Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present
Max Boot's entertaining history teaches valuable lessons, but sometimes draws shaky conclusions.
After the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans clearly have no appetite for what is frequently termed nation-building but is more aptly called state-building. Significantly, even while Mitt Romney’s recent presidential campaign promoted foreign-policy plans generally indistinguishable from those of the George W. Bush administration, the Republican candidate never called for the United States to invest billions to turn Afghanistan and Iraq into model liberal democracies.Skip to next paragraph
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Max Boot is among those few who believe that Bush didn’t do enough to win Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem, he wrote on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, was that the Bush team didn’t do enough in those countries, as they “succumbed to their reflexive suspicion of nation-building and allowed events to spin out of control in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
That conceit forms the subtext of Invisible Armies. The book was started in 2006, when it seemed that the insurgency in Iraq would reduce the region to residue. The resulting work surveys the history of guerrilla warfare. A fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an advisor to US military planners, Boot begins with the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 A.D. and concludes with what he calls the Global Islamist Insurgency. Stops are made along the road to learn from Lawrence of Arabia, the Vietnam War, and the Ku Klux Klan. These choices are unusual, though "Invisible Armies" admirably concedes that it is not a comprehensive work, but one that aims to discern themes and trends and tell a good tale.
Boot seizes on several lessons. Guerilla warfare is as old as humankind. It has always been the method by which the weak leverage their advantages – swiftness and mobility – against the military power and wealth of the strong. Despite their omnipresence, guerillas usually lose. Mass media and nationalism have changed the nature of warfare. And so on.
Underscoring its mission to educate American policymakers, "Invisible Armies" offers additional thoughts on how to effectively fight guerillas. Traditional methods of big-army warfare are ineffective. Inflicting terror on insurgents and their hosts rarely works. Victories accrue to the patient.
If these observations seem banal, the book rarely feels that way. Boot tells compelling stories of individual battles and guerillas, placing them in the context of the political and religious struggles in which they occurred. In the chapter on Mao Zedong, for instance, the Chinese leader forgoes a toothbrush in favor of the traditional peasant method of cleansing the mouth with tea. Irish revolutionary Michael Collins is resurrected as “half accountant, half swashbuckler."