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Invisible Armies

Posted on Feb 19, 2013

By Gerard DeGroot

“Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present”
A book by Max Boot

I first encountered the concept of guerrilla warfare back in 1964. Friends of my parents had dropped over for coffee. Pleasant banter quickly turned ugly when the subject of Vietnam arose. No one seemed to understand why such a small problem was vexing mighty America. Someone questioned why the United States needed to fight that war. Someone else mentioned that the Vietnamese were guerrillas and no one could find them. One particularly belligerent neighbor—a fan of Barry Goldwater—argued at maximum volume that the solution was surely the atomic bomb.

In retrospect, that little incident perfectly encapsulates the sense of helplessness that Americans have felt when it comes to guerrilla warfare. Since 1945, the American record in guerrilla wars has been bleak, as failures in Laos, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan attest. Americans have struggled to understand their misfortune. How is it possible that the greatest military power the world has ever seen, presumably with right on its side, has repeatedly been stymied by small bands of poorly equipped insurgents?

Max Boot addresses this conundrum with an “epic history” of guerrilla warfare. “Invisible Armies” is a magisterial account of insurgency and counterinsurgency across the ages, peppered with fascinating personalities like Robert the Bruce, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Che Guevara, Edward Lansdale, Osama bin Laden and David Petraeus. Out of narrative emerges cogent analysis: The author offers important insights relevant to any modern power faced with a guerrilla opponent. Hard lessons are, however, delivered with elegant prose. Leaving aside what “Invisible Armies” teaches us, this is a wonderful read.

book cover


Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present

By Max Boot


Liveright Publishing Corporation, 750 pages


Buy the book

A common misconception among great powers is that guerrilla warfare is unusual, thus explaining the woeful lack of preparation for it. Boot, however, shows that the guerrilla is as old as warfare itself. Forces that cannot hope to win on the conventional battlefield choose instead an indirect approach, wearing down their enemies through stealth, cleverness and patience.

Ho Chi Minh saw it as a contest between a tiger and an elephant. “If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges by night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death.”

The elephant, certain of his might, often responds by charging into the jungle, crushing everything in his path. A frustrating irony arises: Success in counterinsurgency is often inversely proportionate to the force applied. As Americans have repeatedly discovered, suffering radicalizes otherwise uninvolved civilians. An insurgency is like the Lernaean Hydra: Any attempt to decapitate it creates additional guerrillas.

Boot offers 12 lessons derived from 5,000 years of guerrilla warfare. A few are particularly germane. For instance, a guerrilla operation is more likely to succeed if it has outside support. The American revolution proved that, as did Vietnam and the Russian failure in Afghanistan. More recently, Iraqi and Afghan rebels have received help from outside. Addressing that problem, however, implies an unacceptable widening of the war.

To see long excerpts from “Invisible Armies” at Google Books, click here.

Secondly, the best guerrillas are adept at publicity. As Boot points out, the Americans have been notoriously bad at the war of words. Granted, it is difficult for any invader to convince those on the ground that his intent is noble. The United States has also failed, however, to convince Americans at home that the struggle is worthy of the sacrifice.

This is related to a third important lesson: the need for patience. Ho Chi Minh was prepared to struggle for decades; Muslim insurgents talk of fighting for centuries. Americans, on the other hand, expect quick results, which are always unlikely in a guerrilla war.

Finally, and most important, conventional tactics do not work against a guerrilla enemy. Gen. George Decker, army chief of staff from 1960 to ’62, stubbornly maintained that “any good soldier can handle guerrillas.” That attitude is quite typical. American senior commanders often reason that there’s little point teaching specialist counterinsurgency skills since guerrilla war is unusual.

The failure to absorb these lessons explains American setbacks. Boot insists, though, that defeat is not inevitable. By his calculation, the guerrilla wins only around 20 percent of the time. His figures are somewhat misleading, given that he includes victories over pathetic terrorist organizations like the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, which have no place in this book. Leave those contests out of the calculation and counterinsurgency emerges as a difficult and often futile endeavor. Failures result when strong and confident powers underestimate their enemies’ will to succeed. Right and might do not inevitably prevail.


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