On the (re)militarization of geography

This is a condensed version of the full introduction to the symposium published in Human Geography, vol. 7, no. 3 (2014).

– Johnny Finn, Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology, Christopher Newport University


The current issue of Human Geography (vol. 7, no. 3) features a book review symposium on Joel Wainwright’s recent text Geopiracy: Oaxaca, Militant Empiricism, and Geographical Thought (Wainwright 2013). In this book, Wainwright uses the Bowman Expeditions, which sparked significant controversy after launching a project to map indigenous lands in southern Mexico in 2006 with several million dollars of US Army funding, as an entry point for a much broader discussion of several pressing issues in geography. In this HG symposium, seven renowned geographers—Trevor Barnes, Joe Bryan, Emily Gilbert, Don Mitchell, Sharlene Mollett, Eric Sheppard, and Denis Wood—respond to both the controversy as a whole, and to Wainwright’s reading of it. Following these wide-ranging, insightful, and at times challenging reviews, Wainwright responds to the reviewers and expands and clarifies several arguments from the text. In this post I’d like to offer a very brief introduction, not so much to Wainwright’s book, but to the controversy surrounding the Bowman Expeditions in general, and the México Indígena project in particular (access the full symposium here).

In 2005, Jerome Dobson, former Oak Ridge National Laboratory geographer and then Professor of Geography at the University of Kansas and President of the American Geographical Society (AGS) opined the following in a presidential column entitled “Foreign Intelligence is Geography” (Dobson 2005) in Ubique, that society’s newsletter:

Foreign intelligence is geography, and geographers will be essential to intelligence reform. If the nation calls on us, we’ll repeat what we did for Wilson and Roosevelt. If those in power will restore the discipline to what it was in Wilson’s and Roosevelt’s day, we’ll help prepare the next generation to meet America’s global responsibilities (Dobson 2005: 2).

One year later, in the same newsletter, Dobson expanded this line of thinking, writing that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq offer a “glimmer of hope” in that the “powers that be” have realized that they themselves “do not know enough about foreign lands” (Dobson 2006: 1). He concluded that some kind of geographical intervention was necessary, and so:

I wrote a proposal suggesting that the AGS send a geography professor and two or three graduate students to every country in the world for a full semester each year, with teams rotating on a five-year cycle… I calculated a budget and was shocked myself to realize that the entire program would cost only $125,000,000 per year, a pittance compared to what the intelligence community typically pays for far less effective information. I circulated the proposal and found allies at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. They marketed the concept and funded a prototype for the larger concept that, ideally, would reach every country in the world (Dobson 2006: 2).

And while there isn’t room here to untangle the dense web of connections among the AGS, the University of Kansas, the US Army’s Foreign Military Study Office (FMSO), and the Bowman Expeditions, suffice here to say that the AGS secured funding for the Bowman Expeditions, at least partially from the FMSO, and a research team from the University of Kansas was soon on the ground in Oaxaca, Mexico under the project titled México Indígena.

About two years after the program began, Oaxaca responded. In an open letter, the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) wrote that the leaders of México Indígena had not disclosed to the indigenous communities that the research was funded by the US Army, and that “what initially seemed to be a beneficial project for the communities now leaves many of the participants feeling like victims of geopiracy…” (quoted in Wainwright 2013: 3). Two months later, the community of San Miguel Tiltepec in Oaxaca released a similar statement, writing that their community “did not request this research” and that “it was the researchers who convinced the community to carry it out.” They continued: “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 interested them…” (quoted in Wainwright 2013: 4). The letter went on to further condemn the project and to lay out specific demands, including that data collected from the community be returned to the community and not be used, that any data that remains with the project be destroyed, that any publications resulting from the data be rescinded, and that a public apology be offered “for having violated our rights as indigenous peoples” (quoted in Wainwright 2013: 4). As Wainwright notes in his book, these two instances constitute “extremely rare statements concerning how research should and should not be conducted from the point of view of the research subject” (Wainwright 2013: 5, italics in original).

Jerry Dobson responded with a full-throated defense of México Indígena in general, and its funding, methods, and disclosure in particular, in another Ubique presidential column rather ironically titled “Let the Indigenous People of Oaxaca Speak for Themselves” (Dobson 2009): “My whole rationale for Bowman Expeditions is based on my firm belief that geographic ignorance is the principal cause of the blunders that have characterized American foreign policy since the end of World War II. I believe it is essential that geographers re-engage in foreign policy” (Dobson 2009: 2). He went on to reiterate the origin of the idea for the Bowman Expeditions, and that so far they’d received about $2.5 million in funding, “a good ‘down payment,’ but far less than what’s needed to make a sizable dent in the American scourge of geographical ignorance” (Dobson 2009: 10). In the very next paragraph he calls this a “noble effort” (Dobson 2009: 10).

