COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., May 17, 2015—With the attack two weeks ago by armed Islamists on a “draw Mohammad” 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. But now is a good time to read it. All 570 pages of it.
The current volume is a welcome follow-on to Boot’s 2002 book about America’s conflicts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, The Savage Wars of Peace.
It’s an unfortunate reality today that Americans are poorly informed about history. The millennial generation has no direct memory of World War II, Vietnam or even of the Soviet Union. Anyone under 25 today was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What they have been taught has been filtered through the red-colored glasses of the American left that currently and treacherously dominates America’s educational system.
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The left-leaning press doesn’t even attempt to put current news in context. Whether print, online, or televised on regular and cable networks, the only purpose of what’s called journalism today is to reinforce an agenda that routinely follows a leftist narrative. They faithfully reported every American casualty in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as they had generations earlier in Vietnam, particularly when a Republican holds the office of the presidency. It’s notable that this kind of reporting stopped abruptly in November 2008.
Today, when we see videos of ISIS beheading captives, we think the phenomenon 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.
In his book, Boot tells us that, although the technology has changed, the way extremists have used technology to spread their message has followed the same patterns over time, whether those involved were 19th century anarchists using newspapers and magazines, Vietcong and PLO terrorists using broadcast television, or ISIS and Al Qaeda making videos for dissemination on the Internet and on social media.
While the terms terrorist and guerrilla are of relatively recent origin, Boot shows us that insurrections and guerilla-like campaigns actually go back several millennia BC. He shows that in every stage of history, up to and including the present, there have been dissident groups trying to bring down strong ruling powers.
There are lessons in Boot’s book that can prove very useful to us today. Sometimes the weak do actually beat the strong—but only under certain conditions. The counterinsurgent has the advantage. In order to prevail, though, the counterinsurgent must learn the lessons of history and apply them to the situation at hand.
Boot’s 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 12 most important lessons learned from 5,000 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.