Geography dictates History?

Discussion of all history subjects not related to World War 2.
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Geography dictates History?

Postby Ricky » Tue Jun 17, 2014 3:24 pm

Just a little theory of mine, that I thought I'd put forward for discussion.

Basically, the main factor on the development of history has been (and probably will continue to be) geography.
This has both macro and micro effects.

Some examples:

1) The major driver in intellectual development is an area having a decent surplus of food. Look at any map of good arable soil and you can easily see that Europe's rise to world dominance (before the rise of improved farming techniques, chemical fertilisers etc) was inevitable.

2) England' history and Empire is also shaped by Geography. It is an island small enough to be one distinct nation, but large enough and well-resourced enough to be an equal power to its neighbours. The fact it is an island ensures it is generally free from the endemic warfare found on the Continent. It's only land-border neighbours (Wales & Scotland) are relatively barren so have low populations, but also very rugged terrain, so hard to conquer. Consequently England does not cover the whole island, but is never significantly threatened by them. The fact it is an island also promotes a naval build-up, initially for defence but eventually for expansion & offence. The position of the nation gives access to favourable wind & water currents, and the weather allows for a plentiful supply of trees. All this leads to a unified, internally-developed nation that is able to expand overseas without worrying over-much about foreign invasion

3) A micro example - the armed might of the Islamic Middle East had a real boost from Damascus Steel. This uniquely strong and sharp steel was imported specially from India, and owed its properties to an iron mine in which the ore had impurities, including vanadium. This gave them a real edge (pun kinda intended) between 500*-1750, after which interestingly the Islamic world started to decay rather. Once the mine was worked out, no more swords could be made - although at this point swords were taking a back seat to gunpowder anyway

*Yes, Islam started ~613, but you get the basic point ;)


At the present, we are all familiar with the issue of the power wielded by those nations who happen to contain large amounts of oil.

For the future, IMO distribution of resources will continue to be a big issue, shaping world politics and the history of nations
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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby Sadurian » Tue Jun 17, 2014 10:39 pm

Geography is a major factor in military history, the very fact that modern history is dominated by Western Europe has a lot to do with geography - resources, arable land and communications.

In addition, the reason Britain 'ruled the waves' was down to a need to protect overseas territories. Our position as an island surrounded by generally hostile or rival European powers meant that we had to develop markets elsewhere, and hence we found ourselves with a global empire linked by sea routes. One major factor in the rise of Britain in the C18th and C19th was the influx of cash in the C16th - stolen gold from the Spanish treasure ships!

This reliance on the strategic at first gave us the drive to develop our navy (at the expense of our army, which wasn't required if the navy was strong enough). When we moved on to aircraft, the idea of fighting remotely on the strategic stage carried on (the idea of winning wars through strategic bombing was a popular one after 1918), and hence we concentrated in building up a strategic bombing force at the expense of our ground forces. The USA, another country without the need for a large ground army, also concentrated on their strategic bombing force.

Germany, France and the USSR, all continental powers, put their ground forces first (albeit the USSR was fascinated by large bombers for a while).

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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby dutchman » Sat Jun 21, 2014 1:45 am

I would say that geography is one factor, but there are many others. Isolation is sometimes important, as is climate. But force of arms are required to keep what one has from plunder by others. Many island nations haven't achieved what England has, and yet they share many of the same advantages. Sicily, Malta, Ireland, all have nice climates, adaquate food supplies and the protection of isolation. Syracuse sits on Sicily and yet is the most captured city in history. So being an island may not keep you safe.
The strenth of England is not her Navy, Air Force or even her Army. It's her people. They have always met the challenge of any and all enemies that have threatened hearth and home. These are the people that stood against the full might of the Luftwaffe during the blitz. For months they took the fury of an entire nation and would not bend a knee to Hitler.
From their ranks rose a few brave lads that with their Spitfires and Hurricanes that would stand against the onslaught of Germany’s best and though the price was dear they turned the tide. These lads fought for home and hearth, for King and Country. Only a fool would dare risk provoking such a nation as Great Britain. If you were to look back several hundred years you will find a navel tradition that served to protect her from all enemies. As the Spanish found in 1588 there’s a reason the call it the English Channel. But even in the era of “wooden ships and iron men” Her greatest strength has always been her people. People and their deeds make history.

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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby Sadurian » Sat Jun 21, 2014 11:43 am

dutchman wrote:These are the people that stood against the full might of the Luftwaffe during the blitz. For months they took the fury of an entire nation and would not bend a knee to Hitler.

Don't forget that the German people took many more times the punishment and didn't break.

