Learning from Vietnam, 30 Years Later

Lt. Col.'s Nagl's 'Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife'

Rich Lowry of the National Review Online points out this piece (paid subscription required) in the WSJ today. It looks at some of the new books that are changing the Army's view of how to fight an insurgency. One those books is Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. It's written by Lt. Col. John Nagl. Nagl says the Army took the wrong lesson from the defeat in Vietnam — namely, the government and a fickle public were to blame for not allowing the military to pursue an all-out conventional war.

Nagl is now part of a team that's preparing a new doctrine on fighting insurgencies. From the WSJ article:

"'We are at a turning point in the Army's institutional history,' Lt. Col. Nagl and his co-authors write…The doctrine's biggest emphasis is on the need to curb the military's use of firepower, which created thousands of refugees and horrific collateral damage in Vietnam. 'The more force you use when battling insurgents, the less effective you are,' the draft states.

The Army is also using its Vietnam experience to highlight the importance and difficulty of building local security forces that can carry on independently after U.S. forces go home."

One interesting aside in the piece is that the U.S. misinterpreted its quick victory in the first Gulf War. Again, from the WSJ:

"'The lesson of the Gulf War was: Don't fight the U.S. conventionally,' Col. Nagl says. 'The way to defeat the U.S. Army is to use guerrilla warfare and exhaust the will of the U.S. At least you have a chance to win.'"

That quote reminded me of this famous conversation that Fred Kaplan brought up recently in Slate:

"Doesn't Rumsfeld remember the famous story about Col. Harry G. Summers' conversation... in Hanoi in April 1975, just after President Gerald Ford conceded defeat in the Vietnam War? Col. Summers, then the chief of the U.S. delegation's negotiating team, was chatting with his North Vietnamese counterpart, Col. Tu. 'You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,' Col. Summers said. 'That may be so,' Col. Tu replied, 'but it's also irrelevant.'"

Let's hope a similar conversation won't be held in Baghdad a few years from now.

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