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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.

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 Unfortunately, while Boot is informative and entertaining he sometimes exercises poor judgment. Occasionally that fatal defect applies to smaller matters. Kansas insurrectionist John Brown is slurred as a “first-rate terrorist” but “not much of a guerrilla,” designations at odds with the chapter’s subtitle that credits him with helping to both start the Civil War and abolish slavery. Boot also calls nationalism a post-Enlightenment development, a claim that scholars have questioned, if not demolished.

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More lethal are the weeds that occasionally sprout in the book's subtext. “Establishing legitimacy is vital for any successful insurgency or counterinsurgency,” writes Boot, implying that the United States is somehow capable of establishing legitimate claims on a foreign land. Sometimes his conclusions outright contradict each other. “Population-centric counterinsurgency is often successful,” states Boot, in his epilogue. As evidence, he cites a grand total of two such victories: America in Iraq and Britain in Malaysia.

General David Petraeus is described in embarrassingly romantic terms, as “an impressively hard worker” whose “most effective weapons were his fitness and his toughness.” Perhaps such obsequiousness might be expected given Boot’s frequent collaboration with American commanders in Iraq. (Senator John McCain lovingly blurbs the back of this book.) Regardless, Boot’s claim that Petraeus “was more open to the press than most of his peers were, yet he avoided the kind of indiscretions that would later would prematurely General Stanley McChrystal’s command” has been, um, superseded by email correspondence. The general “showed in Iraq in 2007-2008 how successful population-centric counterinsurgency could be, at least in narrow security terms, even if the ‘surge’ did not bring about a lasting political settlement,” writes Boot. But wasn't forging a lasting political settlement the entire point of the surge?

Boot fantasizes that if the correct number of troops carry out the correct sorts of tasks, they can successfully occupy countries for decades. But if US experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate anything, it is the profoundly difficult – if not impossible – nature of counterinsurgency and state-building missions.

The best way to defeat an insurgency has always been, and remains, not to instigate one. That forewarning, sadly, seems invisible to the author of "Invisible Armies." 

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer for Salon.com and The Christian Science Monitor.

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