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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Invisible Armies

I have been devouring a provocative and highly readable new book – Invisible Armies – by military historian and Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot. The hefty tome presents a sweeping history of “irregular warfare” from the time of the Romans to al Qaeda, with brilliant profiles of some of history’s great guerrilla fighters like Che Guevara, the man whose swaggering presence once graced a thousand college dorm room walls.

Think of the one name men of recent history who have defined so much of modern geo-politics and insurgency: Che, Mao, Ho, Tito, Fidel, Osama. This is the modern history of war.

The real benefit of Boot’s heavily researched book is to provide that great sweep and to argue forcefully that small wars fought by unconventional means have been a feature of military history, well, forever and have been particularly important to the United States since the last half of the 20th Century. We’re reminded, since our own founding myths often get in the way, that our own revolution was won less on the battlefield than in the halls of the British Parliament.

As Justin Green wrote recently at The Daily Beast as he analyzed Invisible Armies our revolution proved the “limitations of liberal nation states to suppress popular insurgencies. After all, Cornwallis’ surrender only deprived Britain of 8,000 of its 42,000 troops in North America. You’d think that this would be a mere minor set back prior to finishing off the colonists.

“What brought about peace and independence for the United States was the shift in public opinion in Britain,” Green wrote. “Prime Minister Lord North even lost his job over the war, resigning in 1782 after Parliament voted to end offensive operations in the colonies. (Remind anyone of a certain President opting not to run for re-election in 1968?)”

This history of irregular warfare fought by often invisible armies has never been more relevant. As thousands of American troops begin to wind down the country’s longest war in Afghanistan, a place we’ll leave having done about as much to create stability as the British did in the 1800’s and the Russians did in the 1980’s, the U.S. military seems certain to confront the next and the next small war. As much as some political leaders bluster about Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear program the American military is better equipped to deal with such conventional challenges than it is to defeat the kind of brazen guerrilla force that recently stormed oil and natural gas facilities in Algeria or assaulted the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Max Boot makes the case that we – as well as the Brits, the French and the Russians – have had to learn the lessons of war against an insurgent or a terrorist enemy over and over again. The French disaster in Indochina in the 1940’s and 1950’s is a telling example of doing almost everything wrong. Here’s a paragraph from Invisible Armies:

“Rape, beating, burning, torturing, of entirely harmless peasants and villages were of common occurrence,” wrote an English Foreign Legionnaire. His fellow soldiers, many of them Germans too young to have fought in World War II, often boasted “of the number of murders or rapes they had committed or the means of torture they had applied or the cash jewels, or possessions they had stolen.” Locally recruited auxiliaries, often thugs or Vietminh deserters who had “stiff prices on their heads,” were even worse, they were “feared and hated by the local population on account of their thieving, blackmailing, racketeering propensities.”

Which brings us to the on-going debate in the United States Senate over the president’s nomination of former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense. While the odds still favor Hagel’s confirmation next week, 15 of the GOP’s most conservative senators, including Jim Risch of Idaho, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Mike Lee of Utah, have written to President Obama demanding that he withdraw the Hagel nomination. The White House immediately said that won’t happen.

Hagel’s real offense, once you set aside the silly made up stuff about him being a favorite of Hamas, is that he’ll be the point man in what I suspect will be Obama’s second term agenda to re-think the size, mission and capabilities of the U.S. military. Hagel had the audacity to go against the grain of Republican orthodoxy and question the Bush Administration’s policy in Iraq even after he voted to authorize the invasion. Hagel’s distinguished and honored service in Vietnam should equip him perfectly to know a few things about the current and future threats the U.S. will face from irregular armies. Rather than embrace a guy who has fought and bled as a grunt in Vietnam, a Vietnam-era chicken hawk like Dick Cheney, who has yet to receive his historical due for the mistakes and misjudgments that lead to Iraq and was deferred out of Vietnam service, calls Hagel – and new Secretary of State John Kerry, another decorated Vietnam vet – “second rate” appointees. Cheney will eventually find his place in history as one of the most powerful and most consistently wrong vice presidents. And it’s worth noting that most of the Senators who sit  in judgment of former Army combat Sergeant Chuck Hagel did not themselves serve.

Everyone in Washington, even the 15 Senators who wrote to the president about Hagel, would privately tell you that the U.S. military budget, considering the vast deployments of personnel and equipment around the world, not to mention the generations of health care spending that will be required to care for the physically and mentally wounded of our last two wars, must be brought under control. The Washington budget debate begins and ends with taxes and entitlements, but must ultimately include sober judgments about spending on the military. We can’t afford what we have and too much of what we have isn’t designed to fight the enemies we face.

Fifty some years ago, the great Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, in his own way as much of a maverick as Hagel, proposed a series of amendments – the Mansfield Amendments – to reduce the American military presence in Europe. Mansfield, the history professor, argued “with changes and improvements in the techniques of modern warfare and because of the vast increase in capacity of the United States to wage war and to move military forces and equipment by air, a substantial reduction of the United States forces permanently stationed in Europe can be made without adversely affecting either our resolve or ability to meet our commitment under the North Atlantic Treaty.”

Mansfield, who incidentally served in the Army, Navy and the Marine Corps, was a visionary. Republicans and Democrats ought to embrace his kind of thinking again, provide a laser-like focus on the still evolving mission of our military, and work with a Secretary Hagel and the Obama Administration to re-size and re-purpose a splendid military that needs fresh thinking. Max Boot’s Invisible Armies is a good place to start the re-thinking and his book will soon be required reading in military schools and the Pentagon. It ought to be required reading in the Senate Arms Service Committee, as well.

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