Learning to eat soup with a knife

John A. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Original 2002, this edition 2005

Context: Nagl was born is 1966 and graduated from West Point in 1988. He served in Operation DESERT STORM as a tank platoon leader and in IRAQI FREEDOM as a battalion operations officer. He taught national security studies at West Point and wrote his doctoral dissertation (the basis of his book) at Oxford University. He was one of the authors of the Joint Army-Marine manual on counterinsurgency (FM 3-24 ). In January 2008 he announced his intention to retire from the Army and become a Fellow at the Center for New American Security (

Thesis: “The primary argument of the book is that the better performance of the British army in learning and implementing a successful counterinsurgency doctrine in Malaya (as compared to the American army’s failure to learn and implement successful counterinsurgency doctrine in Vietnam) is best explained by the differing organizational cultures of the two armies; in short, that the British army was a learning institution and the American army was not.” (xxii)


Author’s preface to this edition points out some new observations, informed by his service in Iraq

“Changing an army is an extraordinarily difficult challenge” xii, his original book made it sounds simple

The British army was aided in its Malayan success by its small size, its long history of small wars, the army’s presence in Malaya for over a century, and the ethnic and geographic facets of the Malayan Emergency

“foreign forces cannot defeat an insurgency; the best they can hope for is to create the conditions that will enable local forces to win it for them” (xiv)

“Counterinsurgency requires the integration of all elements of national power”(xvi)

“Final victory in today’s fight depends upon the integration of the nations in the Arc of Instability [idea taken from Thomas Barnett] into the globalized world’s economic and political system.”(xvi)

Original book

Nagl refers to Posen (civilian leaders assisted by military mavericks) and Rosen (senior military officers create innovative environments), but says their models are not sufficient explanation. Organizational theory in general, along with organizational learning theory in particular, is a better model for examining military innovation. (3)

The Brits innovated in Malaya and won.

The Americans failed to innovate in Vietnam and lost.

“It is the organizational culture of the military institution that determines whether innovation succeeds or fails.” (215)

“organizations should focus on achieving just one critical mission” (219)

Implications for Strategy

An organization’s ability to innovate is heavily dependant on its culture. Culture is very difficult to change. Good luck doing it as a Major/Lt. Colonel.

One critical mission per organization—but what level of organization are you considering? The entire army, a branch, a division?

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