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An insightful look at guerilla warfare

bookSince the Second World War, Americans have lived by the old dictum that only the dead have seen the end of war. For almost 70 years we have served as the world’s policeman, opposing the Soviet Union in a cold war, communism in Korea and Vietnam in hot wars, and a variety of fanatics, terrorists, and dictators in wars hot and cold. We fought to a stalemate in Korea, lost in Vietnam, won the Cold War, and won — at least militarily — the battles of the Middle East. Our armed services remain the most battle-tested in the world, and we spend far more on these services than any other country. (A good part of this spending, incidentally, is for veterans’ entitlements). 


Even taking into account those cuts which must surely come to our military budgets, the United States will for years remain the world’s strongest nation in terms of military might. Given our propensity for sending our military into foreign conflicts, some of which have little to do with our national security, it is likely that the next few generations of Americans will continue to fight wars around the world. That world is, after all, a bumptious place, and we will likely carom about the globe as we have so often done, putting a finger in the dike here, slapping some duct-tape on a conflict there. In short, neither we nor our grandchildren have seen the end of war.

Since many of these wars will be small, fought against terrorists or guerillas, it behooves us to study the conflicts of the past and bring the lessons learned into the present. In Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (ISBN 978-0-87140-424-4, $35), writer Max Boot gives us a rich history of guerilla warfare, a history in which he examines leaders, tactics, and successes and failures. 

Boot, who is the author of The Savage Wars of Peace and the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, ranges in this fascinating study from Ancient Rome to modern-day Afghanistan. He follows the development of guerilla warfare and counterinsurgency in chronological fashion, with the great bulk of this 700-page tome given over to the conflicts of the last 200 years, the age which witnessed the sophisticated development of brushfire wars and terrorism. Boot examines leaders as familiar as T.E. Lawrence, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara, but also introduces figures who may be unfamiliar to us, guerillas and those who fight them, a collection of idealists, fanatics, and eccentrics who have a good deal to teach modern warriors.

Boot is particularly adept at giving us thumbnail sketches of these often-unusual combatants. There was, for example, Orde Charles Wingate, an Englishman who became the Second World War’s “equivalent to his distant relative T.E. Lawrence.” Being reared in a strict household left Wingate with a life-long aversion to authority (Why he decided to attend the Royal Military Academy Boot does not explain. It seems an odd choice of career for someone who disliked being told what to do). 

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Wingate was an eccentric — he chewed onions, for example, the way most of us chew apples, and often was openly contemptuous of his superiors — but he was a brilliant commander who led British and Zionist troops against Palestinian rebels in the 1930s. Later he helped destroy the Italian army in Ethiopia in 1941 with a small number of guerillas, and then developed in the fight against the Japanese in Burma the idea of “long-range penetration operations,” in which his troops, later mishandled by American general Joe Stilwell, struck deep behind Japanese lines. Killed in a plane crash in 1944, Wingate didn’t live to see the outcome of this operation.

In addition to these well-written mini-biographies, Boot also gives us much to contemplate in the successes and failures of such wars. Some readers will be surprised, as I was, to learn that more guerilla fighters fail more often than they succeed in their battle for power. In both his Epilogue and in the following chapter titled “Implications: Twelve Articles, or the Lessons of Five Thousand Years,” Boot includes some important conclusions to Invisible Armies, conclusions which most of us would hope that our generals and diplomats will study in great depth. 

Boot shows us, for example, the importance of winning public opinion for or against the guerillas, especially in the last 200 years when technology has brought us close to the news from around the world. He demonstrates that patience can either win or lose a war by counter-insurgents, that “guerilla warfare is not the ‘Eastern Way of War’; it is the war of the weak,” and that winning the war by either the insurgents or their opponents depends on winning the local population. 

Invisible Armies is a book that belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in military history, in the conflicts of the last 50 years, or in the future of warfare. Well-written and entertaining, this book also offers both a plan of battle against such terrorist groups as the Taliban while again reminding us of the costs and demands of such battles.

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