Book Review: Invisible Content in Max Boot’s “Invisible Armies”

Book Review: Invisible Content in Max Boot’s “Invisible Armies”

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. By Max Boot. Liveright; 784 pages; $35.

 

The Economist gave this book a glowing review, so I picked it up. Max Boot attempts an “epic history” which is comprehensive, thorough, and readable for either civilian or professional.

Instead Boot provides a disjointed collection of tabloid-quality overviews for many wars, without explicit analysis, then attaches a list of a dozen “lessons” on Guerrilla wars, closing with a “database” (a 21-page table) on guerrilla wars since 1775.

Background

Western warfare consists of moving and supplying armies (“strategy and logistics”), which fight battles (“tactics”). An army marches on its stomach, but not on empty. Without logistics, fighting becomes hopeless.

“Regular” warfare (pre-20th century) on the battlefield resembled chess: moving rectangular blocks of infantry or cavalry. JFC Fuller’s Generalship of Alexander notes a battle resembles boxing, where each boxer may: think, guard, move, and hit.

“Irregular” warfare describes all other military engagements outside of this category. This includes “guerrilla warfare” (Boot defines as violence directed towards military forces for “political” or “religious” change) and “terrorism”, when “nonstate actors” use violence against noncombatants to “intimidate or coerce” and “change their government’s policies or composition” (p xxii).

Boot suggests (in his concluding chapter) a seemingly novel and unique perspective: we cannot distinguish “irregular” from “regular” warfare. (Clausewitz noted this two centuries ago, but Boot regularly mischaracterizes Clausewitz throughout Invisible Armies.) Alas, he misses excellent examples blurring the distinctions:

  • Pancho Villa (nonstate actor) robbing both combatants and noncombatants during the battle of Columbus, New Mexico…which category does this belong?
  • “Irregular logistics” (raiding enemy supply depots as Genghis Khan, General Sherman, and others have done) but engaging in “regular” tactics: can we study this as “irregular warfare” or not?

And belying his point, he wrote a book focusing on “irregular” warfare (which does no favors to lay readers). He never resolves this problem, nor specifies how we should study irregular warfare when it’s “pure” or mixed with regular warfare (which does no favors to professional readers).

Logistics

General Robert H. Barrow (USMC) once quipped: “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” Fuller attributes Alexander’s logistical genius for such a prolific military record. Logistical concerns form the basis for irregular warfare. Several famous examples come to mind, chiefly Napoleon and Genghis Khan.

Inheriting an army composed of vagabonds, facing well-trained heavy infantry depending on supply depots, Napoleon reorganized his troops into “mini-armies” stationed within several days march of each other, each composed of “divisions” (within several hours of each other). He organized the army for logistic purposes.

This irregular organization enabled him to move quicker, out-maneuver the enemy’s armies, and harass supply depots (denying his enemy the ability to resupply). Boot could have noted this innovation, should have used Napoleonic shifts to back his thesis, but fails to do so…which seems inconsistent with his proposition “Regular/Irregular warfare’s a false dichotomy”.

Genghis Khan faced a similar problem. Slow heavy infantry constituted the Chinese armies. These slow units depend on stationary supply depots.

Genghis organized his army into interdependent “mini-armies” raiding supply depots, denying his enemy any supplies, weakening them for the final coup. Boot dismisses the possibility that the Mongols could be guerrillas (but says nothing of their irregular warfare), asserting their “size” and “discipline” disqualifies them (p 40)!

At best, Boot glosses over logistical innovations. Often frustratingly brushes over important changes as “vastly improved logistics” (p 39), or noting how certain commanders “did not even have a proper logistics service” (p 297) without any additional information. These gaps render the book uninformative to the uninformed, frustrating to the professional, and useless to all.

Information and Propaganda in War

Boot misunderstands information and propaganda during war. Like his analysis of logistics, Boot notes how critical propaganda has been in “modern” wars, and fails to tell us how propaganda has been used or what form it takes. This is exceedingly worrying since 25% of his concluding “Implications” chapter involve informing the population. This epitomizes the gaps and non-sequiturs occurring throughout the book.

