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About John A. Nagl
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Armies are invariably accused of preparing to fight the last war. Nagl examines how armies learn during the course of conflicts for which they are initially unprepared in organization, training, and mindset. He compares the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and practice in the Malayan Emergency from 1948-1960 with that developed in the Vietnam Conflict from 1950-1975, through use of archival sources and interviews with participants in both conflicts. In examining these two events, he argues that organizational culture is the key variable in determining the success or failure of attempts to adapt to changing circumstances.
Differences in organizational culture is the primary reason why the British Army learned to conduct counterinsurgency in Malaya while the American Army failed to learn in Vietnam. The American Army resisted any true attempt to learn how to fight an insurgency during the course of the Vietnam Conflict, preferring to treat the war as a conventional conflict in the tradition of the Korean War or World War II. The British Army, because of its traditional role as a colonial police force and the organizational characteristics that its history and the national culture created, was better able to quickly learn and apply the lessons of counterinsurgency during the course of the Malayan Emergency. This is the first study to apply organizational learning theory to cases in which armies were engaged in actual combat.
The U.S. military could certainly have used that bit of wisdom in 2003, as violence began to eclipse the Iraq War’s early successes. Ironically, had the Army only looked in its own archives, they would have found it—that piece of advice is from a manual the U.S. War Department handed out to American servicemen posted in Iraq back in 1943.
The advice in Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq during World War II,presented here in a new facsimile edition, retains a surprising, even haunting, relevance in light of today’s muddled efforts to win Iraqi hearts and minds. Designed to help American soldiers understand and cope with what was at the time an utterly unfamiliar culture—the manual explains how to pronounce the word Iraq, for instance—this brief, accessible handbook mixes do-and-don’t-style tips (“Always respect the Moslem women.” “Talk Arabic if you can to the people. No matter how badly you do it, they will like it.”) with general observations on Iraqi history and society. The book’s overall message still rings true—dramatically so—more than sixty years later: treat an Iraqi and his family with honor and respect, and you will have a strong ally; treat him with disrespect and you will create an unyielding enemy.
With a foreword by Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl reflecting on the manual’s continuing applicability—and lamenting that it was unknown at the start of the invasion—this new edition of Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq will be essential reading for anyone who cares about the future of Iraq and the fate of the American soldiers serving there.