INVISIBLE ARMIES: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present
Max Boot’s “Invisible Armies” is a wide-ranging history of unconventional warfare, from the times of ancient Rome, up to and including our modern-day experiences. Boot, a prolific writer, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. His book carefully examines guerrilla warfare and its handmaiden, terrorism.
Boot is a splendid storyteller and a meticulous researcher. He carefully charts a host of unconventional wars back to 3,000 B.C. with tales of the tactics and methods used by guerrillas. They are stories of disenfranchised minorities struggling against their conventional military/political adversaries. From our successful American Revolution through our prevailing conflicts in the Middle East, America has gone from the underdog, fighting from behind hills and trees, to a modern, technologically advanced, highly integrated military fighting machine.
Although unconventional warfare has been used throughout history, Boot observes that frequently it has been unsuccessful against conventional forces, that is, unless the guerrilla force gains external support or evolves into a conventional fighting force. One such example was during the Vietnam War when the Viet Cong aligned with North Vietnam’s well-trained and -equipped army. In a few instances, however, such as the Haitian war of independence or in Castro’s successful coup in Cuba, success was achieved without the use of a conventional military force.
Boot notes that insurgencies have been more successful since the end of World War II, but many still fail. The most dramatic development in modern insurgencies has been proficiency in manipulating public opinion through the media. Vietnam, of course, is the classic example of how our military triumphed on the battlefield, only to lose the game by a change in public support for the war on the home front.
The author credits Army General David Petraeus for successfully addressing the subject of America’s current and future outlook toward modern low-intensity conflicts. Gen Petraeus’ population-centered counterinsurgency thoughts form current U.S. military methods in the Middle East. The U.S. Army-Marine counterinsurgency field manual, “Field Manual 3-24/Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency,” has made its mark with mixed success in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
In Boot’s section on modern international terrorism, “God’s Killers,” he notes that Osama bin Laden attempted to forge a worldwide conflict. With international implications and a skilled use of sophisticated technologies, bin Laden sought to provoke America into reacting to al-Qaida’s 9/11 attack. However, his main aim, that of uniting the Muslim world against the West, has, thus far, failed. Boot asserts that, reminiscent of most terrorists, al-Qaida fighters were motivated by the three “R’s”—revenge (for perceived wrongs), renown (to give meaning to their otherwise meaningless lives), and reaction (to provoke an overreaction by their adversaries).
Boot ends his masterwork with 12 articles, or lessons, that define his comprehensive study of invisible armies. Taken together, these essential lessons constitute a playbook that ought to be compulsory reading for those wishing to understand and/or address unconventional wars and warfare. Although Boot’s book briefly addresses the effects of new technologies, he overlooks the disturbing phenomenon of “green on blue” attacks on our military training Afghanistan’s government forces.
The use of guerrilla warfare, and the use of terrorism, has historically offered insurgents a cheap and efficient method of disrupting the status quo. Appropriately, in his epilogue Boot paraphrases George Santayana to provide an alarming observation for us to consider carefully: “Only the dead are safe; only the dead have seen the end of guerrilla war.”