Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, by Max Boot, W.W. Norton & Co, RRP£25/RRP$35
Anyone surveying the world’s conflicts could be forgiven for coming to a quick conclusion about the nature of modern warfare: that we are living in the age of the guerrilla fighter, who seems capable of tormenting the mightiest and best-armed militaries.
In Syria, the highly militarised regime of Bashar al-Assad has been humbled – and may yet be felled – by a range of insurgents who are still making gains despite limited external support. In Mali, a few thousand jihadists caused enough havoc to trigger recent intervention by France in a conflict that is far from over.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, we are at the end of more than a decade of insurgency in which the immense power of the US has been severely tested by the Taliban – which will remain a force after America leaves next year.
None of this means, of course, that guerrilla warfare will dominate conflict in the years ahead. In the near future we may well see a return to the kind of warfare between nation states that defined much of the 20th century. Japan and China are squaring up over the Senkaku Islands. The US and Iran may be on the verge of a prolonged state-on-state conflict if diplomacy over Tehran’s nuclear programme fails.
But in his encyclopedic history of guerrilla warfare, Max Boot, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, makes a crucial observation: that it has been a far more enduring feature of conflict than many realise. Time and again, it seems to be superseded by the “new thing” – be it industrial warfare in the 1930s or nuclear warfare in the 1950s. “Yet each time it reasserted itself with a vengeance.”
What are its characteristics? And what defines whether it is the insurgent or counterinsurgent who triumphs? In this important survey, Boot grapples with these questions. His narrative goes right back to the earliest recorded stories of conflict, looking at the role insurgency played in bringing down the Akkadian empire in the 22nd century BC and brings us up to the present day. Most of his narrative focuses on the last 200 years, with nicely drawn portraits of the leading figures in the insurgents’ pantheon – Giuseppe Garibaldi, T.E. Lawrence, Orde Wingate, Mao Zedong. He ends with a list of rules that define whether insurgencies succeed or fail.
Several stand out. First, labelling guerrilla warfare “irregular” has it backwards. Actually, it is interstate war that is the exception. “Much of the world’s population lives in states whose present boundaries were determined in insurgencies waged by or against their ancestors,” he observes. London, he notes, rules far less territory than it did a century ago thanks to successful insurgencies against the British by the IRA and the Zionist movement.
Second, insurgents do not always win. In the last century, the exploits of Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro gave insurgents and freedom fighters an aura of invincibility. Yet the poster boy of revolutionary insurgency – Che Guevara – came to an ignominious end in Bolivia. Guerrillas have rarely achieved their aims, says Boot, and terrorists are even less successful.
However, this judgment is qualified by a third point: insurgencies have been much more effective in defeating established powers since 1945 than they were before that. This, Boot argues, is because of the growing importance the media play in any conflict. Wars nowadays are played out on TV screens as well as real battlefields. Unless an insurgency is put down quickly and effectively, it saps the willingness of even the strongest military to continue the fight – one of the most enduring legacies of the Iraq war, 10 years after it began.
Inevitably, anyone reading this book does so with the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts in mind. Both wars underscored how important it is for the power fighting the insurgency to adopt a “population-centric” approach, one based on winning over “hearts and minds” rather than merely killing the enemy.
But one also finishes this book reflecting on another conflict: Syria. One of Boot’s most important observations is that, throughout history, guerrilla movements have often prevailed when they have access to foreign funding, arms training and havens. “No other factor correlates so closely with insurgent success,” he writes. Such backing was critical in helping the Vietcong survive against the US in the 1960s and the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s. The US and its allies are offering “non-lethal” assistance to the Syrian rebels. But the absence of strong external support goes a long way towards explaining why, after two years of fighting, the Syrian rebels have not yet won a decisive victory against Mr Assad.
The writer is the FT’s defence and diplomatic editor