Military Geography Research Paper

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Military geography is the subfield of geography that deals with the impact of geography on military affairs. Its purpose is to provide understanding and appreciation of the significance of geographic concepts and realities to military plans and operations at the tactical and operational levels of war, and to military concerns at the strategic level. Thus in using geographic methods and information, military geography ‘concentrates on the influence of physical and cultural environments over political-military policies, plans, programs, and combat support operations of all types in local, regional, and global contexts’ (Collins 1998).

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While military geography is accepted by recognized scholars in the discipline as a viable subdivision of geography, its growth and contribution to scholarship has been marked by periods of intense activity and corresponding periods of benign neglect. Quite logically, the most vigorous activity has been during wartime or shortly thereafter, although some of the best studies have been only recently published. Recognizing the historic distrust between nations and peoples, and with it the possibility or reality of military action or intervention, the continued geographic study of military issues and conflict resolution would seem to have a place in scholarly research (see J. V. Coniglio, Military geography: Legacy of the past and new directions in Garver 1981). This research paper presents the nature and scope of military geography, reviews its historical development and considerable literature, comments on global strategic views, and suggests some directions for future research and study in the field.

1. Nature and Scope

1.1 Military Operating Environment

At a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1948, Field Marshall Lord B. Montgomery concluded his remarks about strategy and the making of war in saying: ‘I feel the making of war resolves itself into very simple issues and the simplest in my view is what is possible and what is not possible?

… What is possible will depend firstly on geography, secondly on transportation in its widest sense, and thirdly on administration. Really very simple issues, but geography I think comes first.’ The problems of war are rooted in geography. War is fought to gain control of areas and peoples of the world. The conduct of war and battles is conditioned by the character of the area of operations—the military operating environment. Some military operating environments contain critical objectives and some contain essential lines of communication; some favor the attacker while others favor the defender; some pose severe environmental constraints while still others allow for extensive maneuver and the employment of large, mechanized formations. The outcome of battles and wars rests in a large part on how well military leaders at all levels seize upon tactical and strategic opportunities for success provided by the military operating environment. On a world regional level, the different military operating environments are classified as follows: (a) temperate forest and grassland; (b) humid tropical; (c) desert; (d) mountain; (e) cold weather or winter; and (f) urban areas. Clearly force structure and size and weapons equipment requirements will vary depending on the special environment they are to be deployed in as will the optimum tactical doctrine vary under differing environmental conditions.

1.2 Environmental Matrix

Understanding the significant elements of the environmental matrix is critical to military commanders and staff officers in planning and executing operations at all levels. Analysis of the environmental matrix, defined as ‘the sum of all of the factors and forces which operate at a place and which can have an effect upon the performance of any function there’ (Peltier and Pearcy 1966), shows that its nature results from the coexistence and interrelation of a host of different elements. Some of these elements are physical, others are cultural. In addition to location, or ‘place,’ the physical elements include landforms, hydrology, weather and climate, surface materials, vegetation, and minerals. In their manifold combinations, these features comprise the varying physical regions, which occur over the earth in differing regional military operating environments. The cultural or human elements of the landscape consist of population characteristics, settlement and land use, economies, transportation networks, and cultural groups, institutions, and capabilities. In summary, it is the integration of the interacting physical and human resources of the environmental matrix upon which the economic, political, and military power base of a country, or region of any size, is derived. Every area is constantly in flux. Natural processes modify it, while humans change both the environment and their own use of it. Analysis of the implications of changes in the environmental matrix of a country or region is also a continuing process.

1.3 Levels

As with all geography, the value of military geography lies in its unique spatial perspective and methodology. The mere listing of information and data concerning an area of operations does not in itself constitute military geography. The contribution of military geography is in the analysis and identification of significant elements of the environmental matrix in the military area of potential or actual operations, which assists the commander and staff in preparing estimates, and in formulating and executing military plans. Military geography provides a coherent and selective mission-oriented assessment of the environmental matrix in military operating environments at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war.

The tactical level of war deals with the geography of the battlefield and involves the geographical factors of the battle itself. It includes small unit plans and operations and the concerns of direct combat at the division level and below. Primary interest is in enemy resources and maneuverability in a relatively small area of operations. The identification and use of ‘COCOA’ in area analysis is essential: Critical Terrain, Obstacles, Cover and Concealment, Observation and Fields of Fire, and Avenues of Approach. Thus tactical planning is ‘military planning’ in the narrowest sense of the word; it deals with how to fight battles, that is, the weather and terrain, the movement of troops, employment of weapons and other resources on the battlefield.

The operational level of war relates to large unit (corps and army level) plans and operations and is concerned with logistics, administration, and support of smaller battle units as well as combat over a large area of operations. Knowledge of general enemy resources and military capabilities and consideration of the climate and physical nature of the area of operations is critical. Operational planning is ‘military planning’ in a broader sense of the word, but it is still military and is involved with the movement of troops and resources to and within the larger area (theater) of operations and with arrangements to allow battles and campaigns to be fought on favorable terms. At the operational level, geography narrows down then to the geography of campaign plans and operational plans.

