DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Invisible Armies: Shedding Light on Guerrilla Warfare

When people learn the subject of Max Boot's new book, they have a question for him - What was the 1st guerrilla war? "Essentially guerrilla warfare is as old as mankind," Boot answers. "Tribal warfare was often the hit and run style of warfare that is very different than toe-to-toe warfare."

Boot appeared recently at the New America Foundation to discuss his latest work Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.

Many people believe guerrilla tactics are a relatively new invention. "That is 180 degrees from the truth," Boot says, pointing out that conventional warfare only began about 5,000 years ago when Mesopotamia created the world's 1st organized military.

But Boot contends that in the past few centuries there have been major changes in the way insurgents fight, changes that he calls "the 3 P's - politics, propaganda, and public opinion."  And all 3 of those changes were evidenced as early as the American revolution. "The British didn't think much of the Americans slithering on their bodies and firing behind rocks," Boot says. "But the story that the war ended with a British surrender at Yorktown is a little incomplete. The British, who were the greatest military force of their time, could have exacted a terrible revenge on the Americans. But they didn't."

And the reason for that reluctance was politics. The members of the House of Commons, by an extremely close vote of 234 to 214, decided to discontinue military operations in their North American colonies. Public opinion in England had shifted from war to peace and America was allowed to establish its independence.

Two centuries later, a similar scenario played out when a powerful America failed to win its conflict in the tiny Southeastern Asia country of Vietnam. The reason - the protests for peace began outweighing the propaganda produced by the military hawks, public opinion turned against the war, and politics soon followed.

Boot says he contrasted 3 major types of warfare in his book - conventional warfare and 2 types of guerrilla fighters: insurgents and terrorists "Terrorists have even fewer resources than insurgent guerrillas so public opinion is even more important for them. There really was no such thing as terrorism before the 19th Century because there was no easy way for them to get their meaning out," he noted.

Comprehensive studies indicate that guerrillas rate of victory has increased in modern times from about 20% to 40%. "That shows the growing power of public opinion that allows a relatively puny power to bring down a superpower," Foot said.

With the last conventional war being fought in 2008 between Russia and its neighboring state Georgia, all the wars today would be classified as guerrilla in nature. "There are thousands of people dying in wars today. They are unconventional wars. It has been ever thus," Boot said.

The United States has spent the 21st Century engaged in 2 of those contests: one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan. Many people hope that will end when American forces are removed from Afghanistan in 2014. "Unfortunately, I'm not sure our enemies will accommodate us," Foot says. "Osama bin Laden may be dead, but Al Qaeda is very much alive."

In fact, bin Laden added new technological wrinkles to the idea of terrorists taking on a superpower. "Bin Laden may have been a very evil person, but you have to give him credit. He brought a modern management strategy. He took it to another level with computers and the internet and satellite TV," Foot said.

Perhaps the most terrifying fact about organizations like Al Qaeda or even small band of terrorists is that they have access to more powerful weapons today. "Technology allows ever smaller groups to be ever more destructive. It is not impossible to envision terrorists getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction,' Foot said. As an example, he cited the fact that a 20 kiloton dirty bomb denoted in New York City would kill as many as 600,000 people and seriously injure another 1.6 million. "It would make 9/11 look like Sunday in the park," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
These days the possibility of cyber strikes crippling the United States is very much discussed. Foot was asked his opinion on the subject. "I think that is something we should be worried about," he responded.  "It doesn't require a massive amount of infrastructure. All you need is a laptop. I think this will certainly be a tool
of terrorists in the future."

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