In retrospect, that little incident perfectly encapsulates the helplessness Americans have felt when it comes to guerrilla warfare. Since 1945, the U.S. record in guerrilla wars has been bleak, as failures in Laos, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan attest. Americans have struggled to understand their misfortune. How is it possible that the greatest military power the world has ever seen, presumably with right on its side, has repeatedly been stymied by small bands of poorly equipped insurgents?
Max Boot addresses this conundrum with an “epic history” of guerrilla warfare. “Invisible Armies” is a magisterial account of insurgency and counterinsurgency across the ages, peppered with fascinating personalities such as Robert the Bruce, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Che Guevara, Edward Lansdale, Osama bin Laden and David Petraeus. Out of narrative emerges cogent analysis: The author offers important insights relevant to any modern power faced with a guerrilla opponent. Hard lessons are, however, delivered with elegant prose. Leaving aside what “Invisible Armies” teaches us, this is a wonderful read.
A common misconception among great powers is that guerrilla warfare is unusual, thus explaining the woeful lack of preparation for it. Boot, however, shows that the guerrilla is as old as warfare itself. Forces that cannot hope to win on the conventional battlefield choose instead an indirect approach, wearing down their enemies through stealth, cleverness and patience.
Ho Chi Minh saw it as a contest between a tiger and an elephant: “If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges by night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death.”
The elephant, certain of its might, often responds by charging into the jungle, crushing everything in its path. A frustrating irony arises: Success in counterinsurgency is often inversely proportionate to the force applied. As Americans have repeatedly discovered, suffering radicalizes otherwise uninvolved civilians. An insurgency is like the Lernaean Hydra: Any attempt to decapitate it creates additional guerrillas.
Boot offers 12 lessons derived from 5,000 years of guerrilla warfare. A few are particularly germane. For instance, a guerrilla operation is more likely to succeed if it has outside support. The American Revolution proved that, as did Vietnam and the Russian failure in Afghanistan. More recently, Iraqi and Afghan rebels have received help from outside. Addressing that problem, however, implies an unacceptable widening of the war.