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I recently read the book Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife—Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam by John A. Nagl. I was moved to write some thoughts of my own on the general subject for several reasons:

• One of Nagl’s main points is that too few army officers who had useful input about Vietnam spoke out
• Some of my thoughts seem worth considering, but I do not see anyone else voicing the same concerns
• Nagl says that one theory on military innovation is that it can only be caused by pressure from outside the military. Well, I am outside the military.

Nagl is a 1988 West Point grad and Rhodes Scholar. He was a platoon leader in Desert Storm and a staff officer in Iraq.

I am a 1968 West Point grad. Among other jobs, I was a platoon leader in Vietnam. For more detail on my time in the military, see my military page

I do not mean to equate myself with Nagl. He also was an instructor at West Point and worked in the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense. But we do have some common background.

Saw Nagl on C-Span

I saw him interviewed on C-Span 2 on 9/9/07. Apparently his name is pronounced “Nahgel.” I generally agreed with everything he said on C-Span and I did not think he was lying about anything. However, the salient point about his interview was the relative lack of a sense of urgency in the military. Nagl acknowledged my complaint that the military is an extremely inefficient bureaucracy, albeit in language less likely to antagonize his superiors. At one point he thought out loud “I’m going to get in trouble for saying that.” I generally do not have such thoughts any more. Nagl, who has spent his entire adult life in the belly of the military bureaucratic beast, does have those thoughts.

He was asked if General Petraeus was the first Iraq commander to do what needs to be done. Nagl said that General Casey, Petraeus’ predecessor had also “advanced the ball.”

“Advanced the ball?”

How about winning the game?

This choice of phraseology manifests the extreme difficulty of making any changes in the military. Even the most glacial progress is celebrated by military personnel because any kind of progress is so rare.

The problem is America cannot wait for a glacier to defend the nation and the free world. Wars are too important to be left to a body of people who can only make glacial progress toward doing the right thing.

I must also note that the General Casey who Nagl says “advanced the ball” when he was in charge of Iraq is now Chief of Staff of the Army, that is, the highest ranking guy in the Army and therefore Nagl’s superior. Casey’s predecessor in Iraq, whom Nagl did not feel compelled to defend with regard to progress in Iraq, is retired.

Brits in Malaya compared to U.S. in Vietnam

Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife compares the successful British counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya with the unsuccessful American counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam. In short, it gives Nagl’s view of what we did wrong in Vietnam—a war that ended when he was around six years old.

He wrote the book shortly after 9/11. That was before the current Iraq invasion. Nevertheless, whether Nagl intended it or not, I suspect the book will be seen as a commentary on the current Iraq war the way the M.A.S.H. TV show was ostensibly about the Korean War but, airing as it did during the Vietnam War, it was clearly an anti-Vietnam War program.

I applaud Nagl’s moral courage, although I did not see any indication that he saw the writing of the book as an act of moral courage. I see it that way. I would expect Nagl’s career as a competitive army officer is finished. By “competitive,” I mean an officer who gets promoted faster than his peers and who gets plum, career-building assignments.

He criticizes a lot of dead or long-retired Army officers in the book. But he also seems to say, and I suspect it is correct, that not much has changed since those dead or retired guys were in charge. So Nagl is criticizing current Army top brass. As someone once said, “If you recognize the problem, you are the problem,” or at least that’s the way top people in organizations see things.

Nagl sees the problem. (In February, 2008, a retired Army Colonel told me that Nagl was due to get out of the Army in that year. Q.E.D.)

Occasionally, he does seem to pull his punches in consideration of the fact that he is in the belly of the beast he is critic zing. For example, on page 192 he says, “Organizational effectiveness in the two conflicts required organizational change. The British army was far better at making those changes than was the U.S. Army…”

Ya think? They won their war and we lost ours—losing over 58,000 lives and billions of dollars along the way. Saying that their army was far better than ours at making necessary changes to be effective is the understatement of the century.

George Bernard Shaw said:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

The U.S. military is extremely opposed to having any “unreasonable men” in its ranks, and implicitly, any change. They want what they would call “team players.” That is, people who go along to get along. Changing the U.S. military must be caused by “unreasonable men” outside its ranks.

‘Don’t write a book’

One of my West Point classmates who rose to high position in the Army got a PhD. When I asked what his dissertation was about, he named a topic I thought would make a good book-store book. He smiled when I asked if he had considered turning it into a commercial book and said, “I could never do that. It is impossible to write 100,000 words that will not piss off somebody who outranks you.” Nagl has written 100,000 words. He’s toast.

The book is excellent as far as it goes. I had not been aware of the British counterinsurgency efforts in Malaya from 1948 to 1960. According to Nagl, the problem was similar to Vietnam—Communist insurgents trying to take over the country. But the results were starkly different. The British won. We lost.

The main point of the book is that the British way was generally correct and the American approach to Vietnam was generally incorrect. Furthermore, although a number of people have proclaimed that they have learned the lessons of Vietnam, Nagl argues persuasively that they haven’t.

Not purely military

Another way to phrase Nagl’s point is that such wars are part political and part military. But he says the U.S. Army refuses to move off the World War II conventional frontal assault way of doing business. When both political and military efforts were required in Vietnam, the U.S. Army brass insisted on large-unit, search-and-destroy missions. The British in Malaya went the political-military route with small army units working in concert with political people and police.

Surprisingly to me, Nagl says the U.S. Marines were generally on the right track in Vietnam and were more effective than the Army. I suggest Nagl switch to the Marine Corps. He also commends the CIA, special forces (green berets) and Rangers for the small-unit, relatively effective efforts in Vietnam.

