Thursday, August 1, 2013

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot

Invisible armies *are* the regular armies. That's not an attempt at cheek; that's from the author himself, both in the beginning chapters of the book and from his Twelve Articles at the end. If most conflicts aren't guerilla warfare (the concept is only 5000 or so years old) or terrorism (which wasn't fully developed until the 19th century), most wars aren't fought by conventional state-run armies. If anything is irregular, it would be those engagements.

Over 550 pages, Boot provides a thorough overview of not only how guerilla and terrorist techniques evolved and where they were used, but why some such engagements are going to be more successful than others. Throughout the volume, the book makes clear the tension inherent in guerilla insurgent warfare: it is the preferred method of the weak adversary, and it's dependent on avoiding being drawn into the kind of conventional battles guerillas are unable to handle. Such warfare is a war of attrition. However, while it can be successful against a conventional enemy (particularly if guerillas can spin media communications against their enemy), the already weaker side has more to lose and usually can't afford the losses they incur over an extended period of time. Although not the rule, most such engagements will be more successful if they receive outside help. (Surprisingly, Boot makes a convincing argument that Mao falls into this category.


Although frequently coupled with guerilla insurgency, terrorism is a different animal. While it doesn't coalesce in the popular imagination until the Anarchists of the 1880s, it was actually pioneered in the United States, both before the Civil War (John Brown at Harper's Ferry) and after (the Ku Klux Klan). From the start, terrorist operations have been successful when they have shaped the narrative; in general, terrorists aren't going to be successful at winning wars outright. While they're seen by many as having enjoyed incredible success since the 1970s, much of that is due to their ability to manipulate the popular media. Further, there has been a disturbing tendency of many terrorist groups to overreach, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. To paraphrase a quote from the book, terrorism is theater and you want to minimize the dead; personally involving too much of the audience will turn them away from the cause quickly.

One of the longer books I've read for review, it flows pretty quickly over about 65 chapters. His scope is extensive, but most of his chapters are short vignettes about various military (or paramilitary) engagements as well as the circumstances leading up to it; it doesn't presume an expertise in any theory of warfare or history. Having said that, I would recommend the last few chapters to anyone who wanted a brief overview of the post-9/11 wars the US became entrenched in.

Recommended for anyone interested in military history and current events.

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