West Point’s Bad Geography

“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)

West Point is now in the business of writing geography books for mostly geographically illiterate American population. These books reflect a conqueror’s propagandistic view of the world. It is deplorable that our military is being trained to see countries in this light. The winners not only write history books, but also geography books dehumanizing their enemies.

Listening to their beloved commander in chief, some of the professors in the Department of Geography at West Point decided to write books on the members of the Axis of Evil. They have written two books on the members of the Axes: Iraq and North Korea; however, for some reason, they have replaced Iran, world’s first Taliban state, with Afghanistan. A book on Iran also will be written as soon as Washington decides what to do about Tehran, to invade or not to invade!

They subtitled all of their books with “Geographical Perspectives”. I have not seen the book on North Korea; thus, I am not going to deal with it. The other two, were apparently conceived by Colonel Dr. Eugene J. Palka who edited the book on Afghanistan.

The main purpose of this article is to review the geography book on Iraq written mostly by men in uniform at the West Point Military Academy. Only a very big mistake in Dr. Palka’s (2004) book will be mentioned. The rest of the article is a more detailed review of the book on Iraq edited by Professor Malinowski.

On page C-9, in the book on Afghanistan, there is a good picture of a national game called Buzkashi. Actually, this is a compound word made of “Buz” and “Kashi”. These words are translated as “horns” and “to pull”. Dr. Palka’s meaning of the second part of the word is only correct. In Persian as well as Pashto in, the word “Buz” is a reference to a goat. A geographer who has been to Afghanistan should have made sure to report correctly on the name of a very important national pastime of that country. The following is a more complete review of the book on Iraq.

Iraq: Geographic Perspectives.
Jon C. Malinowski (Ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2004, vii and 96 pp., maps, Photos, tables, and refs. $18.85 paper (ISBN: 0-07-294010-7).

After studying, carrying out research, and teaching geography for nearly thirty-five years, if I see a good book applying this discipline’s concepts to a country, I will be very happy to buy it, read it, and use it in my classes. Unfortunately, the result of my search, especially in regards to the application of geographical perspectives to a Middle Eastern country, has been disappointing. The book under review is not an exception. It too, hardly scratches the surface of this type of geographical application. Sadly, many of the most powerful spatial concepts that could have been applied to Iraq are missing. The authors are warrior-geographers in one of the most famous military academies in the world, West Point.

The main purpose of the book was “to educate Americans about the geography of countries that were being featured nightly [or daily] on every media outlet but that most people knew little about” (p. v). Actually, in the wake of two important events in the recent history of mankind, the attack of 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq, Colonel Dr. Eugene J. Palka of the West Point Military Academy conceived writing a series of geography books not only on Iraq but on Afghanistan and North Korea. If we substitute Afghanistan with Iran, then we are left with the “Axis of Evil” countries coined by George W. Bush.

Dr. Malinowski, editor of the book and one of only two contributors without an army rank, writes that the thirteen authors, all professional geographers, of different chapters of this book “made the conscious decision not to overwhelm the reader with in-depth analysis, forecasting of the future, or political debates” (p .vi). This sounds like three different types of disclaimers in a single sentence. They did not want to overpower the readers with the language of “excessive jargon,” but promise “a lengthy bibliography” (p. vi). He is saying they had the ability to write a comprehensive geography book on Iraq but did not! Thus, in order to educate, the readers are recommended to consult the book’s bibliography.

Indeed, for a book with approximately 80 pages of written materials, they do have a lengthy bibliography, nearly five pages, but many of these references came from the Internet and some of them should not have been included. The Internet provides an impressive amount of sources on Iraq’s geography, yet it is a dangerous highway. Until a refining method is devised, few of these references are critical. For “Geography of Iraq” alone the Google search engine had 428,000 hits in August, 2004. This huge number, I am sure, does not include all good sources on Iraq and who can even think about looking at all of these so-called references. Under Palka’s name, three entries are listed. Two of them are in-house study-guide publications in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, West Point, US Military Academy. They are not generally available elsewhere; hence, they should not have been cited.

