Eating Soup with a Knife

3. “Eating Soup with a Knife”

When John Nagl and David Petraeus first met in the spring of 1987, they were both about to go to Europe for a close-up view of the Cold War’s climax.

Nagl, finishing his third year at West Point, was the highest-ranking cadet in the Sosh department’s international relations section, a distinction rewarded with a summer internship at SHAPE—Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe—the military-operations branch of the Atlantic Alliance, situated on the outskirts of Mons, Belgium.

Petraeus was wrapping up his second year as a Sosh professor. By contract, he was supposed to stay for a third year, but General Jack Galvin was on his way to SHAPE to take over as supreme allied commander, and Petraeus again asked his mentor if he could tag along as his speechwriter, not just for the summer but full-time. A phone call from a four-star could override all other obligations; Galvin made the call, and Petraeus’s days at the academy were over.

Nagl had seen Petraeus in the Sosh corridors but had never taken a class with him. Since they would both soon be at SHAPE, another professor in the department introduced them to each other. Petraeus had just finished his dissertation and proudly showed Nagl a copy. Nagl gave it a glance but nothing more. He still saw his future in the armor corps along the East–West German border. Like most of his fellow cadets, like most Army officers, he regarded the Vietnam War as ancient history, to the extent that he thought about it at all.

Though he was cutting out early, Petraeus had been on the Sosh faculty long enough to absorb the ethos and traditions of the Lincoln Brigade: the sense of fraternity, the value of networking, and the admonition by the department’s founder, Colonel “Abe” Lincoln, to “pick good people, pick them young, help them to grow, keep in touch.” Petraeus figured that Nagl must be smart, given his class ranking. He noticed the same gleam in the eye that he’d possessed at Nagl’s age, thirteen years earlier. So when Nagl dropped by Petraeus’s office that summer to say hello, the major cleared a corner of his desk where the cadet could work and invited him to stay.

The two didn’t talk much about counterinsurgency or El Salvador, though the civil war there was still going on. Petraeus had enough SHAPE business to keep him busy: the startling phenomenon of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s new reformist leader; the Reagan-Gorbachev nuclear arms talks to remove all medium-range missiles from Europe; the prospect of unilateral Soviet troop cuts from East Germany and Czechoslovakia; and, at the same time as all this, discussions within the NATO alliance on continuing to “modernize” tanks, planes, and other major weapons, in case Gorbachev was ousted in a coup or turned out to be a fake.

Nagl too was immersed that summer in classic Cold War issues, spending much of his time at the corner of Petraeus’s desk, writing a senior thesis on interoperability, the nuts-and-bolts issue of ensuring that NATO’s sixteen nations were able to use one another’s weapons, bases, and supply lines in case they had to fight a war together. In between his own projects for Galvin, Petraeus supervised Nagl’s thesis as if he were conducting a tutorial back at West Point, peppering him with questions, suggesting research material, and copyediting his drafts. Petraeus thought it was one of the best papers by a cadet that he’d ever read, maybe the best paper on the topic by anybody.

Petraeus knew that Nagl was angling to win a Rhodes Scholarship after graduating the following year. He wrote a letter of recommendation and got General Galvin to sign it.

Nagl went back to West Point in the fall, graduated in the top 2 percent of his class, won the Rhodes, and studied international relations at Oxford for the next two years. While he was there, the Berlin Wall crumbled. Soon after he got back to the States, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Nagl was sent to Saudi Arabia with the 1st Cavalry Division as part of Operation Desert Shield. Then came the American counterattack known as Desert Storm, the rapid crushing of Iraq’s crack forces, and Nagl’s realization that there were no longer any countries in the world capable of confronting the US Army in tank-on-tank warfare—the sort of warfare for which Nagl had been preparing.

Still, Nagl’s crisis at this point was merely a personal matter: what was he going to do with the rest of his life? The shift in global politics didn’t seem to pose a threat to national security. The United States might face different kinds of challenges—from guerrillas, terrorists, shadow warriors of various sorts—but, at first glance, they didn’t seem very formidable. In southern Iraq, his tank platoon had come across Iraqi foot soldiers hiding in the dunes—not the sorts of targets that he and his men were trained to fight, but taking them out had been no problem.

