Giving Guerrillas the Boot

Author Max Boot's 'Invisible Armies' Sees Unconventional Warfare as the Norm

• January 26, 2013 4:59 am


"There’s a tendency to designate guerrilla warfare as irregular or unconventional, but it’s always been the dominant way of war," said Max Boot, senior fellow in national security studies at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations.

Boot’s new book, "Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present," questions the widely held view that unconventional warfare is a new problem.

"The use of hit-and-run tactics, ambush, and surprise to negate the firepower advantage of a conventional military is an ancient form of warfare," Boot said.

"Even where conventional warfare was defined, it was just one way of many," Boot said.

Boot praised the United States Army as "the finest counter-insurgency force the world has ever seen," but urged against the "push to return to conventional warfare, which may never reemerge. That would run counter to the lessons of history."

"You need some degree of legitimacy, some form of popular acquiescence," Boot said of insurgencies. "If all you’re offering is death, the people will depose you."

Radical Islamists "can only have success where there’s a complete vacuum," Boot said. Libya, Mali, and Afghanistan each present opportunities for radicals because these countries have never experienced a strong, legitimate government.

Thomas Donnelly, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, echoed Boot’s remarks on Middle Eastern instability. "The region is a long way from becoming a stable, self-governing place, whether we’re there or not," he said.

"There’s a need to preserve a balance between conventional military power and irregular wars," he said. "The American Revolution was an American insurgency, but it depended on support from France and the fact that Britain was fighting on many other fronts," he said.

Steve Bucci, a 28-year Army veteran and director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, emphasized the importance of Boot’s analysis.

Many officers tried "to flush the lessons from Vietnam out of the army" during his early training. The military officials wanted to leave it in the past since the United States and France suffered in that conflict.

Bucci joined Army Special Forces where "guerrilla warfare stuff was our meat and potatoes."

Bucci recalled during Operation Iraqi Freedom, "other officers calling me at the Pentagon, saying ‘you special forces guys had Afghanistan, this one’s ours.’"

"Officers who were trained conventionally had to figure out a different kind of intelligence gathering and organization." Bucci said. "They weren’t very good at it at first, but they got better from Iraq and are applying the lessons to Afghanistan."

"Putting those tactics on the shelf is ahistorical and unrealistic," Bucci said. "That’s dangerous."