Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, by Max Boot (Liveright, 784 pp., $35)
During the decade after the first Gulf War, many national-security experts concluded that emerging technologies, especially information technologies, had created a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) that would fundamentally change the nature of war. They contended that these emerging technologies and “information dominance” would eliminate “friction” and the “fog of war,” providing the commander and his subordinates with nearly perfect situational awareness.
Toward the end of the decade, the phrase “RMA” gave way to “transformation,” defined as innovation on a grand scale predicated on the RMA-inspired belief that war was changing. During the 2000 election, candidate George W. Bush adopted many of the tenets of this argument, calling for “skipping a generation of weapons” in order to transform the U.S. military from a Cold War institution to a highly mobile, stealthy, dispersed, and electronically networked force structure.
During the first phase of the Iraq War in the spring of 2003, the promises of the transformation advocates seemed to have been fulfilled. By any standard, the performance of U.S. arms during the Iraq War was nothing short of breathtaking. But then the character of the war began to change. The toe-to-toe slugfest with Iraqi conventional forces for which the Coalition had planned gave way to a guerrilla war that came close to derailing the Coalition’s efforts. Not until the surge of 2007 and the application of a reinvigorated counterinsurgency approach would the guerrilla threat abate.
The changing character of the Iraq War led a number of commentators to argue that the Pentagon’s emphasis on technology as the basis of transformation was fundamentally flawed. One of the most influential of these was Thomas X. Hammes, who argued in his 2004 book The Sling and the Stone that the emphasis on high-tech warfare prevented the U.S. military from adapting to a style of warfare in which guerrillas and terrorists employ low-technology tactics to counter American strengths and exploit American vulnerabilities.
Hammes’s critique of the Pentagon’s technocentric thinking was right on the money, but he erred in calling this phenomenon “fourth-generation warfare,” and in suggesting that there was something new about wars in which our opponents rely on asymmetric, low-tech tactics and on networks of people rather than networks of state-of-the-art weapon systems. As Max Boot shows in his encyclopedic new book, Invisible Armies, the sort of war that Hammes described goes back to antiquity: Far from being the fourth generation of war, it has been a part of war from the beginning of recorded time.
Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written widely on security affairs, and has actually been on both sides of the transformation debate. In his 2002 book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, he suggested that the real “American way of war” owed at least as much to our experience with irregular warfare as to our technological advantage in conventional conflict. But in 2007’s War Made New, he seemed to reject his earlier arguments, penning what many saw as a paean to technology in war, although he acknowledged that technology alone has never been a sufficient cause of victory. Invisible Armies is closer to The Savage Wars of Peace than to War Made New.
The book’s title is taken from an account of the French experience in Spain from 1808 to 1814. In his memoirs of the Peninsular War, the Count Miot de Melito recalled that
an invisible army spread itself over nearly the whole of Spain like a net from whose meshes there was no escape for the French soldier who for a moment left his column or his garrison. Without uniforms and without weapons, apparently the guerrillos escaped easily from the column that pursued them, and it frequently happened that the troops sent out to do battle with them, passed through their midst without perceiving them.
With Invisible Armies, Boot has undertaken an ambitious project: to provide a comprehensive account of la petite guerre, or “small war”: low-intensity, irregular, asymmetric, complex, hybrid, or unconventional warfare. He acknowledges that these categories are often hard to define with precision, “but, like pornography, most analysts know them when they see them.”
The book is a long march through the ages. Boot’s narrative takes the reader from prehistoric tribal warfare to the medieval clashes between the Scots and the English, the liberal revolutions that reshaped the world over a hundred years beginning in the late 18th century, and the campaigns by Europeans and Americans to pacify native peoples in the territories acquired in pursuit of empire.
Boot then turns to the related topic of terrorism, including such often-overlooked cases as John Brown’s war on slaveholders and the efforts by the KKK to defeat Reconstruction after the Civil War. He continues with the guerrilla campaigns arising out of the two world wars, focusing on T. E. Lawrence, Orde Wingate, and Josip Tito. He concludes with chapters describing the Chinese revolution and its legacy during the decolonization struggles in Indochina, Algeria, and Malaya; left-wing guerrilla and terrorist groups since the 1950s; and the rise of Islamist groups such as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.
Taking his cue from T. E. Lawrence’s “27 Articles” (1917), which detailed the conclusions Lawrence had drawn from his time as a guerrilla leader during the Arab uprising against the Turks in World War I, Boot derives his own “twelve articles” or lessons from his narrative. For instance, he concludes that while the likelihood of an insurgency’s succeeding has improved since 1945, most of them still fail; that conventional tactics rarely work against unconventional threats; that inflicting terror in an attempt to defeat an insurgency is counterproductive; that political organizing and propaganda have become more important since the 18th century, because irregular conflict in many cases has merged with the popular struggle of people against their governments; and that guerrillas and terrorists have therefore become more successful by playing on public opinion. Legitimacy is important for both the insurgent and the counterinsurgent.
Boot is an elegant writer and his narrative, although necessarily brief, is far from superficial. But there are occasional contradictions. For instance, one of Boot’s twelve lessons is that guerrillas are most effective when operating in conjunction with conventional forces. But he treats the Vietnam War as if it were exclusively an insurgency, ignoring the conflict’s important conventional element. As the late Douglas Pike wrote in PAVN, his classic 1986 study of the People’s Army of Vietnam, both the VC and the PAVN operated in South Vietnam under the direction of the Lao Dong party in Hanoi, which followed a strategy called dau tranh (struggle). Dau tranh consisted of two operational elements: dau tranh vu trang (armed struggle) and dau tranh chinh tri (political struggle), which were envisioned as a hammer and anvil or as pincers that crush the enemy. Armed dau tranh had a strategy for “regular forces” and another for “protracted conflict.” Regular-force strategy included both high-tech and limited offensive warfare; protracted conflict included both Maoist and neo-revolutionary guerrilla warfare. Political dau tranh included dich van (action among the enemy), binh van (action among the military), and dan van (action among the people).
While U.S. forces were able to defeat regular-force dau tranh and to make inroads against protracted-struggle dau tranh, they began to deal successfully with political dau tranh only after General Creighton Abrams replaced General William Westmoreland as the overall commander of the U.S. effort in Vietnam in late 1968. Unfortunately, Abrams’s successful strategy was undone by the Congress elected in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
The American wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and the French wars in Indochina and Algeria confirm one of Boot’s most important points: Liberal democracies are at a disadvantage when fighting insurgents. Tacitus once described the Roman approach to war: “They made a wasteland and called it peace.” The Roman model is not an option for liberal democracies.
With the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most observers have concluded that the American people have lost their appetite for the sort of long wars necessary to defeat guerrillas. But observers made the same sort of argument right after Vietnam. They were wrong then; they are no doubt wrong now. That is why, despite appearances, Invisible Armies is a timely book. To modify Lenin: We may have concluded for the time being that we are not interested in counterinsurgencies, but insurgencies remain interested in us. Boot helps us understand why, despite our preferences, we will have to be prepared to confront the guerrilla threat again.
– Mr. Owens is a professor at the Naval War College and the editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a Marine-infantry veteran of the Vietnam War.