Max Boot’s Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2013)

This book review was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 2.
By Andrea Clabough

            Max Boot’s latest book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, is a thoughtful synthesis of his previous work on technological changes in warfare inWar Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Gotham Books, 2007), as well as his work on unconventional warfare in Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2003). In Invisible Armies, Boot has developed a nearly encyclopedic volume on not just guerilla warfare, but also “limited wars”, insurgency, political violence, terrorism, and unconventional conflicts of nearly all varieties. Although Boot treads in territory familiar to his likely audience, the sheer massive scope – both chronological and categorical – of this work gives it unique value in the modern literature on unconventional warfare.

Boot clarifies his purpose in writing this volume in his introductory section. As the first pages make clear, Invisible Armies is not intended to be a piece of academic scholarship in the traditional sense, nor, as he emphasizes, is it meant to justify or delegitimize the actions of the paramilitary organizations, leaders, and nations that he covers. Although he argues that there exists a set of crucial trends in unconventional warfare that are illustrated by the examples and cases he offers, he freely admits that his aim “is to simply tell a story that has never been well-told and to tell it as engagingly and even-handedly as possible.” This volume, therefore, is meant to be informative and interesting, not persuasive in the sense of a traditional scholarly piece. The framework, however, is still extremely comprehensive and certainly ambitious; Invisible Armiesencompasses over 560 pages, with a useful appendix and an additional 100 pages of footnotes and bibliographical information. The included cases are thoroughly-researched and related assertions are clearly supported.

Despite its considerable length, Invisible Armies offers clear and cogent analyses of Boot’s chosen cases that are woven together into a highly readable and convincing narrative. Boot begins with historical examples from Mesopotamia, the ancient Mediterranean empires, and even ancient China. A particularly convincing and refreshing aspect of Boot’s analysis is his inclusion of numerous atypical cases of unconventional warfare less frequently discussed in the prevailing literature on this topic. In particular, his inclusion of cases such as the Peninsular Wars and the Ku Klux Klan’s actions during the American Reconstruction period add depth to his analysis. In other words, Boot strives to make Invisible Armies something different from the numerous existing books on counterinsurgency. He argues, for example, that conventional notions of “Eastern ways of warfare”, i.e., guerilla warfare as a concoction of Eastern theorists like Sun Tzu, are tremendously oversimplified. As a counterargument, Boot seamlessly weaves Eastern and a variety of other non-Western examples into his analysis to prove his larger thesis: that unconventional warfare throughout history can be connected by overarching themes that, while subject to degrees of evolution over time, are visible and relevant globally even today.  These larger themes include the prevalence and persistence of “small wars” throughout history, common threads such as outside support among the most successful examples of insurgency, and the importance of intangibles such as legitimacy among both insurgents and counterinsurgents.

Boot likewise carefully acknowledges and where necessary emphasizes the role of broader historical trends in the cases he examines. His use of categories such as “Liberty or Death: The Rise of the Liberal Revolutionaries” to disaggregate his examples effectively places these conflicts within important and appropriate historical frameworks. In one section, for example, Boot focuses on Enlightenment-era conflicts from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century that were generally grounded in the dominant intellectual trends of the era.  In this sense, Invisible Armies is relevant not just for the relatively narrow band of students in the security studies or international relations fields, but serves as a bridge between both these fields and the broader disciplines of history and political science more generally. The potential audience for this volume, therefore, is as broad as the work itself.

However, the breadth of Invisible Armies presents some challenges. The work appears to alternate its orientation between categorical organization (mostly heavily applied in the latter half of the volume) and a chronological one (which characterizes the first half). This renders an otherwise very readable book somewhat confusing in terms of organization, and is likely an unavoidable aspect of attempting to cover such broad swaths of history in such a cogent manner. Additionally, while certain examples are standard and expected in such a work (e.g., the Algerian War of Independence, the Vietnam War, and others) and some make unique contributions to the analysis (e.g., the Haitian War of Independence and the Malayan Emergency), some included cases seem to be less useful for the broader framework of analysis (e.g., the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines). In this respect, the breadth of the work, while impressive, adds information in places while not substantially advancing the author’s arguments.

Throughout the volume, Boot repeatedly emphasizes “lessons learned” from his chosen conflicts and even concludes with a twelve-point chapter of “Implications”. Although all of these implications, both in this chapter and throughout the work, are well-supported and convincing, the analyses and recommendations themselves are not particularly unique or surprising for students of unconventional conflicts. His emphasis on outside support, legitimacy (for both insurgent groups and counter-insurgents), and the ineffectiveness of conventional tactics against unconventional threats is fairly well-trodden territory. His more innovative recommendations, particularly his ending note on the evolving role of technology for “invisible armies”, are more interesting and suggest promising paths for future research in the field of unconventional conflict.

Invisible Armies offers a unique contribution in the scope of its analysis and the author’s ability to condense major trends across a range of historical and modern cases into persuasive trends. Furthermore, it is both applicable and useful across a broad range of social science fields, an unusual achievement for works in this subject area. Although this volume is not – and was not designed to be – a transformative piece on counterinsurgency, it is an expansive and highly relevant synthesis of unconventional conflicts, past and present.

Andrea Clabough is a 2013 graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, Ms. Clabough graduated from Vanderbilt University in May 2011 with B.A. degrees in Political Science and History.

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