On the other hand, the authors were unaware of many other good books. Listed below, I have chosen a handful of good sources not seen by the authors. Fisher’s (1971), the “mother” of all textbooks, is a monumental classical textbook that has over 550 pages of excellent geographical perspectives on the Middle East, including over 30 pages on Iraq. Drysdale and Blake’s (1985) book is a superb reference on the political economy of resource control, especially petroleum, in the Middle East, including Iraq. Historical political developments in Iraq are discussed by Catherwood (2004) and Dodge (2003). A brilliant-short paper by Kandell (2003) would have been very helpful to the authors of the book under review. This brief article has few excellent old pictures. One of the pictures shows a four-year old, baby-boy king on a “throne” with two British fake crowns, one on his left shoulder and another one over his head (p. 49).

Furthermore, the authors are determined not to forecast the future or get involved in political debates. Actually, one important aspect of a powerful concept or model, in geography or any other discipline, is predicting the future. The authors should not have avoided the significant result of scientific research. It is almost impossible not to get involved in political debates. Important aspects of historical political economy, colonialism, control of natural resources, petroleum, geopolitics, superpowers, the US supremacy, Arab-Israeli conflict, war and occupation of the country, United Nations, weapons of mass destruction, state sponsored and international terrorism, race for the White House, and the media’s treatment of these issues are not discussed in any form. This little geography book of Iraq has several unsubstantiated political claims. Apparently, the authors believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was related to Al-Qaeda.

This book has thirteen very brief chapters dealing with the geography of Iraq: Introduction, Location, Geomorphology, Climate, Vegetation and Soils, Historical, Cultural, Political, Economic, Population and Urban, Medical Geography, and Conclusion. This book does not have an index, making it hard to find any subject. A short book of this magnitude seems to be no more than an undergraduate term paper to be corrected and revised by a professor with many years of research and experience in the field of Middle Eastern Studies.

The first chapter, “Introduction,” is written by Colonel Wendell C. King and Colonel Eugene J. Palka. The first paragraph mimics media’s pro-war propaganda. Geographic illiteracy in the US is one of their reasons to write a book on Iraq. Quoting from Sun Tsu’s The Art of War, they argue in order to secure a total victory, we should know our enemy and the ground. Perhaps, war is God’s way of teaching us some basic geography. They say their approach is regional for explaining the above mentioned topics. The authors discuss the “Scope of Regional Geography” on page 3, yet the associated illustration from de Blij and Muller (2001) in “Figure 1.1” is given in “Section C” after page 56. The readers are not informed about the existence of this section. All of the chapters, except chapter two, end with a conclusion. It is not necessary to rewrite and repeat any thing from very short chapters.

Chapter two deals with Iraq’s “Location” and was written by Major Thompson. The author does not signify the importance of the country’s site and situation. Iraq in the heart of the Fertile Crescent and the Arab World, its distance from the Equator, Tropic of Cancer, its location between Tokyo and London, its location at the head of the Persian Gulf not far from more than half of the proven oil reserves in the world, its territorial morphology, its artificial colonial boundaries, and much more are simply not discussed.

Chapter three is entitled “Geomorphology.” It was written by Capitan Sampson. Since no important geomorphology model is applied to Iraq, this chapter should have been called “Physical Geography of Iraq.” On page 14, the topic is changed to geology covering only three short paragraphs. The second paragraph is a direct quotation from Held (2000) without giving a page number. In fact, Held’s chapter on Iraq, in his book on the Middle East, is a very good one but under utilized here.

