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.
The opening sentence of the book describes US paratroopers going on patrol in a ruined and bombed-out Baghdad in April 2007. “Like predators ready for the hunt, the paratroopers came out of their ‘hootches’, their quarters, as twilight began to fall, their tan desert boots crunching softly on the silvery gravel spread over the barren soil of their compound.” Later on, towards the end, while writing about US operations in Lebanon during the 1980s, Boot describes a senior American officer: “That morning, in Beirut, Colonel Tim Geraghty awoke as usual at dawn, slipped on his camouflage uniform and combat boots, splashed cold water on his face and walked downstairs to his operations center. A youthful-looking veteran of the Vietnam War and service with the CIA, handsome and square-jawed, he was commander of the Twenty-Fourth Marine Amphibious Unit.” Dear me. More Mills Boon here than objective historical analysis when it comes to US troops, the obvious “heroes” of a work that reads at times like an overly long book of war stories for boys.
Boot uses less complimentary language when describing “terrorists” or “guerrillas” in action. In book IV, chapter 35, titled “Shinners and Peelers”, Boot gets to grips with the Irish War of Independence. He opens with a description of Dan Breen’s involvement in the Soloheadbeg Ambush of 1919. Boot describes the Volunteers as “masked marauders”. His description of the Irish countryside, however, is a little more charitable. “They spent five days, five endless days, at the ambush site amid the shamrock-green fields.” Shamrocks indeed.
Boot is highly sceptical of the fledgling Óglaigh na hÉireann’s military skills. He writes: “From 1913 to 1919, they drilled as best they could, trying to learn how to become soldiers from British Army manuals.” Boot does not mention that hundreds of Irish volunteers had served in the British army itself and were battle-hardened veterans of the trenches of the first World War.
Boot also seriously misjudges – or misrepresents – the actions of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, November 21st, 1920. He writes: “A substantial force of Auxies and Black and Tans showed up to surround the ground and search the crowd . . . when they opened fire on the crowd at Croke Park killing 12 civilians and wounding 60.”
Boot seems not to fully comprehend the profound significance for the Irish population of the cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians in revenge attacks by crown forces. Nor does he fully seem to grasp how instrumental such brutality was in coalescing and galvanising support for Irish insurgency. Despite this, Boot finally, begrudgingly acknowledges the Irish War of Independence as the “first successful revolt by a British colony since the American War of Independence”.
Talking with terrorists
In the same chapter, Boot is emphatic about the Provisional IRA campaign of violence during the Troubles. He concludes that the Sinn Féin-Provisionals campaign of terror was a complete failure. “In 1979, the Provisional IRA murdered Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, and five years later attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the entire British Cabinet by bombing the hotel where they were staying in Brighton. These actions only redoubled Thatcher’s determination to defeat the IRA.”
This assertion seems at odds with the fact that Thatcher opened talks with the Provisional IRA shortly after this attack, despite her public statement to the effect that the British government would never negotiate with terrorists.
Boot seems to adhere to the belief that Thatcher’s public statement in the aftermath of the Brighton bombing frames the political reality of the Provisionals’ campaign of violence. While Thatcher certainly stated that “all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail”, she was secretly negotiating with the Provisionals behind the scenes.
The fact that Boot seems to miss this point, in a major work on terrorism and insurgency, is a serious flaw that undermines this reviewer’s faith in his wider assertions about terrorism and the US global war on terror. Any professional soldier engaged in counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or in Africa ought to be keenly aware of the failure of the British government’s security policies in Northern Ireland before the talks with terrorists on all sides that ultimately led to the Belfast Agreement. Indeed, for several years, the US military has been involved in attempts to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan. For some reason, Boot skates over this rather important, and controversial, feature of Nato’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
In chapter 59 of book VIII, “Russia’s Vietnam”, Boot makes similar errors in his treatment of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He fails completely to compare and contrast the similarly ill-starred US intervention in Afghanistan over the past decade. Instead he rattles on about Stinger missiles and US aid to the mujahideen, matters that have been in the public domain for decades.
Boot’s book is simply overambitious. It also errs towards an uncritical and hegemonic view of current US policy in the global war on terror. Boot writes about Afghanistan, the “graveyard of empires”, with an imperial certainty that is almost tragicomic given the subject matter of the book and the uncertain times we live in. This is a pity. Fans of military historians such as Anthony Beevor will be disappointed by Boot’s offering.