Book Review: Invisible Armies

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Presentinvisible armiesBy Max BootLiveright, 2013 Insufferable journalist Max Boot’s 2002 book Savage Wars of Peace may have been a touch unfair to William Howard Taft, but it was fair enough to Stephen Decatur – and wonderfully readable into the bargain. That readability is the primary skill most hacks acquire almost ab ovo, for understandable if lamentable reasons, and it doesn’t desert Boot in his monumental new work Invisible Armies, which purports to retail the history of guerrilla warfare throughout human history. The book and bibliography combined are some 700 pages, but it won’t be just history fans who’ll eagerly keep turning the pages. Boot is a first-rate storyteller – the sheer narrative zest of this book would hook just about anybody. Certainly in its broadest sense the subject lies at the heart of our times, like a tumor. Boot’s readers live in an age that has left formal, full-dress warfare behind, possibly forever. Ranks of soldiers advancing under fire from opposing ranks of soldiers, signal corps working frantically, generals shouting orders above the mortar fire, brave hospital workers creeping out under a truce to collect the wounded – these things in fact vanished only very recently (and not entirely), but in the glare of sniper fire, car bombs, and drone attacks, they already feel as remote as the Romans versus Hannibal. Modern warfare has become an exponent of the most brutal opportunism imaginable, or else it enlists that opportunism as its servant. Naturally, Hannibal crops up in Boot’s survey, as do all the other usual suspects (anarchists, the IRA, Castro), but our author is sensible enough to know that in a book like this, we must first define our terms. Here’s his on terrorism: 

For the purposes of this book, terrorism describes the use of violence by nonstate actors directed primarily against noncombatants (mostly civilians but also including government officials, policemen, and off-duty soldiers) in order to intimidate or coerce them and change their government’s policies or composition. Typically, the political or psychological effect desired by terrorists is out of all proportion to the actual destruction they inflict.

 Which is not the same thing as guerrilla warfare, we’re told, which is described as “the use of hit-and-run tactics by an armed group directed primarily against a government and its security forces for political or religious reasons. Bandits in search of nothing more than lucre are excluded; they are usually not interested in shaking up the established order, just profiting from it." To clarify: 

Guerrillas often try to hold territory, however briefly; terrorists do not. Guerrilla armies often number in the tens of thousands; most terrorist organizations have never had more than a few hundred adherents. Guerrillas usually limit their operations to a well-recognized war zone; terrorists focus their attacks on the home front where no formal state of war exists. Guerrillas seek to physically defeat or at least wear down the enemy; terrorists hope with a few spectacular attacks to trigger a revolution.

 Needless to point out, these definitions leave plenty of room to move around, otherwise Invisible Armies would be a whole lot shorter. But regardless of their differing aims and tactics, the two groups have one thing in common: “ Whatever you call them, fighters resort to terrorist or guerrilla tactics for one reason only: they are too weak to employ conventional methods.” The conceptual danger is obvious here: the category shares the limitation, but the limitation doesn’t define the category. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like Che Guevara. It’s not crippling, mainly because the ‘epic history’ tag of the book is just a wink in the Pulitzer Committee’s general direction. If you’re already talking about Garibaldi on page 100 of your book, you might very well be writing a highly detailed monograph, but you sure as hell aren’t writing an epic history. What Boot is really doing here – and it would have been nice if he’d just presented it straight, without feeling the need to don a tweed jacket and show us a picture of, who was it again, Sargon of Akkad – is writing a history of drastically unequal combat in the 20th and early 21st centuries. He can be very entertaining on any subject, naturally, even when he’s re-inventing the wheel: 

What gets overlooked in most accounts of the American Revolution is that even after Yorktown the British could have continued fighting. They had lost only eight thousand men. Their remaining troops in North America, more than thirty-four thousand strong, still outnumbered the combined Franco-American forces, and more could always have been raised from a British population of twelve million or purchased from the German states that had already provided so much manpower. If the Americans had been resisting the Roman Empire, there is little doubt that a fresh army would have been raised and George Washington and other leading insurgents would have been crucified.

 But his real focus is proximal, even personal: a book about guerrilla warfare that so nearly associates it with terrorism might try to be epic and global, but the whole time, it’ll be glancing reflexively at lower Manhattan. There are many embattled heroes in these pages, but it’s hard to escape the impression that there’s only one villain:

Bin Laden became convinced that the United States was a “paper tiger,” effeminate and cowardly a foe that could be brought low with a few sharp blows. He decided to make the “far enemy” – the United States – the focus of Al Qaeda attacks, sure that once its power had been broken, “all the components of the existing Arab and Islamic regimes will fall as well,” and then he would be able to establish a fundamentalist caliphate across the Middle East. This turned out to be a gross strategic miscalculation. Bin Laden exaggerated the extent to which the United States propped up “apostate” regimes in the Middle East; they were kept in power more by their secret police than by their alliances with the United States. Notwithtstanding the failure of earlier Islamist uprisings, he would have been better advised to fight Arab regimes directly without provoking the United States. That approach worked for the Islamists who took over Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan in violent upheavals and, via the electoral process, Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt. But Bin Laden had bigger horizons and less awareness of his own limits. A combination of shrewdness and hubris led him to stage the most deadly terrorist attack of all time.

 That kind of wonderfully sharp thinking (and fleet prose) is scattered throughout Invisible Armies, but it’s mostly back-ended to the chapters covering everything from the Reagan administration to the present day. The book is guilty of sloppy categorizing and has some truly bizarre elisions (even in a book this long, tough choices need to be made – but still: dozens and dozens of pages on the explicitly off-topic matter of torture, for example, and not one on Cochise?), but when it’s dealing with both guerrilla warfare and terrorism that its brainy author personally remembers, it positively glows with engagement. Because you can take the journalist out of the newsroom (and, in this case, install him in a government sinecure and pump him full of pretension until he needs a “research associate” to order his sandwich at lunch time) but you can never completely take the newsroom out of the journalist, Boot feels no shame in providing his own blurb: “My goal has been to pen an account that is as engrossing as it is instructive.” The second part is the dream of every reformed hack on the planet – but he’s succeeded beyond all doubt with the first part.