Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Max Boot's "Invisible Armies": a history of guerrilla warfare

Max Boot has a terrific book on the history of guerrilla warfare. (The term derives from the Spanish for "small war", first invoked to describe Spanish 'irregulars' opposing Napoleon from 1808-1814.) It weighs in at nearly 600 pages-- with 64 chapters of 3-19 pages each. The book is organized into sections-- by era and the most relevant ideology that defines the era. The relatively short chapters and the recurring themes within each section helped a long book be a relatively quick read. It was easy to bang out a chapter or two at a time, while the dominant theme within each section helped to hold it together in my memory. 

Boot's book reads well-- both the specific accounts and the over-arching narrative. Still, it is necessarily a combination of correlation, causation, and just-so story-- given the project's historical nature, the limited info available, and the subsequent hermeneutical leaps. The challenge is greater going back farther in time and knowing that the winners often get to write their own histories. At times, the stories "smell" better or worse, but overall, his narrative seems reasonable and compelling.

I'm not a great student of history. But Boot covers all of the relevant historical episodes I could imagine-- and then some. When one thinks of guerrilla warfare, 20th century battles probably come to mind. But Boot spends a good bit of time on BC and early AD clashes, including the Maccabees, Athenians, King David, Scythians, and Viriathus. He briefly details the first full-scale conventional battle recorded by history in 1468 BC (p. 9) and notes the first recorded empire and its struggles with insurgents (ch. 4's Sargon, 23 centuries before Christ).

Among many examples of insurgency (and counter-insurgency) in more modern times, Boot covers:-the fall of Rome (ch. 7);
-the American revolution as a mix of insurgency and conventional warfare (ch. 14);
-freedom for Greece (ch. 17), Italy (ch. 18, including Garibaldi's role and even his invitation from Lincoln to fight in the U.S. Civil War [118-119]!), Latin America (brief/passing mentions of Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin), and the Irish (ch. 35, incl. the role of Michael Collins);
-Afghanistan for the 19th century Brits (ch. 24) and as the "Russian Vietnam" (ch. 59);
-nationalists (Chiang) vs. communists (Mao) and Japanese in China (ch. 44);
-Vietnam for the French and the U.S. (chs. 45, 51, 52);
-Cuba and Castro (ch. 53)-- and Che Guevara (chs. 53-54);
-the amazing events surrounding Entebbe (ch. 55)-- which were largely supplanted in the public imagination by 9/11; and
-what he describes as "50 days that changed the world" (ch. 58)-- from the fall of the Shah and the hostage crisis in Iran to Russia's fateful invasion of Afghanistan. 

Boot also describes huge characters/players with whom I had little or no familiarity-- particularly for their success in effective counter-insurgency (military and otherwise): Edward Lansdale, Gerald Templer, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Orde Wingate, Louis Lyautey, and George Crook. Because their efforts are not as sexy as leaders with big armies doing conventional warfare, history does not remember them nearty as well. 

A few episodes deserve further comment. First, Boot (ch. 31) notes that the KKK began in the time of Reconstruction, as an insurgency against the victorious "occupying" forces of the North. As Reconstruction pulls back and Southern majority interests are again able to use their own government to thoroughly oppress blacks, we find the emergence of Jim Crow and its formal abuses. Anderson and Kiriazis describe the connections between the ideological of Progressivism-- a strain of statism combined with "Social Darwinism" which led to many different forms of eugenics and crony capitalism in political economy-- what Gabriel Kolko described as the triumph of "conservatism".

Second, in all of Book VI, Boot details the decline of the French and English from WW I through WWII into the post-colonial era. I don't know why I didn't connected those dots earlier. But weakened England and especially France were unable to hold their colonial "empires" together after WWII. In a word, it's why "decolonization swept the world"-- from Israel to Africa to Southeast Asia (322-326). It also explains why the French are prone to imagine that they're a bigger deal than they are on today's world stage. They were a big deal, as late as 75 years ago! Today, they're just another medium-size, reasonably-prosperous country-- albeit with an impressive and memorable history.

Third, Boot devotes one of his longer chapters to Yasser Arafat (ch. 56). (He covers other opponents of Israel in ch. 60 and notes that Israel is different in that it must defend itself against insurgents [474]). Boot describes Arafat as a nationalist, secular (vs. religious), and abstemious (like Guevara vs. most other insurgent leaders). Arafat did avoid danger, preserving his own life (468), while sending others into danger. (Other subjects were more impressive than Arafat in this regard!) But sometimes, one must make sacrifices, yes? Boot also notes that Arafat follows Israel's "terroristic" path to sovereignty-- in their post-WWII efforts against the British in 1947-- a point I had not known before. One wonders if history would have been any different if Israel had taken a different approach to independence from the British.

