Colonel Roger Trinquier (1961) said, “We . . . attack an enemy who is invisible, fluid, uncatchable.” Perhaps no statement included in Max Boot’s masterful history of guerrilla and terrorist warfare better sums up what we have faced since 9/11.
Historian Max Boot concludes his massive tome on guerrilla and terrorist warfare with a postscript called: “The Lessons of Five Thousand Years.” In 1917 T. E. Lawrence wrote an essay called “Twenty-Seven Articles” which summed up many of the lessons that he had learned as an insurgent fighter. Boot provides twelve articles that sum up the lessons we can learn from Invisible Armies. I will not develop each one extensively but provide some brief comments.
1. Guerrilla Warfare has been ubiquitous and important throughout history.
Much of the world’s population lives in states whose current boundaries and forms of government were determined by insurgencies waged by or against their ancestors. This is not just true in the two-thirds world. Think of the United Kingdom. It is united because the English defeated the Scottish and Irish insurgencies. America is united because of the American colonists and the war they waged, mostly along guerrilla lines. And America developed because we succeeded in defeating the Indian irregulars time and time again.
2. Guerrilla warfare is not an “Eastern Way of War.” It is the universal war of the weak.
Because of the success of such warfare in China and Vietnam we tend to think that there is a “cultural proclivity” towards this kind of warfare, especially found in Asia and the Middle East. This is patently false!
3. Guerrilla warfare has been both underestimated and overestimated.
Before 1945 we generally underestimated guerrilla warfare and since the 1960s and 70s we have overestimated it. “The truth lies somewhere in between,” says Boot.
4. Insurgencies have been getting more successful since 1945 but still lose most of the time.
According to a database compiled for this book Boot shows that since 1775 insurgencies have succeeded only 25% of the time. Since 1945 the win rate is 40%. Most modern-day rebel groups in the field have little chance of success. Some group do not win but show gains for their cause; e.g. the IRA and PLO come to mind here.
5. The most important development in guerrilla warfare in the last two hundred years has been the rise of public opinion.
The growing power of public opinion has a much bigger role in the success of these forms of war in the modern era. Think 24/7 news and global attention, etc. Before the rise of public opinion most guerrilla war was largely apolitical struggles amongst tribesmen. They were “hit-and-run” skirmishes. The strategic power of guerrilla war and terrorism rose as soon as public opinion gave it more coverage and the insurgents how to shape coverage. YouTube, Twitter and media outlets on television have made a huge difference.
6. Conventional tactics don’t work against an unconventional threat.
The Vietnam War, and countless similar struggles, prove that superior might does not always win in warfare. To defeat insurgents opposing soldiers must take a different approach, one that focuses not on scattering insurgents but rather in securing the population. This is a major reason why Iraq and Afghanistan are not really about war, at least as we’ve known it historically.
The brute-force response is not generally successful against terrorism The Nazis in the Balkans and the Soviets in Afghanistan demonstrate that even the willingness of counterinsurgents to inflict genocidal violence was not enough to prevail. Atrocities tend to drive more people to the cause of rebels only when they have external backing.
8. Population-centric counterinsurgency is often successful, but it’s not as touchy-feely as commonly supposed.
This explains why General David Petraeus was successful in the tactics he employed in the “surge” during the Iraq War. It also explains how and why Israel has been able to withstand several Intifada’s. “Winning hearts and minds” is, Boot says, a rather “deceptive phrase.” In Iraq, regardless of what minds and hearts were changed, if the nation was not secured the outcome will be (is) in serious doubt.
9. Establishing legitimacy is vital for any successful insurgency or counterinsurgency–and, in modern times, that is hard to achieve for a foreign group or government.
This is, in fact, the second most important requirement after physically securing the population. “The spread of nationalism and democracy in the intervening years (since earlier times) has made it difficult for unelected regimes, particularly if imposed from abroad, to gain popular allegiance.” This is why great powers, like the U.S., must buttress the legitimacy of home-grown regimes rather than simply impose their own colonial officials at bayonet point, as their ancestors might have done.” The ideology that has proven most durable as a motivating force for guerrillas is not liberalism, anarchism, socialism or Islamism, but nationalism. I found this a startling conclusion until I pondered it much more deeply.
10. Most insurgencies are long-lasting; attempts to win a quick victory backfire.
The average insurgency since 1775 has lasted ten years. The figure is much longer since 1945. Think of Vietnam again. The struggle there was decades long. Low-intensity conflict leads to “long, arduous and protracted” frustration for both sides argued Sir Robert Templeton. This was never more true than in Vietnam.
Boot says, “A particularly seductive version of the ‘quick win’ strategy is to try to eliminate the insurgency’s leadership. Such strategies do sometimes work. The Romans managed to stamp out a revolt by Spain by inducing some of the rebels to kill their leader.” But more times than not these efforts fail.
This point should raise our awareness of the potential failure of present American attempts to counteract radical Islamic terrorism by traditional means, especially by killing terrorist leaders. For me the whole issue of drones killing non-combatants raises a number of ethical and military issues here.
11. Guerrillas are most effective when able to operate with outside support–especially conventional army units.
Next to having popular support guerrillas do best when they enjoy military support from outside their group. The common modern experience is to have support from existing states who share the goals of the guerrillas; e.g. American rebels getting support from the French against the British, Spanish guerrilleros cooperating with Wellington against Napoleon, and Arab rebels cooperating with Allenby and Lawrence against the Ottomans. But even without this kind of help guerrillas do best when they benefit from foreign funding, arms, training, and safe havens. China’s support for Vietnam is an illustration. But this too must not be over exaggerated since Fidel Castro in Cuba, and Michael Collins in Ireland, both had little or no outside support.
12. Technology has been less important in guerrilla war than in conventional war–but that may be changing.
The “wild card” here will be if (when?) guerrilla groups secure chemical, biological or especially nuclear weapons. Consider what we know about the civil war going on right now inside Syria. It appears both state forces and guerrillas have employed such weapons.
This is a “must read”book if you want to have a grasp of terrorist and guerrilla warfare and how we should combat it in the modern world. If I read Max Boot correctly then much of the engagement of the United States in recent foreign wars has been pursued with an all too limited understanding of “unconventional warfare.”
To change directions, in conclusion, I realize that a number of biblical works on Ephesians 6 have applied ancient Roman soldiers and combat to Paul’s analogy of spiritual warfare. I have a great deal of sympathy with these analogies given the context of Paul’s profoundly metaphorical language in Ephesians 6:10-20. I thus had to wonder, as I spent time in this fascinating book and employed my imagination, how much of the evil one’s combat against us might actually qualify as “guerrilla warfare” and “terrorism.” He certainly strikes at us from hidden places and then leaves. He intimidates and drives us to fear. It does make you think about our some of our ineffective strategies that the modern church has employed in fighting against Satan, our true spiritual foe.