Douhet's theory of air warfare (that bombing civilian populations would break the morale of the people and bring about a short war) was shown to be incorrect during the Second World War. It was used by several nations and never brought about the collapse of civilian morale. People in general are tougher than Douhet gave credit for, even after the Hamburg firebombing, the survivors had essentially recovered from the initial shock within a few hours.

The use of the atomic bomb came the closest to matching Douhet's theoretical vision of strategic bombing winning wars by itself, but that took two bombs. Even then, modern analysis is that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria was at least as influential on the Japanese government surrendering as was the bombing. Remember that the USA had caused far more damage through the conventional bombing of Japanese cities than was caused by the atomic bombs.

Britain (and I am British) likes to wave the patriotic flag at how it didn't crumble under the German Blitz, but we tend to forget that other countries took far more for far longer, and didn't crumble either.

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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby dutchman » Sun Jun 22, 2014 2:53 am

As I understand it Douhet's theory of air warfare, it called for all out war. The bombing with explosives would be followed by fire raids to take advantage of the damaged buildings which would then be followed by poison gas to kill the firemen and rescue people as well as any of the cities population that might have survived the attacks. To my knowledge this has never been done as he discribed. He considered the people of the country to be an acceptable target.
Now can a country be bombed into submission. Yes, The surrender of Japan was not a product of the Soviet invasion in Manchuria, nor was it the product of the two A bombs that were dropped. The A bombs dropped in August about a week apart, the Soviets declared was on Japan a day before the second one. In September Japan surrendered. However, they had been talking with the Soviets for many weeks trying to get help in brokering a peace deal. I think truth be known the reason for the Soviet invasion was as much opetunistic as tactical. They could see the end was near and this is a chance to gain resources.
The forces of Japan had had no victories in 2 years. Their military was spent, the navy lacked the fuel to sail. And in the end of August there was an attempted coup. The writing was on the wall, it was over and they just had to find a way to end it. They were hoping for terms better the unconditional, but they finally gave in.
If you want to put Douhet's theory of air warfare to the test modernize it to todays standards. He formed these opinions in the early years of WW1 and just after. The equipment as well as his estimates of what it would take to destroy a city was very light. But the theroy that if you destroy a enough cities the people will turn and press the government for peace. In todays era it would work if you declare an "all out" war. Pick any second or third world county you like. Vaporize a city every hour with an ICBM and see how long it take to get a surrender. Luckily that's not the way it works in real life, but it would prove his theory. In his day the bomber was the only way to deliever explosives, with the ICBM his theory could work.

I do hope we never find out.

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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby Sadurian » Sun Jun 22, 2014 10:18 am

dutchman wrote:As I understand it Douhet's theory of air warfare, it called for all out war. The bombing with explosives would be followed by fire raids to take advantage of the damaged buildings which would then be followed by poison gas to kill the firemen and rescue people as well as any of the cities population that might have survived the attacks. To my knowledge this has never been done as he discribed. He considered the people of the country to be an acceptable target.

<stretches fingers, take out pipe> I've written a few papers on Douhet and strategic bombing so I'm happy to throw myself into this one.

Douhet's theory was impractical as he grossly overestimated the capacity of contemporary technology to deliver what he considered the 'correct' payload in the 'correct' pattern, it wouldn't have been possible until the invention of extremely accurate ordinance delivery and better aircraft. Today we could reproduce his theory using modern weapon systems but wouldn't. Using poison gas, for example, is simply not as efficient or effective as more conventional munitions.

The USA, in particular, has many Douhet adherents, but his theories have mostly been acknowledged as unrealistic. Those who still promote Douhet have cherry-picked his works. After the first Gulf War, for example, much was made of the fact that air power had been the key to victory. However, it ignored the key fact that the Iraqi people hadn't reacted as Douhet had predicted and risen in civil unrest to force their leaders to sue for peace. It also ignored the fact that the air war doctrine for that war essentially based on the work of John Warden (who was personally involved in the planning for Gulf War I) rather than Douhet.

dutchman wrote:Now can a country be bombed into submission. Yes, The surrender of Japan was not a product of the Soviet invasion in Manchuria, nor was it the product of the two A bombs that were dropped.

It is still theoretically possible but it hasn't happened yet so the theory cannot be said to have been proven. To ascribe the Japanese surrender to strategic bombing is to ignore all the fighting in China, the Pacific and South-East Asia. In addition, Douhet's theory rested on the assumption that strategic bombing was more humane than the warfare of the trenches (his reference for land warfare) because it would be quick, the enemy surrendering after only a few raids. That Japan did not surrender until mid-1945 and following years of comprehensive destruction of her cities and the destruction of her armies and navy suggests that he was wrong.

dutchman wrote:If you want to put Douhet's theory of air warfare to the test modernize it to todays standards. He formed these opinions in the early years of WW1 and just after. The equipment as well as his estimates of what it would take to destroy a city was very light. But the theroy that if you destroy a enough cities the people will turn and press the government for peace. In todays era it would work if you declare an "all out" war. Pick any second or third world county you like. Vaporize a city every hour with an ICBM and see how long it take to get a surrender. Luckily that's not the way it works in real life, but it would prove his theory. In his day the bomber was the only way to deliever explosives, with the ICBM his theory could work.

