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.
Secondly, the best guerrillas are adept at publicity. As Boot points out, Americans have been notoriously bad at the war of words. Granted, it is difficult for any invader to convince those on the ground that his intent is noble. The United States has also failed, however, to convince Americans at home that the struggle is worthy of the sacrifice.
This is related to a third important lesson: the need for patience. Ho Chi Minh was prepared to struggle for decades; Muslim insurgents talk of fighting for centuries. Americans, on the other hand, expect quick results, which are always unlikely in a guerrilla war.
Finally, and most important, conventional tactics do not work against a guerrilla enemy. Gen. George Decker, Army chief of staff from 1960 to ’62, stubbornly maintained that “any good soldier can handle guerrillas.” That attitude is quite typical. U.S. senior commanders often reason that there’s little point in teaching specialist counterinsurgency skills because guerrilla war is unusual.
The failure to absorb these lessons explains American setbacks. Boot insists, though, that defeat is not inevitable. By his calculation, the guerrilla wins only about 20 percent of the time. But his figures are somewhat misleading, given that he includes victories over pathetic terrorist organizations such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, which have no place in this book. Leave those contests out of the calculation, and counterinsurgency emerges as a difficult and often futile endeavor. Failures result when strong and confident powers underestimate their enemies’ will to succeed. Right and might do not inevitably prevail.
The weakest part of this otherwise shrewd book is its analysis of the Vietnam War. This is unfortunate, given that conflict’s centrality to the American experience. Boot is, to an extent, a victim of the myopia he attempts to expose. Like many authors with only a cursory knowledge of the war, he sees Vietnam as a manifestation of communist plans for worldwide revolution during the Cold War. That was what Americans thought at the time, and it partially explains their defeat.
Vietnam was in fact a nationalist struggle, a civil war between two sides with competing visions for their country. For most of the war, the real enemy of the United States was not communists from the North, but indigenous Southern insurgents who rejected the government in Saigon precisely because it was affiliated with the United States.They were formidable because of their genius at infiltrating the peasantry through land reform, education, social welfare and, yes, intimidation. The average Viet Cong cadre spent less than 10 percent of its time in combat, concentrating instead on political work.
U.S. soldiers could not compete with this effort at indoctrination, partly because they were not trained for it, but mainly because they were American. An outsider, no matter how noble his purpose, could not hope to attain the legitimacy that was a prerequisite to victory. Stated simply, Americans did not belong in that war.
In 1961, Lt. Col. George Eblen was chatting with Col. Nguyen Van Mau, his Vietnamese liaison. Mau asked why the Americans were in Vietnam. Eblen replied that the United States wanted to help the Vietnamese defeat communism and to show them how democracy would bring economic prosperity. Mau paused, then remarked, “Yes, I understand what you are saying, but why are you really here?” Eblen repeated, “We are here to help you.” Mau interjected, “No, be honest, why are you really here?”
The gulf could not be breached. Mau’s frame of reference was French imperialism; he could understand an exploitative mentality but not one that claimed to be altruistic. He felt more comfortable with the French, whose mission was more transparent. Since he could not accept that the Americans merely wanted to help, he concluded that they must be even more devious than the French.
Boot recognizes the importance of legitimacy (it is one of his 12 lessons) but does not give it due emphasis in analyzing America’s repeated failures. Yet legitimacy, or rather the lack of it, surely explains why Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan did not go as planned. Americans thought they were defending freedom, but their adversaries saw instead neo-colonial interlopers. Failure arose from this gulf in perception.
Pessimism is, therefore, perhaps more appropriate than Boot realizes. He’s a big fan of Petraeus, whom he presents as a shining example of how Americans can achieve success against the guerrilla. But there’s a big difference between battlefield wins and long-term political victory. No counterinsurgent, no matter how talented, will win if he lacks legitimacy. He must prove to the people on the ground that his interests are valid and his presence appropriate. Lose that argument, and lose the war.
is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews and the author of “A Noble Cause?: America and the Vietnam War.”