T.E. Lawrence says that “making war upon insurgents is messy and slow, like learning to eat soup with a knife.” What’s unfortunate is that the mess and slowness don’t stop once you’ve learned how to do it; it’s still inefficient, obnoxious, and let’s face it, a little bit sad. I mean, seriously – what would you do if you were at a restaurant and the dude at the table with you tucks his napkin into the neck of his shirt, picks up his knife, and starts dipping it into his bowl as if you have any kind of patience for a meal that will take that long? I would laugh. Some people I know would probably smack him. (Depending on my mood I might smack him, too.) But that’s what he says we did in Vietnam, what we’re currently patching up in Iraq (maybe we’re at the point where we’re allowed to use our fingers for the dregs in the bottom of the bowl?), and what we’re still going strong (weak) doing in Afghanistan. It’s messy and it’s slow. And Americans don’t want to wage a messy, slow war; we get s&*t done. How long did we fight in each of the world wars before they ended? The answer is barely a fraction of how long our current wars have lasted.
John Nagl wrote a book entitled Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, a book applying lessons from counterinsurgency in Malaya and Vietnam. The link above is to the preface to his most current version, which relates his experiences in Iraq doing something he had previously only written about. I’ve never read the book itself, though it’s on my list of future bedtime reading books (I swear, once the Masters degree is finished, I’ll read it); however, the preface gives a decent summary of the basic lessons he learned in his actual on-the-ground experience. He talks of the importance of winning the support of the population, the fact that the tribal and ethnic alliances are so intricate that only locals could ever hope to use them to a counterinsurgency’s advantage, and above all the difficulty of training a military that is very, very good at waging and winning conventional wars to instead make nice with the Afghans and Iraqis and defeat a force, an idea, rather than a state that can run out of money or soldiers. The military is trained to kill, not to build schools. Its members have adapted and have done their best, but this messy, slow war drags on, and at least once a week a news article makes it look as though, once again, we have spilled soup on ourselves (John Nagl has a great turn of phrase, let me tell you). Whether that’s really true, or it’s just propaganda, or a simple mistake blown out of proportion . . . well, my guess would be it’s some sort of combination of all of the above. But that doesn’t make the war any easier.
In other news, I thought the title would be good for this blog because I feel like it describes my daily life.
“No, Load, you probably shouldn’t try to keep the cargo inside the airplane after you’ve cut the restraint strap during an airdrop.”
“Pilot, the reason you can’t hear anyone is your iPad punched off your Hot Mic switch as it fell to the floor when you pranged in that landing. You can stop yelling at everyone now.”
“No, Nav, Pope Air Force Base, a base that you have visited ten times in your career, is in North Carolina, not South. I promise.”
Yes, these things happened. You can’t make this stuff up. You’ll hear these full stories and more soon, but for today, I just wanted to share the blog’s namesake with you all in case you hadn’t heard this phrase or weren’t familiar with the book. It’s all making sense now, right?