Saturday, January 2, 2010

Learning To Eat Soup With A Knife

Book review time. "Learning To Eat Soup With A Knife" is a book written about COIN operations (COIN: COunter-InsurgeNy) by a US Army Officer (Lt. Colonel at the publishing time). I don't have the book at hand right now so you will have to forgive me on the name.

This book book is a contrast between two counter-insurgency operations, one successful and one not. In this case its the British in Malaya and US in Vietnam. The book was very good and took a hard look at both sides. The final point is that the British were able to win due to them being a "learning organization" where as the US Army (at the time) was not. This book pulled no punches and I have to admit that the US Army really botched it. When we were fighting in Vietnam we (the Army) did a pretty good job, but we totally fumbled everything else. And that is the whole point of COIN in many cases.

The British had their issues as the book shows. But they had a military much more open to ideas and willing to try everything in order to win. Having a military with vast experience in the "colonies" and a police force and political department with equal amounts of experience and the ability to work together were major points. I found it odd that the British were the ones more open to "bottom up" ideas in this case, but then again I am in a different Army than the one my dad was in.

The thing that really stood out for me was the parallels I saw in the book in modern day. But I am glad to say that the US Army I am in seems to be more in line with the British in this book. Not quite (we had some serious infighting to get the COIN experts listened to in order for things like the Surge, and the Son of Iraq created), but definately better than Westmoreland and the MACV. However, I will put out that we need some serious education in other branches of government. We have some work needed there (and in the Army for working with them).

If you want to get an education on guerrilla warfare, this isn't the book. But if you are interested in some (reasonably) clear explanations of COIN, and what works, and what you need to have to find things that do work (there is no one solution to insurgency, every case is different as the book repeatedly explains), this is a great read. The biggest thing I learned is what factors make an organization a "Learning" Organization. If you have that, you have a military (and government) that can probably pull off a successful COIN operation.


  1. I've actually heard of this book, but have not read it.
    Your learning army makes an interesting point on two levels. The first is I swear this is something that Sun Tzu taught as well, or at least hinted at. The second is how much wisdom and experience change us. I remember (and I'm not picking here, just remembering) how much you thought what COIN is today WAS NOT what you thought the Army should be doing when you were Captain at the beginning of the Iraq war. Several changes later and you're convinced otherwise.
    I remember reading an awesome story recently (may have even been AP, horror of horrors) talking about a Lt. Col. in Afghanistan who described COIN as graduate level warfare, and modern warfare, especially COIN, was only for the smart and quick.
    I find that as long you're constantly learning, you're constantly improving and getting better. This book really drives that home for me, as does everything else I'm hearing about the modern US Army. Hooaaah!

  2. True enough. I learned not quite the hard way, but definately NOT the simple way about what we were doing. Of course, that is normal human action. At the time it seemed to make sense and then you look back and go "whoa". Wisdom, never cheap. Of course, there are some who don't learn period no matter how hard reality slaps them, but it appears we are not one of those organizations. I just wonder if we can keep it up. There is a big focus in the Army to get back to what we are "supposed" to be doing. I.E. artillery should be shooting artillery, not patrolling the street, same with tankers. I agree in part (we need to be worried about full up regular war as well as COIN), but since we are pulling out of Iraq we should be able to do both. None of our heavy (and not a lot of our medium) forces will go there and they are the ones that need to get back to their basics. The light forces are able to do this mission (it is really their lane). We just need to be sure we don't go all "Hooah" while doing it (an occasional problem with airborne ranger types who joined to fight).

  3. The return to basics is important, and yet it reminds me that as things change and get more complicated, you never exactly ever get back to where you started.
    For example I'll use 21st century science, which is much more like 19th century scientist in that you need to be a multi-disciplinary generalist than a focused expert. One needs to be good in the "natural philosophies" because science has gotten so complex. So perhaps it is the same for the Army. You can't just be Artillery any more, you may be an Artillery expert, but you also need to be good at COIN and securing perimeters. You may hit a insurgent hideout one day with a combined mobile battery, but the rest of the week you're looking for small places where the insurgents could hit you with indirect fire and securing the area by removing those enemy positions.
    I think you get the idea. With warfare changing so much and the technology going so fast (drones for example) I think we're also in for a major period of redesign for army roles, branches, strategies, and tactics.
    Or so I think anyway, but continuous education is at the heart of it all. You may learn the basics as you come up, but you're always learning and changing your role unless you have the luxury of being a one-trick pony.

