Reviewed by James Abrahamson
Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot, Liveright Publishing Corporation: New York, 2013, ISBN 978-0-87140-424-4, i-xxix, 750 pp., Hardcover, $35.00; paperback; $18.95; Kindle $13.75.
Had Invisible Armies appeared ten years earlier, before the 2006 publication of the U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, Max Boot’s magnificent book with its almost six hundred pages of text and its appendix, endnotes, bibliography, and index, running to almost two hundred more, might well have been seen as providing the historical underpinning for the Manual’s recommendations for countering guerrillas and terrorists.
Both those terms, as descriptions for groups that fight from the shadows against more powerful but not always successful opponents, entered common usage only two centuries ago. They describe military skills as old as mankind’s hit-and-run tribal conflicts. Only with the emergence, some five thousand years ago, of agriculture and empires thereby able to employ full-time warriors in their defense did regular warfare between trained cohorts emerge. Even so, groups too poor or too small to engage in battles between massed forces persisted, using “invisible armies” to wage traditional irregular warfare and sometimes succeeded in bringing down apparently more powerful opponents, as was the fate of Akkad in 2190 BC, overthrown by fierce tribesmen from the Mesopotamian mountains.
In sixty-four chapters organized into eight books, Boot reveals the history of such warfare, addresses the emergence of terrorism, explains the growing importance of propaganda and ideology, and accounts for the winners and losers. In so doing he explains the fate of those who succeeded Alexander the Great, the empire sustained for centuries by Rome’s legions, and those who shaped the formation of China and many modern societies. He also describes the ways that new ideas—national, liberal, anarchist, radical, religious—enabled insurgents to challenge, often successfully, powerful empires all across the globe.
Boot also covers insurgent invaders, like Mongols and Turks, who occupied Europe and the Middle East, the home-grown irregulars who supported the American Revolution, the Spanish guerrillas who fought Napoleon’s best, as well as the methods of South Africa’s Boers, the IRA, Mao Zedong, and Vo Nguyen Giap.
Nor does the author neglect the fact that regular armies sometimes formed their own irregular auxiliary units, such as the Arab forces shaped by T.E. Lawrence and the World War II Allied special forces that harassed both the Germans and the Japanese. Those, like Louis Lyautey, Gerald Templar, Edward Lansdale, and David Petraeus, who studied insurgencies, to prevent their formation or to defeat them should they emerge also find an important place in Invisible Armies.
Excepting the book’s excellent end notes, lengthy bibliography, and very helpful index, Boot concludes with two unusual items: a twenty-page “Database” more wide-ranging than the text and a ten-page list of “Implications,” which is worth briefly summarizing.
- Guerrilla warfare is older than the creation of conventional armed forces. Even so, it has shaped the boundaries and forms of most modern governments.
- Despite a common belief, guerrilla warfare is not an “Eastern Way of War.” It is instead the “universal war of the weak.” (558) It is also worth noting that when guerrillas succeed, they most often form regular forces to defend the societies they create.
- Despite the guerrillas’ ability to humble some great empires, they received little respect or careful study before 1945. Since that date, however, popular opinion about the capability of guerrillas and terrorists has swung too far in the opposite direction.
- Insurgencies still rarely succeed.
- The most important development affecting insurgencies is the growing importance of public opinion due to the spread of democracy, education, media, and international organizations. That development can sap the will of a government to overcome a protracted insurgency.
- Conventional tactics alone cannot defeat a capable insurgency because large-unit search-and-destroy operations catch few insurgents and by alienating the civil population put success out of reach.
- Counterinsurgents that seek to terrorize a foreign population rarely succeed.
- Population-centric counterinsurgency most often succeeds by garrisoning troops within the civil population to secure it and facilitate reforms that improve its quality of life.
- Both insurgents and their opponents are in a contest to establish their legitimacy, which is second in importance to securing the public.
- Only rarely are insurgencies defeated in less than ten years. The average is fourteen.
- Guerrillas are more likely to succeed if they have outside support; next in importance is having a “popular cause.”
- Except for the printing press, and now the Internet, technology has traditionally been less important to the success of guerrilla forces, though possession of nuclear weapons or materials may change that judgment.