The Bowman Expeditions have expanded significantly since the “prototype” México Indígena project of 2006-2008. According to the AGS website, in addition to the project in Oaxaca, expeditions have taken place or are currently ongoing in the Antilles, Colombia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, the “Borderlands” (defined as all Latin American countries bordering the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea), and Central America. The line “funded by the Army Research Office of the U. S. Department of Defense” is dutifully printed at the bottom of each webpage describing these expeditions.

This whole discussion could easily descend into some sort of he-said-she-said exchange of accusations and dueling narratives; to a certain extent this has already happened. But if we place all of our focus on trying to sort through these accusations, we run the risk of losing sight of several much broader issues that are rooted in this controversy—issues of the militarization of the discipline of geography, of power, ethics, and consent in fieldwork, of the supposed objectivity and value-less-ness of mapping. And none of these issues are unique to the Bowman Expeditions. The militarization of geography is neither new nor it is limited in scope. Geography has, for thousands of years, been closely tied to military interests, and the digital revolution and advent of geospatial technology have only facilitated the tightening of this relationship. This is plainly evident in, for example, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which “delivers world-class geospatial intelligence that provides a decisive advantage to policymakers, warfighters, intelligence professionals and first responders” (NGA 2014). Or in that agency’s public relations magazine, Pathfinder, which recently had a cover story on the importance of human geography within geospatial intelligence (Ghannam 2012); the cover photo of that issue is a US service member in full, combat-ready desert fatigues handing a toy to an Afghan child while on patrol in Helmand Province, all under the headline: “Right Place/Right Time: Human Geography tells ‘when’ and ‘where’ to put boots on the ground.” Or in the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement’s annual summit on human geography, billed as “The One and Only Human Geography Event in the Nation” (see Gregory 2013; Wainwright 2014), with talks on topics such as “Understanding Human Geography Research in the Field: Understanding a target population based on geographical engineering,” and “Ensuring Boots on the Ground are Combat Effective: Future of Human Terrain analysts and their role in preparing the Army for future combat.”



Clearly these issues are much larger than simply the Bowman Expeditions. That said, the Bowman Expeditions provide an apropos entry-point for our current discussion. That is precisely the goal of this symposium.

Finally, I should note that I invited several of the individuals at the center of the Bowman Expeditions to participate in this symposium, including Peter Herlihy and Jerry Dobson. My emails to Herlihy went unanswered. Dobson did respond and we had an interesting email exchange over several weeks in which he pointed me to yet another Ubique column that he had recently published entitled “Critical Thoughts on Critical Thinking” (Dobson 2013). This article is revealing on many levels, especially in laying bare his open contempt for critical geography, referring to its “shoddy scholarship, overt bias, slander, and libel [as] unacceptable” and barely meeting “low standards of tabloid journalism” (Dobson 2013: 2). However, in calling his readers to take a stand against such critical geography, he warns that “responsible scholars must be careful how they do it. Early in my career I learned a valuable lesson and developed a personal rule that I’ve broken only twice in the past five years: Never argue with a fool in public for many otherwise intelligent observers cannot tell the difference” (Dobson 2013: 2, italics in original). Needless to say, Dobson declined my invitation to participate in this symposium.



Dobson, J. E. (2005) Foreign Intelligence Is Geography. Ubique XXV (1): 1-2.

Dobson, J. E. (2006) AGS Conducts Fieldwork in Mexico. Ubique XXVI (1): 1-3.

Dobson, J. E. (2009) Let the Indigenous People of Oaxaca Speak for Themselves. Ubique XXIX (1): 1-11.

Dobson, J. E.  (2013) Critical Thoughts on Critical Thinking. Ubique XXXIII (1): 1-2.

Ghannam, K. (2012) Human Geography Provides Context to GEOINT. Pathfinder 10 (5): 13-15.

Gregory, D. (2013) On the road – and off it. geographical imaginations: war, space and security blog.

NGA (2014) National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Website.

Wainwright, J. (2013) Geopiracy: Oaxaca, Militant Empiricism, and Geographical Thought. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wainwright, J. (2014) Geopiracy: Oaxaca, Militant Empiricism, and Geographical Thought. Presentation at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. 10 April, Tampa, FL.