In chapter four, Major Pannell discussed Iraq’s “Climate.” A latitudinal comparison of climate of the USA and Iraq on a map would have been a good approach to start. On page 17, the two wind systems, Shamali and Sharghi, that are proper Arabic names for winds coming from the North and East, their first letters should have been capitalized. Again, for the sake of comparison, a climograph of a city in the US such as Washington, D. C. would have helped the reader to have a better understanding of Iraq’s weather extremes. In this chapter, “Sandstorms,” a very important feature of Iraq’s physical geography is briefly discussed on page 22. American troops were not only greeted by a strong sandstorm, but a more powerful sandstorm helped Muslim soldiers to defeat the powerful Persian Empire in the Battle of Qadesia. In the summary of this chapter a paragraph is devoted to latitudinal zonation (p. 23), yet altitudinal zonation is not even mentioned.

In chapter five, Dr. Anderson, another of the two authors without army ranks, briefly studied “Vegetation and Soils” in Iraq. This chapter covers less than three pages. The part on soils contains only six sentences. Although the author calls the marshes of southern Iraq as “one of southwest Asia’s most productive wetland ecosystems” (p. 28), unfortunately, readers are not given further information in this chapter. However, diversion and destruction of this ecosystem by Saddam is described elsewhere. Figure 3.3 on page C-6 shows two satellite images of this region for 1973 and 2000 indicating its shrinkage. This figure is one of the few good illustrations in the book.

“Historical Geography” of Iraq is dealt with in chapter six. This chapter is written by Lieutenant Colonel Dalton. This chapter is the weakest link in the book. Nearly four centuries of the “Ottoman Era” is summarized by a single paragraph. The role of the European colonialism in creating a country called Iraq in 1921 is down played. Iraq is considered to be the only country in the world whose king was imported from Hijaz and imposed on badly divided ethnic groups in this newly created nation. It would have been very interesting to look at the roles that some individuals played in the political economy of the world, greater Middle East, and Iraq including Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Percy Cox, and Gertrude Bell. According to Catherwood (2004) Iraq was Churchill’s folly, but Kandell (2003) believed that Iraq was Ms. Bell’s personal project.

Chapter seven, “Cultural Geography,” is written by the editor of the book Dr. Malinowski. He, of course, very briefly introduces some basic tenants of ethnicity in Iraq, but it is incomplete. The Kurds, a very important component of ethnicity and geography, are discussed in only three short paragraphs. This is simply unfair to reduce the world’s largest ethnic group, about 25 million people, to nothing.

“Political Geography” of Iraq is written by Major Lohman and presented in chapter eight. This chapter has little more geography than the previous one. The author of this chapter has some more information on the Kurds, but both Malinowski and Lohman’s treatment of the Kurds is barely sufficient. Both missed Izadi’s (1992) book, an important reference on this ethnic group. If the authors had access to this book, they would have learned about the Treaty of Sevres of August, 20, 1921. To dismantle the defeated Ottoman Empire was the main thrust of this treaty. Section III, Article 62-64 of this treaty indicated the creation of an independent Kurdistan, and mandate over this state was offered to the US. Important political topics applicable to Iraq, such as territorial morphology, boundary types, relationships between this country and colonial powers, geopolitics, superpowers, and its neighbors are missed by Major Lohman.

A total 16 pages of illustrations, including some good maps and pictures, are clamped together and put between chapters eight and nine. This type of arrangement is unprofessional. Most of the maps are far from where they are discussed and most of the pictures are ignored. Generally speaking, maps in this book are reasonably good, but nowhere in the book, under review, is the reader able to find a good map of petroleum fields in Iraq; thus, a larger color-map of Iraq, similar to the one that appears in de Blij and Muller’s (2004, p. 350), book is needed. In addition, it would have been a good idea for the faculty members of the Geography Department at the West Point, who wrote this book on Iraq to follow the very important and powerful tradition of applying concept to regions pioneered by de Blij and Muller.

Chapter nine on “Economic Geography” is authored by Major Lahood. He is one of the two professors at the West point who teaches EV374: Geography of the Middle East and Africa, yet his chapter on this important subject is neither scholarly nor complete. Under the title of “Primary Resources” (p. 58), he wrote only two brief paragraphs about fossil fuels in Iraq. The fact that Iraq has the second-largest amount of proven oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia is down-played. It is surprising that a good map of Iraq’s natural resources, particularly a map of proven oil reserves, is missing!

