Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife
By John A. Nagl
Praeger, 2002, 272 pp.
Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency
By Anthony James Joes
University Press of Kentucky, 2004, 360 pp.
The subtitle of Nagl's well-crafted comparison of the British and U.S. responses to the challenges of insurgency in Malaya and Vietnam draws on Lawrence of Arabia's metaphor for how slow and messy it can be to make war on a rebellion. Like the current Basra-Baghdad comparison, the starting conditions may have flattered the British management of their counter-insurgency operations in Malaya, but the point of Nagl's book is that the British managed to learn from early mistakes and adapt to the situation. Nagl has recently had a chance to assess as a serving officer the problems of the U.S. capacity to learn from its mistakes in Iraq.
Joes has written many books on guerrilla warfare, and, although his latest goes over ground he has worked before, he justifies it by taking as his perspective that of the counterinsurgent. The structure does not make the argument easy to follow: each point is illustrated with detailed case studies, and the same studies reappear under a number of headings. He has strong opinions on many issues of historical interpretation and misses no opportunity to expound, for example, on why the defeat of South Vietnam was not inevitable. He also has an irritating tendency to convey the size of all foreign countries as multiples of arbitrarily chosen U.S. states. And yet there is a lot of knowledge packed into these pages, the detail on particular cases is often fascinating, and the lessons, in the end, are sensible and highly topical: provide means to deal with real grievances; commit sufficient troops; isolate the conflict area; display rectitude toward civilians and prisoners; emphasize intelligence; disrupt the insurgents' food supplies; and divide the leaders from the followers.