Geography, National Power, And Strategy
SUBJECT AREA National Military Strategy
Title: Geography, National Power, and Strategy
Author: Major Robert I. Boland, III, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: To be effective in dealing with regional crises,
military leaders must understand the way in which geography
affects strategic and operational planning, tactics,
logistics operations, relations with civilian populations,
and the military evaluations of areas.
Background: The United States currently finds itself thrust
into an international leadership role in a time of
tremendous international instability. The disintegration of
the Soviet Union and its fall from superpower status has
removed the principal threat to the national security
interests of the United States and has caused it to adopt a
regional focus in designing strategic responses to future
crises. The term regional is used in a geographic sense,
and that is the framework upon which future national
security strategy will be built. This change in focus
brings with it new demands on both civilian policy makers
and military strategists. In order to build strategies for
dealing with regional crises, an understanding of geography
and its impact on national power and strategy is essential.
Military leaders in particular must understand
geography in its broadest sense. Any credible military
response to a regional conflict requires an indepth
understanding of the geography of that region, as the
geographic conditions may enhance or constrain the exercise
of military power.
As the nation's expeditionary force in readiness, the
Marine Corps must be ready to respond to regional conflicts
that threaten the national security interests of the United
States. This will require Marine leaders to have a solid
foundation in geography in order to be successful in
resolving crises through military means.
Recommendation: Marine leaders must understand the
relationship between geography, the exercise of national
power, and the development of strategy. This will require a
deliberate institutional emphasis on the study of geography
and its influence on the exercise of military power.
GEOGRAPHY, NATIONAL POWER, AND STRATEGY
Thesis: To be effective in dealing with regional crises, military
leaders must understand the way in which geography affects
strategic and operational planning, tactics, logistics operations,
relations with civilian populations, and the military evaluations
I. The Relationship of Geography to the Exercise of
A. General Definitions of Geographic Terms
B. Geography's Impact on Political, Economic and
Military Elements of Power
C. Geography, Strategy, and the Military Leader
D. Geography and the Exercise of Military Power
II. National Security Strategy and the Marine Corps
A. The U.S. Adopts a Regional Focus
B. The Marine Corps' Role in Crisis Response
C. Geography and the Marine Leader
III. How to Get There From Here
A. Institutional Emphasis on the Study of Geography
B. Incorporating Geography into Formal School POI's
C. Additional Methods for Promoting an Understanding
GEOGRAPHY, NATIONAL POWER, AND STRATEGY
The disintegration of the Soviet Union and its
subsequent fall from superpower status has removed the
principal threat to the national security interests of the
United States. The lack of a single superpower threat does
not mean the world is no longer a dangerous place. Quite
the contrary is the case. This fact has been clearly
recognized by policy makers, as demonstrated in the
following statement taken from the National Security
Strategy of the United States, published by the White House
in August of 1991:
In some regions there is a danger of locally
dominant powers, armed with modern weaponry
and ancient ambitions. We see regimes that
have made themselves champions of regional
radicalism, states that are all too vulner-
able to such pressures, governments that re-
fuse to recognize one another, and countries
that have claims on one another's territory--
some with significant military capabilities
and a history of recurring war. A key task
for the future will be maintaining regional
balances and resolving such disputes before
they erupt in military conflict. (7:7)
Thus the United States has adopted a regional focus in
designing its national security strategy. The term regional
is used in a geographic sense, and that is the framework
upon which future national security strategy will be built.
In order to build such a strategy one must have an
understanding of geography in its broadest sense and how it
impacts on national power and strategy. Geography is not
itself an element of national power, which is normally
descibed as having political, economic, and military
elements. Geography might better be viewed as the
foundation on which these three elements of national power
are built. Accordingly, statesmen must possess a thorough
knowledge of a broad range of geographic factors in order to
effectively wield the elements of national power in pursuit
of their national interests. So too must military leaders
understand geography in its broadest sense. Any credible
military response to a regional conflict requires an
understanding of the geography of that region, as the
geographic conditions may enhance or constrain the exercise
of military power. To be effective in dealing with regional
crises, military leaders must understand the way in which
geography affects strategic and operational planning,
tactics, logistics operations, relations with civilian
populations, and the military evaluations of areas.