I graduated from Army Ranger School. I volunteered for the II Field Force Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol unit—D Company of the 75th Rangers. I was sent to Vietnam to fill that slot, but I was warned beforehand that local personnel people might give it to another guy if he had the same qualifications and arrived around the same time. Indeed, that is exactly what happened.

When I got to the replacement depot in Vietnam, I asked about the LRRP slot. They said one of my West Point classmates who was also an airborne (paratrooper), ranger, radio officer had arrive the day before and he got the slot in spite of never having expressed any interest in it. Typical army personnel thinking.

On a couple of occasions, I spent a week or so with one of our radioteletype crews on an airstrip next to the Bunard Special Forces A camp.

So although I was not in the rangers or green berets in Vietnam, I came close to both and was always interested in those units and how they operated. I have been an entrepreneur since 1969 and the green berets and rangers were the closest thing the Army had to entrepreneurs back then.

The metaphor in Nagl’s title is a quote from a T.E. Lawrence quote, “Making war upon insurgents is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” But my reaction to Nagl’s book’s contents reminded me of another book title metaphor: “Teaching the Elephant to dance.”

I have not read that book, but I regard the military bureaucracy as elephantlike and the subtle nuances of counterinsurgency warfare strike me as dancelike. I expect Nagl and his supporters will have about as much success teaching the military brass to eat soup with a knife or become a “learning organization” as he would teaching an elephant to dance.

‘Learning organization’

Nagl talks at great length about the difficulty of getting the U.S. Army to learn the right lessons as Vietnam. He discusses this in terms of whether the U.S. Army is a “learning organization.” That phrase is defined in a book called Hope is Not a Method: What America’s Business Leaders Can Learn From America’s Army by Sullivan and Harper.

Here I must add that I got out of the Army after four years. I got a Harvard MBA and, as I said above, I have been an entrepreneur since 1969 when I bought my first rental property while still a second lieutenant. My answer to the question, “What can America’s business leaders learn from America’s Army?” is hardly anything.

The military is a mindbogglingly inefficient, centrally-planned bureaucracy. The U.S. military is one the last remaining large organizations dedicated to proving that socialism does too work. There is a reason the military was the birthplace of the acronym SNAFU.

That was one problem I had with Nagl’s book. He agonizes endlessly about how to make the U.S. Army a “learning organization.” I wish him luck. But combining my eight years at West Point and as an army officer with my Harvard Business education and 37 years as an entrepreneur causes me to conclude that getting the U.S. Army to learn from its subtle counter-insurgency mistakes is like teaching an elephant to dance. Possible? Perhaps. But if your goal is to get a dance performed well, it would be infinitely more efficient to hire a professional human dancer, not an elephant.

“Learning organization” may be a contradiction in terms, or at least it is when the organization in question is a huge, government, military bureaucracy.

Nagl tells us that “organizational learning, when it does occur, tends to happen only in the wake of a particularly unpleasant or unproductive event.” He cites the poor performance of British officers in the Crimean War.

I guess the emphasis must be on the “when it does occur” portion of Nagl’s statement because we lost the Vietnam war and, according to Nagl, seem to have learned absolutely nothing useful from that profoundly lengthy and unpleasant, unproductive event.

Innovative weapons

One of the main impressions I got from studying wars at West Point was that the U.S. generally has won starting around the time of the Civil War because of its massive production capability and technology. The Germans had better tanks, machine guns, anti-tank weapons and a number of other things in World War II, but generally we have the best technology. The atomic bombs used in World War II being the most prominent example from that war. We also are the biggest thing in the world in terms of industrial production. My impression from studying World War II at West Point was that General Eisenhower and General MacArthur did not win the war, General Electric and General Motors did.

The U.S. military was ecstatic about the technology used in Desert Storm—the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Most felt the respect for the military was restored for the first time since Vietnam. But the star of Desert Storm was not the military, it was smart bombs and smart missiles.

The military was shameless in taking full credit for the smart bombs and anti-missile Patriot missiles (which we later learned did not work). Did the military deserve any credit for the performance of the smart bombs? Yes. Some. They delivered them to the general vicinity of the targets. They also drew up the specifications and monitored the design, testing, and production of them.

But I have seen numerous stories in the media of the military making a grotesque mess of military procurement from the M-16 to the World War II bazookas and torpedoes to the Osprey helicopter and so forth. Indeed, the Patriot missile is a great example of yet another military SNAFU. So I am not sure if the military was a positive force in the development of the smart bombs or a hindrance. I would expect they were more likely a hindrance given their normal bureaucratic ways, but I will at least acknowledge that they were involved and that the smart bombs worked.

Smart bombs were not an Army weapon

In fact, the smart bombs and missiles were created by civilian scientists and corporations, not the military. We had some smart bombs in the Vietnam war, twenty years before Desert Storm. I saw some discussion in the media that 1991 Desert Storm smart bombs and missiles were actually 1970s technology and that their use in Desert Storm warranted comments like, “better late than never” and “it’s about time,” more than attaboys for the military.

I discuss this here because Nagl notes that much, if not most, innovation in military weaponry comes from outside the military. This speaks to whether the U.S. military is or can become a “learning organization.” It is not encouraging. The atom bomb as developed by civilians. True, General Leslie Groves was head of the Manhattan Project, but there would have been no atom bomb if no one but Groves and other military people were the only ones working on it.

One of America’s most high-tech weapons, the B-2 Stealth bomber, still uses ancient, early 1980s computer technology.

So the lesson of the military’s adoption of innovative technology is that civilians outside the military are primarily responsible for it and that the military is still really quite awful about adopting it quickly and efficiently. The military’s unsatisfactory adoption of the latest technology strongly suggests that they cannot be trusted to originate and adopt better counterinsurgency tactics. Heck, it suggests that reforms are needed even in the one area where the military at least eventually adopts better practices: technology.

