Geography Counterinsurgent

Since the 1970s, the once-musty academic field of geography has enjoyed a renaissance.  Global climate change, new geospatial technologies, and the emergence of a critical form of human geography have transformed the discipline.  Many departments have seen rapid growth in the number of majors and faculty and geographical approaches to global problems have attracted considerable attention.  Recently geography has even captured the attention of the US military.

Consider the “Human Geography Summit” held recently near the Pentagon.[i]   Generals and spies rubbed shoulders with GIS geeks and staid geography professors, plus the usual retinue of private contractors—eager as ever to sell the latest tools to the Pentagon.  But the newest arrow in the quiver isn’t a fancy bomb; its human geography.  The Summit’s theme was “maximizing force efficiency through intelligence in the human domain.”  Participants attended talks with titles like “Understanding the local culture and history of target populations” and “Thinking like the natives”.  The profs and GIS geeks were there to teach the spies and Generals how to efficiently map the world and plan for their wars.

This Summit is only the latest sign of a broader trend: the US military’s rediscovery of human geography.  Of the four branches, the US Army has been especially active and open about its investments in human geography.  An unclassified US Army presentation provides a glimpse of some of the Army’s geography programs, which involve creating tools to collect, integrate, and analyze geospatial data from the entire world.[ii]  Some of this work is coordinated by the Army’s “Human Geography Working Group,” but the Army’s geography research stretches well beyond the Pentagon.

Consider the Bowman Expeditions, a series of research projects carried out by academic geographers who conduct detailed fieldwork in various hot spots – Colombia, Iraq, Jordan, and elsewhere.  The Expeditions are designed to produce detailed maps of local communities for the program’s funder: the US Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Fort Leavenworth.[iii]  When the Bowman Expedition to Oaxaca in southern Mexico was revealed to be funded by the FMSO, participating indigenous communities rebelled, publishing a trio of public denunciations of the project.  One reads:

[The geographers] never informed us that the data they collected in our community would be given to the Foreign Military Study Office (FMSO) of the Army of the United States, nor did they inform us that this institution was one of the sources of financing for the project.  Because of this, we consider that our General Assembly was tricked by the researchers, in order to draw out the information the[y] wanted.  The community did not request the research[;] it was the researchers who convinced the community to carry it out.  Thus, the research was not carried out due to the community’s need, it was the researchers […] who designed the research method in order to collect the type of information that truly interested them. […] [W]e wish to express to the public […] our complete disagreement with the research carried out in our community, since we were not properly informed of the true goals of the research, the use of the information obtained, and the sources of financing.[iv]

When the ‘Oaxaca controversy’ broke, many academic geographers were shocked to learn about the US military’s new investment in human geography research.  But the Bowman Expeditions represent only a small side-project for the US Army and far more significant geographical projects are underway.

The hub for US military/intelligence geographical research lies not in the US Army, but in the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), an enormous, secretive organization in the beltway’s shadow lands: a sister organization to the CIA, focused exclusively on mapping the world and producing fine-grained, real-time geographical analyses of anything the US government or its military may desire.  The NGA’s website describes itself as a “combat support agency” and the “primary source of geospatial intelligence […] for the Department of Defense and the U.S. Intelligence Community.”[v]  In a recent advertisement for geospatial analysts, the NGA asked: “Imagine being able to identify anything on, above, or beneath the Earth’s surface and display that information visually to provide a meaningful foundation for decision-making to ensure the safety of the world.  That’s the job of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.”[vi]

Apart from collecting data and producing maps for the military and State Department, the NGA is the coordinating body for an extraordinary project called the “World-wide Human Geography Data Working Group” (or WWHGD).[vii]  Its stated purpose is to build “partnerships around human geography data” – i.e., find ways to collect datasets on human geography from as many sources as possible – and make that information “available to promote human security”.  But who will have access to all these data, and who will decide what form of human security needs promoting?  That will be the US government and its military.  The NGA has an elegant formula that foreshadows the uses of these data: “human geography tells ‘when’ and ‘where’ to put boots on the ground.”[viii]

What do these initiatives amount to?  They mark an unprecedented attempt to integrate geographical data from various sources (open source data mining, fieldwork, satellites, and so on) to build platforms for geospatial analyses that are capable of mapping people’s movements across the entire planet—for potential military applications.

David Price has published several terrific articles on CounterPunch detailing the ‘weaponizing’ of anthropology since the 1960s.[ix]   Why is the military ‘weaponizing’ human geography today?  There are two broad ways to answer this question.

