The Geography of War

You’ve probably heard the saying (often attributed to Mark Twain) that “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” That may be true, or not, since too many college students still don’t know where Iraq and Afghanistan are on a map. But the idea goes back much further.

As the preface to The Art of War in Four Parts (1707) explained:

“It would be altogether needless to go about to extol the usefulness of this Work, at a time when all Europe is involv’d in bloody Wars. The Continuance of them has made Thousands aspire to some little Knowledge in Geography, who would scare ever have look’d into a Map. The Marches of Armies, the Over-running of Provinces, and the Sieges of Towns, have rais’d a Curiosity to be inform’d of their Distances and Situation. If these, which are but the Consequences of War, do so far prompt us to desire Information that we may be in some Sort capable of comprehending them, how much more ought we to endeavour to gain some little Insight into that which produces those great Events we daily hearken after, and which is the Art of War?”

The inclusion of a preface or note to the reader was a common device used by publishers to justify the purchase of their work, and you frequently find in military reference works arguments to the effect that since everybody is reading and talking about the war, you’d better be familiar with the terminology too or you’ll end up looking like an idiot: “those who are fond of, or satisfy’d with their Ignorance, when they hear the Language of the Army, either answer absurdly, or stand gazing, without knowing what to say, as if they were spoken to in a strange and unknown Tongue.” Now we just prefer to be interviewed by Jay Leno (Jaywalking) so we can look like an idiot.

Of course it’s a little odd that this particular work doesn’t even deal with geography or include any maps. But oh well.

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