The strategic level of war (or geostrategic) deals with plans and operations on the national and global levels and with concern for political, economic, social, and psychological factors as well as environmental and military matters. It is interested in total enemy resources and culture, the entire earth as the potential area of operations. Geostrategy is also called national strategy, grand strategy, global strategy, or international strategy. It has historically involved itself in geopolitics and the presentation of global strategic views of the world. Strategic planning is the most general of military planning and includes factors that affect national policy and strategy and thus has a strong affiliation with political geography. The military factor is one of many elements that enter into the formulation of strategic estimates and plans at this level. Strategic geography is involved with the planned use of military force to achieve national objectives and with the questions of when, where, and how wars are to be fought.

2. History

Extant writings on the relationship of geography to military planning and operations go back some 2500 years to about 500 BC, when S. Tzu wrote his treatise on ‘the Art of War.’ He placed terrain and weather among the top five matters to be deliberated before going to war, noting that ‘A general ignorant of the conditions of mountains and forests, hazardous defiles, marshes and swamps, cannot conduct the march of an army’ (Sun Tzu 1963). Xenophon’s account of the march of the 10000 across Asia Minor, from 401–399 BC, contains many examples of a lack of understanding of military geography. Varus, a Roman General, in AD 9, cost Emperor Augustus all the territory between the Rhine and the Elbe. Having conducted earlier campaigns in Mediterranean dry regions, Varus had no experience in the cold, wet, swampy, mixed-deciduous forest of middle Europe. While his cavalry and wagons were immobilized in mud and water, the Germans destroyed his army at the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest (Jackman 1971). Eight centuries later, in 1747, Frederick the Great’s instructions for his Generals reflected his understanding of the importance of military geography when he wrote: ‘Knowledge of the country is to a general what a rifle is to an infantryman and what rules of arithmetic are to a geometrician. If he does not know the country, he will do nothing but make gross mistakes. Without this knowledge, his projects, be they otherwise admirable, become ridiculous and often impracticable.’ Had Napoleon’s cavalry been aware of the sunken road at Waterloo in 1815, perhaps a different battle outcome may have resulted (O’Sullivan and Miller 1983).

The development of military geography as a separate field of study is clearly demonstrated by reviewing the  Bibliography of Military Geography, volumes 1–4 (1,059 pp.), published by the United States Military Academy. Entries range from the highly speculative consideration of global strategic theories at the geostrategic level to combat operations at the platoon tactical level in varying terrain and weather situations. Military geography’s contemporary beginnings in mid-nineteenth century Europe were characterized by regional studies dealing with the natural and manmade features of several theaters of war (see, for example, T. Lavallee’s Geographie Physique, Historique et Militaire 1836 and A. von Roon’s Militarische Landerbeschreibung on Europa 1837). The Lavallee and Roon books mark the first attempts to consciously relate geography and the art of war. As the concept of total war for national purposes matured in the last half of the nineteenth century, many more military geographies were published. Military geographies of Germany, Switzerland, and the Rhine and Danube are but a few examples (Ruhierre 1875, Bollinger 1884 and Maguire 1891). At the tactical level, D. W. Johnson’s monograph on the military geography geomorphology of the battlefields of World War I presented an informative study of the importance of terrain in the tactical advances and retreats in trench warfare (Johnson 1921). Johnson’s Battlefields of the World War has been called ‘the one outstanding monograph by an American scholar dealing with military geography.’ Little was written on military geography in the period between World Wars I and II.

3. Global Strategic Views

The early nineteenth century German military strategist C. von Clausewitz maintained in his writings ‘On War’ that land-power was the ultimate political force. However, he put war in its proper place, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end—the advancement of national power. His definitions of strategy and tactics enlarged the scope of military geography to include the concepts of geostrategy and geopolitics which in turn supported the global power determinism of European nations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see Jomini, Clausewitz, and Schlieffen, Department of Military Art and Engineering, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY 1951). Global strategic views were formulated in which the existence of political power and influence among nations was explained as a function of geographical configurations, especially the global layout of continents, oceans, and connecting seas, and the nations that controlled these areas. Thus US Navy Admiral A. T. Mahan’s thesis in 1900 that seapower, not landpower, was the key to world domination gained the support of several major world nations (Mahan 1890). This was soon followed by the British Oxford Geographer, Sir H. Mackinder’s heartland theory on the global dominance of Eurasia as the resource base for world landpower (Mackinder 1904). Professor N. Spykman of Yale University countered with the proposal that the ‘Rimland,’ with its marginal seas, contained greater world power potential than the ‘Heartland.’ (Spykman 1944). The post-World War II containment policy of the United States and NATO nations was conceptually anchored on Spykman’s Rimland thesis (see Cohen 1973, Norris and Haring 1980). Discussion of these global strategic views in the era spanning both world wars brought military geography scholars into the study of political geography and geopolitics.

