Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 27, 2003

The geographic considerations of warfare were once as simple as the nearly instinctive imperative to occupy the "high ground." Through the centuries, however, geography has played a critical role in military epics such as Hannibal's crossing of the Alps and the American Revolution.

Today, from physical features like deserts and mountains, to the vagaries of weather like sand storms and heat waves, to the culture of people, religion, and tradition, the geography of a place helps to define the nature of any war fought on its soil.

Desert: Obstacle and Opportunity

Mention Iraq, and one dominant geographic feature likely comes to mind—the desert.

Although the country encompasses more diverse terrain than generally realized, the southern and western desert has been front and center to this point in the military campaign launched last week by the U.S.-led coalition. In an age of technological battlefield advancements, this ancient hazard continues to pose challenges—but also offers opportunities.

"It's still very difficult to travel in that desert," said David Miller, senior editor for National Geographic Maps. "It's remote, cars overheat, and the daytime temperatures can get very high—especially as you're approaching summer. Starting in April, and certainly by May, it can be very, very hot there."

Thus far, the season is early enough that heat has not hampered the progress of coalition forces.

Other traditional problems, such as navigation in featureless desert terrain or targeting in a flat landscape, are now aided by GPS systems and laser range-finders. In fact, the unique conditions of the desert afford several advantages for advancing armor. The flat, even terrain facilitates a rapid pace of advance, while the lack of cover favors coalition forces because their equipment boasts greater ranges. But one timeless desert hazard has already become manifest in the current conflict. Desert weather is variable and can be troublesome for all concerned, as evidenced by recent sand storms that blotted out sunlight and made afternoons feel like the dead of night.

"Sand storms make it uncomfortable and can cause mechanical problems," explained James P. Reams, retired Army Artillery Field officer and former West Point geography instructor. "With GPS they should be more of an irritant than a showstopper in terms of advancing. However, really severe [sand storms] will stop or greatly slow the advance. Ground target acquisition is more difficult [in situations of tactically poor visibility], but it is more difficult for both the Iraqis and us—and we have better technology."

Target visibility is not a problem for GPS-guided weapons, but high winds and low visibility have already hampered operations and grounded aircraft. Friendly fire incidents can become a problem in conditions of limited visibility. Predicting the weather remains an inexact science, but expert personnel maintain constant vigilance to provide the most accurate forecasts possible. "I am confident the weather data for the region available to the commanders is superb," said Reams.

Geography of Flight: Iraqi Refugees

Geographic concerns are also paramount for the refugees who may attempt to flee from danger. Iraq's physical and cultural geography may shape the war's refugee problems into more localized events rather than mass migrations. "I do not expect to see lines of refuges streaming to the borders," said Reams. "The main exit points are into Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. The Jordan option is a very long trek over the desert. It was not and is not a real option for mass refugee movements. The same goes for the deserted Saudi Arabia option."

Continued on Next Page >>


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