Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Max Boot and his book

This lunchtime I attended a meeting organized by the Henry Jackson Society at which the noted American author, consultant, editorialist, lecturer, and military historian, Max Boot, gave a presentation of his latest book, Invisible Armies, a history of guerrilla warfare that includes insurgency and terrorism as well as a discussion of how governments and armies have dealt with it in the past and might want to deal with it in the present and future.

Judging by this, the book has had a tremendous response in the States and it looks absolutely fascinating though long. I suppose it is a long and complicated subject. While I fully intend to read the book at some stage, I have not done so. In fact, I have no idea whether anybody is intending to publish it in Britain though the author is busy promoting it this week and next. Therefore, my comments are predicated on what I heard at the presentation, much of which was absolutely fascinating and I found myself nodding in agreement.

In particular, I agree with Mr Boot's insistence that both the insurrectionists and their opponents need to master the three 'p's: politics, propaganda and public opinion. While the Romans put down any insurrection with exemplary ruthlessness, the British in North America at the end of the eighteenth century, found themselves defeated because public opinion at home had turned against the war. In fact, they had also been defeated militarily but that would not have mattered so much if Lord North's government could muster support for a continuation of the war and greater resources being pushed in.

Interestingly, Mr Boot did not use this argument in a later discussion about Vietnam (raised by someone in the audience) though there the US had actually won militarily but found itself the defeated side as a result of public opinion and proganda back home.

Where I have to disagree with Mr Boot is his assertion, repeated several times, that the new kind of insurgency and terrorism that involved mass propaganda was not possible before the early nineteenth century (apart from the American War of Independence, presumably) because of the technology of communication as well as of irregular warfare. To be fair, he may not say this in the book. What, I thought to myself, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time of insurrection and terrorism for ideas that were not rooted in nationalism necessarily and also a time of an intensive propaganda war?

Since 1945, Mr Boot said, about forty per cent of insurgencies have been successful but, of course, that still means that sixty per cent were not. In his opinion, reasonably enough, insurgencies were successful if the government in question was already unpopular and lacked legitimacy in people's eyes. Castro and Guevara were successful against Batista's government but Guevara could not export that to other countries, such as Bolivia, where to government was reasonably popular, reasonably legitimate and reasonably reformist. End of Guevara. Unfortunately, that does not explain while the hardly legitimate and hardly popular Castro government has survived all this time. Possibly because the answer might not fit with Mr Boot's other point and that is the likelihood of a government being successful against insurgencies and terrorists if it takes the trouble to demonstrate its legitimacy and ability to bring the people on side (if only temporarily).

As two case studies, he compared the ferocious behaviour of the French paras in Algiers to the far more nuanced behaviour of the British in Malaya under Sir Harold Briggs and Sir Robert Grainger Ker Thompson. The British did, indeed, develop a very good multi-faceted plan and dealt with the emergency far better than the French did with the Algerian insurgency, which ended with a comprehensive French defeat both militarily and, more importantly, with regards to public opinion. Of course, the British had two advantages: the Communist insurrectionists in Malaya did not have all that much public support and based their strategy on fear and, perhaps more importantly, the country was far away and not much was known at home about what was going on.

Which brings me to another civil war and insurgencythat was fought for about ten years after the ending of the Second World War, in the Baltic States, parts of Western Ukraine and even, for a shorter period, in Poland. Nowhere in that area was the new government seen as legitimate and after the first post-liberation/occupation period made no particular efforts to bring the people on side. Yet every insurgency was put down, often because of theparticipants' mistakes but even more often because of the untramelled brutality of the official forces. What does that tell us and can that be discussed in the same way as the French behaviour in Algiers and British in Malaya when we are looking to the future?


  1. A good thing the French lost in Algeria- they have a big enough Moslem problem as is.

  2. Which is the inevitable outcome of that war and that loss.

  3. Did he touch on where insurrections are really just wars by proxy for third powers. e.g. Vietnam where the Viet Cong were bankrolled by both the Soviets and Chinese, e.g. Hezbollah who are bankrolled by Iran etc. etc.

  4. It was just a presentation and, as mentioned, I have not read the book. Both those examples are insurrections as well as proxy wars for other powers or states. In fact, one of the signs that the US was winning was the entry of the North Vietnam directly as the Viet Cong were destroyed. The discussion of the Vietnam war was inadequate as I said.

  5. A unique aspect of the Malay emergency was that the British were offering the Malay people independence, as well as the Chinese communists running the insurgency having a stated aim of independence, albeit as a communist state.

  6. Yes, Max Boot mentioned that, Jabba. It is a very important part of the story.

  7. The French were defeated by the insurgency not just in Algeria but also in IndoChina. Maybe it was the fault of the military tactics used, maybe the general lack of empathy between the natives and the colonialists in French territories.

    On Cuba, a subtly cynical argument might be that the Castro regime has remained in place as it is tolerated by the US. What better way of persuading the American people that Communism is a threat to their way of life than to have a living example of a Communist state right next door?


  8. It would certainly not be anybody's while to bring the Castro regime down now or has been for some time. I think Bay of Pigs was a genuine if somewhat incompetent attempt.