The Marine Corps in particular prides itself on its
expeditionary nature and ability to respond to crises
worldwide, and so has no small stake in ensuring its leaders
are well educated in geography and its military
applications. After discussing the relationship between
geography, national power, and strategy, and the need for
military leaders to understand it, a recommendation for
incorporating the study of geography into the Marine Corps'
formal education system will be presented.
When a state is enclosed by three other states
its territory is focal. He who first gets con-
trol of it will gain the support of All-Under-
Sun Tzu's dictum speaks directly to one of the most
important geographic factors, location, and why some
countries or regions have long histories of recurring
warfare. There are many other aspects of geography that
bear directly on the power that a nation develops and the
strategies it employs in seeking to secure its national
Some definitions are in order before proceeding with
the discussion of the relationship between geography, power,
Geography, in its broadest sense, deals with the
description of the Earth's surface; its division into
regions, continents, and countries; climate, plants,
animals; natural resources and industries; people, their
cultures, and religions.
National power is the measure of a state's ability to
achieve its goals and protect its national interests.
Geopolitics is the science of the relation of politics
to geography. The geopolitical viewpoint is that the
strength of a nation and its chances of survival are
dependent to a great extent on geographic factors: location,
size, shape, depth, climate, population and manpower,
natural resources, industrial capacity, and social and
political organization. (6:2)
Strategy, from a military perspective, involves
deciding upon the geographic regions of military operations,
the planning for, and the directing of the military forces
to be employed there. (6:2)
Strategic position implies one that is favorable or
advantageous, primarily because of its geographic location.
Historically, there has always been a strong
relationship between geography and international problems.
Examples of long-standing struggles for power among nations
abound, and cannot really be understood without the help of
geography. Indeed, in many cases geographic factors are
actually the cause of wars. In devising a strategy to
prevent war, a complete understanding of geography in
relation to human affairs is necessary. Geography has
always been an integral part of planning for war. It is not
surprising then that the United States' national security
strategy is based on regional geographic considerations.
A nation seeks to achieve its foreign policy aims by
employing all three elements of power. Thus it will have a
political strategy relying on the use of diplomacy and
negotiation. This strategy is closely linked with the
nation's economic strategy, and both are used in concert in
the building of alliances and the protection of national
interests. The employment of military strategy is typically
the last resort, used when diplomatic and economic efforts
have failed to protect national security interests.
A nations power, and therefore its national interests
and strategies, is an outgrowth of a wide variety of
geographic factors. As stated earlier, location is an
extremely important factor in the development of power
because it determines climates, economics, natural resources
strategic position, and even national policies. Favorable
geographic location results in tremendous economic and
strategic advantages. The United States, for example,
enjoys significant advantages due to its location. It has
friendly neighbors on its northern and southern borders and
is seperated from Europe and Asia by large oceans. These
factors have allowed the United States to shape its national
policies in relative freedom from external pressures. Its
location as the natural terminus of trade routes across
those same oceans has brought the United States significant
economic advantages as well.
The strategic significance of Turkey is also a function
of its location as a land bridge between Europe and Asia,
and as a land barrier across the only outlet of the Black
Sea. Turkeys' location is also significant strategically as
the world's largest source of chromite. (12:45)
The size and shape of a nation are also important
considerations which impact on the political, economic, and
military policies it adopts. Compactness may foster
political unity and help in the rapid mobilization of
military, labor and industrial forces. This can also be a
liability. Small countries such as Belgium may be extremely
susceptible to sudden attack. Countries that are elongated,
such as Chile or Italy, or that have seperated areas, such
as Turkey or the United States, may be more vulnerable to
invasion. Very large countries may have to contend with the
problems of regionalism, which can adversely affect national
unity and stability.
Climatic conditions determine the nature and
distribution of food supplies and influences the peoples'
living habits. All of the world's great powers lie in the
middle latitudes, in which variations in climate and soil
are not too great. Nations that are large in area, such as
the United States, benefit from the fact that climates of
different types contribute to variety and balance of
productive capabilities. (6:5)
In evaluating nations or regions, consideration must be
given to their physiography - highlands, lowlands,
coastlines, plains, forests, and cultivated areas.
Topography is extremely important in determining the
military strategies applied to problems. Physiography plays
a vital role in a nations position of strength or weakness.
