Reinventing the Wheel

The New York Times website has a story called "You Win This War by Drinking Tea", on a book from 1943 guiding American servicemen who were deployed to Iraq on how to behave and interact with Iraqis (full text, 27 page pdf). A friend of mine sent me a link to this book a couple months ago but I forgot to write about it. From flipping through it, I would say it's a lot more useful than the index-sized "smart cards" soldiers get when they are headed to Iraq. The story also has part of an NPR interview with LtC John Nagl:

"NORRIS: In the foreword to the book, you write it’s almost impossible, when reading this guide, not to slap oneself on the forehead in despair, that the Army knew so much of Arabic culture and customs 60 years ago.

Lt. Col. NAGL: One really wishes that we’d have this book in our breast pockets when we arrived in Iraq in September of 2003. We learned on the ground things about Ramadan, for instance, and customs and courtesies during Ramadan the - that this book had, and that were sitting on a library shelf somewhere that I would’ve given my eye and teeth for to have had, well, when I actually really needed it."

Max Boot wrote a book (which I haven't read) about the numerous American involvements in "small wars" like insurgencies, police actions, peace keeping, etc. These wars are preserved in American culture in anecdotal ways like the Marine Corps hymn ("to the shores of Tripoli" refers to the 1801-1805 war between the United States and the Barbary pirates). However it seems that American war-fighting knowledge has to keep re-learning how to do these small wars, a point LtC Nagl raises in his book "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife." Apparently the American military can only remember one thing at a time - given that, I suppose it's good that they prepared for the unlikely but catastrophic event (war with the USSR) and therefore prevented its happening.

If the military can only handle one task, it is further ammunition for Tom Barnett's idea - completely split the military in two (analagous to the Department of War and the Department of the Navy before they were unified in 1947) and have one part do big wars and one part do small wars.


Chirol said...

The book is "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power" and is VERY highly recommended

Adrian said...

Chirol - from reviews, Boot's book seems more opinion than factual analysis. On the other hand, at least he's upfront about his agenda. Since Amazon is selling it for $4, it will go on the list!