The first centers on geospatial technology.  Recent advances in satellite, surveillance, and mapping technologies have been nothing short of extraordinary.  Couple this with the ubiquity of geographical data-collection – cellphones, video cameras, computers, and other components produce streams of spatial data that allow everything to be located and tracked – and the possibilities for mapping people’s lives around the world are revolutionized.  The founder of the Bowman Expeditions, geographer Jerry Dobson, once summarized the value of such tools: “It’s one thing to know where each bomb will fall, and GPS can tell you that.  It’s quite another to know where the people are, and that requires a GIS”.[x]  The US military has been at the forefront of developing these technologies and, together with the NGA, sees geospatial technologies as critical for success in what they call “battlespace” (the totality of a war environment).  The soldier not only needs constant access to information about his battlespace; he also produces data through multiple sensors that feed information, all of it spatial, back to the ‘geospatial intelligence’ analysts (‘GEOINT’).[xi]

A second answer emphasizes geopolitics and the recent failures of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.   Thanks to the overwhelming dominance enjoyed in air power, the US military was able to quickly control airspace and, at least nominally, these country’s territories.  Yet of course the US did not win any meaningful hegemony (its nostrums about the ‘war on terror’ were more effective at silencing dissent at home) and thus US military practice effectively became counterinsurgency.  In the classic tradition of colonial war, US leaders like General Petraeus emphasized the importance of fine-grained social and geographical studies of the entire population.  In the mid-2000s, the Army called this “human terrain mapping”.  Today the military and NGA prefer to simply call it ‘human geography’.  While many of their texts are classified, this statement from the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement reflects the prevailing conception of human geography in Arlington County:

The process of studying not only your enemy and his tactics but the people around him who could give him shelter or turn him in to the authorities is a big part of the discipline known as human geography.  It is cultural awareness […] raised to a critical level for intelligence gathering and tactical decision making. […] But human geography isn’t confined to cultural sensitivity and human intelligence gathering.  Technology – from unmanned aircraft that spot anomalies in normal village behavior to digital simulators that train convoy truck drivers how to behave in potentially volatile situations like striking a pedestrian in a hostile neighborhood – helps map out the human terrain and develop actionable intelligence […].[xii]

For academic human geographers like me it is extraordinary to see our discipline described in such terms.  It is simply false to say that studying our enemies and their tactics “is a big part of the discipline known as human geography.”  What we generally aim to produce in our intellectual work is not “actionable intelligence” – a euphemism, of course, for knowing who to kill – but something more prosaic: we seek a coherent and rigorous understanding of the world by examining the processes, social and natural, that make it what it is.   Rather than engage in “human intelligence gathering,” human geographers aim to help others learn to be more effective at critically analyzing the world.

Nevertheless a growing number of academic human geographers are enlisting themselves for the new assignment with the military.  The standard explanation is money.  While accurate figures are unavailable, we can be certain that funding from the US military and NGA flowing to universities for human geography research has increased in recent years.  Typically defense funding flows through a third party which helps assuage academic scruples (e.g., MINERVA grants are funded by the Pentagon, yet processed through the NSF).[xiii]  But money is not, in my view, a sufficient explanation.  Status anxiety and the attraction of power also play a considerable role.  As former Harvard President Derek Bok observes, “it would be fatuous to ignore the effect of money and worldly ambition on scholarly writing and research.  Many professors are subject to these pressures, and it is quite possible that the resulting dangers pose a greater risk to scholarship than any threats arising from conventional attacks on academic freedom.”[xiv]

What “resulting dangers” may result from geography’s dalliance with counterinsurgency?  The extensive involvement of the US military and NGA in geographical research, especially under the heading of ‘human geography,’ may lead people around the world to assume that geographers have ties to the US military, thus putting all academic geographers at some risk.  Moreover, extensive military involvement threatens the openness required of scholarly debate and intellectual inquiry.  And if the US military is avowedly drawing geospatial intelligence from open-source geographical research, how are we to know whether our research will not inadvertently cause harm to those we study?  If we cannot safeguard our data from use by the military, the ethical basis for our research erodes.

These are strictly academic concerns.  Far more serious consequences will be felt by future targets of the US government.   They will find that their lives and communities have already been mapped and analyzed—as potential battlespace.

JOEL WAINWRIGHT, a human geographer who teaches at Ohio State University, is the author of Geopiracy: Oaxaca, Militant Empiricism, and Geographical Thought (2012, New York: Palgrave).  His first book, Decolonizing Development, Colonial Power and the Maya (2008, Oxford: Blackwell), won the Blaut award.  He can be reached at


[i] See (conference held November 12-14, 2012).


[iii] On the Bowman Expeditions, see my book Geopiracy (NY: Palgrave, 2012).  For the Bowman Expeditions’ website, see ; on the FMSO:

[v] .  While its budget is secret, the NGA is an organization with tremendous resources.  Among many other things the NGA manages its own school for producing and analyzing geographical intelligence (or ‘GEOINT’), the “National Geospatial-Intelligence College” (NGIC), which must be the largest ‘school’ for geography in the US.  According to the NGA’s website, “each year, NGC trains more than 15,000 students” in their version of human geography.

[xi] On GEOINT see   One purpose of the NGA is to train GEOINT analysts (see note 4).  Several US geography departments have also recently taken military and/or NGA funds to create programs that offer GEOINT certificates.  See, for instance, Penn State:

[xiii] ; the SSRC has posted a useful collection of essays on the Minerva controversy at:

[xiv] Derek Bok (1982), p. 25.