Invisible Armies: An epic history for today

Invisible Armies: An epic history for today

How do we defeat a fanatical enemy so intent on destroying us that they are willing to go to any length, including suicide, to do it?

With the attack two weeks ago by armed Islamists on a Mohammad-drawing contest in Texas, the question is raised again: How do we defeat a fanatical enemy so intent on destroying us that they are willing to go to any length, including suicide, to do it?

If we think the situation we find ourselves in is unique, historian Max Boot reminds us that it is not. Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present tells the story of what we now call “asymmetric warfare.”

This is not an especially new book, having been published in 2013. It follow Boot’s 2002 book about America’s conflicts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, The Savage Wars of Peace.

Now is a good time to read it. All 570 pages of it.

Americans are really poorly informed when it comes to history. The millennial generation has no direct memory of World War II, Vietnam or even of the Soviet Union. Anyone under 25 was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What they have been taught has been colored with the red-colored glasses of the American left.

The left-leaning press doesn’t even attempt to put current news in context. Its only purpose is to reinforce an agenda. They faithfully reported every American casualty in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as they had generations earlier in Vietnam. That reporting stopped abruptly in November 2008.

When we see videos of ISIS beheading captives we think it is something new and horrible. It is not. In 2004, five masked men, likely including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, beheaded Jewish-American businessman Nicholas Berg on camera.

Boot tells us that although the technology has changed, the way extremists have used technology to spread their message has followed the same patterns, whether they were nineteenth century anarchists using newspapers and magazines, Vietcong and PLO terrorists using broadcast television, or ISIS and Al Qaeda making videos.

And while the terms terrorist and guerrilla are of relatively recent origin, Boot shows us that insurrections and guerilla-like campaigns go back several millennia BC. He shows that is every stage of history up to the present there have been dissident groups trying to bring down strong ruling powers.

There are lessons in his book that are very useful to us today. Sometimes the weak do beat the strong—but only under certain conditions. The counterinsurgent has the advantage. It order to prevail, though, the counterinsurgent must learn the lessons of history and apply them to the situation at hand.

His book is not a partisan witch-hunt. While the American left idolizes Che Guevara, for example, Boot describes in some detail who he was and what he actually accomplished—or didn’t. As a dispassionate, observant historian, Boot shows where we Americans have learned the wrong lessons or simply failed to apply the right ones. In Afghanistan and Iran, he chronicles our great initial successes and then our subsequent failures. At the end of the book he summarizes the twelve most important lessons of five thousand years of insurgent warfare.

Can we defeat a fanatical enemy so intent on destroying us that they are willing to go to any length, including suicide, to do it?

Yes. We have done it before and we can do it again. It does not require us to lose our humanity or our civilized values. Max Boot shows us how.

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