Then, almost exactly a year later, on February 14, 1992, Nagl fought a second conflict. This one took place at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, a vast stretch of the Mojave Desert—nearly one thousand square miles of uncluttered terrain—that the Army had turned into a complex of mock battlefields a dozen years earlier to give soldiers a round of fairly realistic training. The center’s scenarios were nearly always the same: the “Krasnovian” army—a stand-in for the Soviets, played by an American unit whose entire mission was to play the “Red Team” in these war games—has invaded an ally; the US combat unit rotating through the training center that week must defend the territory and defeat the enemy.

Nagl’s tank company, equipped with brand-new M-1 tanks, had no problem blowing away the Krasnovians, who were using slightly older American tanks, modified to resemble Russian T-72s and T-80s. But at one point in the mock battle, some of the Krasnovian soldiers dismounted from their tanks, maneuvered on foot, and managed to surround and obliterate Nagl’s unit. One of the most up-to-date tank companies in the US Army was, as Nagl later put it in an article about the exercise, “decimated by a light-infantry company of approximately 150 men.”

The main difference, it seemed, between the real enemies in Iraq and the pretend ones in California was that the former fought badly and the latter fought well. What if the next real enemies were more skilled than the Iraqis had been? Ever since Desert Storm, Nagl had thought that his nation might soon have to face new, more furtive kinds of foes. Now, after the war game at Fort Irwin, he had a more disturbing thought: his Army didn’t know how to fight them.

•  •  •

Not long after the battle at Fort Irwin, Nagl went back to Oxford. He was about to marry the British girlfriend he’d left there, Susanne Varga, a student of French and German literature whose parents had fled Hungary in 1956 during the Soviet crackdown. Nagl’s official rationale for returning, though, was to earn a doctorate degree and, in the process, to write a dissertation that somehow came to grips with this new face of warfare.

Nagl never read Petraeus’s dissertation, nor had he ever come across David Galula’s work, which was out of print. But now, back at Oxford, he did read the British counterinsurgency classics, which made similar points, including some of the books that Petraeus had perused a decade earlier: Kitson, Thompson, Colonel C. E. Callwell’s Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice. From there, he embarked on a research project about Britain’s colonial war in Malaya. On a trip to the National Army Museum in the Chelsea section of London, he came upon the papers—thirty boxes’ worth—of Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, the British commander who defeated the Malayan insurgency. Only two other scholars before Nagl had ever checked out this cache of documents. Nagl’s friends were telling him that he was crazy to write his dissertation on such a thoroughly discarded topic. The dust gathered on Templer’s papers seemed to confirm that he was headed down a lonely alleyway.

While pursuing this odd new interest, he was also taking graduate-level courses, and in one of them, a theoretical class on international relations, he found himself particularly drawn to some essays by Alexander George. A political scientist at Stanford University and the RAND Corporation, George had pioneered the “case studies” approach, premised on the idea that a nation’s decisions in wars and crises are shaped by the cognitive and intellectual styles of its leaders: how they view the workings of the world, how they think through problems, how they deal with stress, and how swiftly they learn lessons from the histories they’ve read or the events in which they’ve participated.

Nagl’s research project was evolving into a sort of case study as well, examining why, after a few years of failure, the British succeeded in crushing the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s—and why, despite a decade of trying, the United States failed to defeat the Viet Cong in the 1960s. Reading George, he wondered if a key factor might have been the two empires’ military leaders and the contrasting ways in which they learned.

The conclusion Nagl wound up reaching confirmed his suspicion: the difference between the victory in Malaya and the defeat in Vietnam, he wrote, was “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.”

The Malayan peninsula, in Southeast Asia, formed one of several colonies where communist rebellions stirred in the wake of the Second World War, some motivated by nationalism, others by ideology, most by a mix or convergence of both. In Malaya, the insurgents were mostly ethnic Chinese who emulated Mao’s guerrilla-war doctrine and rallied popular support through a battle cry for independence from Britain’s colonial rule.

Initially, the British commanders fought back with the sorts of large-scale sweeps and battlefield set pieces that they’d mounted against the Japanese a few years earlier. The strategy changed in 1950, when Lieutenant General Harold Briggs, a veteran of an earlier campaign in Burma, took over as director of operations and, through a massive intelligence effort, discovered that the insurgents were getting the bulk of their support—food, supplies, and information about British military movements—from the Malayan people. In short, Briggs realized (and Nagl discovered through his research) that this was a political as well as a military campaign, fought for the allegiance or control of the people. So Briggs embarked on a campaign of separating the population from the insurgents, then supplying the people with a slew of basic services to help earn their trust and allegiance—or at least to slacken their opposition.

