Small Wars Journal

What the “Bad Guys” Teach Us About Contemporary Conflict—An Opinion Essay

Wed, 06/15/2022 - 1:48am

What the “Bad Guys” Teach Us About Contemporary Conflict—An Opinion Essay

Max G. Manwaring

“War is of vital importance to the state; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”

Sun Tzu[1]

Introduction and problem

A new and dangerous dynamic is at work around the world today. The new dynamic involves the migration of political power (i.e., the authoritative allocation of values in a society) from the traditional nation-state to unconventional non-state actors such as transnational criminal organizations, Maoist-Leninist insurgents, militias, private armies, enforcer gangs, and other modern mercenaries. These actors promulgate their own rule-of-law and have the capability to seriously threaten the security and well-being of the global community. That hegemonic activity must inevitably result in an epochal transition from the traditional Western nation-state system and its values to something else dependent on the values—good, bad, or non-existent—to the winner.[2] It is past time to take this threat seriously.

The Threat

Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan have identified an important shift in state form that is generated by various violent and non-violent disruption, destabilization, and conflict processes. They warn us that resultant quasi-states, focos, zones, risk areas, alternatively governed spaces, or mal-governed spaces operating within a traditional nation-state are known to promulgate their own policies and laws—and impose their criminal values on societies and parts of societies all around the globe.[3] At the same time, these quasi-states “create a bazaar of violence where criminal entrepreneurs fuel the convergence of crime and war.”[4] Further, Ambassador David C. Jordan argues that this disruption and destabilization is a prime mover toward failed state status. The threat, however, is not instability or even state failure. The ultimate threat is the coerced transition of extant values of a given society to the values of an antagonist.[5] This is the cruel human reality of where it is that the “bad guys” lead.[6]  

What the “Bad Guys Teach Us About the Contemporary Security Situation                    

In this security environment, war is no longer an exclusive military undertaking conducted by traditional nation-states. War is no longer regulated arbitrarily by the major world powers. War, the power to make war, the power to control war, and the power to destroy states and societies is now within the reach of virtually anyone or any organization with a “cause.” Combatants are not necessarily military units. They tend to be groups of individuals that are not necessarily male but also female, and not necessarily adults but also children. Combatants may also be proxies for players at any level that wish to maintain the international legal fiction of “plausible deniability.” And, lastly, it must be remembered that war—declared or undeclared—remains an act of coercion to compel an adversary to do one’s will. Thus, it must also be remembered that war is unrestricted, and the traditional rules of war are not enforceable in the contemporary security arena.[7]

What the "Bad Guys" teach Us About Ambitious (i.e., Hybrid) Conflict

Military, political, economic, informational, cultural, and technological (in addition to land, sea, air, space, electronic, biological, chemical, and international alliance) dimensions of conflict are all individual battlefields in their own right. For example, economic warfare may sub-divided into trade war, financial war, and sanctions war. At the same time, each dimension or its subparts can be combined with as many others as a protagonist’s cognitive abilities, organizations, and resources can deal with. That combining of dimensions provides considerably greater strength (i.e., power) than one or two operating by themselves. This concept can and must be applied in terms of an adversary’s political-psychological-military deterrent capabilities. The interaction among the multiple dimensions of conflict gives new and greater meaning to the idea of a state or non-state action using all available instruments of national and international power to pursue its objectives.

A few examples of military, trans-military, and non-military warfare would include the following: 

  • Guerrilla war/drug war/media war
  • Conventional military war/network war/financial war
  • Chemical-biological war/cyber war/terrorist war
  • Trade war/information war/intelligence war
  • Diplomatic war/Ideological war/conventional military war

The notion of combinations cannot be considered too complex, too hard to deal with, or even immoral. All that may be true, but to admit to that and then doing nothing would invite and admit defeat. In turn, such a negative response would likely submit one’s posterity to unconscionable consequences. Remember, there is no way to change the essence of war, which is one of compulsion. Therefore, it cannot alter its cruel outcome either.[8]

What More do the "Bad Guys" Teach Us About Unrestricted (i.e., Total) War

Current and future asymmetric conflicts can be defined in at least three levels—scope, social geography, and time. In terms of scope and social geography, conflict can now involve entire populations, their neighbors, and friends. Time is also a very comprehensive instrument of power and statecraft. The contemporary “long war” includes no place for compromise or other options short of the ultimate geopolitical objective. Those who want to change history, avenge grievances, find security in new political structures, and/or protect or reestablish old ways are not easily discouraged.  They seek the realization of a dream. Negotiations cannot be considered a viable means to end a conflict. Rather, negotiations are a tactical and operational-level means for gaining time. Vladimir IIyich Lenin was straight forward: “Concessions are a new kind of war—outside traditional rules, limitations, and conventional methods.” All this is a zero-sum game in which there is only one winner. That is the last man standing. It is, therefore, total.[9]

If contemporary conflict is moving from a familiar military-centric concept to an ambiguous public opinion paradigm, what do hegemonic “Bad Guys” teach us about power?    

