Somewhere in the Pentagon, one would have thought there was a three-ring binder, among many, on whose spine was written with a black marker: “Vietnam War: Lessons Learned”. Apparently no such binders existed, or if they did, were just forgotten about in 2002 as pundits in Washington puffed their chests up, readying for a good old-fashioned land war in Iraq, just like their dads thought they remembered. It was supposed to be like the Gulf War all over again; none of this penny-ante running around in the bush and getting sniped at; but a real, honest-to-God war like everybody had been told was just and proper. Two standing armies going at it in plain sight on the field of battle, with one clear victor at the end.
The problem with this scenario is that the anti-climactic small-scale bloodshed of post-invasion Iraq was much closer to the norm for human conflict than the grand mass butcheries of World War II’s European theater. You could sense the quick deflation in the Pentagon as the armored assault slashed through Saddam Hussein’s outmaneuvered divisions of draftees in 2003, only to watch their textbook victory collapse when the fedayeen just forgot they were supposed to be defeated and started bombing everything in sight.
This happened in part because Gen. Tommy Franks’ planners and the Green Zone bubble-dwellers arrogantly ignored every single precept that had been known for centuries about fighting guerrillas. It took (re)innovators like counterinsurgency advocate Gen. David Petraeus to remind everybody of all the old lessons—protect the civilian population, don’t overemphasize firepower, forget about winning a quick victory and dig in for the long haul—that the Pentagon should have known before the first cruise missile hit Saddam’s palace. And even he didn’t get it quite right when shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Small bands of lightly equipped irregular warriors had been running rings around elephantine armies for centuries. This should be clear to even the casual student of military history. But writers of those texts are often afflicted with the same romanticisms that shove insurgent conflicts aside in favor of “real” wars (those more easily studied, with maps and arrows showing lines of movement and assault); it can take a writer with clearer vision to set the record straight.
Max Boot’s brash and eye-opening Invisible Armies is not the book one would expect from a writer whose byline frequently sits underneath op-eds toeing a seemingly neo-con-ish line on national security. In this grand survey of what one could term irregular warfare, spanning from the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 AD and earlier to the present day, Boot shows that a good reading of the historical record leaves little room for old stereotypes. He has no truck with the romantic heavy-breathing that writers of his ilk can slip into when talking about generals and battles. He also doesn’t waste time in this book repeating the old army-groupie saw about how some particular war might have been won if only the media/politicians/concerned civilians had just gotten out of the way and let the guys with guns take care of the problem.
Boot shows how everywhere from France’s Algerian conflict to America’s Vietnam War and the PLO’s campaign against Israel, media wasn’t a beside-the-point aspect of war, it was essential. Once public opinion began mattering to democratic governments, ignoring how things played in the media was just bad tactics. Not that that stopped the generals of mighty militaries bested by guerrillas from complaining that their opponents didn’t play by the rules, whether it was using publicity or not standing still long enough to fight them. Boot illustrates how famous insurgents from ancient Israel’s King David to Lawrence of Arabia, the IRA’s Michael Collins, and the Northern Alliance’s Ahmad Shah Massoud had shown that a shot in the dark and a swift retreat could wear down the world’s best-trained and best-equipped armies.
But while Boot describes how many of these campaigners took the field against incredible odds, he doesn’t overplay the abilities of guerrilla fighters. Military thinkers can follow fads like any other, and one dominant fad in the post-Petraeus era has been the valorization of small-unit special forces and their irregular like, above all other combatants. Boot notes that prior to 1945, guerrillas tended to be underestimated by larger militaries, resulting in embarrassing defeats or near-defeats for the British Empire in the American Revolution and the Boer War.
Since the end of World War II, however, the prowess of guerrillas (while usually still disparaged) has often been overestimated. One of his best chapters—in a book that strangely ignores much of the fractious conflict that’s plagued Central and South America—explains how the myth of Castro and Che Guevara’s victory quickly overtook reality. (Cuban dictator Batista’s army was one of the most pathetic ever fielded, and Che’s vaunted prowess was soon undone by reality in his misguided Congo and Bolivian campaigns, both utter failures.)
Though weighing in at just under 600 pages (over 100 more taken up with index, notes, and a fearsome but invaluable bibliography), Invisible Armies is a fast and furious read, knocked out with the casual erudition of a scholar who had studied and considered his subject to such an extent that he has lost the need to show off what he’s learned. Boot’s arguments are crisply made and strongly distilled; to the point where there are places (surprisingly, for a work of such length) where he could have actually stood to dish up a few more servings of background information.
Each chapter here stands as a superb and colorful summation of a particular conflict, in particular the essays on the Irish uprising of the early 20th century (Boot comes closest to showing admiration for a guerrilla leader in the dashing Michael Collins) and the rise of the Chinese Communists (Boot’s take on Mao Tse-tung is that of a particularly vile and cretinous figure who was nevertheless an early master of public relations).
In what could have been a dry textbook, Boot writes with the elan of somebody used to holding readers’ attentions in short and opinionated essays. Thusly the book is littered with colorful splashes of description, from his thumbnail characterizations of the many larger-than-life figures striding through these pages, but also some stranger details. Typical is an aside from a piece on the British “Chindit” insurgent campaign against the Japanese in Burma during World War II, where Boot tells how “the RAF even dropped spare kilts, false teeth, and monocles as needed” to their men.
What Boot comes back to over and over again, whether discussing al-Qaeda (successful in the short term by drawing the US into bloody quagmires but wholly ineffective in their broader goal of reestablishing a conservative caliphate) or how guerrilla warfare (“a lifestyle that has always come with great hardships”) is a weapon of the weak against the strong, is “the importance of studying military history and of not relying on historical myths.”
In other words, the next time one goes to war, take notes, and remember where you keep them.