Geography Military Geography
by
Francis A. Galgano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0029

Introduction

Military geography involves the application of geographic information, tools, and technologies to military problems. In essence, military operations involve time, space, and the nature of what exists within the confines of that time and space—this is an inherently geographic perspective. By their very nature, military operations are geographic: they occur in places, and places contain unique natural and human landscapes. Furthermore, military operations now take place in various operational contexts such as peacekeeping, stability, disaster relief, civic action, and, of course, combat operations. Different operational environments and contexts require different types of geographic information; consequently, military geography offers an important vantage point from which to study the nature of military operations at diverse scales. It was only during the 19th century that the distinct academic subfield of military geography could be identified. Early military geography literature focused on chorographic descriptions of terrain, regional studies, and case studies to illustrate the effects of the physical landscape on battles. This literature was typically devoid of critical analyses, a perspective that persisted essentially through the First World War. The Second World War was a watershed for military geography, as it was embraced by academic geographers, who expanded its scope and scale to support a global-scale war effort, and thus military geography literature became more analytical and integrative. Cold War–era literature delved into the superpower partition of the world and geostrategy, along with the geographic nature of the proxy wars fought during that period. However, since the 1990s military geography has grown considerably as an academic subject, fueled in part by the transition from a bipolar strategic world to the realities presented by a less stable security landscape, which has demanded a proliferation of operations other than war and the need to respond to asymmetrical threats. These conditions have demanded an increasing volume of ever more sophisticated geographic analyses, and they have clearly sparked new interest in an academic subdiscipline that had been essentially dormant, in the United States, since the end of the Vietnam War.

General Overviews

Given the array of scales and broad diversity of topics in military geography, quality comprehensive treatments are difficult to find. Without question, the rapid evolution of the national security landscape and the expansion of the scope of military geography since the end of the Cold War typically mean that such attempts quickly become dated. Nevertheless, events following 11 September 2001 have demonstrated the need for expanded geographic awareness as it relates to military operations, and thus publications have shifted to incorporate asymmetrical warfare and operations other than war, along with the dynamics of the new strategic reality of a multi-centric world. Prior to 1998, the last published volume on military geography was Peltier and Pearcy 1966, which was a Cold War–era treatment of the global strategic dichotomy and a state-centric geostrategic situation. Since 1998, seven academic military geography books have been published. Collins 1998 was among the first of this new wave of books; it is an attempt to address all geographic aspects of the military landscape, and as such suffers from too much information with very little depth, but it remains a useful reference nonetheless. Winters 1998 focuses on the pervasive influence of the natural landscape on military operations and uses a series of excellent case studies to demonstrate this relationship; however, it essentially ignores the human landscape. Galgano and Palka 2011 includes a series of essays that strike a balance between traditional case studies and emerging themes in military geography by addressing the nexus of the human and natural landscape and military operations. Barnett 2004 is perhaps one of the most compelling contemporary geostrategy books; it redefines the structure of the global strategic geometry into a world that is now bifurcated by governed and poorly governed states and the unequal spread of prosperity engendered by globalization. Flint 2005 takes advantage of a diversity of perspectives as it analyzes the political processes of war and their spatial expression. Palka 2003 provides a comprehensive analysis of the evolution of military geography from its earliest roots to the modern era. Finally, Mang and Häusler 2006 is an excellent compendium of works that address the expanding range of military geography subjects in academic literature; it is edited by two Austrian military officers and includes works by authors from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Austria, Germany, and several Balkan states. Kaplan 2012 provides a compelling historical analysis of geographic realities and provides a projection of the evolving geography of national security. Finally, McDonald and Bullard 2016 represents a blend of classic historical military vignettes along with a series of papers on pressing contemporary issues in military geography to include environmental security, the management of military lands, and how the geosciences are used to support desert operations.

  • Barnett, Thomas P. M. The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Putnam’s, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    An innovative geopolitical analysis of the evolving national security landscape that incorporates emerging post–Cold War dynamics: globalization and economic competition, environmental stress, and failing states.

  • Collins, John M. Military Geography for Professionals and the Public. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1998.

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    A comprehensive treatment of all factors of geography as they relate to the military landscape. Lacks specificity and detail, but serves as an excellent catalogue of the pervasive influence of geographic factors on military operations.

  • Flint, Colin, ed. The Geography of War and Peace: From Death Camps to Diplomats. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    A series of essays that explain why war and peace cannot be understood without realizing that national and military leaders must negotiate a complex world map of sovereign spaces, borders, networks, and scales. Topics include terrorism, nationalism, religion, drug wars, water conflicts, diplomacy, peace movements, and postwar reconstruction.

  • Galgano, Francis A., and Eugene J. Palka, eds. Modern Military Geography. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    A series of essays that address the scope of military operations from peace to war. A balance of historical case studies and emergent themes from a group of international authors, and one of the few books produced by military professionals who are also credentialed geographers.

  • Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. New York: Random House, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    Kaplan examines the insights and theories of classic geography from the past to evaluate important pivots in history. He uses these insights to look forward to the evolving national security landscape.

  • Mang, Reinhard, and Hermann Häusler, eds. International Handbook of Military Geography. Vol. 2. Vienna: Arbeitsgemeinschaft Truppendienst, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    A volume of essays by international authors. Many essays address civil-military cooperation, the nexus of cultural and urban landscapes and military operations, disaster relief, and stability operations. Includes a series of excellent essays about geospatial methods and how they relate to military operations.

  • McDonald, Eric V., and Thomas Bullard, eds. Military Geosciences and Desert Warfare. New York: Springer, 2016.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a follow-on volume to Mang and Häusler 2006. This is a peer-reviewed collection of papers from the Military Geosciences Conference that took place in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2011 and includes works from international authors. The volume includes historical vignettes, environmental analyses, environmental security papers, and a section on how the geosciences support military operations in desert environments.

  • Palka, Eugene J. “Military Geography.” In Geography in America at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Edited by Gary L. Gaile and Cort J. Wilmont, 503–513. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive review of the evolution and scope of military geography from its early-17th-century roots to the modern era. Examines the shifting focus of military geography from micro- to macro-geographic analyses during different eras. Offers a compelling assessment of emergent national security themes.

  • Peltier, Louis C., and G. Etzel Pearcy. Military Geography. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1966.

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    A Cold War–era précis of military geography. Dated now, but a very useful overview of that era of military geography.

  • Winters, Harold A. Battling the Elements: Weather and Terrain in the Conduct of War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    An examination of the pervasive influence of weather, climate, and terrain on military operations. A series of excellent case studies. Limited by its focus on the natural landscape. Does not address the evolution of military operations since the end of the Cold War.

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