Book: Invisible Armies by Max Boot

A Tamil Tiger guerilla fighter in Sri Lanka, 2003. Picture: AFP/Getty
A Tamil Tiger guerilla fighter in Sri Lanka, 2003. Picture: AFP/Getty
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For the counterinsurgency experts of a century ago, the extension of European empire into the Middle East offered exciting possibilities.

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

WW Norton, 748pp, £25

The Italians bombed Libyans on the eve of the First World War, but that was only the beginning. From 1919 onward, the fledgling RAF was dropping bombs on Afghan, Somali and Iraqi tribesmen. In 1926, French artillery shelled the centre of Damascus. It was in this context that Elbridge Colby, an American Army captain, wrote an article, “How to Fight Savage Tribes,” in order to educate his countrymen and challenge what he saw as their naive faith in international law.

His son, though, was even more interesting. William Colby fought behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Europe, then set up anti-Communist cells in Italy (some went rotten and started blowing up civilians), before running the CIA’s shadow war in Vietnam and ending up as the director of central intelligence. He belonged to that generation who came to terms with the world that gives Max Boot the title of his book Invisible Armies. Indeed, they formed and fought in invisible armies themselves.

Under Colby, Washington spawned a vast counterinsurgency bureaucracy, complete with its own training schools, foreign exchange programmes and research institutes. Even before the challenges posed by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, an awful lot of people were having to think very hard about how to fight “savage tribes”. Like Elbridge Colby, Max Boot wants to help them; unlike Colby’s, his way is through history.

The result is a sweeping panorama that ranges over a vast terrain. Its early history feels sketchy, and the use of terms such as “counterinsurgency” and “guerrillas” anachronistic when applied to Huns, Picts or Romans. A distinction between empires and their irregular opponents runs through the book, yet in much of the millennium following the collapse of Rome the world’s greatest empires were themselves former nomad confederacies, among them the Mongols and the Ottomans, who founded states lasting centuries and, because of their origins, always knew how to come to terms with, or utilise, irregular forces.

The story proper begins only with the emergence of certain modern conventions – the widespread use of standing armies in set-piece battles; the development of legal norms with international applicability – in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this strict sense, the history of guerrilla warfare is no more than two centuries or so old, and in fact Boot’s book becomes a lot more effective once he enters the modern era.

Even then there is a great deal going on – some three separate subjects more or less rolled into one. We get the story of guerrilla warfare, and also an account of how soldiers have tried to combat it. And then, mostly at a tangent to the other two, there is the history of terrorism.

The effort to link guerrillas and terrorists does not come off. One has the impression that Boot himself was uneasy about the connection, because he begins with some sensible observations not only about the similarities between the two categories, but also about the differences. True, sometimes insurgents turn to terror tactics: EOKA in Cyprus, the PLO and the Tamil Tigers are obvious examples. It is also common for powerful armies to decry their weaker opponents as terrorists – as the Nazis described European partisans during the Second World War. But in reality, the two categories often have very little to do with each other.

We do, however, need a good intellectual history of counterinsurgency. Boot’s cast of characters consists mostly of familiar figures – wise men such as the French marshal Hubert Lyautey, the British general Sir Gerald Templer, the quiet American Edward Lansdale and so on, ending up with David H Petraeus himself. For many readers these portraits will serve as effective introductions. But the wider military cultures they sprang from, and the reasons they were sometimes listened to and sometimes not, get short shrift. There is nothing here, for example, to challenge the conventional image of General Petraeus as the man who put the United States military back on the proper path in fighting insurgencies, nor any means of understanding why he should have then apparently changed course when he moved to the CIA in favour of a militarisation of intelligence and extensive use of targeted assassinations. .

Invisible Armies really has two authors, sometimes working together, sometimes not. There is the popular historian, thoughtful, smart, fluent, with an eye for a good story and the telling quotation. And there is the policy adviser. The historian can see questions from different angles and is generally careful not to take sides. The policy adviser wants to be useful – which is why so much of the last part of the book is about fighting Islamic radicalism.

Ultimately, the book’s tenor is moderately upbeat: Boot believes lessons can be learned if only we look at history the right way. The war in the shadows may be here to stay, but we should not despair, he insists, because even now the odds are against the insurgents, provided armies tackle the job with patience, good sense and a consciousness of the importance of winning over hearts and minds. Terror, after all, is often self-defeating. I think Elbridge Colby would have approved.