Books: Fighting convention

‘Invisible Armies’ presents a tour-de-force history of guerrilla warfare, starting in 2400 BCE Mesopotamia and taking the reader through the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Boer Guerillas (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Boer Guerillas
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The haughty British redcoats marched out of Boston on April 19, 1775, with intents to “crush evils in their infancy,” rather than let the revolutionary American fervor spread. Their objective was an arms cache just 20 miles distant. The soldiers were supposed to be the cream of the British army, 800 light infantrymen and grenadiers.
The mission grew ominous as the soldiers heard bells ringing in the pre-dawn hours, announcing their approach. By the end of the day, they had suffered 65 killed and 207 wounded, and the column had returned to Boston in defeat.
What had beaten them, as is taught in every American school today, was a ragtag bunch of militiamen intent on freeing their country from the British yoke. The American War of Independence was a seminal event in history.
Max Boot, an eminent military historian and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that what was important in the US guerrilla war against the British was not any sort of new fighting style, but the role that British public opinion played in ending the war.
“It was effectively decided not at [the battle of] Yorktown, as most historians would have it, but in Westminster,” he writes. “The battlefield success of George Washington’s soldiers was not irrelevant, but neither was it decisive. Public opinion in Britain was. This was a lesson that future generations of guerrillas could study and apply.”
Invisible Armies presents a tour-de-force history of guerrilla warfare, starting in 2400 BCE Mesopotamia and taking the reader through the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The author uses a broad definition of guerrilla warfare, including large-scale insurrections and small terrorist operations in his analysis. He notes that the main feature of guerrilla warfare is that it “lacks front lines and large scale set-piece battles – the defining characteristic of conventional conflict.”
But right off the bat, it isn’t clear what the author intends to do with all those guerrilla wars that transformed themselves into conventional conflicts. After all, he begins his first chapter by introducing the reader to the battle of Beth- Horon in 66 BCE, in which Jewish forces fell upon a retreating Roman column. The author concludes that “the Jewish Revolt showed the vulnerability of even ancient empires to irregular tactics.” But the reality is that the Jewish forces, like the American revolutionaries, used both irregular tactics and conventional ones against their adversaries. The dividing line is not always clear. The Scottish wars of resistance against the English often consisted of set-piece battles followed by years of guerrilla warfare.
Boot tries to balance his narrative between well-known guerrilla wars and those that history has chosen to forget.
For instance, he devotes a chapter to the “war to the knife” between Spanish guerrillas and French forces during the Napoleonic wars. During that conflict, some 180,000 Frenchmen were killed.
The book examines Lawrence of Arabia and Orde Wingate, but it also looks at Col. Joseph Gallieni and French Marshal Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey.
Gallieni “employed mobile columns to trap Chinese bandits known as ‘Black Flags’, who terrorized northern Indochina.
Along with these offensive operations, he established a series of military posts whose commanders combined civil and military powers in an attempt to win over the local population.”
In 1912, Lyautey, who had worked with Gallieni in French Indochina, employed similar tactics in Morocco to fight Islamist fighters. He added to this repertoire the notion of “outreach” to the local people, including “questioning merchants and passersby regarding their needs and wishes.”
Few recall today that France’s war against Islamic insurgents in Morocco culminated in a 1926 offensive involving 500,000 French and Spanish soldiers to put down a revolt in the Atlas mountains.
The main message the author seeks to convey, and the story he attempts to tell, is that insurgencies can be defeated by inventive tactics. With the absence of the ability simply to exterminate enemies, as might have been possible before the modern era, countries must employ a combination of military skill and social programs. In discussing the British Empire, the author notes that the British seem to have fared better than the French and others when confronting insurgencies.
“In no small part this was because the British paid greater attention to the political side of the business,” he writes. “The French were slow to come to this realization – they lived for too long in what [one author] called ‘a dream world.’” Invisible Armies is a massive 700-page tome. However, the reader can pick and choose from more than 60 case studies of conflicts. One can learn about contemporary Islamic terrorism or “The Bomb Throwers: The First Age of International Terrorism,” from the Boer War to the Greek War of Independence.
While the chapters are so short that anyone with a deep interest in the various conflicts will be left wanting more, they still provide a surprising level of detail and riveting insights.
Boot has produced an important book that is sure to stand the test of time on this broad subject. In so doing, he has added new analysis of old conflicts and fleshed out characters with whom English-speaking audiences are often unfamiliar.