Inside the box

Nagl anoints the British Army in Malaya as the gold standard of a learning organization. I guess that might make sense to one who had spent his entire adult life in the Army, like Nagl, or who thought “inside the box.”

Seems to me that the gold standard of learning organizations is small, private enterprise. Unlike the military, small, private businesses are in “combat” with competitors, suppliers, and customers on a daily basis. Every little mistake is punished with increased costs or decreased sales or both. Big mistakes or an accumulation of too many little mistakes are punished with the business world’s maximum penalties: going out of business and/or bankrupt. Entrepreneurs must learn fast or “die.”

As in Nagl’s book, the smaller organizations, like the smaller military units, are the most efficient. Large private enterprise companies like General Motors can be extremely inefficient and slow to learn.

In contrast, military leaders suffer virtually no penalty for their mistakes no matter how egregious. The officer most responsible for losing the Vietnam war, General Westmoreland, was promoted to the highest position in the Army after he left Vietnam: Chief of Staff of the Army. Nagl mentions no top Vietnam officer who was punished for losing the war. Virtually all the others who lost Vietnam were rewarded by the military for their actions there.

The only ones who suffered career damage were those who tried to get the Army to learn from its mistakes how to be more successful against the enemy in Vietnam, like Colonel John Paul Vann.

Billy Mitchell

About the only Army brass who ever do get punished are those who say things the Army does not want said. The classic example is General Billy Mitchell. Mitchell was a non-West Pointer who was very prominent in the beginnings of the U.S. Army Air Corps, now the Air Force.

His “crime?” I’m paraphrasing here. Right after World War I in 1919, he said that a plane could sink a ship. That was the most prominent of his various public statements that the War Department was not doing enough to incorporate air power into the military. In 1924, he wrote a 324-page report predicting the Japanese would attack the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor by air.

He was demoted and exiled to a remote Texas base. When 14 dirigible crew men died in a 1925 storm, he said the senior leaders of the Army and Navy were incompetent and almost treasonous with regard to airpower. He was court martialed for insubordination and suspended without pay for five years. He resigned. He died in 1936.

After his death, the B-25 bomber was named after him, he received the Congressional Gold Medal, his court martial was voided, the mess hall at the Air Force Academy was named after him, and he was on a stamp in 1999. I repeat, all of those honors were awarded to him after his death.

In life, Mitchell was precisely the type of officer Nagl says was largely absent from the Vietnam war. Indeed, it is fair to interpret Nagl’s book as saying that the lack of Vietnam-era Billy Mitchells at the highest levels of the U.S. Army is the reason we lost there. When you contrast the promotions and medals guys like Westmoreland got for losing the war with the demotion, exile, and court martial Mitchell got for trying to get the military to learn to adapt to flight technology, you can see why I have little hope that the Army will ever become a “learning organization.” To the Army, Mitchell saw the problem, therefore he was the problem. They “solved” the “problem” by getting rid of him.

Although I find the British methods and success in Malaya interesting, if I really wanted to learn how to succeed at “dirty little wars,” I would go straight to the kings of that field—the North Vietnamese. They are one of the poorest countries in the world, yet they defeated a super power. I believe Nagl’s book has only one quote from a North Vietnamese about how to fight “dirty little wars.” To heck with studying the British in Malaya. Study the North Vietnamese in Vietnam. The British took 12 years to defeat a rag-tag insurgency. The North Vietnamese defeated the United States!

No medal for moral courage

The military has many medals for physical courage. Recognizing physical courage is necessary for a military.

But the U.S. military does not now have, never has had, and never will have, a medal for moral courage.

What is moral courage? The Foundation for Moral Courage says,

We believe that when one individual stands up for what is right, this singular act of courage can save lives, serve as a catalyst to counteract injustice, and leave its mark on history.

The Center for Moral Courage says,

Standing up for values is the defining feature of moral courage.

A person who is courageous in the face of ethical challenges does the right thing even if it’s not popular refuses to stand idly by while others engage in unethical or harmful behavior

For us, moral courage has come to mean the capacity to overcome fear of shame and humiliation in order to admit one’s mistakes, to confess a wrong, to reject evil conformity, to denounce injustice, and also to defy immoral or imprudent orders. William Ian Miller

To a large extent, Nagl’s book bemoans the lack of moral courage in the U.S. Army during Vietnam, and extols the lack of need for moral courage in the British Army in Malaya. A U.S. Army officer who did the right thing regarding pointing out the need for change in tactics and strategy in Vietnam was committing career suicide. A British officer in Malaya, according to Nagl, was not when he did the exact same thing there.

Should the U.S. military create a medal for moral courage? Hell, no! The entire U.S. Army officer corps would trample each other trying to avoid winning such a medal. Any unfortunate who actually won it would never wear it.

Inevitably, it would be called “the whistleblower’s medal.” The career of any officer who won it would be over. Sure, his superiors would wait a judicious period of time before moving his office to the broom closet, but no officer in the U.S. Army or any other large organization wants a whistleblower for a subordinate.

Remove the need for moral courage

The moral courage Nagl wishes to see more of is actually an extremely rare quality. As I said above, the British officers who suggested better ways of doing things were not exhibiting moral courage. They were operating in an organization where suggestions were not mortal sins. So the way to get such suggestions is to remove the career danger and need for courage as they apparently did in the British Army in Malaya.

How? Nagl seems to want us to imitate the British Army. I doubt that’s possible unless we are going to disband the U.S. Army and start from scratch with all new officers. There could be other ways. A mechanism for anonymous suggestions as well as a mechanism for making sure they were considered seriously. Perhaps a certain percentage of the officer corps could be given tenure like college professors. Having everyone get tenure would be neither desirable nor likely. Some mechanism would be needed to make sure that tenured officers were not all assigned to the Aleutian Islands as they surely would be without some guardian angel.

