27 May, 2013Issue 22.3HistoryWorld Politics

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Wars of the Weak

Faris Alikhan

Wars of the WeakMax Boot
Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present
Norton, 2013
784 pages
ISBN 978-0871404244


If there is a central tension in historical research, it is between the idiographic and the nomothetic; between the specific and the universal. The historian John Lewis Gaddis described this dichotomy by dividing his fellow historians into two distinct categories: “lumpers” and “splitters”. Lumpers seek to systematise the inherent chaos of history into discrete chapters, to deliver sweeping generalisations, and to attempt to discern lessons from vast swathes of history. Splitters, on the other hand, rarely refrain from qualifying their findings. They thrive in the realm of the particular, in context and contingent circumstance. Popular historians, writing for a mass audience of non-experts, are typically lumpers, while splitters can afford to indulge in historical arcana for the benefit of other academics. Those who attempt to do both often find that to tell a story they must forsake specificity. As Gaddis noted, “establishing a balance between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’ is no easy thing”.

Max Boot’s Invisible Armies faces a difficult time establishing such a balance. Any historical work that defines itself as “an epic history” is likely to elide some of the detail and a book that begins in 2005 B.C. and ends in 2008 A.D. cannot help but be filled with anachronistic language. Terms such as “insurgency” and “guerrilla” seem ill-suited to the time of Sumerian warlord Sargon of Akkad, for instance, and when Boot describes Sargon as “an early-day Saddam Hussein”, the comparison seems to be based less on historical similarity than geographic happenstance. Boot, to his credit, is often uncomfortable about the application of such modern terminology to historical episodes and urges his reader to engage with his lengthy bibliography for more detail and context than his own encyclopedic account can provide. Invisible Armies eschews detail for a timely central thesis that irregular warfare is historically the norm, rather than an irregularity, and will likely continue to be the dominant form of warfare long into the future.

Compressing four millennia of war into a single narrative also runs the risk of conflating rather specific concepts. At first, Boot is quite assiduous in his efforts to distinguish the concept of terrorism, which is a relatively recent phenomenon involving sub-state actors and focused on civilian casualties, from insurgency and counterinsurgency. But later, in a discussion of guerrilla warfare, he inexplicably devotes an entire 70-page section of the book to 19th and early 20th century terrorism, which is a qualitatively distinct phenomenon. It’s true that some insurgent groups—the IRA or the Tamil Tigers, for example—have purposefully targeted civilians. But Boot’s analysis of the origins of contemporary sub-state terrorism from the 19th century is largely divorced from his more rigorous examination of the contest between insurgents and counterinsurgents in the same period. The baleful, nihilistic anarchists epitomised in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent have little to do with the crux of Boot’s thesis and seem to have been included purely because of the author’s palpable fascination with their personalities and psychologies.

A former Wall Street Journal editor and foreign policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, Boot possess an impressive eye for detail—and a seasoned journalist’s eye for colourful characters. The armies may be invisible, but their outsized leaders are limned with vivid anecdotes. The story of Mao Zedong eschewing a toothbrush in favour of the traditional rural ritual of a morning rinse with tea illustrates his ability to accrue peasant support, perhaps more than an exhaustive analysis of his writings would do. In his role as contemporary policy advisor, Boot looks for applicable lessons in the eccentricities or personal proclivities of counterinsurgents. His cast of characters runs from the prototypical “quiet American” Edward Lansdale, French Marshal Louis Lyautey, Brigadier Orde Wingate, and the putative hero of the Malaysian Emergency, General Sir Gerard Templer, culminating with an adulatory analysis of General David Petraeus. The predominant pattern that emerges is a willingness on the part of successful counterinsurgents thoroughly to immerse themselves into the culture and society in which they are fighting. This is hardly a novel idea in the annals of counterinsurgency, but it is one that bears repeating nonetheless, and might have benefited the American officials ensconced in the green zone of Baghdad or buried within their bunkers in Kabul in the early stages of those campaigns.

Boot doesn’t wholly buy into the bromide of “winning hearts and minds” though. He points out tellingly that this now ubiquitous phrase was first used by British General Henry Clinton, who in early 1776 noted the “need to gain the hearts and subdue the minds of America”. His failure to do so underscored just how difficult that task really was. As Boot points out, and media accounts often miss, successfully winning hearts and minds can be far from gentle conciliation. Instead, as British General Sir Gerald Templer’s radical resettlement program in Malaya demonstrated, it is often a massively invasive and lengthy affair. Templer emphatically emphasised this point in 1953, declaring, “I’ll shoot the bastard who says this Emergency is over.” His campaign was not formally suspended until 1960, eight years after it began, and involved mass resettlement literally to starve the communist insurgency of rural support and succour. Such tactics are unconscionable today, but Boot’s assertion seems to be that earning the respect of a population depends on demonstrating resolve, a task which is hindered by vacillating public opinion in Western capitals. This trend extends back to the downfall of Lord North’s Tory government in 1782, after six years of a costly colonial insurgency in North America.

Boot’s central argument is that guerrilla warfare, and the tactics of the insurgent, have always been the “war of the weak” and are not foreordained to win:

By the mid-1970s, following the American defeat in Vietnam, it was easy for an informed observer to believe that it was virtually impossible for a conventional army to defeat an unconventional foe. Nothing could be further from the truth; as our survey should have already shown, the odds remain stacked against those who adopt guerrilla or terrorist tactics.

This is not a novel realisation. Niall Ferguson and other conservatives have made similar points more broadly about American foreign policy for nearly a decade. One wonders, however, what length of time and what level of resolve is necessary. The war in Afghanistan has, after all, already lasted several years longer than Templer’s Emergency. Boot ends his analysis of Afghanistan on an optimistic note, but recent revelations regarding endemic corruption and hollow institutions hint at a less sanguine future, and a more sanguinary one.

In his defence of the French use of torture in the Battle of Algiers as morally repugnant and tactically successful at the same time, Boot seems implicitly to accept the moral calculus of torture. He never advocates torture openly, but he does write that the idea of its inefficacy is a modern “myth”. Given his strenuous efforts throughout the book to differentiate between tactical success and strategic failure in counterinsurgency, one wonders if his assessment is as realistic and hard-headed as he thinks. The furious enmity that the French methods engendered in Algeria seems to be evidence enough of a massive strategic failure: hardly a lesson for present or future counterinsurgents. This points to a disconcerting tension, beneath the elegant prose and evocative stories, between the author’s role as popular historian and as a foreign policy hawk.

In his role as a columnist and commentator, Boot has remarked that “enhanced interrogation” is a necessary expedient, and an effective one at that. He believes that if only Western publics were not so weak-willed, and their leaders so blinkered by political bickering, then counterinsurgents could succeed unimpeded in their mission. Boot acknowledges that establishing legitimacy and popular support is paramount for a counterinsurgent to succeed. The thornier question of whether such popular legitimacy can still be garnered by a foreign power such as the United States, however, is left unaddressed. For a man who, scarcely a month after September 11th, published a column entitled “The Case for American Empire” and had already turned his sights to Iraq, that question was probably one whose answer appeared entirely self-evident.

Faris Alikhan is reading for an MPhil in International Relations at Balliol College, Oxford. He is Secretary of the Oxford Strategic Studies Group.