Military Geography for Professionals and the Public

Document Actions
The Army is reshaping itself to engage in numerous smaller conflicts, as opposed to all-out land war.

John M. Collins

Megan Shaw Prelinger

Thursday, November 30 2000, 1:17 PM

On November 16 of this year, the U.S. Army announced its intention to phase out armored tanks in favor of lighter, wheeled armored vehicles. News releases remarked that this move reflects the Army's changing missions. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Army is reshaping itself to engage in numerous smaller conflicts, as opposed to all-out land war.

A consultation with the book Military Geography for Professionals and the Public by John M. Collins helps makes sense of this radical shift of policy on the part of the army. "Tanks...inch through inner cities at a snail's pace, find little room to manoeuver on narrow or rubble-clogged streets...tank-killer teams armed with short-range weapons...can attack soft spots such as gas tanks and treads with relative impunity. Conventional urban combat consequently calls for few rather than many tanks...." This insight suggests that the Army is preparing not just for "smaller" conflicts, but specifically for urban, as opposed to land-based engagements. And particularly conflict in newer, modern cities as opposed to classical cities such as Beijing, where tanks were all too effective on its broad avenues in 1989.

This wide-ranging book was written by an Army colonel and military strategist. It conveniently makes military geographic reasoning available to the public, as its title proudly announces, to a very detailed degree. It reveals a surprising level of erudition on the part of its author, who deepens the historical and ideological associations of textual references by incorporating the thoughts and strategies of a wide range of military strategists, from Scipio Africanus of the Punic Wars and Hannibal, to Mao and Lenin.

Collins reveals the U.S. military high command in all of its built-in limitations. He recognizes that linguistic geographies are territorial geographies in their own right, and that communication boundaries impact conflict scenarios. He spends several pages detailing language families, yet then draws illustrative tables with titles such as "Linguistic Clutter in the Caucasus" and goes on to point out that "Needs for expertise in Native American tongues are next to negligible throughout Latin America, where most people speak Spanish...." In this way, the book is a microcosm of the American prejudice against intellectualism. It is in no way uninformed or even uninsightful, yet it puts its information and insights to the service of hostile values that always aim to simplify reality and deny the experiences of non-Americans.

At the same time, he also expresses a typically American sense of the frontier, as illustrated by his detailed chapter on the hypothetical scenarios of space warfare. He admits upfront that "interplanetary warfare seems far in the future for political, economic, military, and technical reasons." He therefore limits his discussion of war in space to "four distinctive regions within the Earth-Moon system." The seriousness with which he dives in to discussions of aerospace interfaces and earthly and lunar gravity wells bespeaks of a wish to ride every wooden horse played with in childhood fantasies of the Western frontier into a limitless space unencumbered by property lines and subdivisions, to chase plastic "Indians" through the stars for eternity. In a section called "Tips for Military Space Planners" he lets his readers gently down by breaking the news that "Loop-the-loops, barrel rolls.... and other flamboyant tactics popularized in movies like Star Wars will remain science fiction until technologists develop new ways to manoeuver in a vaccuum."

Though this book appears to include every imaginable war scenario, there is a conspicuous lack of reference to domestic conflicts. The posse comitatus rule that supposedly precludes the U.S. government from using the military against the citizenry gives an obvious reason for omitting discussion of such events. But I couldn't help but notice that even when discussing attacks against the U.S. (rather than by the U.S.) the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 was conspicuously avoided. The book discusses strategies used against the U.S. in all major wars, up to and including the "unconventional urban combat" scenarios presented by resistance movements and transnational terrorism. In my mind the natural step that follows discussion of the bombing of the World Trade Center is an acknowledgment of the "enemy within." Yet Collins is mute on the subject. This omission makes me wonder what kinds of ideas Collins, or his publisher, has about the audience of the book. I can see that they wouldn't want to make their strategies "public" if the "public" is converting semiautomatic weapons in their spare time and chuckling over the Libertarian presidential campaign advertisement that promotes bombing the IRS.

This special capsule of American ideology is of general interest to people who like to be amused by the intense absurdity of American cultural prejudice ("linguistic clutter in the Caucasus"), and also of interest to people who would like to contextualize what they read in the papers about strategic military decisionmaking. Taken as a whole, it is of particular use to those who aim to understand how the U.S. Army exists as a territorial entity that expresses ideology and prejudice through its use and interpretation of landscape.

Military Geography is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office 

Copyright © 2000 by Megan Shaw Prelinger. All rights reserved.

Personal tools