The best thing I can think of would be to end the monopoly that military superiors have on evaluating the careers of their subordinate officers. I would have all NCOs and officers rated by three groups: the superiors, peers, and subordinates. Peers and subordinates would welcome and reward moral courage by an officer.

I have never under stood the logic of choosing leaders based on how good of a follower you were, but that appears to be the U.S. Army’s long-standing system. At West Point, we were rated by both our classmates and the classes above us in our company. They did not let the classes under us rate us, but they should have. It would have revealed the poor leadership of some popular-with-their-peers-and-superiors cadets. True, it would inject a politician element into the mix, but the superior-ratings-only system is worse because it encourages only sycophancy.

I also always thought that objective measures like test scores and grades in various civilian and military schools should be factored with significant weight into an officer’s career evaluations to moderate the subjectivity of one human rating another.

No such thing as the organization

His Rhodes Scholarship notwithstanding, Nagl makes a fundamental mistake that I saw often when I was in the Army. He speaks of “the organization” or “the Army” as if it were a living thing with wants and needs. For example, on page 5 he says,

Organizations favor policies that will increase the importance of the organization, fight for the capabilities that they view as essential to their essence, seek to protect those capabilities viewed as essential, and demonstrate comparative indifference to functions not viewed as essential.

I saw no such behavior in my time as an officer. All I saw among the lifers was completely selfish careerism. Every man for himself. What Nagl perceives as the organization favoring policies that will increase the importance of the organization was actually Brigadier General Smith telling his boss Major General Jones what General Smith thought General Jones wanted to hear. I can see how that might look like an organization favoring policies that will increase the importance of the organization, but it is really just General Smith favoring policies that will increase the importance of General Jones and, thereby, General Smith.

When external pressure becomes so great that General Smith fears that pleasing General Jones may be less likely to increase the importance of General Smith than pleasing the external pressure, General Smith will please the external pressure—even when the consensus within the organization is that such policies will come at the expense of the organization. E.g. integration of blacks, women, and gays into the military.

There are some group norms in the Army, but they are more like teeny boppers wearing the same kind of pants to be in the “in crowd” than organizational muckety mucks worrying about the essence of the organization. I was bemused by lower ranking officers who lived on post when I was in the Army. They apparently watched their neighbor superior officers very closely and mimicked their civilian clothing styles and weekend activities like golf. If a captain is afraid to even wear a different civilian shirt on the weekend than his general, what are the chances he will tell the general his tactics and strategy are wrong?

I remember one of our social science professors at West Point was promoted early to major. I believe that meant he was in the top 3% or so of his class in terms of career success. His students asked him the next day what his secret was.

‘Stay away from troops’

“Stay away from troops,” he said. That is, avoid being a platoon leader, company commander, battalion commander, and so forth. Those jobs, of course, are the “essence” of the Army to use Nagl’s word. But the major was dead serious. How so?

Troops are messy and it’s hard to control what goes on in units containing dozens or hundreds of men and women. Rather, an ambitious officer should try to stay in civilian grad schools, military schools as a teacher or student, or staff assignments other than in troop units. That way he can get judged on what he writes on papers or how many push-ups he does—much more controllable situations. And that was indeed the way he had made his way to early promotion to major.

Again, such attitudes and careerist machination successes are not encouraging to those who hope to see the Army become Nagl’s, “learning organization.”

I repeatedly corrected my peers in the Army when they would say stuff like, “The Army needs this” or “The Army wants that.” “There is no Army,” I would say. “There are just a bunch of guys in the Pentagon who are either hoping to go home early this afternoon or who are staying late for show in the hopes of getting a good efficiency report from their boss.”

Besides, all this nuanced discussion of the “essence” of the Army is silly. In his famous 1962 speech at West Point, five-star general Douglas MacArthur stated the essence of the Army quite comprehensively and succinctly. “It is to win our wars.” As Nagl admits, we did not win the Vietnam war. So how can he say that the Vietnam-era Army brass were choosing policies based on the “essence” of the Army? They were doing the opposite by the MacArthur standard.

Imperial history

Nagl says that the British did better in Malaya than we did in Vietnam in part because their long imperial history. For centuries, Britain ran a far-flung, sun-never-sets-on-the-British-flag empire. They are not that rich a country so they had to make heavy use of the local populace as soldiers, police, and so forth in the various countries they colonized. This was useful in Malaya and probably would have been useful in Vietnam.

However, Nagl never addresses the basic issue of imperialism. Do we really want to be good at imperialism? Isn’t imperialism a false accusation that has been hurled at us by Communists for decades? We ourselves are one of Britain’s former colonies. Like the Vietnamese, we threw them out of the country and became independent. I do not doubt that Britain’s experience running a colonial empire was useful in running a sort of continuation of that empire in Malaya from 1948 to 1960. But we are the United States. We do not want to run a colonial empire.

What our military is supposed to be about as a core value of the country is repelling foreign invaders or helping other countries do that as we did in World War II, Korea, and Desert Storm. Given that national policy, it is neither surprising nor undesirable that we not demonstrate expertise at colonialism.

True, our enemies who have a brain know that they must not reveal their locations lest they be vaporized as the Taliban were in Afghanistan. Countries like Syria and Iran know that any invasion of their neighbors must be done by infiltration of combatants disguised as civilians to avoid vaporization by the U.S. military. And, in theory, we or one of our allies could be thus infiltrated to the point that the country could be lost.

Salami slice

During the Cold War, many accused the Communists bent on world domination of using a “salami slice” approach, that is, invading small areas too small to go to war over but doing it over and over until they had taken over a whole country. They really had no lasting success with that, but the infiltrate-and-pose-as-civilians strategy is similar.

