Thinking with Maps: Geospatial Reasoning in War

by Antoine Bousquet

Thinking with Maps: Geospatial Reasoning in War

Visual representations of space have long served a role in military affairs, assisting the strategic planning of campaigns, the design and placement of defensive fortifications, and navigation in unfamiliar territory. Yet it is only in the past couple of centuries that the military map has taken centre stage as an indispensable medium for the information processing and transfer inherent to the command and operation of modern armies. Indeed, cartographic representations, particularly in their modern scientific guise, are powerful cognitive enablers that support complex geospatial reasoning and decision-making. This intimate relation between geospatial representations and human cognition has only further deepened with the advent of the geographic information system (GIS) in the closing decades of the twentieth century, as mapping has been assimilated into the informational paradigm of high-speed computation and dynamic data visualisation.

In order to best comprehend the role of maps in war, we should turn to the important work conducted within cognitive science around the notion of “distributed cognition.” According to this approach, our common understanding of cognition as an action that takes places solely within the skulls of humans is deeply mistaken. In reality, many cognitive operations are only made possible through our interactions with the social and physical environment. Edwin Hutchins has notably drawn attention to those “material anchors” or physical objects that we rely upon for the performance of conceptual representation or symbolic manipulation.[1] Such anchors might include pen and paper, a slide rule, the movement and position of celestial bodies… or a map. I will endeavour to make concrete this theoretical framework as well as trace a broad historical trajectory of military cartography by reference to specific applications of geospatial reasoning in three distinct conflicts separated by two hundred years: the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, and the Iraq War.

It is arguably to Napoleon Bonaparte that we owe the first systematic use of maps in the conduct of war. In his conduct of geographically expansive campaigns and innovative coordination of discrete armies in the field, the French Emperor established the indispensability of topographically accurate maps. Most significantly, the military map can be said to have served the higher echelons of French command “as a media for time-space modelling and analysis of strategic movements.”[2] Indeed, Anders Engberg-Pedersen recounts that Napoleon’s staff would inscribe their maps with pins, coloured pencils, and compasses to indicate the latest known positions and movements of friendly and enemy forces and highlighting important topographical features, as well as to calculate distances between discrete points. Staff members could virtually play out various strategic and tactical scenarios until a final decision was arrived at and orders issued. As “a means of visualizing and managing the future”, the Napoleonic map was “the central part of an information-transformation system.”[3]

Over the course of the next century, such uses of cartographic representations became commonplace. The outbreak of the First World War would however make unprecedented demands upon military mapping, prompting all the belligerents on the Western Front to engage in massive and continuous surveying of the terrain of operations. The systematic rectangular gridding of maps was one of the period’s key innovations. In permitting the unique geospatial coordinates of any point to be immediately read off, the gridded map greatly facilitated gunnery calculations in a war dominated by indirect artillery fire. The technique of so-called “map shooting” notably came to the fore. Also known as predicted fire, the practice involved laying guns by reference to a previously surveyed map, allowing trained gunners to rapidly translate the coordinates of any point into firing instructions for its targeting. The diffusion of map shooting led to a number of novel tactical schemes being devised during the Great War such as the “creeping barrage” in which batteries of artillery coordinate their shelling according to a pre-determined timetable of successive lines ahead of advancing infantry. For Peter Chasseaud, the unprecedented mapping effort led to the creation of “a new geographical information system” that provided “a sophisticated three-dimensional fire-control database or matrix of the battlefield.”[4]

Throughout most of the remainder of the twentieth century, military cartography built upon this accomplishment, striving to bring the entire globe under the same kind of fire-control system and eventually realising this goal mid-way through the Cold War. In the process, mapping was brought under a generalised paradigm of computation and information processing that would occasion its most radical transformation yet in the form of the Geographic Information System (GIS). Realised through the convergence of cartography, remote sensing, computer graphics, and database management, the advent of GIS means that maps can “no longer be conceived of as simply graphic representations of geographic space, but as dynamic portals to interconnected, distributed, geospatial data resources”[5]

In the military field, GIS has become increasingly interwoven with the conduct of operations. The Command Post of the Future (CPOF) is one notable programme, a U.S. Army command and control software and hardware suite that integrates key GIS functionalities and serves as “a planning and mapping tool intended for collaboration between multiple echelons in a tactical environment.”[6] First launched in 1997 as a DARPA research project drawing on both military experience and expertise in the fields of cognitive psychology, human-computer interfaces, and information technology, CPOF has now seen over 20,000 terminals fielded with significant recent deployments in the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns.

