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.

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present By Max Boot Liveright 750 pp.

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.  

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."

 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.

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 and The Christian Science Monitor.

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