Author and military officer Max Boot has been thinking — and writing — about guerilla and unconventional warfare recently, and he did something no one else has done: applied metrics. The following is from an essay he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The Guerilla Myth,” in part to promote his new book.
[T]hough guerrillas have often been able to fight for years and inflict great losses on their enemies, they have seldom achieved their objectives. Terrorists have been even less successful.
4. Insurgencies have been getting more successful since 1945, but they still lose most of the time. According to a database that I have compiled, out of 443 insurgencies since 1775, insurgents succeeded in 25.2% of the concluded wars while incumbents prevailed in 63.8%. The rest were draws.
This lack of historical success flies in the face of the widespread deification of guerrillas such as Guevara. Since 1945, the win rate for insurgents has indeed gone up, to 39.6%. But counter-insurgency campaigns still won 51.1% of post-1945 wars. And those figures overstate insurgents’ odds of success because many rebel groups that are still in the field, such as the Kachin separatists in Myanmar, have scant chance of success. If ongoing uprisings are judged as failures, the win rate for insurgents would go down to 23.2% in the post-1945 period, while the counter-insurgents’ winning percentage would rise to 66.1%.
Like most business startups, most insurgent organizations go bust. Yet some groups such as the Provisional IRA and Palestine Liberation Organization, which fail to achieve their ultimate objectives, can still win concessions from the other side.
We could not concur more on the mistaken celebration of the remarkably inept guerilla, Ché Guevara, whose defeat in the Congo and later defeat and death in Bolivia were more or less direct consequences of Guerilla While Stupid.
Boot also listed his five best books on Guerilla War for Five Best, a regular feature in the Journal (no link as someone sent us the clipping). Boot’s five were:
- The Centurions, by Jean Lartéguy (real name, Pierre Osty, a WWII veteran of the Free French Squadron of the SAS). This novel is, indeed, a very great tale of UW in Southeast Asia; it is also long out of print, and ridiculously expensive. (If you read French, it can be had for only $50, though; it’s the English translation that’s ridiculously expensive, due to its importance in the Special Forces and UW/COIN world over the last 50 years). A well-intentioned 2011 attempt to republish the English edition failed due to sheer bloody-mindedness from Larteguy’s estate.
- Eastern Approaches, by Fitzroy Maclean. British liaison to Tito’s ultimately-victorious Partisans in Yugoslavia. Not only instructive but enjoyable reading.
- Lawrence of Arabia, by Jeremy Wilson. This is one where we’d part company with Boot, recommending TE Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom over Wilson’s careful biography of this enigmatic and eccentric figure. But Wilson’s bio is very good, and we might be biased by having a 1st Public Edition of Seven Pillars in the UW Operations Research Library.
- The Sabres of Paradise, by Lesley Blanch. This 1960 book is the only one of Boot’s recommendations that we have not read, and we’re promptly going to Amazon to order it. It is the story of the 19th Century jihad of one Shamil against the Russians (it is, in fact, the same war treated in Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, which we by happenstance have on the nightstand at present).
- Into the Land of Bones by Frank L. Holt tells the story of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Afghanistan. Holt is a classicist, but as Boot notes, his gift is rendering the old sources in modern, compelling language. It’s worth noting that “unconquerable” Afghanistan has in fact been conquered many times — the varied peoples of the country are testimony to the ebb and flow of conquering armies of many races — but it’s always been difficult to seize and harder still to administer afterward.
While we might quibble about this choice or that, Boot, whose latest book is Invisible Armies: an Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, has thought about these recommendations and thinks so similarly to ourselves that we consider it proof of his genius. (In fact, we’ve ordered his book, too). Boot is a competent writer and an experienced military officer. It will be interesting to see if his book dethrones the previously standard tome on GW/UW, Robert Asprey’s two-volume masterpiece War In The Shadows.