Study the Changing Face of Warfare, Tom Mockaitis ’77

A historian and professor of history at DePaul University, Tom Mockaitis studies small wars. He has written seven books on the subject and co-edited two others. As he has delved through the details of one conflict after another, he has come to some illuminating conclusions about modern warfare. “The nature of conflict today is that there aren’t a lot of large conventional wars,” says Mockaitis. “Instead, there are incessant small struggles.”

In the past, small wars tended to end with a definite outcome: one side won, the other lost. The wars of liberation against European colonial powers are an example. But lately, small wars, now usually referred to as insurgencies, have become protracted undertakings. The United States is currently embroiled in three: in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in the global war on terror. “The post 9-11 world has changed the security landscape,” Mockaitis says. “We’re seeing chronic insurgencies. The insurgents are not always interested in winning. Sometimes, they just carve out space, and persist.”

This is especially true of the global war on terror, which Mockaitis says is misnamed. “It’s unhealthy to think of the war on terror as a war, because it’s going to go on forever,” he says. “You are never going to eliminate terrorism any more than you can eliminate crime.”
This doesn’t mean that terror should go unchallenged, says Mockaitis, who recently completed a biography of terrorist Osama bin Laden. Instead, he argues for a strategy that utilizes some of the broad general tactics that have worked against past insurgencies. “You should wear the enemy down, constrain its space, and reduce terrorism to a level you can live with,” he says. At the same time, he believes in dealing with the root causes that feed insurgencies, such as poverty. “Most supporters of the Taliban are just angry about their economic circumstance,” he says.

But Mockaitis warns against actions that further fuel unrest, such as causing unnecessary collateral damage. “The point isn’t to kill people,” he says. “The point is to take and hold territory and improve the lot of the people.” Mockaitis writes for multiple audiences, including the general public. “I saw a crying need for books on these issues for the non-academic reader,” he says. But he also aims his work at policy analysts, military strategists, and law enforcement officials. As a consultant, he has taught courses on terrorism and counter-terrorism for the Center for Civil- Military Relations at the U.S. Naval Post-Graduate School. And he has lectured or given papers at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, as well as at Sandhurst, Britain’s Royal Military Academy. In addition, he has provided commentary for Public Television, National Public Radio, and the BBC World News.

Mockaitis wants his audiences to understand the nature of modern warfare. But he also wants to send a message that terrorism is not the overwhelming threat it sometimes appears to be. “People are far safer than they probably have been led to believe,” he says. “We don’t want to minimize the threat, but we don’t want it to become so overwhelming that we take ourselves hostage to our own fears.”

— Doug McInnis