18 February 2008

Book promotion through resignation

Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl, who wrote the U.S. Army's combat manual on counterinsurgency operations, appeared last week on All Things Considered, having become newsworthy through deciding to leave the Army.

Nagl is the sort of guy whose books are embraced enthusiastically by any publisher. Last week's appearance wasn't the first on NPR this year. He appeared on Fresh Air last month. He's also been on the Daily Show. He possibly came to public prominence in 2004, in a New York Times' article.

His magnum opus (so far), published in 2005 by the University of Chicago Press, is Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. This examination of two cases in counterinsurgency warfare, the British army in Malaya during the 1950s and the American army in Vietnam during the 1960s, reflects its origins as a University of Oxford PhD thesis in both its choice of subject and its conclusion. You can find a review of it, which is perceptive in places, here.

There's a tendency on the part of organizations to study success and contrast it with failure. In my contrarian way, I'm inclined to the view that failure is more instructive. Nagl's Soup reflects an Anglophilia that the review punctures, especially by bringing up the case of Palestine, which is a much more important experience for the American army in Iraq today to consider. The British had the awkward problem of dealing with two communities who both wanted to control their destiny on the same land. That's a problem the American army has to contend with in Iraq, only they have the Kurds to contend with as well. And why did the British fail in Palestine? Well, there's something to put on my to-do list.

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