Small Wars Journal

A Review: Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present

Tue, 04/16/2013 - 3:30am

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot.  Published by W. W. Norton, New York.  2013, 784 pages.

When Max Boot writes a book on insurgency or guerilla warfare, one must stop and take note if one is in any way interested in the topic of unconventional warfare.  Boot, a Senior Fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations and a distinguished author on the subject of terrorism, insurgency, and U.S. national security, has written an important volume on the Small Wars and Insurgencies past and present.  His most profound idea is that terrorism, insurgency, and guerilla warfare has always been with us since the drawn of human civilization.  He sets out to prove this by examining terrorism and insurgencies around the globe from 3000 BC to the present. The ancient city of Akkad in what is now Iraq, saw the first description of an insurgency between 2334 and 2005 BC; this included tensions between nomads and city dwellers in long forgotten places like Sumeria.  Of note, these tensions are also part of biblical lore in the stories of Abraham leading his people, the tensions of Abraham and Lot, and of course the famous incident in Sodom and Gomorrah (corrupt city dwellers).  We begin to get a more vivid history of insurgency through written accounts of the Ancient Persians and their Scythian adversary who fought unconventionally.  Jewish revolts and resistance against Rome were also fought as an insurgency; the author vividly describes one that cost 5,700 legions in 66 AD near a village called Beth-horon. 

There are too many tactical and operational examples to immerse your mind in. For instance, Napoleon’s defeat came not in Waterloo, but in Spain through a British financed guerilla war that consumed tens of thousands of Napoleon’s troops.  The chapter on the abolitionist John Brown is very thought provoking, as the bases of his massacre of slave owners was to spark an insurgency. We Americans have in our early revolutionary history masters of guerilla warfare against British regulars such as Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, who was found using hit and run tactics favored by tribes as varied as Arabs to Native Americans in order to erode the British in what would be called “The Southern Campaign.” Additionally, Samuel Adams fought the war of propaganda in Massachusetts. As another tidbit, the Chechen Muslim rebel Shamil, though successful in caving out an autonomous Dagestan and defeating Russian forces, his failure was in the imposition of Islamic law in his image that alienated other Muslims and tribes that led to his ultimate defeat.  Boot reminds us of the Sunni tribes of the Anbar Awakening that rebelled against al-Qaida in Iraq over its excesses.  The shape of the tribal zones of Pakistan was a legacy inherited by the British who attempted to unsuccessfully pacify the area from 1897 to 1947. 

Later chapters cover World War I and World War II guerilla practitioners, from T. E. Lawrence to Orde Wingate, who was eccentric, impossible, undisciplined, but brilliant practitioners of the art of guerrilla tactics.  Then there are chapters on Giap in Vietnam, and Guevara in Cuba, plus his failures in the Congo and Bolivia.  He ends this massive volume with twelve warnings; I shall share only a few:

  • Guerilla warfare is not an “Eastern Way of War,” it is the universal war of the weak.
  • The most important development in guerilla warfare in the last two hundred years is the rise of public opinion.  
  • Guerillas are most effective when they operate with outside support.

Simply, an essential read! 

Author's Note: CDR Aboul-Enein wishes to thank Ms. Sara Bannach, his Teaching Assistant, studying at George Mason University for her edits and discussion that enhanced this review. 

About the Author(s)

CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Intelligence University and National Defense University.  He is the author of “Militant Islamist Ideology,” and “Iraq in Turmoil,” both published by Naval Institute Press. His first book goes paperback this September and was named among the top 150 most influential titles on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the journal, Perspectives on Terrorism.  


It is simply an over simplification and perhaps a poor choice to use such statements as, "Napoleon’s defeat came not in Waterloo, but in Spain through a British financed guerilla war that consumed tens of thousands of Napoleon’s troops?"

Napoleon still had enormous resources at his disposal, a fact pointed-out to Czar Alexander I by his advisors when Alexander entertained ideas that Napoleon might be hesitant to invade as a result of a portion of his forces being tied down in Spain.

Although not completely defeated, Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Russia lead to his enemies smelling blood, further leading to a major defeat at the battle of Leipzig, the largest battle of the Napoleonic wars, further culminating with the finale at Waterloo.