Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review: “Invisible Armies” by Max Boot

Sat, 12/14/2019 - 5:00pm

SWJ Book Review: “Invisible Armies” by Max Boot

Jonathan Fagins


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

Stealth, surprise and rapid movement are a few attributes that characterize guerrilla warfare. Similar to the Afghan tribes that conquered the Soviet Army or the Spanish who aggravated Napoleon, resistance campaigns or “guerrillas” have become the model in facing stronger conventional forces. In the book Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, Max Boot provides an insightful look into conflicts where revolutionary movements and guerrilla forces out-maneuver and out-strategize conventional armies that are exceptionally larger. Boot, a Senior Fellow in National Security Studies, has authored several highly acclaimed books on military matters and past conflicts.

By definition, guerrilla warfare is a method of irregular warfare in which a group of combatants through sabotage, deception, and flexibility combat a larger conventional force. Boot analyzes conflicts and warriors who believed in the fundamentals of guerrilla warfare and unconventional warfare to fulfill political and strategic ambitions.  One warrior in particular, Major Lewis M. Merrill, sought to dethrone a highly popular terrorist group in the 1870s. 

Major Merrill, a WestPoint Graduate, who fought against the raging Ku Klux Klan in an era where intimidation and killings against slaves became problematic. In response to the Klan’s discrimination and ethical views, Major Merrill conducted a counter-insurgency campaign to eliminate the terrorist organization. Major Merrill helped establish the Ku Klux Klan Act through Congress, which abolished hateful crimes against the African-American communities in the South. He also led a Congressional investigation that prosecuted 1,355 Ku Klux Klan members in nine counties from the state of South Carolina. Major Merrill, who was not a lawyer, dismantled one of the largest terrorist organizations in the country by spreading propaganda called “the battle of the narrative.” The narrative highlighted that the victims of the post-Civil War era were the actual former slave owners and not the slaves. Boot’s analysis on how Major Merrill utilized the values of the Constitution to bring liberty to a specific group of people highlights the essence of guerilla warfare.

Boot also focuses on a number of trailblazers who led revolutions and inspired units to overthrow robust institutions.  For example, Che Guevara, who adopted the Marxist philosophy and published La Guerra de guerrillas (Guerilla Warfare), led a revolution in Latin America that still resonates around the globe. Although Boot portrays Che’s as a successful leader, he fails to mention Che’s political shortfalls in garnering the trust of his campaign. Boot also missed an opportunity to highlight Che’s fight against imperialism. The true reason why Che is used as a symbol of defiance against injustice.  Boot also fails to mention Che’s revolutionary strategy and his road to power.  Guevara’s historical formulation is better detailed in his book Guerilla Warfare that was published in 1961.

Another trailblazer who reconstructed the minds of counterinsurgency during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict is retired General David Petraeus.  Boot highlights how General Petraeus transforms the minds of the U.S. Army and policy makers in order to alter the national strategy on the battlefield. General Petraeus established the army’s doctrine of counterinsurgency (COIN) into a framework that involved influencing the local population against insurgents.  The result became the U.S Army – Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual which was published in December 2006. The main objective of COIN operations was to foster development of effective governance by both military and non-military actions.  The manual would become the most effective strategy on guerrilla warfare in the modern era. Ultimately, General Petraeus would obtain heavy criticism on his new approach of “winning the hearts and minds” and applying that template to mid-twentieth century wars. However, his strategy still resonates throughout the battlefield and has become an icon on modern warfare. In Chapter 63, Boot is brilliant at transitioning from guerilla warfare to unconventional warfare.  Boot provides a better flow of revealing how Petraeus discovered the counter-insurgency model compared to Che Guevara’s strategy. Boot also highlights his philosophy on strategy of warfare in the coming ages.

Towards the end of the book, Boot provides a compelling synopsis of how Special Warfare was conceived.  The birth of Special Forces in World War II was shaped by the German’s Brandenburg commandoes, who spoke multiple languages and conducted operations while wearing enemy uniforms.  The Allies later fielded the Special Operations Executive that was focused on sabotage and subversion tactics.  The Long-Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service (SAS) used modern inventions to keep Germans off balance during the conflict. The British and French units would establish camps behind enemy lines to launch short raids against enemy bases. Boot’s reflection of Special Warfare credits his ability to compare guerilla warfare conflicts to the “gray zone” in which Special Operations operates.

A significant figure of irregular warfare that Boot presents is a French military officer by the name of Major Marcel Bigeard. Major Bigeard led a campaign during the Indochina War (1945-1954) that comprised of French and Vietnamese soldiers against the Viet Bac. Major Bigeard’s objective was to disrupt multiple operations with small force elements. His efforts to reaffirm influence over the French colonies proved to be vital in establishing stability in the region. Although Boot highlights Major Bigeard’s strategy, little is known about the political ramifications of their mission.

Overall, Boot’s Invisible Armies is captivating.  His analysis on guerilla warfare and depiction of prominent trailblazers who have embraced the facets of irregular warfare surpass expectations on any counter-insurgency article or book. Although Boot does not articulate the three-phrase Maoist model adapted by Ho Chi Minh, he paints the picture by using the conflict to resemble different phases of Guerrilla Warfare.  In comparing Invisible Armies to another style such as The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen, Kilcullen clearly defines the methods and successful anti-surgency strategies. But Boot shows the how guerrilla warfare has morphed to the present day. Boot’s book is definitely recommended for individuals interested in irregular and guerrilla Warfare. The book also highlights the insurgent’s perspective and philosophy.  Boot addresses several interesting topics, such as the role of technology in low intensity conflicts. He also highlights lessons learned that can be applied while facing near-peer threats. In closing, Boot’s book will be remembered for generations to come.

Categories: SWJ Book Review

About the Author(s)

Major Jonathan Fagins commanded US Army Special Forces Detachments in Afghanistan and deployed to Iraq, Syria, Africa. He is currently a candidate for an MS degree in Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 8:41am

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I will get the book though my library, but I am not buying "another" book on insurgency. As I told a polsci professor while taking his course on modern terrorism,  any relevant material on insurgency has been written before 1975. His reply was "yes, but professors need to publish". ANother author with a book to publish. One may add the dubious term "hybrid war" to the list of things we do not understand - - most wars are :hybrid" when you look at them more carefully). But the West just does not understand that we are trying to fight someone else's war _ Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan - with policies that do more harm than good. The Soviets screwed up Afghanistan and then NATO thinks it cam put Humpty Dumpty together again? We have outlasted the Russians in one thing the decided to get out when the going was good. -   If the host nation refuses to fight for itself then no amount of military expenditure will solve the issue. "If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail". We do not get it. Neo-liberal socio-economic transformation of the Middle East is not possible. Unfortunately, it has worked too well in Mexico..Political corruption and gun violence has a made global trade very successful - affecting every part of society - the spirit of capitalism thrives quite well as it spirals around the world as the licit and illicit  markets merge and become unrecognisable from each other varying levels..