Long march to a simple message
War games: an Afghan boy mimes shooting US soldiers as they patrol his village, in Kandahar province, this year. photographs: bryan denton/new york times, pa
IRA bomb damage at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984. photographs: bryan denton/new york times, pa
HISTORYIn Max Boot’s weary odyssey through the history of guerrilla warfare, a flawed analysis of the IRA’s bombing campaign calls into question his wider conclusions about insurgency and the global war on terror
Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, By Max Boot, WW Norton & Company, 729pp, £25
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations and a respected military historian. This book, subtitled An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, is highly ambitious. Boot says in the prologue that he wants to tell the story “of irregular warfare from its origins in the prehistoric world to the contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond”. Hence this is a monster of a book, coming in at just over 700 pages.
Boot does not start this epic tale in prehistoric times, however. Rather he begins with an account of a Jewish ambush of Roman soldiers at Beth-Horon in AD 66. We then accompany him on a weary odyssey through thousands of years of “asymmetrical” and “hybrid” warfare.
Eventually, after hundreds of pages of this bloody business, we reach the epilogue, with Boot embedded among US troops in Afghanistan. The book finally ends with a brief concluding section, intriguingly titled “Twelve Articles, or the Lessons of 5,000 Years”.
If I were to sum those lessons up in one sentence, it would go something like “war is hell”, or words to that effect. Invisible Armies, divided into no less than eight individual books and hundreds of pages of annexes and notes, reaches a similar conclusion having exhausted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dusty archival and historical sources. Having exhausted us in this process, Boot nevertheless occasionally entertains and shocks the reader.
The first shock comes in the prologue. While working as a “Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow who served as a commentator and advisor to American military commanders”, Boot reveals that, as a civilian embedded with US troops in Iraq in 2003, he held a young Iraqi man, “a suspect”, at gunpoint. The weapon he used was not his own; it was a weapon that he was not authorised or trained to carry. Why he includes this unlawful and outrageous episode in the prologue is unclear. Perhaps it is to establish his credentials with the reader as a masculine, barrel-chested military historian with the same dubious street cred as the unfortunate marines he is sent to advise.
Boot continues in this peculiar vein from time to time, and, as a historian with no military experience himself, Boot adopts a particular writing style when describing American troops in in action.