Briggs’s strategy wasn’t an example of what would later be called “soft power” or “winning hearts and minds”; it had a more brutal dimension than those phrases implied. The people, nearly a half million of them, were forcibly separated from the insurgency, relocated from their homes to a string of 450 “new villages,” many of them fenced off and guarded, at least until the areas could be “pacified.” And amid this process, the insurgents—cut off from their supplies—were literally starved to death. Those who didn’t die either surrendered or wandered out of their hiding places to gather food, at which point British soldiers, who by this time had gathered intelligence on the insurgents’ locations, were standing by to kill them.

In that sense, war was still war. But the operations of fighting and killing were very different from conventional practices. There was little of the indiscriminate bombing, shelling, or wholesale slaughtering that often came with strategies built on massive concentrations of troops and firepower. In a campaign centered on winning over the population, those techniques would have been not just futile but counterproductive.

Nagl unearthed a book by Harry Miller, a journalist reporting on the Malayan Emergency, as the war was euphemistically called. In one chapter, Miller quoted Briggs as saying about his war plan, “You know, some brigadiers and battalion commanders aren’t going to like what I’m going to tell them—that they won’t be able to use battalions or companies in sweeping movements anymore.” To the extent that combat forces were used at all, they would operate in “small patrols” led by junior officers, sometimes lance corporals, who would have to “make decisions on the spot.”

Templer, the hero of Nagl’s book (and of many popular British accounts as well), stepped up these small-scale military patrols when he took over in 1952, covering an ever-wider area of the country, one province at a time. He also promised independence for Malaya, a pledge that co-opted the insurgents’ most potent slogan and thus undercut the main source of their appeal.

The British army may have been more open to this sort of warfare, Nagl surmised, because of its colonial traditions, which required cultivating “an understanding of the nature of the peoples and politics” in a specific area—and learning from experience “that a military solution stands or falls as the people affected decide to support or oppose it.”

More important still, from Nagl’s perspective, Templer institutionalized the lessons learned from the Malaya campaign. Digging through the British army’s archives, he found a memo that Templer had written at the outset of his command:

“I have been impressed by the wealth of jungle fighting experience available on different levels in Malaya and among different categories of persons. At the same time, I have been disturbed by the fact that this great mass of detailed knowledge has not been properly collated or presented to those whose knowledge and experience is not so great. This vast store of knowledge must be pooled.”

And so Templer commissioned the writing of a book, which would lay out this knowledge for colonial soldiers and police. The book was titled The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya. Designed to fit inside a pocket of jungle-green uniforms, it became known as “the soldier’s bible.”

By contrast, the US Army, from the nation’s origins, had seen its mission as “the eradication of threats to national survival.” As a result, Nagl wrote, quoting the military historian Russell Weigley, “the strategy of annihilation became characteristically the American way in war.” The irony was that, throughout the twentieth century, American presidents had frequently sent troops (usually marines) to fight small wars in colonies or third-world countries: Cuba, the Philippines, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. But any lessons of these conflicts, Nagl wrote, “were quickly lost to the belief that such wars were not the Army’s true business.”

Nagl recounted President Kennedy’s brief fling with counterinsurgency doctrine—the recognition that this was “another type of warfare,” requiring another type of strategy, training, and soldier—and its still briefer revival in the Johnson administration, with Robert Komer’s creation of CORDS and the “strategic hamlets” (similar to Malaya’s “new villages”) to separate the South Vietnamese people from the Viet Cong’s insurgents. General Creighton Abrams, who took command of the US Army in Vietnam in 1968, rather late in the war, had a go at steering his troops away from “search and destroy” toward “protect the population.” But the attempts didn’t take hold; the top brass resisted them.

More typical was Abrams’s predecessor, General William Westmoreland, who when asked at a press conference how he planned to deal with an insurgency, replied, “Firepower.” In the spring of 1965, in response to repeated requests for British assistance in the war, Sir Robert Thompson himself led an advisory mission to US headquarters in Saigon. Thompson concluded that the American focus on heavy firepower was counterproductive and suggested a switch to smaller patrols and a strategy of protecting the population. His advice was ignored.

