Demma’s Notes: Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife

If you’ve followed my posts for any period of time you’ll know I’m a huge fan of military history. Combat strategy and tactics are the ultimate application of leadership principles. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the principles of counter-insurgency and their application to business, specifically:

  • Why do large organizations sometime fail in the face of much smaller competitors?
  • How can organizations thrive in the modern business world, which calls for strategies that deal with complex and continuously evolving environments?
  • How can leaders of small teams most effectively lead their groups in these environments?

Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife by John Nagl compares the U.S. military actions in Vietnam with the British involvement in Malaya to uncover common themes for effectively dealing with insurgent or non-conventional warfare.


In 1954, the United States Military was the undisputed back-to-back-world-war-champ super power of the world. We had just successfully helped North and South Korea reach an armistice, and our “military advisors” on the ground in then French Indochina were seeing an escalation of tensions in North and South Vietnam. By the early 1960s, another full scale war in Southeast Asia was inevitable.

Piece of cake. The US was the master of full scale conventional warfare. Just ask the Nazis or Imperial Japanese. All we had to do was open the playbook that had worked in the past 3 wars: superior and overwhelming firepower.

Well, you know the end of the story. Just five years later, despite some tactical progress by branches of the military like the first generation of Navy SEALs, the US was leaving Vietnam without a decisive victory and with some serious stains our reputation.

Today, the Vietnam War is known in Vietnam as “The Resistance War Against America”. How could the Viet Cong, who were outnumbered throughout the resistance anywhere from 3 to 1, to 10 to 1, successfully fend off the heavy weight champs of the world? The answer is insurgent or guerrilla warfare (90s kids: you may now break out your Che Guevara/Rage Against the Machine T-Shirts).

Nagl contrasts the U.S.’s failure in Vietnam with the successful counter-insurgency efforts of the British in the Malayan conflict just a decade before. Below is a summary of the key concepts that worked for the Brits that the U.S. missed in Vietnam.

Key Concepts

Learning and Adaptability.

The U.S. lost in Vietnam because it wasn’t fighting the Vietnam War – the U.S. fought WW2 in Vietnam.

Nagl’s research showed that U.S. military officials believed the U.S. was winning the war in Vietnam throughout the 60s. All that was needed to complete the victory in the brass’s mind was more application of the same strategy. In other works, if we just applied more firepower and deployed more men we would eventually win.

The prevailing Patton-esque ethos of the military was to have a “can-do” attitude. This led squad and platoon leaders to prioritize optimism over realism, and to only seek out and report positive results to their commanders. Nagl details how instances of unit leaders lying about results to please their captains became commonplace.

The military never faced the brutal fact that they were not winning, and the communication infrastructure necessary to change that narrative adapt to their non-conventional enemy was nonexistent. Nagl concludes that the U.S. from 1954 through 1975 was not an effective learning organization, in that the prevailing military doctrine never substantially changed enough to effect combat operations on the ground.

Bottom Up Communication and Tactical Innovation.

Nagl details the nature of the British military in Malaya just a few years before the Vietnam War. As a geographically dispersed colonial empire, the Brits relied on autonomous and decentralized colonial forces around the world to create their own tactics, in line with the Crown’s overarching strategy. This led to a culture of tactical innovation coming from the front lines, rather than tactics being dictated from senior leaders a continent away in London.

In Malaya, the Brits were able to form small teams who operated silently at night to root out the guerrillas.The Brits also applied concepts of minimum necessary force and winning the hearts and minds of locals based on feedback from the front line troops and leaders. This led to breakthroughs in intelligence and an eventual decisive victory in Malaya.

Small Autonomous Units, Fighting At Night.

President Kennedy was committed to the idea that the U.S. need special forces to fight unconventional wars. This helped create the environment for the birth of the Navy SEALs. In 1962, the Navy evolved their Underwater Demolition Teams of commandos into special forces units that could operate in SEa, Air, and Land (SEAL) in guerrilla and counter-guerrilla warfare.

Platoons from SEAL Team ONE and SEAL Team TWO were assigned to a specific operating area in Vietnam, and for the most part operated autonomously…. SEAL platoons carried out day and night ambushes (but much preferred night operations), hit-and-run raids, reconnaissance patrols, and special intelligence collection operations. Calling them the “men with green faces” because of the face camouflage they used, the VC feared SEALs and often put bounties on their heads. (source:

Operating in small teams, moving silently at night, focused on ambushes, intelligence, and psychological warfare… sounds like the war the Viet Cong were fighting. How did the rookie SEALs do? The Navy estimates that SEALs had a 20:1 kill ratio (compared to the near 1:1 ratio of conventional forces in Vietnam), with major victories on the psychological and information fronts.

First generation Frogmen about to get some in Vietnam.

Hearts and Minds and the Information War. 

It’s pretty much impossible for the away team to win an unconventional war without the support of the local population. The Viet Cong terrorized the South Vietnamese, but they one massive advantage over the invading Americans – the VC were not going anywhere. They lived in Vietnam, of course, and they would be there long after the Americans left.

The U.S. failed to learn from the Brits in Malaya, who used minimum effective force in an intentional effort to win over the local population. In North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the U.S. dropped 8 million tons of ordinance, about 4x more than the tonnage used in all of WW2. Civilian casualties as a result of U.S. action range from 30,000 to 2 million, plus tens of thousands of casualties (and counting) since the war ended from unexploded ordinance. And incidents like the My Lai Massacre, where U.S. servicemen shot women and children civilians indiscriminately, are a stain on our nation’s history.

Compare this to our efforts in Afghanistan, which included billions of dollars of investment in nation building and an intentional strategy to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The results were not perfect, but Afghanistan is free from the Taliban government, and according to Wikipedia, “As of 2013, 8.2 million Afghans attended school, including 3.2 million girls, up from 1.2 million in 2001, including fewer than 50,000 girls.”

Wrap Up

It’s easy to find ways to adapt these key concepts to running a business. Pick up Soup if you’re looking for a break from business best sellers and you want to learn from some military source material. Be prepared for some minutia and repetition, but it’s worth the trek as these lessons are universally applicable to anyone leading a team in a complex environment.

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