Much has been made of the power of nuclear weapons to prove Douhet's theory, and on the surface it looks as though this could be true. It is, as you say, unproven and untested (thank god) so we'll never know how a nation would stand up to such punishment. Bear in mind, though, that such thinking was exactly the way Douhet (and Trenchard and Mitchell amongst others) believed future wars would be fought - strategic bombing would pretty much win wars by themselves and thus save lives in the long run. Bear in mind also that Douhet wasn't talking about wiping nations off the map to win wars, he was proposing a means to win wars that avoided the heavy casualties seen in contemporary land warfare.

The main counter argument is the fact that nuclear weapons would cause death and destruction on such a scale that Douhet's central theory, that of strategic bombing being a more humane alternative to conventional warfare, is unlikely to be true. For it to work the deaths and injuries caused by the bombing would have to be less than those caused by a land campaign supported by air (as opposed to a strategic air campaign in relative isolation).

Looking at the 2003 Gulf War, for example, we see that the high-end estimate of deaths (including Iraqi civilians) stands at approximately 37 500. I don't have figures for those wounded, but I'd say it is reasonable to extrapolate a x3 figure of the death toll as a rough guide. That would suggest 150 000 killed and wounded in the campaign (I'm not going to look at the post-campaign figures although some will argue that the campaign is still going on).

For Douhet's theory to work, we need to demonstrate that strategic bombing will break civilian morale and bring about the end of the war with fewer than 150 000 killed and wounded. A nuclear weapon targeted on Baghdad would seem to be the best way to go about bringing about surrender if Douhet is to be believed. We don't need multiple warheads so we'll look at using a Minuteman III with a single W87 300 kT warhead. The bombing of Hiroshima used a 15kT warhead and caused an estimated 150 000 casualties (the estimated numbers for killed alone range from 65,000 to 200,000 so I have used a very conservative figure for killed and wounded), the same as the conventional war in the 2003 Gulf War. A 300 kT warhead is going to cause rather more than 150 000 casualties and therefore cannot be said to be a more humane way to fight a war.

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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby Ricky » Tue Jun 24, 2014 7:49 am

dutchman wrote:I would say that geography is one factor, but there are many others. Isolation is sometimes important, as is climate. But force of arms are required to keep what one has from plunder by others. Many island nations haven't achieved what England has, and yet they share many of the same advantages. Sicily, Malta, Ireland, all have nice climates, adaquate food supplies and the protection of isolation. Syracuse sits on Sicily and yet is the most captured city in history. So being an island may not keep you safe.


Size is also important - Sicily and Malta are too small to ever remain a major power in their own right, and even Ireland is only 3/5 the size of England (and it had rather an ongoing issue with its larger neighbour, which has hindered development).
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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby dutchman » Thu Jun 26, 2014 12:59 am

As a resident from a former colony of England, I can feel for the fate of the Irish. My ancestors stayed in Ireland for a generation before continuing to North America. I made the trip to Ireland about 10 years ago and really feel in love with the land and the people. It's a culture that still values its farmers. Rare in today's world.

I understand the point about being too small to be a major power. Well made, but what I was trying to suggest is that there are no guarantees in isolation. Being an island will help, having rugged terrain will help. But once the profit out weighs the risk, a country can become a target. Another deterrent is the people, both in numbers and spirit. Granted not all wars are fought for noble causes, some are for gain or plunder. Many have been fought under the claim of God’s will. Always boggled how an religion that puts forth peace can then wage a holy war? But that’s an entirely different discussion. The common thread and even the common “currency” of a war will be the human suffering. People will pay the price of the conflict.

History will be shaped by many factors. Geography, climate, resources are valid factor in they can influence behavior. There are many others as well, the people and their heritage is certainly another. To try to define THE factor would risk over simplification. One thing we can all count on, in history there will always be wars. In wars people shall perish. Since history is usually written by the victor, the battles shall be glorified beyond reality. I can’t remember if it was Plato or Socrates that said “only the dead have seen the end of war. ” It’s been 40 years since I was in a classroom so forgive my uncertainty .