For example, a country divided up by a mountain range may be
difficult to unify and thus be vulnerable. Cohesion is the
ability of the people to work together in pursuit of the
national interest in spite of individual or group
differences. (6:7) This important consideration also
includes such things as common languages, religion, law,
class problems and racial differences. The former Soviet
Union and India provide excellent examples of the factors
that make cohesion difficult. The Soviet Union had many
diverse racial groups and languages. India has these
problems as well as a caste system and difficulties between
its two major religious groups, Moslems and Hindus. China,
by contrast, is almost racially pure Chinese.
Natural resources, or the access to them, are another
essential element of national power. Nations without them
lack the ability to fully protect and realize their national
A well-developed system of interior communications and
transportation is an important ecomomic as well as military
Of great importance in determining the strategic
position and military potential of a nation is its location
with respect to the major land and sea trade routes, and the
development and extent of its external transportation
system. (6:10) Without its strategic lift capability by both
sea and air, the United States would not be able to employ
its Maritime Prepositioned Force (MPF) concept. Although
the discussion of how geographic factors relate to the
development of a nations power could continue at great
length, the importance of a knowledge of geography to the
statesman and military strategist should be evident. Since
power and national security are essentially based on
geographic factors, military leaders must think in terms of
geography. This observation is obviously not new. Military
strategists have long considered geography in choosing
locations for advanced operating bases. Their location must
be viewed in light of their proximity to both the home
country and prospective battle area they may support. The
United States currently faces just such a concern in
searching for a replacement for its bases at Clark Air Force
Base and Subic Bay Naval Base in the Phillippines, an issue
of significant strategic importance.
Nor are these considerations of concern only to
statesman and high level military strategists. Military
leaders at all levels must know the effects of geography on
military operations. Again, to quote Sun Tzu:
To estimate the enemy situation and to calculate
distances and the degree of difficulty of the
terrain so as to control victory are the virtues
of the superior general. He who fights with full
knowledge of these factors is certain to win; he
who does not will surely be defeated. (11:128)
Sun Tzu's "estimate of the enemy situation" includes
more than just an understanding of an adversary's strength
or location on the battlefield. Of equal, if not greater,
importance is an understanding of the history, culture,
societal organization, and psychology of an enemy nation,
and how these factors influence its military leaders and the
way they fight. This knowledge is the key to finding an
exploitable weakness, which will lead to victory.
In "On War", Carl Von Clausewitz also emphasizes the
importance of an understanding of the relationship between
warfare and terrain. In Clausewitz's view, a commanders
understanding of the relationship is what determines the
particular character of a military action. Since a
commander will never be completely familiar with the area(s)
in which he may fight, and also will never be able to
reconnoiter it completely, he is faced with many unknowns
when planning and conducting battle. The enemy, of course,
may not be better off, though the defender more often than
not has at least a local tactical advantage. Clausewitz
believes that the commander with enough talent and
experience to overcome this dilemma will gain a real
advantage. To master this problem requires a special gift,
which Clausewitz calls a sense of locality. This is made up
of a combination of imagination, learning and experience and
gives the commander the ability to quickly and accurately
understand the topography of an area, enabling him to find
his way around the battlefield at any time. Though
imagination is a natural talent, with learning and
experience this sense of locality grows in scope. Senior
commanders must aquire an overall knowledge of an entire
country or region. He must be able to picture in his mind
the road networks, riverlines, and mountain ranges without
losing his sense of his immediate surroundings.
Both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz demonstrate the need for
military leaders to move beyond a basic understanding of the
effects of terrain and weather on the military operations.
Geography, in its broadest sense, must be mastered to be
successful in the conduct of military operations. Current
doctrine, as contained in the Marine Corps Warfighting
manual FMFM 1, "Warfighting", also emphasizes the requirements
for and understanding of geography and its relationship to
the political, economic, and military elements of power. A
commander must assess his enemy's centers of gravity
(strengths) and critical vulnerabilities (weaknesses) as
well as his own. He must view them not only in respect to
military concerns on a tactical, operational, and strategic
level, but must recognize that these strengths and
weaknesses may not be military at all, but rather of a
political, psychological, or economic nature.
A thorough understanding of FMFM-1 is not enough, by
itself, to educate Marines in the military applications of
geography. An institutional emphasis on incorporating the
study of geography into the Marine Corps' formal education
system would ensure that Marines are truely able to go to
war on a moments notice, anywhere in the world, in keeping
with their expeditionary nature.
