“War upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife” – TE Lawrence.

In his book “Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife” John Nagl examines how armies learn during the course of conflicts for which they are initially unprepared in organization, training, and mindset. Like “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” from which TE Lawrence’s quote is excerpted, it is a very useful read for understanding the current situation in Iraq. Written well before Operation Iraqi Freedom it nethertheless shows lessons very relevant to it.

Voicing publicly the private views of many of his peers, Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, a senior officer in the British Army has published a critical analysis of American military attitudes in Iraq. I do not believe his paper to be the scathing account that the press presents. On the contrary, it confirms the traditional strengths of the US Army and the ability for learning that individuals have demonstrated. But is does point out how heavy institutional inertia prevents widespread adaptation to the nature of counterinsurgency. Compounded doctrinal and cultural factors are shown to be the root cause of the American difficulties in Iraq.

Alwyn-Foster cites Nagl noting that “The American Army’s role from its very origins was the eradication of threats to national survival’, in contrast to the British Army’s history as ‘an instrument of limited war, designed to achieve limited goals at limited cost”. The USA possesses nearly irresistible powers in conventional wars against nation-states. But when confronted with counterinsurgency operations, this strength induces such a bias that it becomes a root of weakness : when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For example, Alwyn-Foster underlines that the US Army’s ‘Soldier’s creed’ “enjoins the soldier to have just the one type of interaction with his enemy – ‘to engage and destroy him:’ not defeat, which could permit a number of other politically attuned options, but destroy”. Being a warrior is part, but not all, of being a soldier.

Alwyn-Foster’s paper leads the reader to “the realisation that all military activity is subordinate to political intent, and must be attuned accordingly: mere destruction of the enemy is not the answer”. It is no suprise to me that he reminds me of what my aikido master used to teach us : the goal of martial arts is not the destruction of the opponent, it is the destruction of the conflict. Adversary and partner are one and there can be no winning of the hearts and minds unless this has been realized.