Max Boot’s recent book, Invisible Armies, takes an interesting dive into history to extract lessons from past wars—though of a different kind than we are used to reading about in textbooks. Boot’s gargantuan volume (567 pages, plus another 150 of citations and appendices) catalogues the long evolution of guerrilla warfare—from the Maccabees of ancient Judea (167-160 BCE) to modern-day Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, with a whole lot of rebellions and counterinsurgencies in between.
Boot makes his primary point in the opening chapters: guerrilla warfare is as old, if not older, than conventional warfare, yet receives far less attention. While the 50+ stories that follow do not reveal any mind-blowing conclusions or new analytical frameworks, together they form an intriguing—and, if you are a COIN-lover, even fun—compilation. (If, say, a brief account of the Boer War bores you, you can simply flip a few pages to a topic that suits you—be it the Nihilists’ Three Stooges-like blunders in 1880s Russia or France’s last stand at Dien Bien Phu in 1950s Vietnam.)
From my view, the book has two key takeaways of note:
- First, insurgents would no doubt prefer to have conventional military capacity, but they can survive based on evasion, deception, patience, and popular support. This is not a new argument, though Invisible Armies lays it out particularly well. Boot’s analysis, which in some ways glorifies the power of insurgents, nonetheless concedes that even skilled guerrilla leaders know they are weak. They would obviously prefer to have a large, regimented army complete with bomber jets, high-tech gadgets, and steamrolling tanks. The important implication is that one should not overstate insurgents’ capacity. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or the Irish Republican Army (IRA) have succeeded in grabbing headlines with dramatic strikes, but they never truly had a chance of overrunning an entire state. (Ironically, perhaps today’s most successful modern “terrorist” organization is Hezbollah, now more of a “hybrid” force with advanced conventional weaponry than a typical terrorist group.
That being said, skilled guerrillas can still be particularly adept at fighting a superior foe. They are mobile, master propagandists and can feed off sympathetic populations. As Boot makes clear, popular support means everything—Fidel Castro’s small ragtag group of fighters survived because of a deeply anti-Batista Cuban population; Yasser Arafat’s aggressive publicity turned him into a hero among much of the Arab world despite the PLO’s weakness vis-à-vis Israel.
On the battlefield, there is much less pomp and circumstance. As Sun Tzu (and many others who have followed him) has argued, a successful war strategy involves a series of paradoxes: “When committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity. When [your objective] is nearby, make it appear as if distant; when far away, create the illusion of being nearby.” (“Without fighting”: Sawyer, Seven Classics, 161. “Deception”: 168.) Insurgents succeed through determination, but also extreme caution. The worst course of action for a guerrilla group is to meet a conventional foe head on in pitched battle (like the Mahdists in British Sudan in the 1890s) or, more broadly, to strike at an inopportune moment (like Che Guevara’s “quixotic quest” to overthrow the popular Bolivian government in the 1960s).
- Second, modern-day insurgent groups have the benefit of learning from past successes and failures of other insurgents. This is perhaps the most interesting hypothesis of Boot’s book: guerrillas in the past two centuries have enjoyed a higher degree of success (though still erratic) than their predecessors prior to the 1800s because of greater access to information and advice, namely written works from past insurgencies or collaboration with other contemporary resistance groups. As Boot explains (p. 53-4), rebel leaders on one end of the Roman Empire (say, Judea) had little to no contact with insurgents on the other end (say, Spain). Similarly, it is difficult to draw lessons from Attila the Hun, one of the most successful rebel leaders ever, because he was illiterate and therefore unable to leave behind timeless tips for future rebellions.
But with the advent of the printing press, insurgents were able to learn from others’ experiences. As Boot notes, 1800s American abolitionist John Brown read and learned from the experiences of others before him—such as Touissant L’Ouverture, leader of the slave revolt in Haiti (p. 215). IRA leader Michael Collins was a follower of Boer general Christiaan de Wet (p. 249-50). And Mao Zedong’s now-ubiquitous insurgency manuals helped inspire the likes of Ho Chi Minh and even Osama bin Laden. Improvements in transportation and communication made it possible for seemingly incongruous alliances to emerge—like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s connections with the German leftist Baader Meinhof Gang in the 1960s and 1970s.
Of course, counterinsurgents have also adapted. As Boot traces, David Petraeus’ modern-day COIN methods (which Boot praises) draw heavily on the past writings of Gerald Templer (British commander in Malaya), Hubert Lyautey (French army general in Morocco and Indochina), and David Galula (French officer in Algeria). In many ways, Invisible Armies reads like a race through the ages, to see which side—insurgent or counterinsurgent—can best internalize lessons from the past.
These two highlights aside, Boot’s main insights (summed up in his “twelve articles” presented at the end of the book) are neither surprising nor unique. Broad statements like “conventional tactics don’t work against an unconventional threat” (p. 561) are mostly common sense. And it is not astonishing to see Boot’s tremendous emphasis on the importance of public opinion; like Petraeus, he is an avid subscriber to the “population-centric” COIN strategy.
However, what Boot lacks in argumentation or analysis he makes up for with a wide breadth of interesting historical examples. Like Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge (subject of my last book review), the collection of short narratives that makes up Invisible Armies is as worthy of a read as many complex analyses on the same subject.