The Marine Corps has not completely ignored all aspects
of military geography. The effects of terrain and weather
on military operations are an essential consideration in the
planning process and are constantly emphasized in doctrinal
publications, war games, and field exercises and training.
No intelligence officer fails to brief these considerations
and no commander fails to take them into account when making
The Marine Corps does not, however, include courses in
geography in its formal school's program of instruction
(POI), and officers conceivably may not have studied
geography since their high school days. Those who gain an
appreciation for the importance of studying geography do so
through self-study and/or practical experience. This has
not always been the case. A look at the 1940 edition of the
Marine Corps' "Small Arms Manual", NAVMC 2890, reveals a
three-page form for the study of a theater of operations to
be prepared by the intelligence officer. (8:2-15) This form
includes items such as political history, internal and
international politics; economic characteristics, national
productive capacity, commerce, transportation; physical
geography; and psychological situation, to include
education, religion and cultural aspects. Recruiting
methods, training of resources and officer promotion methods
are additional items for consideration. No "re-invention of
the wheel" is required, just increased institutional
An introduction to the military aspects of geography
should be taught at The Basic School so that all Marine
officers are exposed to the importance of geographic
considerations. This instruction need not be especially
broad in scope and should focus on tactical concerns. This
would place an institutional emphasis on the study of
geography during the formative stage of an officer's career.
As an officer makes his way up through the formal education
system the scope and emphasis of instruction in geography
should broaden progressively. Marine officers would gain a
more complete understanding of demographics, religion,
industry, agriculture, cultural customs, and other geo-
political factors. The Marine Corps' career, intermediate,
and top level schools provide an ideal environment for the
sort of practical exercises, war games, and area studies
necessary to amplify formal classroom instruction. In
studying history, emphasis must be placed not only on what
happened, but why it happened and what influenced commanders
to make the decisions they made. Invariably, some aspect of
geography will appear. For example, in preparation for the
Battle of France, General Patton states that he read
Freeman's "The Norman Conquest", "paying particular attention
to the roads William the Conquerer used in his operations in
Normandy and Brittany." (12:19) Obviously, a parallel
program for enlisted and staff NCO formal school POI's
should be incorporated.
It is an unfortunate fact that the majority of Marine
officers are unable to attend resident formal schools beyond
entry level. Therefore, an emphasis on the study of
geography must be included in the non-resident studies
programs as well. Assigned reading and exercise scenarios
should be included in these courses. Additionally, the
inclusion of books on geography and geopolitics on the
Commandant's reading list would promote the continued study
of this essential subject.
The United States has been thrust into a leadership
role in a time of tremendous international instability. The
economic, social, and political impact of such turmoil is of
great concern to policy makers in the United States as they
work to promote regional stablility around the globe. This
continuing development of modern warriors concepts and the
expansion of military areas of interest and responsibility
have broadened the scope of military interest in geography.
Military leaders can no longer confine their interest to the
study of terrain and weather, but must also include social,
economic, and political matters. Many of today's complex
world problems - boundary disputes, population pressures,
and uneven distribution of natural resources - have their
roots in geographic as well as socio-political phenomena.
(13:vii) Military leaders have an obligation to understand
how these phenomena influence plans and operations. As the
nation's expeditionary force in readiness, the Marine Corps
must be ready to respond to regional conflicts that threaten
the security interests of the United States. Marine leaders
must have a solid foundation in geography in order to be
successful in resolving these conlficts through military
means. A deliberate, continuous institutional emphasis on
the study of geography will prepare Marine leaders for an
uncertain and evolving future.
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West Point: United States Military Academy, 1963.
2. Clausewitz, Carl Von. "On War". Princeton: Princeton University
3. Drew, Col Dennis M. and Snow, Dr. Donald M. "Making Strategy:
An Introduction to National Security Processes and Problems".
Alabama: Air University Press, 1988.
4. "FMFM-1 Warfighting". Quantico, Va.: MCCDC, 1989.
5. Hartmann, Frederick H. "The Relations of Nations".
New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1978.
6. Jeffries, William W. "Geography and National Power".
Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1967.
7. National Security Strategy of the United States.
The White House, 1991.
8. "NAVMC 2890 Small Wars Manual". Reprint of the 1940 edition.
Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing
9. O'Sullivan, Patrick and Miller, Jesse W. "The Geography of
Warfare". New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.
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Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1966.
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London: Oxford University Press, 1963.
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liminary Survey" . Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, Inc., 1962.
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