Geographic knowledge and war

Today at the ASPRS meetings, Jerry Dobson, Professor at Kansas University, President of the American Geographical Society (AGS) and Jefferson Fellow at the Department of State, repeated a claim he’d first made in 2010:

So, you know, we hear a lot of people now agonizing over Iraq and Afghanistan and saying, “How did we get it so wrong?” But, it’s not just Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s Korea, it’s Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia, and so forth. We have this century of first half story victories, second half more quagmires than victories. What changed? Was it the valor of our troops? No, they’re as outstanding as always. Was it the training, or equipment, or technology? No, those are better than ever. Policy, strategy, foreign intelligence? We’ve been playing a dangerous game of blind man’s bluff and that corresponds with the American purge of geography. America abandoned geography after World War II and hasn’t won a war since. Now, that’s debatable based on what’s ‑‑ how you define a war and how you define a victory, but it makes a point. Sometimes that was because geographic ignorance drove the initial decision to choose war over peace, and sometimes because geographic ignorance led to poor intelligence, strategy, tactics, and diplomacy.

(The Department of State video of this talk is available here.)

The fact that he repeated this claim belies any idea that this might be a spur of the moment phrasing–Jerry actually seems to really believe this stuff.

Part of his argument is that geography has died since reaching a peak under Isaiah Bowman. In fact, this is backwards–geography is richer and more vibrant today than under Bowman. And you can’t help but feel has died is not so much geography, as Dobson’s preferred form of it; America-centric, with imperial overtones. The other part is that Dobson clearly states that geographical knowledge helps the US “win” more wars and that that is what geography is for.

Second, and somewhat confusingly, Jerry argues that this “death of geography,” this lack of geographic knowledge, has led to increased militarism due to geographic ignorance. The trouble with this argument is that it’s less than half right. It omits the fact there there is no such thing as pure efficacious knowledge, but in Foucault’s useful phrase, power/knowledge. Knowledge and power–in this case political goals–are intertwined. So knowledge is not a panacea, and in fact is often in the service of military endeavors, as is well-known.

In fact it’s the “good liberal” argument he made at AAG 2012, in dismissing Karen Morin’s new book, Civic Discipline and defending the work of the AGS. In his remarks  (published this week in the Geographical Review), he says:

She faults Daly for “his alignment with a  subsequently declining geographical society.” But  Daly died in 1899 and the AGS soared through the 1920s. Did she really mean to say that the AGS with Isaiah Bowman was less impactful than the AGS under Daly? What does she mean by “declining,” anyway? We survived. We’re still doing great things. She says “unfortunate obstacles in the later twentieth century. . . damaged [our] stature within the geographic community.” If that is true, how can the AGS still have three former presidents of the Association of American Geographers, one former president of the National Council for Geographic Education, and one former president of the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers on its council? And, what were those “obstacles”? The only one I know is that we ran short of money and had to reduce our expenditures accordingly. Does she fault us for the decline in philanthropy that swept through corporate donors from the 1970s on? Would she disparage Daly for his close ties to business and then disparage us for shedding ours beyond what we intended?

This misses several things. Most importantly, I take it that it’s clear that Morin is referring to the AGS “obstacles” of the Bowman Expeditions and Mexico Indigena. This factually and definitely has “damaged the AGS’ stature.” The AGS is much shrunken, and recently had to give up its offices in Manhattan and move to a small office in Brooklyn. (One positive outcome: due to lack of space they finally had to yield up their archives to a proper facility at Univ. Wisconsin-Milwaukee–a boon for researchers. It was there this summer that I found an interesting trail of letters from Bill Bunge to people around the world on behalf of Fred Schaefer.)

Dobson continues:

Civic Discipline demeans the life and works of one of the greatest geographers and humanitarians who ever lived. It maligns one of geography’s most venerable institutions. Morin damns with innuendo and baseless accusations. She relies exclusively
on popular social theories and ignores other plausible explanations. She neglected to ask those who know Daly best.

By this last phrase, Dobson means himself. In a remark which drew much laughter at the AAG session, but which is unfortunately not printed here, Morin paused to say that she would no more ask the AGS President about 19th century geography than she would ask Michael Palin about the RGS! [Palin is the  Past-President of RGS]. You go where the archives are, and in this case, the AGS no longer has the relevant papers (they have discarded and sold a lot of stuff off over the years), or they lie elsewhere (NYPL).

Dobson’s claim that Daly was a great geographer and humanitarian is starkly at odds with the fact that he let off (Daly was a judge by trade) the state militia who had shot into an unarmed crowd, killing 22 people and injuring 45, as Neil Smith points out in his contribution.

Returning to the theme then, it is not a case of the good liberal throwing knowledge at a problem and expecting liberal outcomes. Knowledge for whom? For what? The Bowman Expeditions are a dead letter because they are construed as producing knowledge for the military in the hope that they’ll invade and bomb less frequently. Is it working?

Final note on this: Dobson is going to lecture on “ethical issues in geography” next week, wherein he will demonstrate the “public’s boundless embrace of geographic technologies.”

2 responses to “Geographic knowledge and war

  1. The answer is simple. War is profitable. If industries were required to “donate” materials and services “at cost,” we would never have another war.

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