Capes of Skin, Cups of Skulls
Military Historian Highlights Zealots and Mass Murderers Who Waged Guerrilla War
New York — Herodotus couldn’t help noticing the capes made of flayed skin or the skulls fashioned into cups. The Scythians liked to recycle and travel light as they tormented the Persian army with hit-and-run attacks.
Max Boot’s alternative military history is so marvelously readable because every section — and there are many in this epic of 750 pages — is moved along by a vividly pictured zealot, mass murderer, mini-murderer, tactician, partisan, general, king — as well as the weary survivors of battles, wars, massacres, atrocities.
Boot talked about Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present over lunch at Bloomberg in New York.
Question: Interesting characters abound. Any favorites?
Answer: I liked those guerrilla chieftains who were successful in using force to gain power, but then showed themselves willing to abide by democratic norms in a way that I think is rare for the leaders of insurgencies.
Garibaldi was such an amazing character. By the time he was done he had conquered a good chunk of Italy and could well have become its dictator by popular acclamation. Instead he said no, I am returning to my tiny little island to live a spartan existence because this was never about power for me, it was really about the liberty of the Italian people.
Q: Any discoveries, surprises during your years of research?
A: I am just remembering reading Michael Collins’ love letters with his fiancee. They were sitting in an archive in Dublin, which I think probably hasn’t changed all that much since he was roaming the streets in the 1920s.
It was almost spooky because she kept telling him to be careful and not risk his life. He would write back and say, “If I were more careful I wouldn’t be the man that I am.” All this was just a few months before he was assassinated.
Q: Which brings to mind the chapter you devote to the Assassins, a small Shiite sect in medieval Persia which targeted important foes and left the civilians alone. They reported to Hasan-i Sabbah, a man so severe he executed his own sons for drinking and bad behavior.
A: Which many a parent has thought of doing, without taking it so far. The Assassins would scheme for years to gain the confidence of their target and then suddenly, without warning, would strike with their knives and would often in turn be killed themselves.
This is sort of a template of how terrorism can be effective, although this is also very different from the terrorism practiced by Osama bin Laden, who targeted civilians indiscriminately.
Q: Worldly things did not interest either. Hasan-i Sabbah holes up in a mountain hideaway he never leaves. Osama dies in a ratty house, judging by photos and Zero Dark Thirty.
A: He was such an eccentric character, aside from being evil. He would say stuff like: You should not use refrigerators because when we go on jihad there will not be refrigerators so you better get used to drinking everything warm. He was not an easy father to have.
Q: What did you think of the movie and the fuss about the waterboarding?
A: The film does a pretty good job of capturing what intelligence operations are all about, what the manhunt was about, how you build up the pieces of the puzzle over a decade. And in the end, it really captured the incredible professionalism and proficiency of the SEALs in a way that, just from my associations with them, rang pretty true.
As for the use of torture, it’s hard to know where to come down.
I think most of us would agree that if the president has information that a nuclear device is about to go off in Manhattan and the CIA has a suspect in custody and they have 24 hours to extract that information, you can certainly understand any president saying: Do whatever it takes.
But there is also a danger of using those kinds of techniques too freely and brutally, and that ultimately just hurts the morale of your own forces and darkens their reputation in ways that undermine their mission.