Book Review: Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla War From Ancient Times to the Present

By Bradley Martin
Staff Writer
January 22, 2013

In Invisible Armies, historian, lecturer, and columnist Max Boot attempts a herculean task, explaining the evolution of guerilla warfare and terrorism over a period of five thousand years. Boot is not only widely regarded as a qualified military historian, but also as a controversial foreign policy analyst who often advocates American intervention abroad.

Invisible Armies is an excellent survey of guerilla warfare and terrorism. Numerous guerilla and terrorist campaigns and leaders are analyzed over the course of more than 60 chapters and a dense 784 pages. Boot’s writing style is engaging and his book reads more like a novel than a typical dry tome of military history. The book begins with a brief attempt at defining the words “guerilla” and “terrorist.” Divided into nine parts, it covers topics including the origins of guerilla warfare, the rise of liberal revolutionaries, wars of empire, the rise of international terrorism, guerillas in world wars, wars of national liberation, leftist revolutionaries, the rise of radical Islam, and also includes a “lessons learned” section. The book is both descriptive and prescriptive in its discussions of guerilla war and terrorism.

Boot analyzes and uses extensive historical examples to support his central argument that guerilla warfare is in fact more common and important than previously acknowledged. For example, Boot notes how empires as diverse as the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and the Persian Empire under Darius the Great all engaged in efforts to counter guerillas whose tactics included using smaller, more agile forces. As Boot correctly notes, most countries have either supported guerilla wars, fought guerilla or terrorist forces, or have been impacted by guerilla warfare or terrorism. Several discussions of past counterinsurgencies that used brute force, such as efforts to halt guerilla warfare by the Assyrians and Romans, are a good reminder to both modern day readers and casual observers of the violence of ancient warfare. Boot also provides a good overview of more widely known guerilla actions in modern times: in Vietnam by the Viet Cong, in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan by the mujahedeen, in Lebanon by Hezbollah, and in Cuba by the 26th of July Movement (led by a young Fidel Castro).

As Boot is known to be an advocate of American interventionism, critics may view the text as a partisan effort to promote American interventionism. These critics would be wrong; the book is fair, well researched, and shows the difficulty in confronting and countering guerilla warfare. The book, however, is not without criticism. Occasionally, Boot’s treatment of the ancient guerilla campaigns lacks the analysis of the complex tactics, methods, motivations and historical overview detailed in his explanations of more recent events. Some ancient guerilla campaigns, such as the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire or the guerilla campaigns of Central Asia against Alexander the Great, receive only a few pages, while more modern insurgencies, such as the Afghan mujahedeen and Iraqi insurgency, are described in great detail. Curiously, some important guerilla campaigns, such as the Aceh-Dutch War, Rhodesian Bush War, and Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in India, receive little or no mention. Boot does not detail why specific cases of guerilla warfare were excluded or included in his book. However, given the immense breadth and scope of the topic, as well as the limitations acknowledged by Boot in the prologue, these criticisms are minor and do not negate an otherwise masterful work.

Additionally, in a section entitled “Implications,” Boot offers twelve lessons in a similar form and style to British insurgency leader T. E. Lawrence’s “Twenty-Seven Articles,” which detailed Lawrence’s successful efforts at leading an insurgency against the Ottoman Empire. Some of Boot’s lessons are not entirely groundbreaking or original. For example, Boot’s lessons include the importance of population-centric counterinsurgency, the value of legitimacy in insurgency and counterinsurgency, and a reminder that insurgencies are messy and long. These lessons have been repeated by other scholars and have already been adopted in most modern counterinsurgency doctrine.

Boot makes a valiant effort to supply the first all-encompassing history of the evolution of guerilla warfare and terrorism. Invisible Armies weaves together numerous, diverse guerilla campaigns and leaders into a cogent and well-researched narrative. For this accomplishment alone, Max Boot deserves the attention of students, scholars, and experts of security studies and international relations. The book is an account that combines the history of guerilla warfare with an analysis of the future. Scholars and practitioners would be wise to study what is likely to remain the dominant form of warfare across the globe.

About the Book: Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2013). 784 pages.

Bradley Martin is a graduate of the Master of Security Studies Program at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas (M.S.S, December 2012). He also holds a Graduate Certificate in Terrorism and Counterinsurgency Studies.

Picture courtesy of Israel Defense Forces via Flickr.

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