By JOHN NAGL
In 2003, I deployed to Anbar Province in Iraq with my armored battalion to conduct counterinsurgency operations. I had spent nearly a decade studying the subject academically, and my reading had convinced me that counterinsurgency was the hardest kind of war, much more intellectually and emotionally difficult than the tank warfare I had seen in Iraq in 1991. Even so, I was unprepared for the blind-man's-bluff challenge of fighting an enemy I could rarely see. I would have been on firmer ground if I had read Max Boot's "Invisible Armies" before I had deployed to Iraq. The prolific journalist and military historian has taken on no less a task than presenting the "epic history of guerrilla warfare from ancient times to the present."
The book opens with a vignette set in Baghdad's Kadhimiya neighborhood in 2007, just as the surge was taking hold. Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division set out on a patrol that Mr. Boot describes in words that ring true to any soldier who has fought against insurgents: "In this sort of war, there were no flanks to turn, few bastions to storm, no capitals to seize. Only the grim daily challenge of battling an unseen foe that was everywhere and nowhere." The book closes with a similar scene of Marines patrolling the Marjah district of Afghanistan's Helmand Province in 2011, as the surge there was coming to an end.
In between these personal glimpses into counterinsurgency campaigning is a definitive survey of the long history of irregular warfare, beginning with the Jewish uprising against the Romans in 66 A.D., running through the rising tide of rebellion against colonial powers—including the one that freed this country from the oppressive tax policies of imperial England—that reached a crescendo in the wake of World War II, and finishing with our long war in Iraq and a chapter on the "Failures and Successes of the Global Islamist Insurgency."
Along the way we meet a fascinating cast of characters. Guerrilla warfare has always been the province of charismatic individuals with the ability to inspire ragtag bands of soldiers to bear the strain of drawn-out campaigns against superior forces. George Washington's deputy Nathanael Greene, a lapsed Quaker, described his philosophy as: "We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again." One of the most pleasing aspects of "Invisible Armies" is the superb character sketches that Mr. Boot provides of some of the most important individual actors in military history, insurgent leaders like Washington, T.E. Lawrence, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Osama bin Laden.
By Max Boot
(Liveright, 750 pages, $35)
And just as it takes an unusually talented individual to lead a revolt, defeating one also requires a rare set of skills. Mr. Boot introduces us to successful counterinsurgents like the American Indian fighter Nelson Miles, whose relentless soldiers earned the sobriquet "walk-a-heaps" from the Sioux; British Gen. Gerald Templer, the "Tiger of Malaya," who said, "The shooting side of the business is only 25% of the trouble, and the other 75% lies in getting the people of the country behind us"; French paratroop Col. Roger Trinquier, who routinely tortured Algerians for the information he needed to defeat a bombing campaign and proclaimed, "I care little for the opinions of Americans or the press"; and Gen. David Petraeus, who turned around a failing war in Iraq but whose record in Afghanistan is at best uncertain.
Mr. Boot is himself uncertain about the Afghan war, and this proves the only significant flaw in an otherwise comprehensive work. Before the short epilogue set in Marjah, Mr. Boot devotes only half a page of a monumental book to what has proved America's longest war. It is admittedly hard to draw conclusions about the Afghan conflict while the Obama administration is still discussing how many advisers it will leave in the country after the end of the combat mission in 2014. Indeed, the degree of American commitment to the region over the next decade will determine the overall success or failure of our efforts. But in a book that will be widely read by those who will influence this endgame, Mr. Boot makes a mistake in not arguing for an enduring American presence. This lack is all the more stark in that the author is quite clear about the costs of forgoing a long-term commitment in Iraq.
As America's leaders contemplate a pivot away from the long, hard wars of the past decade, they would do well to contemplate the dozen "Implications" with which Mr. Boot concludes his magisterial work. He summarizes the lessons of 5,000 years: Guerrilla warfare has been ubiquitous throughout history; insurgents have been increasingly successful since 1945, helped by the easy, rapid diffusion of information and powerful, portable weaponry, but still lose more often than they win; conventional armies have to adapt their weapons, tactics and mind-set in order to defeat insurgents and do so rapidly, before their own populations lose faith in the effort; establishing legitimacy in the local government and protecting its people from the predations of the insurgents are at least as important as killing or capturing insurgents but are also far harder tasks, requiring a comprehensive, whole-of-government effort.
These aren't new lessons. They were well-known when Lawrence led an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I and also when British redcoats were defeated by American colonists protesting unjust foreign rule. In that revolution—one of many that Mr. Boot demonstrates have shaped the world in which we live at least as much as the so-called conventional conflicts—it wasn't the rebels who won but the British who lost. The king's ministers became convinced that the goal of holding onto his American colonies wasn't worth the effort. Mr. Boot's impressive work of military history is destined to be the classic account of what may be the oldest as well as the hardest form of war. But we can also hope that it helps to persuade the American public not to give up on the critically important effort in Afghanistan—a costly fight, but one whose results will be determined by decisions to be made over the course of 2013.
Mr. Nagl, a retired Army officer, is the author of "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife" and helped write "The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual."
A version of this article appeared January 22, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Chasing Ghosts.