  4. MOst branches are not one trick ponies. There is no problem with being good at COIN, but what artillery does in COIN is different missions for the branch. Information Operations is an FA mission for example, coordinating effects (any effects be it press coverage, money, or actually shooting cannons). But its not an FA mission to kick down doors (we have always secured our perimeter, everyone is supposed to be able to, but now I can say just everyone actually can). No branch is a one trick pony anymore. Looking for where insurgents can shoot from is Counter-fire, which has been an artillery mission since its inception. The problem is balance. Taking an FA battalion and using them as infantry can be done (and has been, note my last tour), but the end result is that you now have a battalion of psuedo-infantry who can't use the cannons very well and that is their core function. Branches exist for a reason, namely there is a specific function that they MUST fill. Some change over time, some go away and come back, some stay the same, some get more stuff added. The FA has more stuff added, but we still MUST be able to put steel on target, and the concern is that we are not as good at it as we were. And we need to get back in that direction some. Covering down when needed is fine and we have done that, but you can't forget the core stuff. Iraq was covering down and we did ok. But Afghanistan is much more kinetic, and the FA is doing pretty much straight FA. And in Afghanistan's case, it would probably not be smart to use FA gunners as infantry. First rule is to understand the type of fight you are in and Afghanistan is a different monster than Iraq was. Making extra infantry out of tankers and artillery is not a smart idea (in Afghanistan), using our light infantry as infantry and our FA as FA is. Maybe after we have beaten down the Taliban some we can start doing that, but we are not quite to that stage yet.

  5. Well, and I mean no insult with this, but maybe the Army is about to be a lot like the Marines. Everyone is trained as an infantryman first, and then the other specialties come into use.

    I see what you're saying, but if you look at how warfare, tactics, and technology change, some fields of the military go away or morph and change. Look at what cavalry has become, and even then while the name sticks, it's not really cavalry at all.

    You make an important point though - balance - and maybe since the plans to the original invasion of Iraq had to shift to such a heavy ground presence they had no choice but to go infantry heavy to solve the problem and not some return to the old balance while not forgetting the new lessons is needed. As you're hinting though, Afghanistan is very different and the lessons learned there will probably morph the arms of the military again.

  6. You have it backwards. The Marines are all able to be infantry if needed, but that usually happens only in times of emergency or need. The Marines don't go around saying "We need another infantry battalion, so have the tankers get off their tanks and get some rifles." The biggest problem this book pointed out was a simple fact that you must have an organization that is able and willing to adapt to the realities on the ground, not make the ground adapt to their wished for reality. But its also a point of threat, the US Army needs to be able to fight both conventional and irregular. The big arguement now is that we have neglected the conventional fight for too long. Everyone can do a security patrol or run a checkpoint, but we now have howitzer crews who can't lay a gun, or tankers who can't hit targets while moving. Those specialties need to get brought back up to speed (we still use them in COIN, just not nearly as much). Adapting to the war you are fighting we are doing, but we need to remember that there are others types of war out there (which oddly is what started this whole mess in the first place).

  7. I got you now. Be good at the new skill, but make sure to bone up on your core competency from time to time even if you're not using it all the time. That's why you're in TRADOC.
    I guess what I was trying to say is that the Marines may have two core competencies per soldier with the excpetion of infantry, who only has one. If needed, they can easily pull a tanker into a infantry role, but yes, that's not how one would like to do things.

  8. Yep, that's what I was driving at. The US Army is getting to that due to the current enemy not having a whole lot of front line/rear area thing so you have to be a good infantryman no matter what you do for a living. Marines have always been that, we are getting there, and the AF and Navy continue on.