Not an attractive job

Nagl expresses much displeasure that top military brass refuse to change from the World War II way of doing business. He says we need to be more political and public-relations oriented and nuanced in places like Vietnam and presumably, Iraq. Probably true. But here is another consideration. When I went to West Point at age 17, I was motivated in part by the war movies I had seen growing up. Those movies depicted both large-unit frontal assaults and small-unit behind-the-lines actions. I wanted to be a part of that.

If, however, the war movies had been about nuanced, political-diplomatic-military counterinsurgencies, I doubt I would have wanted to pursue a military career. War is killing large numbers of people. Killing people arguably ought not be done in an absence of clarity.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, we have had an all-volunteer army. I doubt that sufficient numbers of young people will be motivated to sign up for a nuanced, political-military counterinsurgency war. Indeed, the news media seem to be reporting exactly that. An interesting aspect of the all-volunteer army that I have not seen commented upon is that it gives the military-service-eligible young people a sort of group veto over wars—a veto they exercise by voting with their feet. George Bush and Congress can send troops wherever they choose. But without a draft, prospective troops can decline to become troops and existing troops can decline to reenlist.

Draft is anti-war policy

Similarly, a draft is sort of an anti-war policy, although hell will freeze over before the anti-war crowd ever figures it out. If we had a draft, I would have been strongly opposed to the Iraq war because I have three draft-age sons. No doubt millions of others who more or less ignored the Iraq war would have reacted similarly had there been a draft. I would not oppose my sons serving in a declared-by-Congress war like World War II. (See my article on fighting declared wars only.) But I am not interested in either me or my sons participating in any “dirty little undeclared wars.” Been there. Done that. Not going back.

People were willing to enlist, although not in sufficient numbers to eliminate the need for a draft, when Japan and Germany declared war on us in 1941. But I doubt America’s youth want to stand in the middle of centuries-old feuds between Sunni and Shiites or various Iraqi families and tribes. Who wants to die because he or one of his colleagues failed to get a Middle-Eastern nuance right? And it is eminently sensible that they are not interested in that role. (See my article on the wisdom of a draft.)

The same is true of my perspective as a father and taxpayer. When the Iraq war was proposed, I said I thought it was probably the right thing to do, but that I would not want any of my three sons to serve in the military there, so I must not have been sufficiently convinced of its correctness. Similarly, as a taxpayer, I am appalled at the cost of trying to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. They seem neither deserving nor grateful nor open minded enough for their hearts and minds to be winnable.

While Nagl is probably right that the nuanced combination political-military approach is the one most likely to succeed in Iraq, that leaves unaddressed the whole question of whether we ought to be doing such things at all.

One of the lessons that I believe was truly available to be learned in Vietnam was the need for a strong national consensus for waging war—much stronger that a 51% vote on a War Powers Act deployment of troops. Yet in spite of the Vietnam experience, we have repeated that mistake in Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Granada, Panama, and arguably, Afghanistan, and Iraq.


I was at odds with my superiors for most of my time as an Army officer. As a result, I was often “counseled” by superior officers. They all recited almost identical speeches as if they had been to a school for it. It went like this.

Lieutenant Reed, You can’t change the Army. You have to play the game and bide your time until you reach a rank where you have the power to make some changes. Let me give you a little prayer that has helped me. God grant me the courage to change what I can change, the patience to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to tell the difference.

My unwelcome response went like this.

Sir, I agree that you can’t change the Army, but it is also true that the Army can’t change me. I am not going to [sign that false document, join the lousy local officer’s club, give my ‘fair share’ to United Fund, etc].

As far as biding my time until I reach high rank, I have not seen many of you guys changing anything after you reached high rank. For one thing, no matter how high the rank, military officers do not have much real power. The post commanding officer does not have the authority to buy a $400 riding lawn mower for my company in spite of the fact that it would save time and money over our current practice of mowing vast areas with one-man push mowers.

As far as courage, patience, and wisdom are concerned, sir, the U.S. Army is the patience capital of the world. You guys have never had the courage to change anything in your whole careers. You accept everything. You go along to get along. The officers with the courage to change things made the only change they could by getting out of the Army. The first phrase out of your mouth in this counseling session was, ‘You can’t change the Army.’ That is not the way guys with the ‘courage to change what they can change’ talk.

Now comes John Nagl telling us that the Army needs to become a “learning organization;” needs to change. Ha!


Another issue is whether British or U.S. military personnel maintaining order while conducting a hearts-and-minds campaign is enabling. Had we not gone into Vietnam, the South Vietnamese, which included many refugees from the North who did not want to live under Communism, would have been forced to decide whether they were willing to risk their lives to be democratic.

Obviously, they were not. And if they were not, why should we do it for them? Clearly, we should not have. That no doubt would have had the Republicans and Democrats arguing about, “Who lost Vietnam?” Answer: the South Vietnamese did and they well deserve the result they chose.

I am no John Kerry fan, but he made some sense when he said that our patience with the new Iraqi legislature’s squabbling may be encouraging them to squabble endlessly. A deadline is a well-known very useful tool for getting parties to stop squabbling and come to an agreement.

So there is the whole issue of whether all this paternalistic, British, political-military activity is enabling the locals to be lazy about fixing their own problems. No doubt we are doing such enabling to an extent. Paternal and maternal activities are necessary to raise the young, but so are throwing birds out of the nest and weaning babies.

When to help and when to demand that the helpee grow up is a subtle, subjective matter, but that does not make it any less crucial. And the issue of whether we are too-long supporting people who have had ample opportunity to grow up is yet another that militates against waging, “dirty little wars.” War requires clarity. Enabling versus weaning is the opposite of clarity, which suggests that we ought to avoid participation in dirty little wars altogether.

