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

de Max Boot

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A complete global history of guerrilla uprisings through the ages.
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A fascinating history of guerrilla warfare from, well, ancient times to the present. With that kind of scope, the book is shallow in places in spite of being massive (567 pages, not including appendices, index, and bibliography.) It's also bound to be controversial, if only because there is so much controversy over insurgency and counterinsurgency generally. Not that Boot hasn't expressed some strong opinions that will doubtless fuel the fire.

In the spirit of "bass ackwards" that governs so much of what I do any more, I'm going to start with Boot's "Implications" from the very end of the book:

Guerrilla warfare has been ubiquitous and important throughout history.
Guerrilla warfare is not an "Easter Way of War"; it is the universal war of the weak.
Guerrilla warfare has been both underestimated and overestimated.
Insugencies have been getting more successful since 1945 but still lost most of the time.
The most important development in guerrilla warfare in the last two hundred years has been the rise of public opinion.
Conventional tactics don't work against an unconventional threat.
Few counterinsurgents have ever succeeded in by inflicting mass terror -- at least in foreign lands.
Population-centric counterinsurgency is often successful, but it's not as touchy-feely as commonly supposed.
Establishing legitimacy is vital for any successful insurgency or counterinsurgency -- and, in modern times, that is hard to achieve for a foreign group or government.
Most insurgencies are long-lasting; attempts to win a quick victory backfire.
Guerrillas are most effective when able to operate with outside support -- especially with conventional army units.
Technology has been less important in guerrilla war than in conventional war -- but that may be changing.

Gonna go over a couple of these in a minute, but first a couple of general observations about the book. I had to go to the Internet to see if I was correctly judging where Boot was coming from, and I'm still not sure I'm sure. There's a lot of "raving Fascist right-wing neocon Jew-loving" type fulmination against Boot, which I find curious, given that he does not seem to think much of George Bush, talks a lot about Jewish terrorism, and is rather critical of some Israeli policies. I'm guessing the reasoning is that Boot is very much of the realpolitik school; Kissinger was also a political science of the realpolitik school; ergo, Boot must be right-wing and pro-Israel.

The writing style is quite good, and the organization (into books divided into a substantial number of bite-sized small chapters) makes reading something this lengthy much more palatable. I learned a lot I didn't know about the most ancient guerrillas and the most modern guerrillas. The book was a bit light on the American Civil War, but there was a chapter on John Brown, who Boot evaluates as a rotten guerrilla leader but a highly successful terrorist. The book on the world wars had sections on T.E. Lawrence and Wingate that invite comparisons between the men; except T.E. Lawrence was mostly successful and Wingate was mostly not.T.E. Lawrence was decidedly eccentric; Wingate was bat feces crazy. There is also quite a bit on Mao; Boot rejects the more extreme claims of Chang and Halliday, but is no fan of Mao, except in the sense that he admires his stunning success as a guerrilla leader.

The modern stuff includes just about every significant insurgency you can think of. Malaya, First and Second Indochina Wars, Mau Mau, Cuba, Ireland, and sundry others less well known. Boot holds up Malaya as the model counterinsurgency; well, so does just about everyone else.I already knew Johnston micromanaged Vietnam and Westmoreland was utterly incompetent; Boot corrected this slightly by pointing out that Johnston only really micromanaged the air war, leaving Westmoreland to make a mess of the land campaign all by himself. Boot points out that some winning strategies were in place, had anyone been willing to listen to the unconventional Landsdale, but Westmoreland always regarded them as a distracting sideshow when they ought to have been the main event. Nevertheless, Boot does not claim Vietnam was "winnable"; the guerrillas had substantial outside support and a lot of legitimacy, which would have made Vietnam a hard slog even had it been done "right."

The things most likely to draw controversy are Boot's views on very ancient warfare and on Iraq. The former involves a claim that guerrilla warfare is essentially the modern descendent of early tribal warfare, which he portrays as internecine surprise raids in which quarter was neither given nor taken. He quotes estimates that tribal societies lost 0.5% of their population in combat every year. I suspect he may be right, at least about many early human tribes, but I also suspect this is so contrary to the "noble savage" view that it's going to give a lot of people kittens.

