 

This book review was first published in the RUSI Journal (Vol. 149, No. 5, October 2004).

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