I surmise Nagl would respond that we cannot get clarity when the situation does not lend itself to clarity. My response to that would be that if use of military power is the issue, we have to stay out of situations that lack clarity.

Understanding Iraqi culture

Nagl and others tell us we need to understand Iraqi culture better. Well, if we are there maybe. But there is still the option of simply staying home and let the Iraqis worry about figuring out their own culture.

Also, too much respect can be shown to other cultures. Native Americans are incessantly whining about the loss of their “way of life.” What baloney! I am part Cherokee. The Indian way of life is not a thing apart from the white man’s way of life. The Indians were just about 3,000 years behind the white man. My European ancestors had a “way of life” in 1,000 BC. They were hunter gatherers living in animal skin huts and all that. As Disney would say, they knew the name of every tree and rock. They stopped that way of life because it was stupid. My Cherokee ancestors did the same when they saw the white man’s example.

The Iraqi way of life, similarly, is the same as the way of life of my European ancestors about 1,000 years ago—the crusades, inquisition, and all that. Once again, my ancestors stopped acting like that because it was stupid. Now we Americans are supposed to spend tens of millions of dollars “understanding” backwardness so we can better win these people over? Again, once you accept the notion that we should be there, trying to understand the local perspective is mandatory. But needing to artificially turn our army into medieval time travelers is expensive, difficult, and time-consuming and arguably a reason to stay out of such places to begin with.

Better they should learn to understand us better and thereby join the Twenty-First century. That can be done through our movies and television, allowing Iraqis to study in the U.S., trade, and so forth.


We are the sole world superpower. No matter how we carry out that role, the rest of the world is jealous and resentful that they are not number one. Many countries who used to be number one, like France under Napoleon (200 years ago), have never gotten over losing that status. Iraq, believe it or not, used to be number one. When it was called Mesopotamia, it was the “Cradle of Civilization.” We’re talking 5,000 BC. They need to update their resume.

If a country is mad at us for being number one, there is really nothing we can do to make them stop being mad other than reducing ourselves to number two or whatever number puts us below the mad country. So the cultural sensitivity Nagl calls for will never be enough. Our status an number one is one of the “root causes.” It cannot be fixed. No matter how sensitive or diplomatic we are, a great many people will resent us.


Nagl worries a lot about whether we have a counterinsurgency doctrine or whether our counterinsurgency doctrine is correct. Doctrine is sort of a military Catechism. Those who do it by the book need a book and doctrine is that book.

Nagl says doctrine provides the Army with a common language. That’s necessary and good.

He also says it provides Army personnel with a “common understanding of how Army forces conduct operations.” Since military operations vary dramatically according to the mission, enemy, terrain, climate, and so forth, I do not believe one can decide how the Army should “conduct operations.” There need to be general guidelines like the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but to say, for example, “Here’s how we attack a village,” is not advisable or possible. It needs to be decided on an ad hoc, common-sense basis limited only by general ethics and international laws.

Nagl quotes a British doctrine writer as saying warfare will assume at least a partly unforeseen form and that units must be able to react to the unexpected and adjust their operations rapidly to circumstances. Exactly so.

Rather than worry about having enough doctrine or the right doctrine, I would suggest we again look to the gold standard of adaptable, flexible, competent organizations: entrepreneurs. What is their doctrine? They do not have any. The whole idea of doctrine strikes me as counterproductive.

It has been said that America is the world’s strongest country because we have no ideology. While Europe worries about adhering to socialist principles, we operate on pure pragmatism. Whatever works. The same is true of military operations.

We need some ethics like the Geneva Conventions. But the Army’s table of organization and equipment strikes me—and Nagl—as World War I-ish.

Nagl seems to want to come up with a better table of organization and equipment. I would be more inclined to chuck the whole concept. Give the commanders a budget. That’s how entrepreneurs work. From what I understand it is how the special forces and CIA in Vietnam operated to a large extent. And Nagl says they were far more successful than the regular Army.

The army tables of organization and equipment list what jobs exist in each army unit and what equipment the unit will have. For example, an infantry squad has a machine gunner and he has a machine gun. An artillery unit has, say, four cannons and four cannon crews. And so on. The problem is they extend these concepts up to the division (15,000 men) and larger units.

How can you know what types of training and equipment that everyone in a unit that size needs in advance? Seems to me that you cannot know what types of trained personnel and equipment you need until you know the mission, terrain, climate, and enemy. The same is true of even what size units are best for a particular mission.

Nagl seems to acknowledge this, but he seems to be trying to fix it within the usual Army way of doing things. I say to look to the model of civilian businesses. For example, the international engineering firm Bechtel works on all sorts of projects around the world. I doubt they have much of a table of organization and equipment. Rather, I would expect that they get an assignment, reconnoiter the job and location, and make a shopping list of the sort of people and equipment they need, then acquire it in-house or outside. Whatever it takes.

The only trained personnel and equipment I would expect they would always have would be the sort of people and equipment that are required on every job like computers, engineers, managers, secretaries. The way the military does things—100% self-sufficiency by recreating every job from cooks to jet pilots—you would think they were going to Mars rather than Iraq.

I prefer the British officer version quoted by Nagl:

“The first safe assumption is that warfare will...assume at least a partly unforeseen form” and the services “must be able to react positively to the unexpected, adjusting their methods of operation rapidly to the circumstances actually prevailing.”

Repairing a vehicle

Look at the contrast between repairing a civilian truck and repairing an Army truck. If your pickup truck breaks down, you take it to your favorite mechanic. He competently diagnoses the problem within an hour or two depending on how many other vehicles he is working on that day. If he needs a part, he calls his local NAPA guy and it arrives within hours or by the next day in the vast majority of cases. Your truck is good as new within hours or maybe overnight. The cost is typically in the several-hundreds-of-dollars range.