On Iraq, Boot argues that Rumsfeld and Co. were so anxious to avoid another Vietnam that they completely missed the true lessons of Vietnam. The nature of the conflict itself is rather different from what I've always seen in the media: The insurgency began with Sunni terrorists cynically sponsored by Shiite Iraq who sought to provoke such a response from Iraq's Shiite majority that the Sunni minority would rise up and (improbably) overthrow them. The Sunni leader, al-Zarqawi, absolutely hated and loathed Shiites, who he regarded as worse than infidels. Sure enough, the Shiites began organizing militias to defend themselves, since Rumsfeld was determined to keep the American footprint to a minimum and the Iraqi security forces just weren't up to the job. Things really were going to hell in a handbasket until the surge and Petraeus. The tipping point was when large numbers of Sunni, convinced the government would protect their rights, defected to the government side. (That could still tip back if Obama screws up. I.e., I expect it to tip back eventually.)

Boot is an unabashed admirer of Petraeus. It's hard to avoid becoming an equally unabashed admirer of Petraeus after reading Boot's chapters on Iraq. I already thought that the Obama administration was breathtakingly cynical in its treatment of Petraeus, but now I'm sure of it.

Boot wrote before the Boston Massacre. He ends on a cautiously optimistic note that al Quaeda is violating so many principles of successful guerrilla warfare that we ought to be able to defeat it, if we stick to sound principles of counterinsurgency. Myself, I agree that if we succumb to the Islamists, it will be because of our own weakness. Hence, I expect us to eventually succumb.

Getting back to the "Implications:" Some, such as the observation that guerrilla war has always been with us, seem obvious. The observation that terrorism doesn't work all that well is new, but Boot makes a good case. The observation that trying for a quick victory is almost certain to backfire applies equally to insurgents and counterinsurgents.

On balance, very thought-provoking and to be recommended. ( )
  K.G.Budge | Aug 9, 2016 |
I almost didn't check this one out from the library because the prologue made it pretty clear Mr. Boot has an arrogant, high-handed writing style -- but I was intrigued enough by the scope of his coverage of "low intensity" conflicts through the centuries and how he sought to trace the use of guerrilla tactics by overmatched insurgents to give the book a chance. Through the early chapters I found his style of giving brief highlights of conflicts interesting enough, but it felt more like of 'this happened, later that happened' and less like a coherent narrative than I would've liked. The more I read, the more I found what seemed like contradictions from one chapter to the next. One example of is how he describes the brutality of the Boer War, then in the next chapter describes it as the last "gentlemen's war" before WWI changed everything. But it sure didn't sound like a "gentlemen's war" the way he documented it. The most egregious example of his willingness to contradict himself, and the one that most clearly highlights the limitations of the ideologically blinkered mind, is how identifies the Shiite sect that produced the Assassins back in the 12th century, explains explicitly how puzzling they were to outsiders but how they're willingness to go on suicide missions was religiously motivated, and just a few pages later when talking about the rise of modern terrorist organizations talks about how "secular ideologies" are one of the four main factors giving rise to terrorist movements. One supposes he means "secularists" like the IRA, like al-Qaeda, like the Taliban, all groups we tend to think of when we imagine secular groups, right? ... crickets ... I stopped reading when he got to blaming the modern university system for producing groups of naive buffoons easily seduced by secularist ideologues into joining terrorist ranks. Boot may have some interesting observations, and I'd like to read more about the use of guerrilla tactics by the insurgent groups he writes about, but not by a fool with an axe to grind against liberalism. I'll use his references and endnotes to find other histories for conflicts I'm interested in, but I'm sending this one back unfinished. ( )
1 vota cdogzilla | Jul 8, 2013 |
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“Invisible Armies” is a magisterial account of insurgency and counterinsurgency across the ages, peppered with fascinating personalities such as 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.
The prolific journalist and military historian has taken on no less a task than presenting the "epic history of guerrilla warfare from ancient times to the present." . . . Mr. Boot's impressive work of military history is destined to be the classic account of what may be the oldest as well as the hardest form of war.
afegit per sgump | editaWall Street Journal, John Nagl (Jan 22, 2013)
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A complete global history of guerrilla uprisings through the ages.

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