The Revenge of Geography

The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is completely misplaced.  Every historian worth his/her mettle understands that human nature, like geography is a constant worthy of consideration when any statesman considers national interest relative to war.  This was understood by both the Army and Marine Corps prior to World War II, especially in our successful C.O.I.N. (counterinsurgency) campaign throughout the Spanish American War to liberate the Philippians under Theodore Roosevelt.  Our contemporary war planners throughout the Pentagon don’t care to understand either history or geography.  We’re back to recognizing Eisenhower’s admonition to fear the ‘military industrial complex’, a sobriquet that an adult jobs program is more important than sound political strategy.  A look at ‘The Revenge of Geography’ from Robert D. Kaplan puts the record straight.

The US military strategic culture prior to the Second World War understood the synoptic matrix of the relation between sound strategy, force and victory.  This was completely lost upon our love affair with ‘mass’ from the Second World War.  Our military doctrines along with the political, civilian culture that underwrote American hegemony could not consider how geography mingled  to militant fanaticism could mitigate superior force.  Geography won.

It beat Napoleon in Russia, Alexander the Great in India, the Cambyses throughout the Sahara and America in Vietnam.  It sank the Spanish Armada and fended the Mongols from Japan.  However, geography isn’t invincible.  Superior political and cultural ideals can defeat the most ardent geographical terrain as witnessed throughout American efforts in Afghanistan, the ‘graveyard of Empires.’

Cortes overcame geography by enlisting native collaborators to conquer Mexico, he also had Spanish troops with both superior cavalry (horses), gunpowder and sufficient language skills from which to conquer Mexican natives. The Mughal emperor Akbar used primitive rifle technology and explosive mines to challenge the Rajput stronghold in Chittorgarh.  Jose San Martin used sheer willpower alone to conquer the Andes and liberate Chile in 1817.  The examples are manifold for anyone to consider the writings of Arnold Toynbee.

What the student of strategic culture must think of is a synoptic relation between history, geography and its impact on culture. Or more specifically, geography is the confluence of space, topography and latitude. Thinkers like Halford J. Mackinder, W.H. McNeill have written extensively on how geography has influenced both culture and history.  But it is the historian, especially the military historian who thinks of how geography creates ‘pivots’ from which superior technology has only a limited impact. The key is the nuptial, reciprocal informing relation between topography and how it either irritates the human subject towards strategic goals or the relation never materializes as we witness throughout any examination of the North American Indian.  Unlike either Aristotle or Strabo, latitude alone isn’t a sufficient cause.

The revolution in military affairs is a misplaced revolution because it puts the primacy on technological achievements over more intractable variables like militancy, which shape the political convictions throughout the AfPak theatre.  In short, the misplaced emphasis of American technological achievements in war ignores something both Sun Tzu or Clausewitz intrinsically understood:  the necessity that force and victory never be divided!

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About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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