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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby Ricky » Thu Jun 26, 2014 8:47 am

dutchman wrote:I understand the point about being too small to be a major power. Well made, but what I was trying to suggest is that there are no guarantees in isolation. Being an island will help, having rugged terrain will help. But once the profit out weighs the risk, a country can become a target. Another deterrent is the people, both in numbers and spirit. Granted not all wars are fought for noble causes, some are for gain or plunder.


I agree that isloation will not make you invulnerable - particularly if you are rich enough to be desirable. The Roman, Saxon, Viking and Norman invasions of the British Isles were all essentially undertaken in search of wealth (a mix of fertile land and resources). But there does come a point where the mix of isolation and wealth makes it too risky to attempt (hard to get there, and a hard fight to conquer). It is always easier to invade a nation with whom you share a land border, and it is always risky to have your army off overseas if you have powerful neighbours with a history of aggression (in this example, that's the rest of Europe!).


dutchman wrote:Many have been fought under the claim of God’s will. Always boggled how an religion that puts forth peace can then wage a holy war? But that’s an entirely different discussion.

You and me both (I'm a Christian). We had a topic on this once (feel free to start a new one, it is an interesting topic) but essentially that is what happens when an organised religion starts to take an interest in wielding political power. We even had a discussion about whether 'Holy Wars' were ever about religion, or whether that was simply a handy excuse.


dutchman wrote:The common thread and even the common “currency” of a war will be the human suffering. People will pay the price of the conflict.

Agreed. For all that military history is fascinating, I do sometimes wish that it didn't exist
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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby canambridge » Fri Jun 27, 2014 12:32 am

Ricky wrote:For all that military history is fascinating, I do sometimes wish that it didn't exist


Robert E. Lee:

"It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it."

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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby jeaguer » Mon Dec 22, 2014 9:58 pm

.
Geography is history , the presence of a big trading city at the estuary of large rivers is no accident , neither is the fact that steppe land produce good cavalry but very few learned intellectuals
the ability to maintain a large population density , the presence of big cities and town with specialized workers and administrators are assets
the drawback are the need to get more resources when the population pressure increase , the simplest way is to take it from someone else
trade can only get you so far , when a rich country has conquered its neighbours and founded an empire it then expand into poorer places
the cost of conquest rise while the return get smaller ,
people in poor place , Afghanistan , Scotland .... tend to be more warlike too , having had to fight with their neighbours to keep or take the little they had

geopolitics cover those subject

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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby Roel » Thu May 14, 2015 10:21 pm

Ricky wrote:Look at any map of good arable soil and you can easily see that Europe's rise to world dominance was inevitable.

Correction. Look at any map of good arable soil and you can easily see that China's rise to world dominance is inevitable.

The basic point stands, in a pre-industrial world. All major centres of settled civilisation and most empires have been based in fertile floodplains or temperate lowlands. The correlation between them is an old theory. So is the idea that island nations have an advantage; in the 17th century, one Dutch political thinker actually proposed that Holland (the rich, urbanised west of the United Provinces) should simply cut a channel along its eastern border, abandon the mainland, and live off of its navy and trade. It doesn't quite work in the case of the Netherlands, though, because it's too small. Whenever there was an economic crisis, Holland has always had to rely on its eastern agricultural hinterland to survive.

People have actually been theorising about the relation between geography and power since ancient times, but they tended to get it the wrong way around. The ancient Greeks believed that "soft" (fertile and temperate) lands produced soft men, who were servile, weak, effeminate, and easily conquered. It was hard peoples from hard lands, such as the Persians and the Greeks themselves, who forged empires.
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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby Ricky » Fri May 15, 2015 7:50 am

Roel wrote:
Ricky wrote:Look at any map of good arable soil and you can easily see that Europe's rise to world dominance was inevitable.

Correction. Look at any map of good arable soil and you can easily see that China's rise to world dominance is inevitable.


Hmm. SE China has good soil. NE China has good soil. The western half of the country does not. All of Europe does.

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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby Roel » Fri May 15, 2015 7:14 pm

But the western half of the country is neither its population centre nor its cultural core. The part that matters is the east and south. In addition, this area has an advantage over Europe in that it grows rice rather than cereal crops, which is vastly more efficient, so you need much less land to feed the same population than you do in Europe.
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Re: Geography dictates History?

Postby Ricky » Mon May 18, 2015 7:46 am

Roel wrote:But the western half of the country is neither its population centre nor its cultural core. The part that matters is the east and south.

... and why is that ;)

Roel wrote: In addition, this area has an advantage over Europe in that it grows rice rather than cereal crops, which is vastly more efficient, so you need much less land to feed the same population than you do in Europe.

Only the south east. The north east is wheat - the great rice/noodle divide
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