Boot completely neglects analysing propaganda’s role throughout history until the 19th century. He forgets Darius’ Behistun engravings, an iron-age propaganda example…and the Sassanids rewriting their rise to power modeled after the Achaemenids. Boot errs suggesting it wasn’t until the “printing press” when warfare started using propaganda (p 55).

Despite quoting TE Lawrence’s dictum (“The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern commander”), Boot never discusses how this is so. If we want to understand propaganda in modern guerrilla warfare, we should consult the US Field Manual on counterinsurgency.

For example, Boot notes how Bin Laden’s rag-tag militia botched an attempt to capture Jalalabad in 1989. What happened? Well, Boot tells us Bin Laden experienced a “costly” lost. How? We’ll never know. But, rest assured, Bin Laden “knew how to turn battlefield defeats into propaganda victories” (p 519). How? Again, Boot leaves it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the vast blank.

Boot on Terrorism

Although he discusses terrorism quite a bit (discussing Operation Entebbe, the Palestinian Intifada, and the rise of al-Qaeda, but little else), Boot skims over various important details relating terrorism and propaganda.

Boot discusses how Bin Laden rebuilds his organization during the early 1990s, while coping with severe financial constraints. How? He “raised funds” from “Gulf businessmen” and “Muslim charities” (p 522). What did he do? Boot never specifies, nor refers the reader to other literature.

Terrorism, for Boot, describes “nonstate actors” engaging in violence “primarily” against noncombatants hoping to (1) “intimidate” or “coerce”, and (2) change government policies or composition (p xxii). Boot essentially reiterates, but does not cite, Clausewitz’s definition that war is “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”

Boot fails to describe the dynamics for a terrorist organization (nor does he provide any references). He neglects providing examples to study their dynamics. So how does one combat terrorism or stem it? Boot does not inform the reader.

The dynamics have been studied in the literature: A terrorist organization is a firm whose “primary product” is “political violence”. Its success correlates with its growth, which in turn depends on distributing effective propaganda and information. This correlation is no coincidence, since effective propaganda affects the organization’s logistics (which, as discussed, connects with successful endgames).

[Citation Needed]

Boot’s bibliography spans 64 pages and contains numerous questionable entries. For a “scholarly” text on military history, he uses popular histories over relevant academic research (e.g., Blanch’s Sabres of Paradise over Hamid’s Imam Shamil: The First Muslim Guerrilla Leader, Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World over Saunders’ History of the Mongol Conquests, etc.).

The questionable language describing Central Asians (and others) as “primitive nomads” employing “primitive warfare” stems from Boot’s sketchy scholarship. He cites translations from Confucian scholars, who had chips on their shoulders after experiencing defeat. Does Boot mention this? Not a word.

Thumbing through the works on central Asia, Boot cites 34 books — but 22 are either general popular histories or inappropriate (e.g., antiquated, tangential, written by angry Confucian scholars, etc.). Despite a massive bibliography, Boot’s inability to pick proper sources renders it superficial and worse than useless.

Conclusion

Independent to the rest of the book, Boot provides 12 “lessons” on guerrilla warfare. These lessons sometimes contradict various chapters of the book (e.g., “Lesson 11. Guerrillas are most effective when able to operate with outside support” but Boot’s discussions of the Anglo-Afghan wars, the Cuban revolution, etc., all contradict this).

Other lessons have no real support: they just reiterate previous hypotheses (e.g., the first three lessons reiterate the point “We cannot distinguish regular from irregular warfare” but lack firm support from his text).

Perhaps most puzzling: Boot unwittingly reinvents Clausewitz’s notion war is politics by other means when suggesting “Conventional tactics don’t work against an unconventional threat” (p 561). This “lesson” was discussed earlier, independently, by Daase, Schurmann (pdf), among others. None appear in the bibliography.

Boot’s lessons aren’t “wrong”, merely tautological, unoriginal, or pure speculation. They are not deduced from the grocery list of war stories…rendering the entire book irrelevant.

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