CPOF users primarily interact with the system via navigable digital maps available in two or three dimensions. On these maps, individual icons indicate the position of friendly and enemy forces as well as key events in the battlespace. Automatic updates through live data feeds from other geospatial information systems such as GPS-enabled Blue Force Tracking are supplemented by manual user inputs. In addition to strictly topographic representations of the area of operations, various digital map overlays can be summoned, providing information ranging from past incidents to the layout of infrastructure or the ethnic composition of the surrounding civilian population. While CPOF’s intent is to produce a unity of command, this does not entail the production of a definitive synoptic and hierarchically imposed oversight of the battlespace. Through her study of the 1st Cavalry Division’s use of CPOF in its deployment around Baghdad, Caroline Croser has instead found that the system actually induces a proliferation of maps that constitute “a nuanced and complex series of different versions of the battlespace” in response to the intrinsic multiplicity and mutability of the operational environment.[7] The battlespace thus “never resolve[s] into a single, definite picture”, appearing instead as “constantly updated, fluid and always in the process of construction.”[8] Rather than overwhelm users, this cartographic fragmentation and plasticity seems to support the navigation and cognitive processing of the vast information flows inherent to the conduct of late modern warfare.

The map in its traditional understanding as a static, or at least punctuated, visual representation of space is thus giving way to systems for the dynamic interfacing of minds with repositories of geospatial data that exist in a state of continuous flux through their various data feeds and calculative operations. Moreover, mapping is increasingly being generated in real time, concurrent with the exploration of the depicted environment. The geographer Nigel Thrift writes of “a world just coming into existence, one which is based on continuous calculation at each and every point along each and every line of movement”, bringing with it new forms of spatial awareness.[9] The wars of the future will thus be fought as much between the silicon valleys and algorithmic peaks of digital terrain as in the physical and social landscapes they seek to represent.


Antoine Bousquet is Reader in International Relations at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) and The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (Hurst & Columbia University Press, 2009), a widely cited account of the influence of major scientific paradigms and key associated technologies on the conduct of war in the modern era. He has also contributed an array of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on subjects that include the revolution in military affairs, Cold War computing, jihadist networks, complexity theory, and the conceptualisation of war. He regularly gives talks to international audiences at universities, military academies, think tanks, and cultural centres.


1. Edwin Hutchins, “Material Anchors for Conceptual Blends” Journal of Pragmatics Vol.37, No.10 (2005).

2. Alexander Kott & al., “A Journey into the Mind of Command” in Alexander Kott (ed.), Battle of Cognition: The Future Information-Rich Warfare and the Mind of the Commander (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008), p.62.

3. Anders Engberg-Pedersen, Empire of Chance: The Napoleonic Wars and the Disorder of Things (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), p.157.

4. Peter Chasseaud, “British, French and German Mapping and Survey on the Western Front in the First World War” in Peter Doyle, Matthew R. Bennett (eds.) Fields of Battle: Terrain in Military History (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002),  p.172.

5.  Alan M. MacEachren & Menno-Jan Kraak, “Research Challenges in Geovisualization” Cartography and Geographic Information Science Vol.28, No.1 (2001), p.3.

6. Harry Greene & al., “Command Post of the Future: Successful Transition of a Science and Technology Initiative to A Program of Record” Defense Acquisition Review Journal Vol.17, No.1 (2010), p.6.

7. Caroline Croser, “Networking Security in the Space of the City: Event-ful Battlespaces and the Contingency of the Encounter” Theory & Event Vol.10, No.2 (2007), §36

8. Caroline Croser, Organising Complexity: Modes of Behaviour in a Networked Battlespace (Duntroon, A.C.T.: Land Warfare Studies Centre, 2007), p.36.

9. Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space |Politics | Affect (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), p.89

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