Capitan Cowher and Major Herl contributed chapter ten of this book entitled “Population and Urban Geography.” The authors of this chapter do not waste time to land in Baghdad quickly before providing any definitions or yardsticks for measurement. What is a city? What is an urban area? What happened to the nomad population of Iraq? What is a primate city? Have they heard of a powerful model called “Population Transition” for explaining population history and a “Posh-pull Model” to deal with migration? These concepts and models would have revealed much interesting discussions badly needed in this book. The rate of population growth is discussed on page 67, but its actual value is not given. It is not a good idea to give absolute numbers in a population pyramid (p. 68). The percentage of each age or sex cohort in the total population, for the sake of comparison, is more meaningful.

Major Mangin, who also teaches EV374, has written chapter eleven of the book on “Medical Geography” of Iraq, but he is a cultural-political not a medical geographer. A few good maps of the Spatial Ecology of Diseases and different aspects of health care would have helped the reader to have some understanding of this chapter. The last few pages of this chapter are very boring. On page 74, the correct reference for the Triangle of Human Ecology is Meade et al (1988) not Palka (2001). On page 84, Major Mangin argues that malaria “transmission occurs from mosquitoes year-round.” This may happen in southern Iraq; however, we know that these vectors are unable to survive in the very cold winters of northern mountains.

The last chapter, “Conclusion,” was written by the editor of the book. In this chapter, less than a single page, Dr. Malinowski writes that “the material in this book represents our best attempt to provide an introduction to the complex geography of this important country. In doing so, we hope it will raise further questions and open avenues for additional research” (p. 87). He is right only about the second part of his statement. No, this book does not represent the attempt. Yes, additional research is a must, yet a curious question is whether this book is really a book or just practicing to write a better and bigger “real” geography of this important nation. I believe that the publisher has made a mistake for publishing and marketing such a book.

It is peculiar to note that only the areas of interest of the editor, Dr. Malinowski, are given in the book (p.89). We learn that his areas of interest have nothing to do with the Middle East or Iraq. His teaching and research interests included myriad topics: environmental perception, spatial ability, children’s geographies, and summer camps. The readers are not informed about the teaching and research interests of the other thirteen geographers. It may be an unfounded assumption, but if the areas of interests of these authors were not so remote from Iraq, they should have been listed. The areas of interests of the authors would have been seen as credit, proof of experience, and scholarship.

Finally, I believe that a smaller team of more dedicated expert geographers with more experience, education, and knowledge of the Middle Eastern-Iraqi culture, especially languages of the region, is needed to accomplish such a significant mission. The faculty members of the Geography Department at West Point have a significant geographical, as well as historical, mission to further their work into a more reasonable, but comprehensive geography book on Iraq.

Sources Cited:

Catherwood, C. Churchill’ Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004.

de Blij, H. J. and Muller, P. O. Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts. New York: Johan Wiley & Sons, Inc., 11th Edition, 2004.

Dodge, T. Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation-Building and a History Denied. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Drysdale, A. and Blake, G. The Middle East and North Africa: A Political Geography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Fisher, W. B. The Middle East: A physical, Social and Regional Geography. Methuen & Co. LTD, 1971.

Held, C. Middle East Patterns: Places, People, and Politics. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.

Izadi, M. R. The Kurds: A Concise Handbook. Washington, D. C.: Crane Russak, Taylor & Francis International Publishers, 1992.

Kandell, J. “Iraq: A Century of Upheaval.” Smithsonian, Volume 34, Number 2, May 2003, pp. 44-53.

Meade, M. S.; Florin, J. W.; and Gesler, M. M. Medical Geography. New York: Guilford Press, 1988.

Palka, E. J. (Ed.) Afghanistan: Geographical Perspectives. New York: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2004.

IRA KAY has a doctoral degree in geography. He can be reached at: drdrkay@yahoo.com.