Book Review: Invisible Armies

Invisible Armies:  An Epic History Of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times To The Present, by Max Boot

There are at least two issues that one can have with reading epic histories [1] like this one.  First, one has to allot the time to read them, which can be a challenge when one has a pace of a couple of books to finish per day and lives a relatively busy life.  Additionally, how does one account for the balance of what one thinks and feels about such a volume as this one where there is inevitably some level of disagreement but also a considerable amount of respect for the obvious achievement of such a sprawling text.  There are about 600 pages of readable material in this book, including an appendix that gives a look at the guerrilla conflicts known to history over the course of human history and their outcome.  One thing I greatly appreciate about this book is the way the author is totally open about his agenda in writing this book, and spells out his points and his perspective openly, something I can get behind.  In reading this book one does not have to worry about ulterior motives because the author’s agenda is both sensible and reasonable as well as transparently obvious, which are qualities I definitely appreciate.

The book’s contents definitely deserve the overused term epic to describe them.  The author takes an in-depth look at five thousand years of guerrilla history from its beginnings in the empire of Sargon the Great and his successors to contemporary conflicts.  This book is divided into eight smaller “books” with a total of 64 chapters.  Here goes:  The author begins with the origins of guerilla warfare (I), with essays the Jewish revolt of 66-70AD (1), guerrilla warfare in classical conflicts (2), tribal wars of self-destruction (3), the origins of insurgency in Akkad (4), asymmetric warfare between the Persians and Scythians (5), the origins of counterinsurgency in Assyria and Rome (6), Rome’s downfall due to barbarian invasions (7), refutations of guerrilla warfare as a quintessentially Eastern way of war (8), warfare between the Xiongnu and Han (9), an examination of the guerilla paradox (10), a look at Scottish versus English warfare (11), and the advantage counterinsurgents face because of preservation of historical memory (12).  After this the author looks at the rise of liberal revolutionaries (II) with a discussion of colonial and European irregulars (13), guerrilla warfare during the American Revolution (14), the Peninsular War (15), the Haitian War of Independence (16), the Greek War of Independence (17), Garibaldi’s role in Italian Unification (18), and the liberal achievement in adding the angle of international pressure to guerrilla warfare (19).  After this the author looks at the wars of imperialism (III) and discusses the many guerrilla wars that weren’t during this period (20) as well as the forest wars against native Americans (21), the winning of the West against plains Indians (22), the Chechen and Dagestani holy war against Russian expansion (23), the first Anglo-Afghan War (24), the Pashtun insurgency in the Northwest frontier of Pakistan (25), winning hearts and minds in French Morocco (26), the Boer War (27), and the way that imperialism was often self-defeating (28).  After this the author discusses the first age of international terrorism (IV) with a look at the medieval Assassins (29), John Brown of Civil War fame (30), the successful effort of Southern whites to end reconstruction (31), anarchist anarchy (32), Russian nihilists (33), Russian socialist revolutionaries (34), Irish revolutionaries (35), and a look at the terrorist mind (36).  The author then covers guerrilla and commando sideshows during the World Wars (V) like European efforts during the so-called “thirty years war” (37), Lawrence of Arabia (38), British special forces (39), Wingate’s wars (40), Yugoslavian resistance in World War II (41), and the difference that “supersoldiers” made (42).  The author moves on to the wars of national liberation after World War II (VI) with an examination of the slipping European grip over the world (43), the rise of Communist China (44), the end of French Indochina at Dien Bien Phu (45), the Algerian War of Independence (46), the successful efforts against the Malayan Emergency (47), and a look at occasional British success in counterinsurgency (48).  The author takes a harsh look at the romance of leftist revolutionaries (VII) with a discussion of guerrilla mystique (49), the Quiet American’s success against the Huk Rebellion (50), the Quiet American in South Vietnam (51), limitations of firepower in Vietnam (52), Castro’s comeback in Cuba (53), loco focos in Bolivia (54), the raid on Entebbe and terrorism in the 70’s (55), Arafat’s mixed record (56), and the end of Marxist romances in the 1980’s (57).  Finally, the author turns to the rise of radical Islam (VIII) with a discussion of the end of 1979 (58), Russia’s Afghan adventure (59), the Lebanon problem (60), Al Qaeda (61), Al Qaeda in Iraq (62), Patraeus’ surge (63), and the mixed record of the Islamist insurgency (64), after which the author gives a lengthy and detailed appendix showing guerrilla attempts and their success rate.

There are at least a few massive takeaways of considerable importance that one can gain from this massive book.  For one, the author makes it pretty clear that guerrilla warfare is not a quintessentially “Eastern” or “non-Western” way of war but that there is a clear set of preferences that all states or would-be states have for warfare where the stronger prefer conventional warfare, the weaker fight as guerrillas because they must, and those who cannot fight even as guerrillas resort to terrorism. Additionally, the author takes a great deal of time and attention to examine what is necessary to win as a counterinsurgent by gaining legitimacy and combining targeted rather than indiscriminate violence against terrorists or insurgents with efforts at building up states and infrastructure and demonstrating to others that supporting them is clearly supporting the winning side.  Given the disproportionate strength of the contemporary American military, this sort of warfare isn’t going away anytime soon, and so since we are going to be engaged in counterinsurgency we had better be prepared to win it consistently and well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: Invisible Armies

  1. Pingback: Book Review: American Encounters | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Western Way Of War | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review:Wars Of The Ancient Greeks | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s