Now contrast that with the military version. In Vietnam, my battalion had hundreds of trucks. 85% were deadlined, that is, undrivable. That was the way it was at every army unit I was ever in. They had a handful of working trucks that used parts cannibalized from other vehicles. I heard a History Channel interview in which a World War II mechanic said that when the planes crash landed on the airstrip after coming back from bombing runs against Germany, the mechanics would pounce on them for spare parts. They couldn’t get parts then, either.

The military mechanics I saw were generally incompetent. Some were poorly trained. They lacked tools or working diagnostic equipment. Others had been trained in another specialty and moved to the motor pool at some point. In Vietnam once, our company commander ordered the entire company—radio operators, clerks, etc.— to the motor pool because an inspection was coming, the motor pool was a mess, and the CO was scared for his career. All those non-mechanics down there were in the way and detrimental.

In short, you are far more likely to get an inaccurate diagnosis from a military mechanic than a successful civilian one. Plus, military mechanics, even when they get it right, do not do so within an hour or two like the civilians. My recollection was that it would take an hour if the colonel wanted it and a week or two if a lieutenant did.

And if the repair needed a part, forget about it. Quintuplicate requisitions would go into the supply system never to be heard from again.

I have often said that the U.S. military uses Soviet-style central planning—long after the Russians themselves stopped doing that. I recently saw that Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a similar observation when he was the Secretary: the Pentagon is,

one of the last bastions of central planning.

And as for cost, I shudder to think. Your local mechanic who charges you $250 or whatever is covering his overhead, directs costs, and profit from that amount. How much does the military spend to make the same repair? This would be the same military that got in trouble for paying $400 for claw hammers and $1,200 for toilet seats. The guys who shove perfectly fine helicopters off aircraft carriers into the ocean. The guys who chronically preside over deliberate, scandalous overruns in the development of new weapons systems.

To find out what the military pays to, say replace a fuel pump, you would have to do a tight audit. You could not trust the military to do it. You would have to bring in civilians. I do not know what it would find, but if you took into account all the money spent by the military on training, payroll, tools, parts, new vehicles, buildings, and so forth related to vehicle maintenance and divided by the successful repairs I expect the cost of the $250 fuel pump replacement would be in the neighborhood of $5,000.

When he was president in 1975, Navy veteran Gerald Ford commented that if the government made beer a six-pack would cost $80. Adjusted for inflation, 80 1975 dollars is $300 in 2006 dollars. So if a government six-pack costs $300, what do you suppose a government fuel pump replacement would cost?

Continuing Ford’s beer analogy, not only would the government six-pack cost $300 or more, it would taste like crap and take eight months to get. And Nagl is concerned about how to make this a “learning organization?” If they haven’t learned how to repair a truck in 100 years, what are the chances they are going to learn how to repair a medieval country like Iraq?

Padlock incident

In Vietnam, we were supposed to padlock our steering wheels when vehicles were not in use. We had too few padlocks. We had requisitioned them months before, but we all knew that meant little. Then, one day, about six months after the requisition, they arrived. This was a source of much celebration. We felt as if we had won the lottery. For the first time in memory, all our vehicles were secured as required.

A week or so later, some field-grade officer (major to colonel) announced he was going to inspect our company motor pool and headed down there. The keys to the padlocks were at the company commander’s office. Company commanders are company-grade officers, that is, lieutenants and captains. Majors outrank them.

For some reason unknown to me, the company commander decided it would be embarrassing if the padlocks were locked when the brass hat arrived. Since there was not enough time to get the keys from the CO’s office, which was a couple of hundred yards away, before the big shot saw the first vehicle, and we did not know which vehicle he would go to first, the CO ordered the motor pool guys to cut all the padlocks off of all the vehicles with bolt cutters.

“Sir!” we protested. “Those are brand new padlocks! We’ve been waiting six months to get them! We’ll probably never get any more for the rest of the war!” “Cut them off!” he ordered. And so they were.

This illustrates the mind-boggling slowness of the army supply system. The phrase “midnight requisition” (stealing from nearby units) was not invented for no reason. It also illustrates the mind-boggling timidity, short-sightedness, shameless careerism, and sycophancy of the officer corps. This is the organization whose top guys Nagl would have learn from subordinates’ criticism of the mistakes of their superiors. Ha!

If you were never in the military, you probably think that story is an aberration. It’s not. Ask anyone who was in the military and they can tell you similar stories. I expect Nagl himself has similar stories, but he put none in this discussion of how we can get senior military bureaucrats to become more efficient practitioners of the delicate art of counterinsurgency warfare.


What makes private enterprise so good at learning and getting better is competition and the swift and sharp rewards and punishments of the business world. Rather than talk the military brass into being more willing to discuss and learn from their mistakes, maybe the government should try to engender some competition.

For example, in the aftermath of 9/11, the President could have asked the Congress to declare war on the four countries that openly support terrorism: Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Furthermore, he could have assigned Libya to the Marines, a move that would evoke their prior action on the, “shores of Tripoli.” Send the Army to Iraq and the special forces, SEALs, and rangers to Afghanistan. Then see who did best and increase their role in the war while decreasing the role of the branch that does less well. Iran, the biggest of the four, would be divided into sectors and handled by the various services after the others had been defeated.

Survival of the fittest military branch. If the Army cannot get its act together as depicted in Nagl’s book, reduce the area they are responsible for in Iraq and give the area taken away from them to the Marines or Delta guys.

Yeah, I know. Each is trained and equipped to fill a different role. Fine. Then assign different parts of the theater of operations to different division or corps commanders and let them do their own thing. Give more territory to those who do the best and take territory away from those who do the worst. Forget the TO&E. We saw some of this in World War II with the rivalry between Patton and Montgomery. Within limits, it is healthy competition that hastens the end of the war.

