Commentary Magazine


The 63.8 Solution

Invisible Armies:
An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare
from Ancient Times to the Present
By Max Boot
W.W. Norton, 784 pages

Any author who attempts to relate the whole history of guerrilla warfare from Mesopotamia in 2334 B.C.E. to present-day Afghanistan, and then draw 12 overarching lessons from such a vast swath of human experience, must be hubristic or brilliant, or both. For the historian and journalist Max Boot to use the phrase “an epic history” in the subtitle of his own book implies a magnificent lack of modesty in his own capabilities. The work more than matches the hype.

Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a regular contributor to Commentary’s blog, argues that guerrilla warfare, far from being a bastardization of the “normal” way of warfare, with armies facing each other in the open field, has actually been the more usual form throughout history. Words often used to describe it, such as nontraditional, irregular, and unconventional, are misleading, since time and again—from prehistoric tribal warfare to the War on Terror—the side that can’t hold its own in the field of battle always resorts to guerrilla action, assuming it has enough support from the local population to permit it. With low-intensity conflict the norm rather than the exception, Boot argues that if the West isn’t ready to fight such conflicts properly, it will pay a heavy price.

For the first 550 pages, Boot adopts a roughly chronological approach to the phenomenon of asymmetric warfare, introducing the reader to the part it played in the Maccabee and Bar Kokhba revolts, the Scythian struggle against the Persian Empire, the downfall of the great counterinsurgency power of Rome, in ancient Chinese warfare, the Scots’ endless rebellions against the English, and the American victory over the British Empire. In the course of his account, Boot enjoys highlighting dichotomies and paradoxes, such as the fact that the black leader of the 1790s Haitian slave revolt against the French, Toussaint l’Ouverture, was himself a slave owner.

From controlling a mere 15 percent of the world’s landmass in 1450, and still only 35 percent of it by 1800, the European nations and their offspring came to control 84 percent by 1914. Boot asks an obvious but rarely posed question: Why did so few indigenous regimes resort to guerrilla tactics?

Invisible man: British soldiers lying in ambush during the Malayan Emergency, 1952.

Invisible man: British soldiers lying in ambush during the Malayan Emergency, 1952.

His answer makes perfect sense: For all the Westerners’ assumptions that the people they conquered were primitive and backward, the indigenous “in a sense…were too advanced for their own good,” he argues. They believed they could compete as modern warriors. In the Boer War, for example, the Zulu nation was able to deploy regiments that undertook disciplined maneuvers on the battlefield and suicidally attempted to fight in the open against Britons armed with Martini-Henry rifles. Sheer lack of information about the power of European armies hampered them, but as Boot points out, “their incomprehension was understandable given how slowly news travelled before the spread of telegraphs, undersea cables, steamships, and railroads.” Even when native regimes were in a position to learn from the West, he writes, “their impulse was usually to make their armies more conventional, rather than less, by hiring European advisers and buying European arms.”

It was hardly likely that Boot, who has acted as a civilian adviser to David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and whose book War Made New examined the way military technology has affected warfare since 1500, would content himself solely with a narrative history of guerrilla warfare, not least because he covered some of the same ground in another volume, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. As a vocal supporter of the War on Terror, which he considers ultimately winnable, Boot quotes with approval the statement of the British victor of the Malayan Emergency, Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, who said of the vicious anti-Communist struggle between 1948 and 1960: “I have always said that the complete cure of it all will be a long slog.”

Public opinion is therefore vital, and Boot ascribes a great deal of importance to the intestinal fortitude—or, more often, the lack of it—shown by Western electorates and leaders in deciding whether they have the stomach for that long slog towards the complete cure.  “The most important development in guerrilla warfare in the last two hundred years,” Boot believes, “has been the rise of public opinion,” a term that appropriately enough first appeared in print in 1776. The author believes that the increase in its importance has been fostered by “the spread of democracy, schools and colleges, communications technology, the mass media, and international organizations—all of which have sapped the will of states to engage in protracted counterinsurgencies, especially outside their own territory, and heightened the ability of insurgents to survive even after suffering military setbacks.” The classic example is Vietnam, where “the United States was defeated not because it had lost on the battlefield but because public opinion at home had turned against the war,” Boot points out. “The same thing almost happened in Iraq in 2007.”

Where this work departs from the normal historical treatments of the concept of guerrilla warfare—and what will make it controversial in academia and deeply unpopular on the left—is Boot’s chapter drawing 12 present-day, actionable “implications” from the preceding 550 pages of historical narrative.  In order to support his 12 theses about guerrilla warfare, he has constructed “The Invisible Armies Database,” which analyses no fewer than 443 insurgencies since 1775 that he (with the immodesty already noted) describes as “more wide-ranging, more detailed, and more accurate than any previous compendium.”

Boot’s database records which country formed the regulars; which group, clan, tribe, sect, or terrorist organization made up the insurgents; when the insurgency started and ended; and what the outcome was. The results are fascinating, and more than justify an approach that some will doubtless criticize as taking an overly mathematical approach to something as visceral as warfare. They teach us that, as Boot states, “most insurgencies are long-lasting; attempts to win a quick victory backfire.” The average insurgency since 1775 has lasted seven years, with 9.7 the average for the post-1945 period. But—and this is the key finding—there is no discernible correlation between the length of a conflict and the insurgents’ chance of ultimate victory. The conventional wisdom, as propagated by the Communist Chinese in the late 1940s, that time is on the side of an insurgency is simply not true. Instead, incumbent governments won 66.9 percent of the post-1775 insurgencies that lasted less than a decade, and 65.6 percent of those that lasted longer than two decades. Terrorism has been even less successful. Boot defines terrorism as “the last tactic of those too weak to create guerrilla forces,” just as guerrilla warfare is the last tactic of those too weak to create conventional forces.

Boot has also ascertained that “the ideology that has proven most popular and hence most durable as a motivating force for guerrillas and terrorists is neither liberalism nor anarchism nor socialism nor Islamism, but, rather, nationalism.” Its power, he writes, “may be judged from the fact that even though most terrorist groups of the 1970s failed, those that had a nationalist appeal, such as the PLO and IRA, managed to win important concessions, whereas those that advocated radical social change, such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Weathermen, disappeared without a trace after the death or imprisonment of their leaders.”

“In reality guerrilla warfare is neither invincible nor unwinnable,” Boot states, and “guerrillas have seldom achieved their objectives.” Out of the 443 insurgencies he has analyzed, insurgents succeeded in 25.2 percent of the concluded wars, while incumbents won in 63.8 percent, the other 11 percent being draws of some kind. 

What does this teach us? Victory against guerrillas “requires the application of violence and coercion but in carefully calibrated and intelligently targeted doses.” As an Israeli general once told him: “Better to fight terror with an M-16 than an F-16”—with a gun rather than a plane. The counterinsurgency style for which Boot proselytizes most effectively in this book is the “population-centric” one associated with Gerald Templer and David Petraeus. Yet Boot is no starry-eyed naïf regarding this approach: “In most conflicts, the majority of the population has sat on the fence until it was clear which side was likely to win…which is why population-centric policies aim to control the people, not to win their love and gratitude.”

This pathbreaking book should thus be on the reading list of every NATO officer hoping to defeat an insurgency. As for what it tells us about the War on Terror: The enemy has only a 25 percent chance of winning, and we mustn’t crack internally. History gives us far better odds than the mainstream media does.

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