Fourth, Boot covers Al Queda (ch. 61-62), including a nice write-up on Osama Bin Laden's background (517; see: Looming Tower for tons of detail on this). Boot also details Petraeus' return to Iraq (ch. 63) with the "surge". Well over and above more troops, Boot points to his strategy of putting troops into the communities rather than hunkering down in bases. Boot wraps up the book (ch. 64) by wrestling with whether "global islamist insurgency" is failing or succeeding.

Big themes
First, as an economist, I'm amazed by technological advance and its impact on economy. Boot details its impact on the military-- for both insurgency and counter-insurgency. Generally, counter-insurgency has the initial advantage: as the wealthy can afford luxuries in an economy, so wealthier economies are the first to develop and the most able to afford tech advance in this realm. And oddly, more primitive counter-insurgency has often meant more success-- since they are less prone, themselves, to use conventional approaches (52-55). But after a time, everybody else catches up-- and then things even up quite a bit, especially if the counter-insurgents insist on trying to use conventional warfare as their defense (127-130). 

Boot (xx): "Time and time again, guerrilla warfare seemed to be superseded by the 'new new thing'-- industrial warfare in the 1910s, aerial warfare in the 1930s, nuclear warfare in the 1950s, network-centric warfare in the 1990s. And yet each time it reasserted itself with a vengeance. Since WWII, insurgency and terrorism have become the dominant forms of conflict-- a trend likely to continue into the foreseeable future." Before the 20th century, it was crossbows and then gunpowder. Now, propaganda is a key part of the arsenal.
Second, there are clear comparisons here to (suicide) terrorism-- both are cheaper/easier; low-probability last-ditch efforts to deal with a much stronger foe in conventional military terms (xxiii); more likely to be successful when dealing with (soft) democracies than (hard) dictators; and hoping to attract big help from outsiders (this is reminiscent of 3rd parties in a two-party system!). 

All of these themes are revisited from Robert Pape's work. (I've also blogged on data that fits Pape's view-- and the implications of Pape's book here, here, and here. In particular, check out the dynamic analysis of doing this stuff long-term and Pat Buchanan on the connections to empire.) Oddly, Boot ignores Pope except to try to put distance between them (509, 531). While there are differences-- in particular, what Boot sees as a contemporary emphasis on religion as a primary vs. secondary motive-- Boot is a companion to Pape.

Boot distinguishes terrorism from guerrilla warfare as "the use of violence by non-state actors directed primarily against noncombatants" vs. "hit-and-run tactics by an armed group directed primarily against a government and its security forces for political or religious reasons" (xxii). 

Anarchists and assassins represent a narrow and extreme form of the guerrilla warfare (Book IV). Chapters 29 and 36 are especially helpful in trying to understand the motives of people in these positions.

Third, occupying countries are likely to give in to counter-insurgents when the costs become too high. Those benefits and costs include political context (more pain in "liberal democracies" than from dictators-- a la Pape); the geographical distance of "far-off wars"; colonial economic gains vs. national security goals; the use of conscripts (vs. volunteers, mercenaries); and the availability of media for propaganda by insurgents or counter-insurgents. (On the latter, Boot mentions a few uses of American media [e.g., 339].) And he notes that, even with "success", there can be huge consequences (e.g., Ch. 19).

Fourth, Boot spends a lot of time on successful counter-insurgency. Success comes from sheer military might-- or when things get more interesting, from a combination of military action (sometimes ruthless), with degrees of restraint, and strategies to "win hearts and minds". Also important is the need to be perceived as credible to the natives-- that you're "in it to win it" and can do so. Natives are often in a very rough position-- not wanting to irritate either the occupiers or the insurgents.

Fifth, key motivations have changed over time-- with reigning political, religious, and economic ideologies, as well as historical context. "Like everyone else, guerrillas and terrorists are subject to popular moods and intellectual fads." In the 18th and 19th centuries, they were "inspired by liberal ideas" from the Enlightenment. But in the 20th century, anarchism, socialism, and then religion (475-477).

One sees an analogy to the times in which countries became free-- often by insurgencies from occupying countries. The U.S. won its freedom in a time of laissez-faire economics and so, our government was relatively limited. Post-WWII, at the height of Keynesian and optimism about socialism, countries emerging from colonialism embraced big governments-- and disaster has followed. 


Boot does a nice job of setting the table and then reviewing key principles. In the prologue, we provides "five major points" (xxvi-xxvii). In chapter 10, he lays out "keys to success"; and then he wraps up the book with "12 articles" or principles (557ff).

To wrap up, let me lay out the 12 and organizing them a bit: 
-Guerrilla warfare has been ubiquitous and important throughout history. It is not an "Eastern way of war".
-It has been over and under-estimated. They still lose a lot but have become more successful since WWII (although perhaps this is an artifact of post-WWII anti-colonialism). 
-Public opinion, media and propaganda have become increasingly important. (More broadly, access to info on wars has changed the landscape for most military activity.) As such, mass terror does not usually work. And establishing legitimacy is important-- to both sides.
-Conventional tactics are unlikely to be effective in response. Technology has been a key player. Insurgencies take time and more effective with outside support.


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