Anecdotal Evidence

A friend of mine from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) shared an experience from a Department of Defense (DoD) pre-deployment training into a warzone.  The topic of the hour was reading maps and understanding basic elements of geography.  An instructor arrived, started the class, pulled out a map, and began instruction with “This blue color you see on this map indicates water.” The rest of the hour continued in an equally pedestrian manner with a good number of attendees not displaying an exuberantly high level of interest in the subject matter.

During the break, my friend approached the instructor and politely asked why the class was a bit uninspiring.  The instructor replied “You would be amazed to see what people do not know.” In essence, the instructor had to lower the instruction bar to the elementary school level, a paint-by-numbers approach.  Otherwise a number of participants in his class would be unable to comprehend the content’s basic aspects.

Around the same time I was in a much longer pre-deployment training for Afghanistan with a significant number of current and former military and military intelligence professionals.  Unlike the previous example, all attendants in this class were expected to have above average knowledge of Afghanistan considering the length of their training.  Four months into the training, I suggested to one of the instructors that he spend a bit of time discussing mental maps and I provided him outlines of Afghanistan’s Provinces.  He would use it for my fellow colleagues to identify provinces and discuss their significance in a larger cultural and regional geographic context.  I chose not to participate in this exercise in order to keep the playing field right for the rest of the class.

After the exercise was completed I asked him about the results.  It did not go well.  Collectively, as an entire class, the students were able to produce names and locations of ten Provinces.  Considering that 34 Provinces constitute Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, we concluded that the students’ performance should have been better after four months of pre-deployment education.  My colleagues were not overly excited about geography; rather, they wanted to focus on regurgitating basic lessons in Pashto and Dari, as if knowledge of language was mutually exclusive with one’s geographic knowledge of Afghanistan.

Who Cares?

I do.  Struggle to grasp elementary methods and content of geography in an operational environment is comparable to not knowing half the alphabet, yet claiming full ability of reading, writing, and learning comprehension.  Imagine such a circumstance when an analyst can read only a half of the written material available to him/her, then write only a half of a report based on what he/her has learned.  Would credibility of such an analyst, or his Senior Intelligence Officer (SIO) reviewing and attaching his/her name to that report, remain unchallenged?  When it comes to understanding spatial connections (between places) and conditions (within places), however, and their relevance to military planning and operation, this is exactly what frequently occurs across the board—analysis does not extend beyond basic description.

Figure 1. A satellite image of southern Afghanistan in the vicinity of Kandahar City. How important is the ability to adequately analyze spatial connections and conditions as they pertain to access and movement, culture and insurgency, stability and security, or simply to survive in potentially hazardous conditions?

Today’s analysts eventually transition into roles of tomorrow’s low level management.  Yesterday’s SIOs move upwards, too, further building upon the trend of institutionalizing incompetence.  Along the way, they tend to dehumanize geographic analysis and emphasize the reliance on technology and analytical software; such actions further detach intelligence professionals from grasping the difference between description and geographic analysis.  This is particularly evident in the quality of maps and supporting analytical narratives.

In Making Maps and (Not) Understanding Geography: Implications, I wrote: “There is a big difference between making maps and having an ability to understand cultural geographical systems, which maps depict, and articulate that information to a customer. Unfortunately, the current trend in business, government, and society overall is a notion that no difference exists between map making and geographical analysis; that is, a widely held belief that a map maker and a geographer are basically one and the same and do identical work.”

And added:

“One would imagine that abundant data and various interactive maps would lead to a different trend. It seems that instead of engaging our cerebral gear to solve spatial problems, it is more convenient to have some software extension that tells us what to think. As a result, people feel that geographical knowledge is something that can be quickly acquired, like food in a buffet; hence, the widespread belief that everyone can ‘do geography.”’

In “Fixing” Intel (Or Manipulation with Maps), I commented: “When military, civilian, and business intelligence organizations rely on maps as an encyclopedic collection of facts (for inductive reasoning), instead using them as a medium that assists us to conceptually grasp the  intentional or accidental manipulation.”

Peter Principle  

Quoted passages describe an environment created by low and middle-level civilian management and their military equivalent mentioned above.  Exclusion of critical geographic analytical information, suppressed because a manager’s inaccurate comprehension of it, is not a rare occurrence.  In the DoD climate, very few managers would push critical information above if they felt that such is beyond their intellectual grasp (anyone who believes otherwise has not been exposed to governmental bureaucracy, military included).  Bluntly stated, the priority of every bureaucrat’s existence is to avoid making waves, while simultaneously not losing sight of his/her next promotion in order to rise to the level of incompetence, as described in the seminal book The Peter Principle (1969).

In addition to managers’ personal priorities, imagine them supporting the type of analysis they never learned in the first place.  This alone makes them uncomfortable to even discuss it for fear of sounding intellectually inferior to their subordinates (Remember, they too were once competent analysts!). Not many people would exhibit such behavior.  Those who do are in the minority and cannot change the system supported by the majority of their peers.

The peers make sure to hire and promote analysts who adhere to their new bosses’ views and principles, which extend and preserve internal consistency.  An outcome is a creation of a close circle of deficient military (and civilian) intelligence who emphasize status quo rather than pushing analytical boundaries.  It is exactly the preservation of status quo that allows a reality in which people go to a warzone, unable to distinguish the difference between land and water on a map, and travel with experts whose mental map of the same area looks like a brand new white board.

Related posts: American Military and Intel, Planning and Operations; Knowledge of Post-Soviet and Russian Cultural Geography – Priceless.


Geographic Analysis and Military Intelligence’s Peter Principle