Fighting Invisible Armies
This is from a review of Max Boot's latest book Invisible Armies.
The natural way of war is to strike by surprise, and to retreat stealthily back into the wilderness to safety with as few causalities as possible. Primitive people do not “stand and fight,” they hide and kill, their method of warfare is the ambush; “bushwhacking,” as it was called during the pro- and anti-slavery fighting in Kansas before the Civil War, far from being “dishonorable” is the traditional way of fighting, as is “terror,” in the sense of sudden and unexpected assassinations and horrendous threats of violence designed to break the enemy’s will. The introduction of efficient lethal weapons manufactured to a standard design and furnished by the state, and of such huge advancements in organized warfare as marching in step and of moving in lines or columns, of formalized ranks, uniforms and discipline, produced in the growing national empires of the ancient world—Egypt, Babylon, Greece—the equivalent of professional armies intended to carry out the state’s policy.
These national armies waged long campaigns, necessitating supply lines and the birth of “logistics,” and were intended for the specific purpose of fighting great, decisive battles and inflicting the largest possible number of enemy casualties. They set a high premium on “honor,” and of iron discipline, the one being often confused with the other. (Until very recently, the penalty in all serious armies for disobeying an order in combat or for cowardice was death—death sentences for “cowardice in the face of the enemy” were not uncommon in the British Army in World War One, and the last American soldier to be shot for cowardice was Private Slovick, whose execution was confirmed by General Eisenhower in December 1944.)There is much more.
By contrast in the “natural” warfare as it was practiced throughout most of human history, running away when the enemy was in superior numbers was the sensible thing to do—the aim was to kill the enemy when he was off his guard, to cut his throat when he was sleeping, not to display courage by advancing in the open in large numbers, but to fight from concealment whenever possible.
Boot, whose grasp on history is amazingly broad, gives examples of traditional warfare from pre-history to today, with concise and enlightening chapters on the great “guerrilla” leaders of the past, from a Jewish victory over a Roman army in 66 A.D. to our present difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again and again the generals of organized armies, whether those of the Roman Empire or those of the United States today, have puzzled over the difficulty of deciding how to come grips with a guerilla army which is by definition poorly armed, undisciplined, and more of a vapor than a solid, to paraphrase that greatest of guerrilla celebrities, T. E. Lawrence; they are often indistinguishable from the civilians among whom the guerillas pass or live, and on whose behalf they claim to fight. The United States Army has been puzzling over this conundrum since at least the Philippines insurgency (1899-1902) without coming up with a satisfying answer, and there is scant evidence that General Petraeus, despite being enshrined as the high priest of counterinsurgency (Mr. Boot is one of his admirers), in Iraq and Afghanistan got it right either, before his move to the CIA, and subsequent disgrace.
Mr. Boot is terrific at describing the various ways in which “the great powers” over the years have confronted guerrilla warfare, and his chapter on the British success in Malaya in the 1950s is enlightening and fascinating, as is his chapter on Lawrence of Arabia. He points out that in a full scale world war guerrilla warfare, however romanticized and dramatic, is seldom relevant. He also notes that when Albert Speer, Hitler’s industrial and production genius, was asked after Germany’s defeat about the “impact” of the French Resistance on Germany’s war effort, he responded, “What resistance?” Not that the Resistance did not exist, of course, or was not brave, but the only thing that could end the German occupation of France was a successful Allied landing and a full scale, conventional and victorious battle between the Germany Army and Allied forces, and until the summer of 1944 many times more Frenchmen and Frenchwomen worked in factories that produced material for the Wehrmacht than served in the Resistance.
What the author calls the natural way of war is basically a raiding strategy. He also discusses the various attempts of traditional armies to come to grips with raiding strategies. A raiding strategy forces armies based on massing troops to overwhelm an enemy to disburse them and create a force to space ration adequate to cut off the raiders' movement to contact or avenue of retreat from contact. The disbursed troops are most effective when they can protect the people from the raider and there by gather intelligence on the movement of the raiders. Strong points and fortresses along the avenues of attack can also thwart raider's strategy.