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Swim in the right pond
Terrain always matters
“Swim in the right pond,” said a venture capitalist I listened to the other day. He spoke about the value of picking the right ground. Even if you flail, even if you splash the surface. The adaptation period may be brutal in a new pond, but if it’s the right one, you’ll settle in. The water’ll get nice.
Or not. Many US officials acknowledge fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan was terrible terrain. 1,600 mostly-mountainous-miles separating Afghanistan and Pakistan provided a massive Taliban benefit. Like Marvel’s Wolverine, the Taliban could always count on regeneration through sanctuary. Immense gain goes to the side that reloads with impunity.
Advantage Taliban. But the lesson transcends Afghanistan. David Galula, in his book Counterinsurgency Warfare, wrote, “the ideal situation for [an] insurgent would be a large land-locked country, shaped like a blunt-tipped star, with jungle-covered mountains along the borders and scattered swamps in the plain, in a temperate zone with a large and dispersed rural population and a primitive economy.” On the other hand, John Nagl, writing decades later, in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, pointed out, “[The best geography for a counterinsurgent would be] on a peninsula, against a visibly obvious ethnic minority, before CNN was invented.”
Those examples are specific to lower-intensity warfare. But military folks have been talking about geography for quite some time. Arthur Tange, former defense secretary of Australia, noted in 1986 that “the map of one’s own country is the most fundamental of all defense documentation.” Even from America’s very beginning, in Common Sense, Thomas Paine included the commonsensical line about the American War of Independence—“an island cannot rule a continent”—the size imbalance suggested the British would not succeed. All the way to the modern US, as geographer Peter Taylor’s remarked, “God invented war to teach Americans geography” (a phrase also attributed to Ambrose Bierce and the comedian Paul Rodriguez).
Geography matters. The terrain. The pond. The place. It may matter more than Sun Tzu’s advice to “know the enemy and know yourself” to gain confidence in the “result of a hundred battles.” You don’t have to know much if you have the high ground and your opponent’s in a kill-box, do you?
Easier said than done. Sometimes you fight because you have to, not because you want to. But when you can, note your location and note the adversary’s relative position. More often than not this simple placement will have a huge impact on the ultimate outcome.
Consider it Miles Law’s strategic corollary. If where you stand depends on where you sit—how you fight depends on where you are.
And when it comes to terrain: Always be aware, always be adjusting. Advantage will follow.