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Letter from the Editors

Welcome to the inaugural issue of Inter Populum: The Journal of Irregular Warfare and Special Operations. A product of the Competitive Statecraft Initiative at Arizona State University, this publication aims to be a central voice in the scholarly literature on issues related to irregular warfare (IW), special operations, and the intersection between them. Inter Populum will be a peer-reviewed academic journal for the scholar and practitioner, a place to explore everything from lessons learned through historical case studies, to current best practices, to the nature of future conflict. We are very excited to introduce what we hope will become the central medium for discussion, debate, and the collegial exchange of ideas among the IW and special operations communities of interest.

Inter populum is Latin for “among the people.” In 2005, General Rupert Smith coined a phrase when he postulated that rather than large-scale, interstate wars between nation-states, the 21st century would be dominated by “wars amongst the people.”[1] Of course, there have been wars among the people as long as there have been people, and it remains to be seen whether we can avoid a great power war in this century. But the human domain is the principal concern of both IW and special operations, and is therefore the particular focus of this journal.

U.S. doctrine has long recognized that the defining feature of irregular warfare is the struggle for control over or support of relevant populations. Most recently, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff define IW as “a struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy.”[2] The 2020 Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy emphasized the relevance of IW in great power competition as well as its economic aspect, and committed the Department of Defense (DoD) to mastering it as a core competency.[3] A more expansive definition of IW, one perhaps better suited to current and future strategic competition, is offered by defense expert Seth Jones. He states that IW “refers to activities short of conventional and nuclear warfare that are designed to expand a country’s influence and legitimacy, as well as to weaken its adversaries.”[4] We encourage and look forward to vigorous debate on the scope and continually evolving character of IW in future issues of Inter Populum.

Special operations—from direct, time-sensitive, and discrete “surgical strikes” to indirect, longer-term “special warfare”—have long been considered critical to conducting or countering IW. However, as the IW Annex to the NDS made abundantly clear, one myth in need of shattering is that IW is coterminous with countering terrorism (CT), that Special Operations Forces (SOF) own the CT mission, and therefore SOF are the only ones who can play a meaningful role in IW. Nothing could be further from the truth. CT is only one of the military missions under the IW umbrella, and conventional forces play a critical role in all of them. More broadly, IW can be considered the military contribution to competitive statecraft, which demands a coordinated and synchronized whole-of-government / whole-of-society approach in which interagency and cross-sector partners play a central and, in many cases, leading role. Thus, Inter Populum intends to focus on the nexus between IW and special operations, as well as the integration of these activities with those of other government agencies, civil society, and the private sector. In doing so, Inter Populum will drive the analysis, reflection, and conversations necessary to reconceptualize IW for an era of strategic competition.

Inter Populum will publish two online issues per year, with both issues combined into one printed volume annually. Copies will be made available across the DoD, to other government agencies, academic institutions, and many other stakeholders. 

We look forward to establishing Inter Populum as the locus of professional exploration, discussion, and debate on IW, special operations, and their role in strategic competition. But we cannot do it without support from readers and contributors like you. Please consider submitting your own work for publication in an upcoming issue. Thank you, and welcome to the discussion.

Christopher Marsh, Fort Liberty, NC

James Kiras, Maxwell AFB, AL

Ryan Shaw, Tempe, AZ

[1] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2005).

[2] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Warfighting: Reference Copy, JP 1, Volume 1 (Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2020), GL-4.

[3]Department of Defense, Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2020), 1.

[4] Seth Jones, Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare (New York: W.W. Norton, 2021), 11.