Small Wars Journal

Book Review: Invisible Armies

SWJ and personal friend Gian Gentile reviews Max Boot's latest book (Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present) at the New York Journal of Books.

In an interview shortly after the publication of his book Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, Max Boot claimed that he did not make a “particular point” in the book, but aimed “simply to tell a story that has never been well told before.”

After reading Invisible Armies, however, it is hard to take Mr. Boot’s remarks in this interview seriously...


Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 9:26am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

A guest poster at Best Defense gets at some of the questions I posed in my previous comment:

<blockquote>1. If COIN is 80 percent political, then the political construct is most important. French and British in Algeria and Malaya were conquerors with political and military control over the place for 124 years (ironic) before their insurgencies began. Please talk about expeditionary COIN. Russia in Afghanistan, U.S. Afghanistan, U.S. Vietnam, U.S. Iraq. Where else? The United States in the Philippines 1898-1913 was the Malaya example because we owned the place. Mixing up political contexts = fail.</blockquote>

Also, in my previous comment, I was thinking of the Khalistan movement of the 80's as it played out among various Indian diaspora abroad, in the UK, in Canada, in the US, etc. Some groups were much more vocal about their support and, to be honest, it was sometimes intimidating to others interested in peaceful solutions or who didn't support the movement. I had the feeling that outsiders to the ethnic communities bonded with one faction over the other (confused thoughts of a then-teenager, don't know if accurate) and developed quite a chip on my shoulder toward some human rights campaigners and academics. It wasn't really thought out, just a generic feeling of fear and distrust, as in, how easy it is to suggest breaking up a country from abroad, when you live safely in peace and comfort!

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 01/29/2013 - 12:45pm

<blockquote>The Army needs a better and more complete operational doctrine for counterinsurgency, one that is less ideological, less driven by think tanks and experts, less influenced by a few clever books and doctoral dissertations on COIN, and less shaped by an artificial history of counterinsurgency. When will the Army undertake a serious revision of this incomplete and misleading doctrine for counterinsurgency?</blockquote>

Wait, I'm confused. I understand the point about strategy made in the book review but I had hoped there might be some more discussion on other ways in which to counter an insurgency or deal with stability operations. I thought that was one of the criticisms too, not just about strategy, but tactics as well in terms of operational doctrine? What am I missing?

Again, I had hoped books like Invisible Armies (and I haven't read the book and can't tell from the review, maybe I missed it?) would look to some of the insurgencies in Asia in order to reflect (not simply to copy tactics) on the succor granted insurgencies based on complicated regional dynamics between many, many, many nations jostling for influence in that region, black globalization, and the emotional safe havens of a far flung diaspora animated by personal histories, nationalism, how to "be" in a modern setting, position within society as immigrants, and, yes, religious ideologies. Within this context, what does expeditionary population centric counterinsurgency mean? I mean that as an open-ended question, I really don't know.


Tue, 01/29/2013 - 10:22am

"Never mind whether or not American strategy and security interests in the world demand fighting such wars. Instead for Mr. Boot simply because they have been fought in the past, America should keep fighting them in the future."

With all due respect to Colonel Gentile (and to Mr. Boot, for that matter), it seems reasonable to surmise that because guerrilla warfare is both ancient and omnipresent, American troops should at the very least be prepared to fight across the full spectrum of warfare, should our strategic interests require us to pursue policies by prosecuting small wars. As sympathetic as I am to Colonel Gentile's sentiment that focusing on counterinsurgency risks a departure from other, more conventional forms of warfare that American forces have traditionally excelled at, this idea that we can pick and choose what types of warfare we engage in, or that fighting guerrillas will be contrary to American security interests in all cases, is simply absurd. It's the same argument that was made after Vietnam: "That was really hard, and we aren't really satisfied with our results, so our solution is to plan not to do it anymore." That's remarkably wishful thinking. As Colin Gray points out in his 1999 book Modern Strategy:

"The domain of strategic effect, purposeful or otherwise, is not confined to 'civilized', as contrasted with 'savage', warfare. There are two principal errors to avoid. The first is to regard the realm of real war and 'real soldiering' as coterminous with symmetrical conflict, at least as roughly identical to the experience of regular forces fighting regular forces. This error can promote the idea that 'small wars', in Callwell's meaning, are irrelevant, perhaps dangerously irrelevant, diversions from the mainstream requirement to prepare for real war (i.e. grande guerre). Armed forces that decline to take small wars seriously as a military art form with their own tactical, operational, and political - though not strategic - rules invite defeat. The second error is to regard small wars and other forms of savage violence as the wars of the future that will largely supplant the allegedly old-fashioned state-centric 'regular' wars of a Westphalian world. There are some grounds for identifying a contemporary 'transformation of war' that favours irregular forces and violence, just as there are some grounds for claiming that the state, at least in the forms promoted by Westphalia, is in sharp decline, even if it is not quite ready to fall."

Vitesse et Puissance

Tue, 01/29/2013 - 2:03pm

In reply to by Bill M.

In many ways, Max Boot is this decade's B.H. Liddell Hart - except that he has no military experience (much less combat experience) and no theory. far as I can tell, he pretty much follows along with the trends in military thought currently in-vogue among the elite circles with which he runs. I mean, in some ways, it is nice to see a pundit defending Army end strength, even if his assumptions are all wrong and his logic distorted. Likewise, it would be of some value to introduce Max Boot I (RMA Max) to Max Boot II (COIN Max). Yeah, that might be an unacceptable breach in the space-time continuum, but the resulting synthesis might be a step in the right direction. Which leads to a theoretical question.

How many boots does one, in fact, need to have on the ground to achieve success in counterinsurgency ? Since Mr. Boot is apparently making the rounds hawking his book, there may actually be the chance to pose this question directly to him. Let me suggest a simple algorithm to kick off the discussion:

(1) Take the dimensions of the territory to be stabilized, in square kilometers
(2) Divide the population of the territory into the (1)
(3) Divide by the number of ground troops committed to the counterinsurgency operation, minus defections and desertions.
(4) What is the resulting ratio ? Does it change over time ? How does technological capabiity (mobility, firepower, sensing, communications) affect the threshhold necessary for success.

If one can solve the algorithm using the contents of Boot's book, he wins. If not, he loses.

Bill M.

Mon, 01/28/2013 - 11:58pm

I suspect Boot's new book may have some flaws and more than likely is biased like most texts on insurgencies or on history period. I am disappointed though that Gian used this review to push his own bias by once again attacking GEN Petraeus's strategy in Iraq and then championing GEN Westmoreland.

I'm normally not a fan of Boot's books, and after listening to him on a couple of CSPAN shows discussing his book he lost a lot of credibility with me when he dismissed the possibility of future state on state war (of course, that could undermine how many copies he sales), but putting that to the side he still made some interesting observations on the evolution of unconventional warfare that convinced me to eventually read his book. Hopefully we can all learn from those we often disagree with. In fact it is hard to expand our mind if you don't read and seriously consider the opinions of those who challenge your beliefs.