Image generated by The Guardian; courtesy of AGS Geography. Image generated by The Guardian; courtesy of AGS Geography.

Summer Essay Campaign #16: “The Strategic Utility of Space and People”

To Answer Question #7: “How do geography and demographics impact a nation’s grand and military strategic choices?”

By Kevin Black

There are different means of forcing nations or cultures to submit to one’s will. Aside from indirect means using economic and diplomatic strategies, the most direct alternative is a military strategy.  When each strategy is integrated toward one common goal or approach, a grand strategy exists.   Strategies are not created out of a vacuum as many factors contribute to their development.  (Whether or not they are overtly recognized is another issue.)  At the nation-state level many factors contribute; history, culture, and government are just some examples.  This paper is concerned with geography and demography.

Geography can be defined as the arrangement of places and physical features given a specific location.  Let’s examine its key elements of size, position, and resources.   Size refers to the physical extent of a nation.  In terms of grand strategy, the Soviet Union leveraged its size as a defensive deterrent against a European invasion during the Cold War.  The Nazi goal of “lebensraum” acted as a political justification for their invasion in 1941.  In military strategy terms, size enabled the Red Army to trade time for space, stretching the Wehrmacht to its brink.

Position refers to the relative proximity of one nation to another.  The close proximity of European friends and enemies alike resulted in NATO and Warsaw Pact.  Position also shapes military priorities.  The first line of conventional defense for continental Europeans is their land armies.  This is not true of the United States, surrounded by two oceans minus credible land threats; their first line is their navy and their air force.

Resources enable nations to achieve their goals.  Nazi grand strategy was based partly on acquiring natural resources, which in turn produced a vicious circle.  Each military aggression exacerbated a demand for resources critical to war making, which in turn justified additional wars to obtain them.  The U.S. oil embargo on Japan in 1941 aggravated Japan’s hegemonic aspirations, acting as a catalyst for the decision to attack Pearl Harbor.   Hitler’s military decision to attack Kursk was based on the need to strengthen ties with his weary allies, the most important being Romania with its critical oil fields.

The second factor to consider is demography, the composition, structure and level of advancement of a human population.  Key elements of population distribution and development are examined.  Population distribution is the allotment of people across geography.  Areas of high density, such as cities, can become national and economic assets as well as cultural symbols.  Capitals are likely targets; Clausewitz gives them top priority among civilized enemies.  Areas of low density, like much of the Thirteen Colonies, can act as a strategic military liability to attackers.  While Howe rested in Philadelphia the Continental army roamed the countryside, reconstituting itself as a modern military force.

Development refers to the level of sophistication of a people.   American’s philosophical optimism, their sacrosanct belief in individual sovereignty, and their constant advancements in science and industry, has resulted in an inferred premium on individual life.  American grand strategy has often sought to alleviate the world of tyranny by spreading democracy and nation-building.  Militarily speaking, the American emphasis for preserving lives has placed an extraordinary reliance on technology.  Disasters like “Black Hawk Down” demonstrated US technological prowess with a low tolerance for casualties.

When combined, the influence of geography and demography in grand and military strategy development becomes increasingly clear.  One example is the Vietnam war.  Consider these generalized assumptions at the U.S. grand strategy level.  Geographical isolation supported by an abundance of resources suggests an underlying sense of physical security. The lack of enemies in close proximity justifies overseas conflicts.  A strategic risk assessment during the early 1960s should appear low given the U.S. state-of-the-art military and its developed ally, the South Vietnamese government (with its legacy French institutions).  The South Vietnamese will naturally welcome American support considering the communist alternative.  U.S. military strategy should rely on its intellectual origins of development and ruthlessly apply a “rational calculus” in decision-making.  It should simultaneously protect the capital, Saigon, along with other high areas of population.   American and South Vietnamese forces will seek the decisive battle, the type proven effective on the plains of Western Europe (a model based on unrestricted terrain).   Moreover, Americans can train the South Vietnamese military to replicate American tactics and doctrine.

These assumptions were not correct.  Look at the role of size at the grand strategy level: the communists saw all of Indochina as a battlefield, unlike the Americans would almost exclusively focused on South Vietnam.  Viet Cong and the Northern Vietnamese Army focused their many of their activities in low-density areas.  Moreover, they did not strategically retreat in the face of U.S. development and resource advantages; in fact, their lack of them created a demand that was supplied by communists in nearby proximity, from forces in Laos and Cambodia to the nations of China and the Soviet Union.  Overtime, the probability of an international war became greater – it was a cost the US actively sought to avoid.

Ultimately America’s advantages in geography and demography slowly eroded.  The country’s first televised war brought home the realities on the ground.  The highly developed U.S. military was not producing decisive results; indeed, some of its members were protesting the war.  The South Vietnamese could not effectively defend themselves, which in turn created a greater burden on American resources.  The constant reminder of mounting casualties without victory resulted in a change of U.S. administration.  Modifications to grand and military strategy were inevitable.  The U.S. broke precedent and recognized Red China; it also executed an accelerated withdrawal from Indochina, despite the probability that the South Vietnamese government ally might collapse.

The Vietnam war is just one of many case studies to explore the influence of geography and demography on grand and military strategy development.  Although they are not primaries, these two factors play a critical role in strategic decision-making.  The military officer who understands this has increased his value to his nation and his service.

Kevin is a veteran army officer and seasoned entrepreneur, nationally recognized for strategy and leadership development consulting services.   He has helped clients across a variety of industries, from businesses with 10 employees to over 400.  One client increased their customer base from 30,000 to 1MM in 18 months; one client subsequently went IPO utilizing his intellectual property.  Overall, his work has helped create over $500MM of value.

Kevin has a Bachelors of Arts in History from the Virginia Military Institute, a Masters of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies from Arizona State University and a Masters of Business Administration from the W.P. Carey School of Business.  He is a certified trainer in the behavioral science tool, Professional Dynametrics Program.  He teaches two courses on military history at the Scottsdale Community College.  Kevin currently resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his two Australian Cattle Dogs, Aetius and Summer.