4. Modern Literature

World War II found most military geographers involved in preparing area intelligence reports bearing on military, economic, or transportation problems in the various theaters of war as basic geographic knowledge of these regions was seriously deficient. The finest examples of wartime area reports were the Joint Army and Navy Intelligence Studies (JANIS). While these volumes were prepared by specialists from a number of disciplines, the director of each area research team was a military geographer whose academic training had been in the field of geography. Thus the standard area intelligence report was organized topically in the framework of regional geography. As a result of the increased needs for geographic knowledge in World War II, military geography soon came into its own as a subfield of geography shortly after the war when the professional geographers returned to college and university departments of geography. It was first identified as such in an essay titled ‘Military Geography’ in the book, American Geography: Inventory and Prospect prepared and published by distinguished geographers under the sponsorship of the Association of American Geographers (Russell 1954).

Following World War II, interest and research in military geography languished while military concerns moved to new strategies to confront the issues of nuclear deterrence and Cold War policies to prevent military conflict between superpower nations. Nevertheless, military journals published numerous articles concerning the effect of terrain and weather on military operations in different military operating environments. The history, philosophy, and theory of modern military geography were presented in academic papers by military officers attending civilian universities (Thompson 1962, Brinkerhoff 1963). In the early 1960s, the US Army’s equivalent institution for professional graduate training, the Command and General Staff College, introduced a required course titled ‘Military Geography’ consisting of a series of readings and area studies. A book titled ‘Military Geography’ was commercially published in 1966 and immediately became the primer for both scholars and military officers interested in the subject (Peltier and Pearcy 1966).

A bibliographic survey will demonstrate that while strategic studies came into their own as an interdisciplinary endeavor, work accomplished in the pure name of military geography began to decline sharply in quantity after the mid-1960s. The reason for this decline is a lack of interest by academic geographers in conducting research in military geography. Nevertheless, revitalization occurred, beginning in the late 1970s. A course titled ‘Military Geography’ was introduced in 1978 at the United States Military Academy and was supported by a new publication, Readings in Military Geography (Garver 1981). In 1983 P. O’Sullivan and J. Miller published a monograph, The Geography of Warfare, which reviewed the interaction between geography and the history of selected military campaigns involving do’s and don’ts of tactics and strategy. This was followed by Terrain and Tactics (O’Sullivan 1991), resulting in a more focused academic treatment of the interplay between differing terrain settings and tactical options. In 1996, with the primary sponsorship of the Geography Department faculty at the United States Military Academy, the Association of American Geographers approved the establishment of the Military Geography Specialty Group within the Association’s listing of topical specialty groups.

A recent major contribution to the field is J. Collin’s exceptional book, Military Geography: For Professionals and the Public, published in 1998. Clearly the most comprehensive treatment of military geography in print, the subject is presented in a traditional geographic format with the following major sequential topics: (a) physical geography; (b) cultural geography (c) political-military geography; and (d) area analyses. Each of the 19 chapters terminates with a list of key points for easy reference. Stated aims of the author are to offer a college-level textbook, provide a handbook for political-military professionals, and to enhance public appreciation for the impact of geography on military affairs.

A second new publication, which merits special attention, is H. A. Winters et al., Battling the Elements: Weather and Terrain in the Conduct of War 1998. The authors examine the connections between major battles in world history and their geographic components, revealing what role weather, climate, terrain, soil, and vegetation have played in combat. Each of the 12 chapters offers a detailed and informative explanation of a specific environmental factor and then looks at several battles that highlight its effects on military operations. Among the many battles examined are the American Revolution’s Bunker Hill, the Civil War’s Gettysburg and Wilderness campaigns, World War I’s Verdun and Flander’s Fields, World War II’s beaches at Normandy and Iwo Jima, and the Rhine crossing at Remagen, Vietnam’s battles of Dien Bien Phu and the Ia Drang Valley, and Napoleon and Hitler in Russia. As this thoughtful analysis makes clear, those leaders who know more about the physical nature of battlefield conditions will have a significant advantage over opposing leaders who do not.

5. Future Directions for Research and Study

With the recent and continuing great advances in communications, surveillance and intelligence-gathering technology, computer programming capabilities, and weapons sophistication, applications of remote sensing, geographical information systems (GIS), battlefield simulation, and war gaming techniques can be made by military geographers toward better understanding of the complex relationship between geography and military matters. Perhaps the single most important lesson to be gained from this essay on military geography is the danger of neglecting or misunderstanding geographic concepts and realities when planning and executing military operations at any level. Clearly, General Eisenhower recognized the value of knowledge of military geography in the conduct of war when on April 22, 1959 he wrote in his frontispiece to Volume I of the West Point Atlas of American Wars that ‘The ‘‘Principles of War’’ are not, in the final analysis, limited to any one type of warfare or even limited exclusively to war itself … but principles as such can rarely be studied in a vacuum; military operations are drastically affected by many considerations, one of the most important of which is the geography of the region.’


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