Invisible Armies

An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present

A complete global history of guerrilla uprisings through the ages.

Book
Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

More on:

Wars and Conflict

Military Operations

As fitting for the twenty-first century as von Clausewitz's On War was in its own time, Invisible Armies is a complete global history of guerrilla uprisings through the ages.

Beginning with the first insurgencies in the ancient world--when Alexander the Great discovered that fleet nomads were harder to defeat than massive conventional armies--Max Boot, best-selling author and military advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan, masterfully guides us from the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire up through the horrors of the French-Indochina War and the shadowy, post-9/11 battlefields of today.

Invisible Armies Insurgency Tracker

Relying on a diverse cast of unforgettable characters--not only Mao and Che but also the legendary Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi, the archaeologist–turned–military commander T. E. Lawrence, and the "Quiet American" Edward Lansdale, among others--Boot explodes everything we thought we knew about unconventional combat. The result is both an enthralling read and our most important work on nontraditional warfare.

A Council on Foreign Relations Book


Educators: Access the Teaching Module for Invisible Armies.

Visit the author's website, MaxBoot.net.

Up

Reviews and Endorsements

Selected as one of the Washington Post's one hundred best books of 2013
 

Included in the Foreign Policy Association's Six Books to Read This Summer

Should be a bible for policymakers.

Forbes

Thoughtful, smart, fluent, with an eye for a good story.

New York Times Book Review

Enormous, brilliant, and important . . . If there is such a thing as wisdom and common sense about the kind of war we are fighting now, and appear likely to go on fighting for some time, Max Boot's lucid, enlightening, and highly readable book is it.

Daily Beast

Fresh . . . pithy . . . [a] timely reminder . . . of the hard-earned lessons of history.

Economist

Impressively researched, astutely synthesized, and eminently readable.

Booklist

Sweeping, well-written, and comprehensively documented . . . a must read.

Publishers Weekly, starred review

An expansive nuts-and-bolts historical survey from a keen military mind.

Kirkus Reviews

Fascinating. . . . Beginning with the barbarians at the gates of the Roman Empire, a wonderful and valuable historic narrative filled with colorful characters.

Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin

Max Boot has written a landmark book about a perennial and important challenge: guerrilla warfare.

Jon Meacham, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

A penetrating writer and thinker.

Wall Street Journal

Max Boot has produced the most definitive and comprehensive work to date on the dominant form of warfare of our times. From the origins of guerrilla warfare to current conflicts the reader travels through the centuries of time understanding the nature and character of unconventional warfare yet because of the power of Boot's narrative and sheer ability to tell a story, the reader can live the experience. A must read for scholars, military and government professionals and a fascinating journey for the general public.

General (Ret.) Jack Keane, former Army Vice Chief of Staff

This is the definitive treatment of guerrilla warfare through the agesa tour de force by a preeminent military historian who has advised generals, policymakers and political leaders on the subject.

Senator John S. McCain

Max Boot, with flair and insight, delivers a rich and enthralling history of guerrilla warfare. This is an important work with a powerful message: throughout the years counterinsurgency has more often than not been the norm, and if we are not prepared to deal with such nasty little wars in the future, there'll be a heavy price to pay. A serious, sobering book, this epic work belongs on the shelf of military history buffs and policymakers alike.

Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval

Sweeping, meticulous, and exceptionally thoughtful. Max Boot's Invisible Armies is an important, compelling contribution to our understanding of how men make war.

Rick Atkinson, author of An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle

In the News

Max Boot on NPR's Morning Edition

A CFR Book. W. W. Norton

Giving Guerrillas the Boot

A CFR Book. W. W. Norton

The Guerrilla Myth

A CFR Book. W. W. Norton

Excerpt Up

Book I, Chapter 1. Ambush at Beth-horon


Romans vs. Jews, AD 66
The retreat began in November. The year was AD 66.1 A Roman army more than thirty thousand strong had marched south from Syria into the province of Judaea to suppress an incipient uprising. The soldiers slaughtered Jews and burned towns as they advanced. Finally the legionnaires arrived at Jerusalem. From their camp on Mount Scopus, the imperial authorities sent emissaries to tell the rebels that they would be forgiven if they would throw away their arms and surrender. The Jews delivered their answer by killing one emissary and wounding the other. The legions then mounted five days of attacks on the capital. They captured the suburbs and were about to assault the inner city when, for reasons that remain mysterious, their commander, Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, decided to call off the offensive.
 

The Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was himself a rebel before being captured and is the primary source for these events, was convinced that had Cestius "but continued the siege a little longer [he] certainly would have taken the city." but perhaps in the heat of battle Cestius was not sure of success and was worried about being cut off from his supply lines with winter approaching. Or perhaps he thought that he had already made his point and that the Jewish rebels, having gotten a taste of Roman fury, would now come to their senses. If so, he was mistaken. Fatally mistaken. Far from being cowed, the Jews were emboldened by "this unexpected retreat" and fell with a vengeance upon the retreating ranks.
 

With its superior training, discipline, and cohesion, the Roman army was the most formidable military force in the ancient world—but only if it met its enemies in open battle. Roman infantrymen advanced into battle silently and slowly in a checkerboard formation, their polished armor and helmets gleaming in the sun. When they got to within less than thirty yards of the enemy, they would toss their pilum, a seven-foot javelin. Then the legionnaires would let out a terrifying scream and charge the enemy lines, already thrown off balance by the heavy javelins, to punch their foes in the face with their scutum, a rectangular shield weighing approximately sixteen pounds, and to stab them in the belly with their gladius, a short double-edged sword that gave its name to gladiators. This initial wave of legionnaires would be supported in the rear by two reserve lines of infantry and on the flanks by cavalry and foreign auxiliaries armed with missile weapons such as bows and slings. Also available would be specialists in such fields as mechanical artillery, fortifications, road building, surveying, bridging, and logistics. Roman soldiers were sworn to follow their eagle standards to the gates of Hades if necessary, and if they failed they knew they could be subject to "decimation" by their own officers: every tenth man in a unit that disgraced itself could be flogged to death. There was no more formidable a military force in the ancient world.2
 

But all of this military might could be negated if the legions were caught in treacherous terrain and harassed by skillful, determined guerrillas. That is precisely what happened to Cestius Gallus's army as it marched along narrow, winding mountain paths from Jerusalem heading for the Roman-held cities of the Mediterranean coast. The legionnaires and their local allies were beset by lightly armed Jewish fighters who would fire their slingshots or javelins from above and dash down to pick off stragglers with swords and knives. With their heavy armor and equipment, weighing up to a hundred pounds per man, the legionnaires were too slow to catch these nimble harassers. Among those killed early on was the commander of the Sixth Legion, a unit roughly five thousand strong, equivalent to a modern U.S. Army brigade. Much of the baggage train had to be abandoned and the pack animals killed.
 

Three days after setting out, the Romans had to march through a narrow pass next to the village of Beth-horon, adjacent to the modern Israeli town of Beit Horon in the West bank. Already Beth-horon had been the site of a notable victory by Jewish guerrillas against an occupying force—it had been where the Maccabees had defeated the Greco-Syrian Seleucid army in 166 BC, exactly two hundred years before. Now history was about to repeat itself. The Jewish rebels had gathered here, noted Josephus, "and covered the Roman army with their darts." There was no escape for the beleaguered, exhausted soldiery. Above them on the hillsides their enemies were as thick as olive groves. Below were steep precipices down which the cavalrymen on their frightened horses "frequently fell." "[T]here was neither place for their flight," Josephus wrote, "nor any contrivance . . . for their defense." All they could do was cower under their shields and pray to their deities. Josephus believed that the Jews would have "taken Cestius's entire army prisoners, had not the night come on."
 

Under cover of darkness, Cestius managed to escape with the remainder of his command. He left behind four hundred of his "most courageous" men with orders to fly their colors and pretend that the whole of the army was still at Beth-horon. When morning came, the Jews discovered the ruse and immediately killed the four hundred soldiers before setting off in pursuit of Cestius. Even though they did not catch up with the retreating legions, Cestius had suffered a humiliating defeat. More than 5,700 of his soldiers had perished, and he had been forced to leave behind not only his baggage and his siege engines but also—even more galling to a legionnaire—an eagle standard.3

Reprinted from Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot. Copyright © 2013 by Max Boot. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.