Hard on the heels of my post about the Human Geography Summit (below), comes news of Joel Wainwright‘s Geopiracy: Oaxaca, militant empiricism and geographical thought (forthcoming from Palgrave Pivot in October):

Why have geographers remained so quiet about the resurgence of military funding for geographical research? Joel Wainwright argues that the underlying problem stems from our epistemic commitment to empiricism. Much as some would like to deny it, many geographers are executing their own ‘expeditions’ in the spirit of Isaiah Bowman, the early twentieth-century geographer who shaped the discipline’s empiricist epistemology while helping the US to build its empire (and from whom the Expeditions take their name). Geopiracy delivers a critique of the ‘Bowman expeditions’ – a project through which geographers, with funding from the US Army, are mapping the ‘human terrain’ of foreign lands. Since the beginning of the controversy surrounding the Bowman expeditions, the discipline of geography has been rocked by debates concerning research methods, the military, and the effects of geospatial technologies on everyday life. Although the ‘Oaxaca controversy’ has fomented intense discussions, the questions it raises are far from resolved. Geopiracy offers a postcolonial critique of human geography today – one that draws on contemporary social theory to raise unsettling questions about the nature of geography’s disciplinary formation.

If you don’t know the background, Neil Smith‘s American Empire (2003) offers a searching examination of Bowman – ‘Roosevelt’s Geographer’ – and Zoltan Grossman provides a series of really helpful links to the contemporary controversy surrounding the Bowman Expeditions/México Indígena project here.  There’s also an online documentary, ‘The Demarest Factor: US military mapping of indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico’, here.

Most of us are probably familiar with the lively debate in Anthropology about the cultural turn in counterinsurgency and, in particular, the enlistment of anthropologists in the US Army’s Human Terrain Teams and the like.  If you’re not, then check out the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.  But anthropologists aren’t the only scholars who should be concerned about the weaponization of culture and the growth of the Military-Academic-Industry-Media complex (MAIM for short).  As Joe Brian put it in an editorial in Political Geography, ‘Geographers can ill-afford to sit this debate out, lest the discipline become a means of waging war by other means.’

True enough – but, as the Human Geography Summit reveals, the train left the station long ago.  In any case, geographical knowledge is not enclosed by the discipline of Geography.  Our primary concern should not be disciplinary purity – not Joel’s or Joe’s intention, I know – but the development and dissemination of insurgent geographies that not only expose but also replace violent formations like those documented in Geopiracy.

Human Geography Summit

As the calls for papers for the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles next April fly backwards and forwards, I thought readers would be interested in another meeting (and, for the most part, another geography).

The Institute for Defense and Government Advancement (IDGA) – which describes itself as ‘a non-partisan information based organization dedicated to the promotion of innovative ideas in public service and defense’  and which ‘is not affiliated with the US government or any branch of the Armed Services’ – is holding a Human Geography Summit in Washington DC, 12-14 November 2012.  Subtitled ‘Maximizing force efficiency through intelligence in the human domain’, the brochure explains:

“The environment in which we operate is complex and demands that we employ every weapon in our arsenal, both kinetic and non-kinetic. To fully utilize all approaches, we must understand the local culture and history; Learn about the tribes, formal and informal leaders, governmental and religious structures, and local security forces. We must understand how the society functions so we can enable [Iraqis] to build a stable, self-reliant nation.” 

This Summit will bring to light the future of the Human Domain in warfare and opportunities for Military and Industry cooperation and coordination.

Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF & OEF) in Iraq and Afghanistan created a need for a fundamental shift in the way we fight wars. It became very clear very quick that conventional warfare was doomed to failure in this particular set of operations. We were being beaten by an unconventional force that had no state backing and did not play by the rules.

In order to adapt, many hybrid theories of war have been thought up and put into place. Throughout this, one aspect that was previously overlooked has come to the fore front. Knowing who you are fighting and where you are fighting. Not simple identification and geographic data, but personality profiles, daily schedules/routines, language/dialect, cultural identities, weather patterns, market places, potential hideouts, and places of cultural and religious significance. Truly understanding the enemy, how they differ from the civilian population they are embedded in and what will make our forces either comply with their culture or blend in as they do.

The Summit will be preceded by a ‘Social and Cultural Human Geography and Intelligence Focus Day’ with four specialist workshops:

  • Maintaining connections with the local population in support of operationally directed research
  • Thinking like the Natives: Cultural immersion for US Special Operations
  • Understanding the local culture and history of Target Populations
  • Cultural and Economical Human Geography: a case study

The Summit will include presentations from the US Army Geospatial Center, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency,the US Army Corps of Engineers, Human Terrain Systems (US Army) and US Northern and Southern Commands.

You’ll also have the chance ‘to meet, network and engage with top government and industry professionals in the human geography space’ (sic) – a steal at $1,598 (military) or $1,835 (industry).  Uniform or business casual.

It’s thirty-odd years since Yves Lacoste insisted that La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à fair la guerre (1976) and, as Gavin Bowd and Daniel Clayton show in “Geographical warfare in the tropics: Yves Lacoste and the Vietnam War”, he knew what he was talking about (he was also the editor of Hérodote, left): their remarkably rich essay was published in Early View by the Annals of the Association of American Geographers earlier this year.  As I say, another geography.

But these are not matters of disciplinary history alone; that is, of course, important – the terrific work of  Trevor Barnes in particular has done much to illuminate the entanglements of modern geography in the Second World War and the Cold War – but it’s also vital to pursue the ways in which geographical knowledges and practices continue to enter into the conduct of war and military violence.  In 1963 William Bunge and Bill Warntz started work on a book to be called Geography: the innocent science, a prospectus for their vision of the ‘new geography’ as spatial science.  It was far from innocent, to be sure, and in his later work – notably the Nuclear War Atlas but also what he called his ‘peace book’, Fitzgerald: geography of a revolution – Bunge displayed another side to his radical temper.  But what Trevor calls ‘the mangle’ between power and knowledge, geography and war, still includes the models and methods of spatial science – and it evidently also mangles much that lies far beyond them.