Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present

Image of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present
Release Date: 
January 15, 2013
Reviewed by: 

“Historical accuracy and truth, . . . take a second place in Invisible Armies to the book’s highly politicized point of view . . .”

In an interview shortly after the publication of his book Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, Max Boot claimed that he did not make a “particular point” in the book, but aimed “simply to tell a story that has never been well told before.”

After reading Invisible Armies, however, it is hard to take Mr. Boot’s remarks in this interview seriously.

The story of guerrilla warfare actually has been told quite “well” before. Historian Robert Asprey’s still useful and relevant multivolume work War in the Shadows tells the story well and effectively with a level of embedded primary, archival research that Mr. Boot’s new book does not come close to.

But the more fantastic remark by Mr. Boot, that his book does not make a “particular point” is pure moonshine. In fact the book does just that: It makes one big whopping point for current American politics and more importantly foreign policy: that guerrilla warfare has been around for thousands of years, as his tome quite aptly chronicles, and since it has been around for thousands of years—here comes the political point he is making—the United States should accept the fact that it must commit itself to fighting numerous guerrilla wars in the future.

Never mind whether or not American strategy and security interests in the world demand fighting such wars. Instead for Mr. Boot simply because they have been fought in the past, America should keep fighting them in the future. For those American experts and policy wonks like Anne-Marie Slaughter who have been stridently advocating for American military intervention in places like Syria with a “responsibility to protect” local populations, Mr. Boot’s book will read like a policy prescription gussied up with the dash of history.

A nakedly didactic tutorial by the many Counterinsurgency (Coin) experts who have popped up over the years since David Petraeus supposedly made Coin work during the Surge in Iraq, is that the United States “may not want Counterinsurgency, but Counterinsurgency wants it.” Or in other words the United States has no strategic choice at all in these matters except to face the facts, accept the wisdom of the experts and plan on fighting Coin wars well into the future.

Mr. Boot’s Invisible Armies fully supports this tutorial by offering up a history of guerrilla warfare from the ancient Romans and Greeks up to the present American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is in the book an impressive sweep of history.

And it is definitely a ripping read to be sure. Mr. Boot if nothing else is an exceptionally strong writer with a gift for engaging storytelling. And in this respect Invisible Armies does not disappoint.

Not surprisingly the book begins with a vignette on American Counterinsurgency operations during the Surge in Iraq and ends with an epilogue on the American military effort in Afghanistan in 2011. Within these two bookends there are sixty four chapters covering specific historical cases of guerrilla warfare.

The reader is taken on a tour de force covering such areas as Alexander the Great, the Scottish Tartan rebellion against England, the American Revolution, European 19th century Imperial warfare, and the 20th century wars of decolonization. Surrounding each of these highlighted areas is of course much more in the book.

At times Mr. Boot brings out some worthwhile observations and criticisms. For example at the end of the book there is a section titled “Implications: Twelve Articles, or the Lessons of Five Thousand Years” in which Mr. Boot offers his suggestions for timeless lessons on guerrilla warfare drawn from history.

One of his observations is that Petraeus’ Surge in Iraq in 2007 did not “bring about a lasting political settlement.” Or in other words, the Surge ultimately failed because it did not accomplish political objectives.

In this sense Mr. Boot is spot on. Yet after making this crucially important observation he spends much time making the argument that Petraeus is one of the greatest generals in the history of guerrilla warfare.

If the military means applied by Petraeus during the Surge failed to achieve political ends, how can he be considered a great general?

It is these breakdowns in logic and analysis that ultimately mar Invisible Armies. And there are many of them in the book. For instance Invisible Armies tells us that on the basis of his “limited experience” and understanding the commanding general from 1965 to 1968 in America’s war in Vietnam, William C. Westmoreland, had a “one word solution to the insurgency: firepower.”

More moonshine.

To be sure Westmoreland relied on American firepower and mobility to fight the North Vietnamese army in South Vietnam. But he also devoted substantial resources to the pacification of the countryside through programs of state building. In fact Westmoreland created under his watch CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) that required a significant reallocation of American resources toward assisting the South Vietnamese in building state institutions.

If Westmoreland only cared about firepower to defeat the insurgency, why did he create CORDS?

With regard to the British Counterinsurgency in Malaya Mr. Boot recites the stock refrain of many counterinsurgency experts that in these kinds of wars big unit operations (that the British conducted periodically between 1948 and 1951) to track down and kill insurgents are a waste of time.

But in Malaya what the primary evidence shows is that these large unit operations by the British fundamentally disrupted the Insurgent strategy to concentrate their army into a conventional fighting force. In other words large unit operations worked.

Historical accuracy and truth, however, take a second place in Invisible Armies to the book’s highly politicized point of view, which is that guerrilla wars and counterinsurgencies can be won by the United States as long as it places lots of boots on the ground to win them, gets the right general in charge, tweaks the tactics to win hearts and minds, and maintains the political will to fight them indefinitely.

Mr. Boot manipulates history to make this policy point quite well, but he also severely distorts history in the process.