Max Boot, author and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations discussed his most recent book 'Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present'.
The book studies the 5,000 year history of guerrilla warfare, from the barbarian’s invasion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, to the Castro/Guevaras revolt during the Cuban Revolution, to modern day insurgent cells such as Al Qaeda.
Boot explained that conventional warfare is a relatively recent invention, arising after the establishment of the first nation states, circa 3,000 BC. And at that time, enemies were not other conventional armies, but rebels from within, suggesting that historically, man has always fought this way and continues to do so today.
However, while comparisons can be drawn between early and modern day examples of guerrilla warfare, Boot stressed that many characteristics of traditional insurgency have changed. In his view, the most significant changes are in the areas he calls ‘the three Ps’: politics, propaganda and public opinion. While these factors were less significant in the days of Attila, they have become of much greater importance today.
Tackling the question of whether insurgents are becoming more successful in recent times, Boot believes they are. In 1945, insurgents had an average ‘win rate’ of 20 per cent. Since 1945, that rate has increased to 40 per cent. Why? Public opinion plays a huge part, and so does the disturbing trend of the past 100 years – the killing capacity at the hands of individuals.
“Our enemies are not imbeciles – they can read the lessons of history, which is that irregular warfare has a much higher success against a superpower than meeting that superpower head on in a battle field.”
Gone are the days where insurgents would fight with nothing more than bows, arrows and a few muskets. Now we face a very real and terrifying possibility that a small terrorist cell could relatively easily acquire weapons of mass destruction, and potentially have a bigger killing impact than any non-nuclear state, like Germany or Brazil.
In conclusion, Boot warned that guerilla warfare has the potential to become more destructive than it has ever been throughout the course of history. Our first line of defense is to understand that history and the problems caused by insurgency and counter-insurgency, which Boot’s book aims to do.
A podcast from the event is available below.