Max Boot: The Myths of Guerrilla Warfare

Roundup: Talking About History

Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.

For a student of military history, the most astonishing fact about the current international scene is that there isn't a single conflict in which two uniformed militaries are pitted against each other. The last one was a brief clash in 2008 between Russia and Georgia. In our day, the specter of conventional conflict, which has dominated the imagination of the West since the days of the Greek hoplites, has almost been lifted.
But the world is hardly at peace. Algeria fights hostage-takers at a gas plant. France fights Islamist extremists in Mali. Israel fights Hamas. The U.S. and its allies fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Syria's Bashar al-Assad fights rebels seeking to overthrow him. Colombia fights and negotiates with the FARC. Mexico fights drug gangs. And various African countries fight the Lord's Resistance Army.
These are wars without front lines, without neatly defined starting and end points. They are messy, bloody affairs, in which attackers, typically without uniforms, engage in hit-and-run raids and often target civilians. They are, in short, guerrilla wars, and they are deadly. In Syria alone, more than 60,000 people have died since 2011, according to the United Nations. In Mexico, nearly 50,000 have died in drug violence since 2006. Hundreds of thousands more have perished in Africa's civil wars. The past decade has also seen unprecedented terrorist attacks, ranging from 9/11 to suicide bombings in Iraq. To understand today's world, you have to understand guerrillas and the terrorist movements that are their close cousins.
Unfortunately, our ignorance of guerrilla war runs deep, even as we find ourselves increasingly entangled in such conflicts. Contrary to popular lore, guerrilla warfare wasn't invented by Che Guevara or Mao Zedong, and terrorism long predates the 1972 Munich Olympics. Nor is insurgency, as some have suggested, a distinctively "Oriental" form of warfare, difficult for Westerners to grasp.
Examining guerrilla warfare's long history not only brings to light many compelling, half-forgotten characters; it lays to rest numerous myths and allows us to come to grips with the most pressing national security issue of our time. What follows are lessons that we need to learn—but haven't—from the history of guerrilla war...

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