Power is no longer simply combat firepower directed at an enemy military formation or industrial capability. Power is now directed against entire populations. That requires multi-dimensional political-economic social-psychological informational-moral military-police-civil-bureaucratic activity that can be brought to bear legitimately on the causes as well as the perpetrators of violence. This may be achieved by those actors who understand Sun Tzu’s “indirect” approach and Professor Joseph Nye’s “smart” power concept. That is, understanding of diverse cultures, an appreciation of the power of dreams, and a mental flexibility that goes well beyond the traditional war culture.[10] The principal tools in this situation include the following: 1) intelligence operations; 2) public diplomacy at home and abroad; 3) information and propaganda operations; 4) cultural manipulation measures to influence and/or control public opinion and political decision-making leadership; and 5) foreign alliances, partnerships, and traditional diplomacy. There is no type of non-kinetic or kinetic power that cannot be mixed or matched ambiguously with others. The only limitation would be one’s imagination. That is one reason why Qiao and Wang call contemporary violent politicized conflict “unrestricted war.”[11] Additionally, it is important to remember that no regime, group, or force can legislate or decree moral legitimacy or political competence for themselves or anyone else. Legitimization, stability, and well-being derive from popular and institutional perceptions that authority is genuine and effective, and that it uses morally correct means for reasonable and fair purposes.

Finally, what do the "Bad Guys" and empirical data tell us about what is victory and what is defeat in contemporary conflict?

Unequivocally, empirical data tell us that all victories or failures display two common qualities. They are as follows: 1) the winner is the state or non-state political actor who is best organized and disciplined. And, 2) the winner developed and implemented a unifying conceptual paradigm to guide the implementation of a classic long-term geopolitical end-state strategy. The loser “ad-hoced” his efforts. So, what is victory?  What is defeat? Victory is the sustainable peace generated by the stability, national political-economic-social development, and the morally honest political competence that creates responsible governance and security. That is relatively easy to conceptualize but extremely difficult to operationalize. That takes time, effort, organization, and money. Defeat is easy to operationalize. All that one has to do to operationalize that concept is nothing. Unless thinking and actions are reoriented to deal with that fact, the problems of global security will resolve themselves—there would not be any.[12]    


[1] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans., Samuel B. Griffith. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 63-64.

[2] See, David Easton, The Political System:  An Inquiry into the State of Political Science. New York:   Alfred A. Knop, 1953:  pp. 99; 128-129. As a foundational piece on this transition see, Robert J. Bunker, “Epochal Change: War Over Social and Political Organization.” Parameters. Vol. 27, No. 2., Summer 1997, pp. 15-25. Concerning the gang studies component see, John P. Sullivan, “Maras Morphing:  Revisiting Third Generation Gangs,” Global Crime, Vol. 7, No.3-4, August-November 2008, pp. 487-504 and John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Eds., Strategic Notes on Third Generation Gangs. A Small Wars Journal—El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: Xlibris, 2020.

[3] Their body of work is substantial and has been produced over the course of decades. Their newer works include John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Eds., Competition in Order and Progress: Criminal Insurgencies and Governance in Brazil. A Small Wars Journal—El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: Xlibris, 2021 and John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Eds., The Rise of the Narcostate (Mafia States). A Small Wars Journal—El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: Xlibris, 2018.

[4] John P. Sullivan, “Terrorism, Crime, and Private Armies,” Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement. Vol. 11, no. 2-3., Winter 2002, pp. 239-253.  Also see:  John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Rethinking Insurgency, Criminality, Spirituality and Societal Welfare in the Americas, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 22, no. 5., December 2011, pp. 742-760.

[5] David C. Jordan, Drug Politics: Dirty Money and Democracies. Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1999, pp. 142-157.    

[6] Max G. Manwaring, The Complexity of Modern Asymmetric Warfare. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012, pp. 136-153.  Also see,  Max G. Manwaring and John T. Fishel, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: Toward a New Analytical Approach,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 3, no. 2 Winter 1992.  Stephen D. Krasner, “An Orienting Principle for Foreign Policy,” Policy Review for Foreign Policy,” No. 163, Palo Alto:  Hoover Institution, 1 October 2010; Amatai Etzioni, “Responsibility as Sovereignty,” Orbis, Vol. 50, no. 1, Winter 2006, pp. 71-85 and Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare. Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999, pp. 77-78,109,144-145.  

[7] Op. cit., Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui at Note 6, pp. 71-85.

[8] Ibid., p. 25.

[9] V.I. Lenin, “Capitalist Discords and Concessions,” in Robert C. Tucker, Ed., The Lenin Anthology. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975, pp. 628-634.

[10] Op. cit., Qiao and Wang at Note 6, pp. 38-154.  

[11] Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Restoring American Leadership Through Smart Power,” Global Strategic Assessment. Washington, DC: National Defense University Institute for National Defense Studies, 2009, pp. 474-476.  

[12] John T. Fishel and Max G. Manwaring, Uncomfortable Wars Revisited. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, p. 75 and Jorge Verstrynge Rosas, La guerra periferica. Madrid:  El Viejo Topo, 2005, pp. 68-87.                                                 

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Max G. Manwaring is a retired Professor of Military Strategy at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, and is a retired US Army colonel. He has has held the General Douglas MacArthur Chair of Research at the USAWC, and over the past 40+ years, hehas served in various military and civilian positions. They include the US Southern Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Dickinson College, and Memphis University. Manwaring is the author and co-author of several articles, chapters, and books dealing with international security affairs, political-military affairs, insurgency, counter-insurgency, and gangs. His most recent book, Confronting the Evolving Global Security Landscape, Lessons from the Past and Present, was published by Praeger Security International, 2019. His most recent chapter is entitled “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC): A Transnational Criminal-Insurgent-Terror Phenomenon.” It may be found in Kimberly L. Thachuk and Rollie Lal, Eds., Terrorist Criminal Enterprises: Financing Terrorism through Organized Crime, Praeger, 2018.  Dr. Manwaring is a graduate of the US Army War College and holds an M.A. and PhD in Political Science from the University of Illinois. He is also a Small Wars Journal-El Centro Fellow. He remains semi-active in the national security community, and may be contacted at


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