It was a pleasant, even charming delusion: that geography, national borders and one’s group identity no longer mattered. After all, don’t we live in the age of the Internet (nee Worldwide Web), the global economy, multinational corporations, the European Union and millions of students traveling abroad for their education? Thomas Friedman assured us that the world was flat. What does it matter in 2014 who controls a particular piece of real estate?
It turns out that it matters a great deal not only to the people who occupy a particular piece of land but also to the United States. Many, even the majority, of conflicts around the world right now are driven by matters of geography. China has nearly come to blows with a number of its neighbors over groups of barren rocks in the waters that separate them. Moscow has annexed Crimea and Russian separatists in Ukraine are fighting the government in Kiev for the right to become part of Russia. The collapse of the most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks provides additional evidence of the challenges posed to drawing enduring lines on a map of the world.
We really shouldn’t be particularly surprised by recent events. The name of the political entity where one resides, which government collects one’s tax payments and the identity of the people who form one’s community have been subjects of intense disputes, even hostilities, forever. This is why Slovaks couldn’t live in the same country with Czechs, Bangladeshis with Pakistanis, Croats with Serbs, Eritreans with Ethiopians and why fourteen of the fifteen republics of the former Soviet Union wanted nothing to do with Russia.
Geography and identity also are the sources of today’s conflicts in Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus, Kashmir, the Congo, Nigeria, Thailand, Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Yemen, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Québécois want freedom from their benign Canadian “overlords”, Flemings seek autonomy from Walloons in Belgium, Catalans and Basques desire distance from the rest of Spain and Scottish separatists are calling for a referendum on independence from England.
This is an argument that the U.S. Army has been pushing of late: that geography matters. People live on land and the ability to control important parts of the Earth’s surface on which people live will continue to be important to national security. Like Willie Sutton’s famous saying regarding the logic associated with robbing banks, geography matters because that is where the people are. Land forces are central to controlling land and the people on it. Air and naval forces are dominant in their respective physical domains and have critical roles in affecting the course and outcome of conflicts on land. But they cannot be decisive on land. For that you need an army.
Before the Obama Administration cuts the size of the U.S. Army too deeply and further guts its modernization programs, it would be well for it to reflect on geography and identities as the source of so many of today’s conflicts. The ability to protect, secure, seize and occupy that which others value so highly must be a powerful source of influence, deterrence and even basis for victory in war.
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