Westmoreland’s operations chief, General William DePuy, who was widely regarded as one of the Army’s most intellectual officers, later told an official historian, “I guess I should have studied human nature and the history of Vietnam and of revolutions, and should have known it, but I didn’t.”

DePuy’s admission was more a shrug than a lament. After the war, he was put in charge of writing the new edition of the Army’s Operations field manual. Not only was it silent on the matter of small wars, it envisioned even the big war—NATO versus the Warsaw Pact on the plains of Europe—as little more than a clash of frontal assaults, with the question of victory or defeat settled by a calculation of which side had amassed the most firepower.

It was the contrast between DePuy’s field manual and Templer’s handbook on antiterrorist operations that Nagl found most telling and alarming. A book of army doctrine was no small matter. It conveyed to everyone, from the chiefs and the officer corps on down, basic instructions on their missions and objectives. It determined how they would fight under certain circumstances and what kind of training they would receive in the meantime. It shaped what kinds of weapons would be developed and built. In other words, doctrine could nudge a large organization like the Army into recognizing, and adapting to, new challenges. It was essential to learning, and as Nagl understood from his studies, learning was the key to everything. Templer ordered up a doctrinal handbook, precisely so that the entire British army could learn the lessons he was learning in Malaya. A big problem with the US Army in Vietnam, to Nagl’s mind, was that it had no doctrine on how to fight these kinds of wars.

In his research, Nagl found an eye-opening passage in Westmoreland’s 1976 memoir, A Soldier Reports: “Like most Americans who served in Vietnam,” the general had written, “I had at first only vicarious experience in counterinsurgency warfare,” as “no earlier assignment had involved such an intricate relationship between the military and the political . . . There was no book to tell us how to do the job.”

Nagl then recited the contemporary lesson that he’d been mulling for some time: that Operation Desert Storm, his one experience in combat, “may well have been an aberration, the last of the conventional industrial age conflicts; it was certainly a lesson to the states and non-state actors of the developing world not to confront the West in conventional combat.” But, he went on, those foes could draw on “many other ways to use force to achieve political goals: terrorism, subversion, insurgency.” And so the “end of the Cold War has returned to the front pages the small wars of the nineteenth century that were so critical an element in shaping the culture of the British army,” including the wars in such places as Afghanistan and, later, Malaya. “In these dirty little wars,” Nagl continued, “political and military tasks intertwine and the objective is more often ‘nation-building’ than the destruction of an enemy army.” The US Army’s leaders “will have to make the ability to learn to deal with messy, uncomfortable situations”—an unwitting echo of his mentor Petraeus’s ghostwritten article on “uncomfortable wars”—“an integral part of their organizational culture.”

In short, someone would have to write the book of US Army doctrine that Westmoreland acknowledged didn’t exist, the book that would tell everyone else “how to do the job” and that, as a result, would change the Army’s “organizational culture.” Nagl made it his mission to be the one who wrote that book. In the meantime, his dissertation would serve as his calling card.

•  •  •

One afternoon in the spring of 1996, soon after he’d started writing the first draft of his dissertation, Nagl was reading T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom while taking a bath in his married-students’ residence at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Lawrence was the renegade British officer who helped lead the “Arab revolt” against Ottoman occupiers during the First World War, and his classic, if somewhat flamboyant, memoir was among the very few volumes written in English from an insurgent’s vantage point. Nagl was about a quarter of the way into the thick volume when one sentence raised his eyebrows:

“War upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.”

He jolted out of the tub, shouted “Eureka!” and dashed, dripping wet, into the living room, where he announced to his wife, “I’ve found the title of my dissertation!”

Nagl wound up altering Lawrence of Arabia’s vivid metaphor just slightly to highlight his main theme, which involved how armies learn, and don’t learn, to adapt to change. The title he emblazoned on his own book’s cover was Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.

The phrase would catch on as a slogan and a mandate among like-minded officers and military analysts. But in their enthusiasm for the COIN cause, many of them, including sometimes Nagl himself, would tend to downplay, even ignore, the other half of Lawrence’s sentence: that eating soup this way—that making war on insurgents as a general proposition—was “messy and slow,” perhaps messier and slower than Americans in the early twenty-first century would tolerate, regardless of how well the Army had learned to do it.