The Way We Fight: Max Boot’s ‘Invisible Armies’

From ancient times to Afghanistan today, guerilla warfare, terrorism, and insurgencies have been the way that we make war. Michael Korda salutes a brilliant and important new book, Max Boot’s Invisible Armies, that tells that story.

Much of one’s view of human history, past and present, is dependent on whether one accepts Hobbes’s view of it or Rousseau’s. Rousseau, setting the course for “liberals” of all kinds, and for optimists and revolutionaries of every stamp, wrote: “Man is born free, and everywhere is in chains.” Hobbes on the contrary declared the conservative and pessimistic view of the human past and future: that far from being “born free” the condition of man in his natural state was “… solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and that without the civilizing effect of the great institutions of the state there would be “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continued fear and danger of violent death.”

Max Boot, in this enormous, brilliant, and important book, leans toward the Hobbesian view, not surprisingly since his subject is war, always the dark side of history. He makes it very clear that the natural state of man has been one of continuous small-scale warfare, going right back to the beginning of humankind, some of these wars ritual, as is still the case among the savages of New Guinea; others small wars for more territory, for the women of other families and tribes (an unconscious way to prevent inbreeding), and for slaves.

The natural way of war is to strike by surprise, and to retreat stealthily back into the wilderness to safety with as few casualties as possible. Primitive people do not “stand and fight”; they hide and kill. Their method of warfare is the ambush: “bushwhacking,” as it was called during pro- and anti-slavery fighting in Kansas before the Civil War, far from being “dishonorable,” is the traditional way of fighting, as is “terror,” in the sense of sudden and unexpected assassinations and horrendous threats of violence designed to break the enemy’s will. The introduction of efficient lethal weapons manufactured to a standard design and furnished by the state, and of such huge advancements in organized warfare as marching in step and of moving in lines or columns, of formalized ranks, uniforms and discipline, produced in the growing national empires of the ancient world—Egypt, Babylon, Greece—the equivalent of professional armies intended to carry out the state’s policy.

These national armies waged long campaigns, necessitating supply lines and the birth of “logistics,” and were intended for the specific purpose of fighting great, decisive battles and inflicting the largest possible number of enemy casualties. They set a high premium on “honor,” and of iron discipline, the one often being confused with the other. (Until very recently, the penalty in all serious armies for disobeying an order in combat or for cowardice was death—death sentences for “cowardice in the face of the enemy” were not uncommon in the British Army in World War I, and the last American soldier to be shot for cowardice was Private Slovick, whose execution was confirmed by General Eisenhower in December 1944.)

By contrast in the “natural” warfare as it was practiced throughout most of human history, running away when the enemy was in superior numbers was the sensible thing to do—the aim was to kill the enemy when he was off his guard, to cut his throat when he was sleeping, not to display courage by advancing in the open in large numbers, but to fight from concealment whenever possible.

Boot, whose grasp on history is amazingly broad, gives examples of traditional warfare from prehistory to today, with concise and enlightening chapters on the great “guerrilla” leaders of the past, from a Jewish victory over a Roman army in 66 A.D. to our present difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again and again the generals of organized armies, whether those of the Roman Empire or those of the United States today, have puzzled over the difficulty of deciding how to come to grips with a guerilla army, which is by definition poorly armed, undisciplined, and more of a vapor than a solid, to paraphrase that greatest of guerrilla celebrities, T. E. Lawrence; they are often indistinguishable from the civilians among whom the guerillas pass or live, and on whose behalf they claim to fight. The United States Army has been puzzling over this conundrum since at least the Philippines insurgency (1899–1902) without coming up with a satisfying answer, and there is scant evidence that General Petraeus, despite being enshrined as the high priest of counterinsurgency (Boot is one of his admirers), in Iraq and Afghanistan, got it right either before his move to the CIA and subsequent disgrace.

Boot is terrific at describing the various ways in which “the great powers” over the years have confronted guerrilla warfare, and his chapter on the British success in Malaya in the 1950s is enlightening and fascinating, as is his chapter on Lawrence of Arabia. He points out that in a full scale world war, guerrilla warfare, however romanticized and dramatic, is seldom relevant. He also notes that when Albert Speer, Hitler’s industrial and production genius, was asked after Germany’s defeat about the “impact” of the French Resistance on Germany’s war effort, he responded, “What resistance?” Not that the Resistance did not exist, of course, or was not brave, but the only thing that could end the German occupation of France was a successful Allied landing and a full scale, conventional and victorious battle between the German Army and Allied forces, and until the summer of 1944 many times more Frenchmen and Frenchwomen worked in factories that produced material for the Wehrmacht than served in the Resistance.