My main point is to give the brass some competition that affects their careers. One would think the enemy insurgents in Iraq are competition, but not if careers are not affected by losing as stated above with regard to the villains of Vietnam.

Careerism not victory

It is my impression that those who were in the military in World War II were focused on victory. They wanted to go home and that was the only way to do that.

In Vietnam, on the other hand, I got a bimodal impression. We non-lifers wanted to go go home. The way to do that in Vietnam was to survive a year. The lifers wanted to get their ticket punched and otherwise collect career brownie points—“Feathers in their cap” to use the phrase of Catch 22’s Colonel Korrn. The way for lifers to get their ticket punched and get a good efficiency report was to make their superiors like them.

Indeed, in that era, and I would expect today as well, any one of the superiors an officer had over the course of his career could render him “noncompetitive” by merely shading his efficiency report slightly below the unofficial, but well-known, “good” level. This is a formula for abject sycophancy. And abject sycophancy is what I saw among the career officers in Vietnam and in the U.S. during that era.

Actually, the career officers were divided into two groups: competitive and non-competitive. The competitive officers were careerist ticket punchers, etc. The non-competitive had abandoned hope of competitive careers and were just holding on for their bennies like retirement, PX privileges, and free medical care for life. Their only remaining during-career aspirations were to avoid getting riffed, unattractive assignments, and not making it to lieutenant colonel. Even those far less ambitious goals nevertheless also required sycophancy.

This is about as far from the “learning organization” Nagl says the Army must be as you can get.

Politicians are entrepreneurs

When you think about it, politicians are entrepreneurs. Vietnam vets typically blame the civilian politicians and media for losing the war.

According to Nagl’s book, you should not blame the politicians. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were surprisingly in favor of the sort of tactics that were most successful. But, according to Nagl, these commanders in chief could not get the career military people to comply with their commands. Go figure. Both Kennedy and Johnson had been junior Navy officers in World War II, but they apparently never learned how to issue an order to a general and make it stick. Here’s a hint from a West Point lieutenant: fire the sons of bitches until the previous firings motivate the replacement commander to follow orders.

As I said above, the gold standard of adaptability and flexibility and learning from mistakes is entrepreneurs, not the British Army or any other government organization. So why were Kennedy and Johnson better at recognizing the best tactics in Vietnam? Because they were politicians and politicians are entrepreneurs.

Think about it. True, they seek votes rather than money, but like businesspersons, they compete almost continuously and suffer prompt consequences when they make bad decisions. Consequently, they are used to watching for and reacting quickly to indications that they are on the wrong path. In contrast, military brass are like tenured professors as long as they stick together. They can be wrong for decades and suffer no consequences at all.

Kennedy ordered the Army to focus on counterinsurgency when he was president. The Army essentially refused according to Nagl. They felt they knew better. In fact, Kennedy was the one who knew better.

When I was an officer from 1968 to 1972, I volunteered five times for Special Forces (green berets). My OPO (Officer Personnel Office or some such) officer told me the Army would not let me switch to Special Forces because it would be bad for my career. Why, I asked. Because the Army does not like Special Forces I was told. Special Forces, you may have trouble understanding, were then and are still part of the Army.

Chilling quote

There is a chilling Vietnam-era quote on page 172 of Nagl’s book.

I’ll be damned if I permit the United States Army, its institutions, its doctrine, and its traditions to be destroyed just to win this lousy war.

The quote is described as from “an anonymous senior U.S. Army officer.” Nagl attributes it to certain other published sources, who also attribute it to the anonymous officer, in his Note 105.

I believe it. I heard similar talk when I was in the Army. And I have heard similar logic from another sycophantic, “do it the way we’ve always done it” group: football coaches, when discussing how to approach a game in which they are overwhelming underdogs. Certainly, the actions of the U.S. Army in Vietnam were entirely consistent with that logic. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl seems to believe it, too, or he wouldn’t have put it into this book.

General of the Armies Douglas MacArthur told the student body at West Point that their job was “…to win our wars.” This anonymous officer is rejecting that and saying the job is to keep on doing things the way we’ve always done them. He sees the U.S. Army as more of a museum than a fighting force. He sure as hell doesn’t see it as a “learning organization.” It should be no surprise that an Army lead by such officers lost the Vietnam war, in spite of being 2,000-touchdown favorites going in.

The U.S. military is first and foremost a self-serving bureaucracy. Its career members have an us-versus-them world view and “them” ain’t Al Qaeda. “Them” is ROW—that is, the rest of the world including American civilians.

This occasionally slips out into the media. The civilian White House executives once tried to talk to the military brass about reducing the extraordinarily generous benefits those who complete 20 years in the military get: at least half pay plus cost-of-living increases until death; 100% free self, spouse, and dependent medical care for everything for life; use of military commissaries (grocery stores); PXs (variety stores); and use of subsidized recreational facilities like Waikiki Beach’s Fort DeRussey. The civilian White House execs were stunned to learn, and complained publicly, that the military brass were absolutely 100% against even the slightest reduction in any of their benefits.

How’s about they win an occasional war in our lifetimes before they get so demanding? How’s about they get as excited about defending the nation as they are about defending their bennies?

The military is an extremely blunt instrument. As such, it is unlikely that it will ever “learn” Nagl’s nuanced, subtle approach. Since it probably cannot learn such delicate maneuvers as Nagl persuasively says are necessary, the lesson that should be learned is do not use the military when such subtlety is required. That is, don’t invade Iraq to begin with. Throwing the Iraqis out of Kuwait in Desert Storm, on the other hand, was blunt instrument time. Winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese or the Iraqis? F’getabout it. The military is and ever will be too blunt an instrument for that kind of mission.

Copyright 2006 John T. Reed

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Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military