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.