If there is such a thing as wisdom and common sense about the kind of war we are fighting now, and appear likely to go on fighting for some time, Max Boot’s lucid, enlightening, and highly readable book is it.

The list of people that Boot covers is huge—he has a wonderful biographical as well as a narrative gift—and includes such disparate figures as John Brown, Michael Collins, Tito, Mao Zedong, Castro, Che Guevara, Arafat, and Baader-Meinhof. He is at his best on Edward Landsdale, the real-life “Quiet American” of Graham Greene’s novel, and one of the most misunderstood figures in modern American counterinsurgency, and very good in his analysis of why “invisible armies” seldom succeed. Lawrence could never have defeated the Turks with his unruly band of Bedouin on camels. It was only when his campaign was joined to Allenby’s conventional thrust of the British Army toward Gaza, Jerusalem, and Damascus that victory was obtained. By the same token the Viet Cong guerrillas had a terrific impact on the United States forces in Vietnam, but it took the addition of regular North Vietnamese forces on a large scale to win the war and take Saigon. Furthermore, although Mao’s victory in China is often credited to guerrilla warfare on a large scale, the Chinese Communist victory over Chiang Kai-shek was eventually achieved by conventional forces supplied with arms by the Soviet Union.

Most guerrilla wars eventually fizzle out, as Boot remarks, however uncomfortable they are to live with, unless they are supported by a friendly neighboring power (like Pakistan and the Taliban) or manage to transform the guerrilla forces into conventional fighting units (rare). On the other hand, as Boot points out in this endlessly fascinating book, time is on the side of the guerrillas—if they have the patience, they can wear down even the largest of armies, as Tito eventually wore down the Germans in Yugoslavia, despite Germany’s default policy of unbridled Schrecklichkeit (frightfulness).

Boot is even more astute in pointing out that the secret weapon of guerrilla armies is the printing press, or these days, television and the Internet. The modern home front will not support heavy civilian casualties, indiscriminate bombing of civilians, torture, and executions as a way to put down an insurgency, and civilian pressure at home adds a further complication to any attempt to defeat an insurgency by a regular army. Those old enough will remember that the Viet Cong, despite its many assassinations and enforcing of Marxist terror on civilians, became more popular than the United States Army among many young, educated people and the media, largely because of our heavy-handed policy of bombing “enemy” villages, the “search-and-destroy missions” with inevitable “collateral damage,” and the use of napalm and chemical weapons (Agent Orange).

Boot’s Invisible Armies should be required reading in the White House and Pentagon—the breadth of his knowledge, his first-hand experience, and his sensible point of view make this the best and most realistic book on the subject since that classic work Colonel C. E. Caldwell’s Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, with the additional advantage that it is well written and as readable as a novel. One hesitates to call any book on this subject “wise”; guerrilla warfare has for at least two centuries been a field that produces, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, more than its share of charlatans, quacks, obsessive mystics (like Wingate in Burma), and false messiahs, each convinced that warfare can be revolutionized with nothing more than a few sticks of dynamite and some small arms. And while it seems sensible to adapt the United States to “small wars,” an army of counterinsurgents, however effective, will not be much help if we end up fighting a conventional war against, say, China. All prognostications about the future of warfare should be taken with a grain of salt. Cyril Connolly caught this perfectly in his hilarious parody of the writings of the British military theorist and armored warfare guru Cap. B.H. Liddell Hart, which contains the memorable phrase, “Peace is a morbid condition, due to a surplus of civilians, which war seeks to remedy,” and notes: “As far back as 1873 I was advocating a small highly mechanized striking force in ‘expanding torrent‘ tactics, i.e. ‘deep infiltration.‘ The War Office paid no attention …”

Retreat is an advance in a reverse direction. Armies are always busily preparing for the wrong war and surprised by the one that eventually arrives. All the same, if there is such a thing as wisdom and common sense about the kind of war we are fighting now, and appear likely to go on fighting for some time, Max Boot’s lucid, enlightening, and highly readable book is it. I hope it is a huge bestseller—he deserves it, and it would do almost everyone in this country who thinks about war a world of good to read it.