Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present

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INVISIBLE ARMIES: AN EPIC HISTORY OF GUERRILLA WARFARE FROM ANCIENT TIMES TO THE PRESENT

By Max Boot

Liveright

750 pp. $35

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THE SIOUX AND APACHE TRIBES OF NORTH America had something profound in common with the colonists who established the United States. Like the Viet Cong, the Spanish irregulars who frustrated Napoleon, and the Afghan tribesmen who defeated the Soviet army and continue to challenge U.S. and NATO forces in our own day, they were guerrillas. The word "guerrilla" comes from the Spanish for "little war," used to describe Spain's 1808 uprising against Napoleon's troops, but such a way of fighting is as old as human civilization itself. Guerrilla warfare is a rational response to overwhelming and organized force, the means by which the weak can frustrate, wear down, and overcome the strong, whether they be British troops at Lexington and Concord, French and later American troops in the Mekong Delta, or Hitler's Wehrmacht in Yugoslavia.

It is the great merit of Max Boot's study of guerrilla war that he stresses the venerable history of this style of fighting, starting with Thucydides's account of how the Aetolian highlanders used their maneuverability and knowledge of the local terrain to defeat the hoplites of Athens in 426 BC. As soon as organized states began to form and to equip themselves with disciplined armies, they were opposed by enemies fighting in an older style. Boot writes, "Throughout most of our species' long and bloody slog ... warfare has been carried out primarily by bands of loosely organized, ill-disciplined, lightly armed volunteers who disdain open battle. They prefer to employ stealth, surprise, and rapid movement to harass, ambush, massacre, and terrorize their enemies while trying to minimize their own casualties through rapid retreat when confronted by equal or stronger forces. These are the primary features both of modern guerrilla warfare and of primitive, pre-state warfare."

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This does not necessarily imply that the guerrilla is a primitive. The surviving gold artwork of the Scythians of the sixth century BC demonstrates that they were a sophisticated people who preferred the nomadic existence that was suited to their grassland steppes. When the Persian emperor Darius demanded that they stand and fight, the Scythian leader Idanthyrsus replied, "We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in any hurry to fight with you ... We shall not join battle unless it pleases us."

Armies are large and complex organizations, with training academies for officers and their own medical, financial, judicial, and logistics services; and they are usually designed to fight other armies of similar type. Sometimes armies develop the necessary skills and doctrine in time to prevail over unconventional forces. At the turn of the last century, the British eventually defeated the Boers of South Africa, brilliant guerillas of Dutch descent who had trekked north from the Cape Colony in a vain attempt to escape British rule. And British troops were able to quell a mainly Chinese and communist insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s. But they lost to the Jewish irregulars in Palestine in the 1940s, and spent 30 grim years after 1968 convincing the Republicans of Northern Ireland that democratic politics would be preferable to continued urban guerrilla warfare.

Given the extraordinary range of experience the British Empire accumulated in fighting various guerrilla campaigns, Britain's armies have a better record than most. But their leaders could still be convinced, as in Palestine, that the possibility of success was too remote and too expensive to justify the effort. The Obama administration, having reviewed the results of a decade of war, seems to have made a similar appraisal of the current Afghan campaign. …