Intervention – '“A remarkable disconnect”: On violence, military research, and the AAG' by Joel Wainwright

Joel WainwrightJoel Wainwright – Ohio State University geographer, author of Geopiracy: Oaxaca, Militant Empiricism, and Geographical Thought (2012, Palgrave Macmillan), Decolonizing Development: Colonial Power and the Maya (Blackwell, 2008) and Antipode papers on the Grundrisse, the political implications of climate change, and transnational resistance to neoliberalism – here presents the second part of his latest essay on the growing involvement of the U.S. military in human geography (the first part ‘Misunderstanding, militarized‘ is available at the excellent Public Political Ecology Lab website)…


Over the past year I have published several pieces on the growing involvement of the US military into human geography (of which the Bowman Expeditions to Central America are only one element). In response, many have asked: what about the Association of American Geographers (AAG)? What are they doing about all this? These are questions worth asking.

Until recently, the answer was simple: the AAG has done nothing. Rather it has done less-than-nothing, because the issue has been actively repressed and critics have been attacked (see Wainwright 2012: chapter 3).

Recently, however, the conversation has picked up.

On June 24, 2013, Eric Sheppard (a former Antipode editor) published his final column as AAG President. Entitled ‘Doing No Harm’, the essay laments the “remarkable disconnect” between the concerns of professional geographers and the “many forms of violence stalking the earth.” Sheppard writes:

“There is a remarkable disconnect between the many forms of violence stalking the earth, and a lack of attention to and critical reflection on violence by geographers. Arguably, at least in the United States, violence is now so pervasive, at every scale, that we take it for granted. For humans, this ranges from domestic and sexual violence, to mass shootings, acts labeled as terrorism, and warfare (to name just a few). For the more-than-human world, human actions also have increasingly violent effects on species and ecosystems. Geography needs to transcend this disconnect: not just to study geographies of violence, but more importantly to examine the role of Geography in shaping violence. This is essential if we are to challenge its pervasiveness in the name of developing a pro-peace agenda.”

These are fine words, but they leave a lot unsaid.

To begin, what constitutes a “pro-peace agenda”? What does it mean to be ‘pro-peace’ at a time when the word has been so abused (e.g. Obama’s Nobel peace prize). I suspect that most geographers who read Sheppard’s essay thought that his appeal for a peace agenda sounded just fine, and that is the problem. Perhaps what we need is not a peace agenda but an organized confrontation with power. We have been too quiescent during the ‘war on terror’ that ferociously, and with no end in sight, has destroyed so many lives. However unfounded its presuppositions, this war has already helped to change our discipline. A select few geographers have adapted early to the new times and found ways to profit.

The symbol for this turn is, of course, the Bowman Expeditions. As Professor Sheppard writes:

“The American Geographical Society is collaborating on a recent large grant from the Department of Defense Minerva Project, to study indigenous communities throughout Central America. Funders’ institutional agendas always shape the research questions asked, and thereby the possible answers, with potentially deep implications for affected communities and places. […] Geography’s entanglement with military agendas, everywhere, raises profound questions for us all as professional geographers. The phrasing could be stronger, but according to the AAG Statement of Professional Ethics: ‘research should be conducted only after careful consideration of three fundamental principles: (1) Respect for persons and communities…. (2) Equity…. (3) Beneficence: The maximization of benefits and the minimization of harm from research’. How do we square such ethical obligations with research that is bound up with military agendas and other potentially violent actions?” (emphasis added).

Since his purpose was to stage a conversation among geographers, Professor Sheppard does not answer this important question. Yet we must be bold enough to respond by repeatedly pointing out that collaboration with the military inherently violates our fundamental principles. The military systematically disrespects persons and communities and undermines the potential beneficence of sharing knowledge for the sake of understanding our world. Hence the growing entanglements between the US military and geographers require our attention.

*         *         *

At the April 2013 AAG meetings in Los Angeles – i.e. shortly before composing his last column – Prof. Sheppard participated in a heated discussion with the Executive Council concerning whether the AAG should form a body to study engagements between geographers and the military. While the details of the ensuing debate are not specified by the minutes, we can gather a sense of its stakes:

Geography and the Military. [The AAG] Council discussed whether the AAG should form a commission to examine the engagements of geographers employed by or contracting with the U.S. military and intelligence communities, and to evaluate the potential implications of U.S. Department of Defense and intelligence agency work by geographers upon the discipline. [Audrey] Kobayashi moved to form a commission, led by two members of Council, to study and make recommendations on the relationship between geography and the military. [Karen] Till seconded the motion.”


“The motion did not pass. [Richard] Wright suggested, as an alternative, to invite Op-Eds in the AAG Newsletter on this topic.”

The AAG Council split evenly on the proposal; hence, no commission would be created. Bear in mind that the purpose of this commission was not to condemn military collaboration, only to “examine […] and to evaluate the potential implications”, etc. In other words, the AAG Council decided not to study these matters.

So far as I am aware, no Council members have offered a public explanation for their vote. My impression is that most other geographers are unaware it even occurred.

It would be hard to describe this failure as anything other than momentous. After years of dithering in the face of a major push by the US military into geographical research and amidst growing involvement by geographers with the DoD, the AAG could not even agree to carry out the basic tasks of scholarly work: collect data, ask questions, and document findings for the reading public. By contrast, recall that the American Anthropological Association Executive Council formed a ‘Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities’ which condemned anthropological collaboration with the military’s Human Terrain System program (for details, see Wainwright 2012: §3.4).

In fairness to Professors Sheppard and Kobayashi, bringing this motion to a vote is more than occurred under previous AAG presidencies. We are indebted to them for lending their voices to this struggle. Yet, they failed.

And so have we all. Despite a plethora of words, critical geographers have failed even to nudge AAG policy on the military. Nor have we organized ourselves outside of the AAG for the larger task, i.e. changing the circumstances in which the U.S. state/military has identified human geography as a crucial weapon in its arsenal—a means to cement its strategic advantages in the world. If indigenous communities in Central America ask why the professional organizations representing geographers are silent about the new Minerva grant, what should we say? Doesn’t our silence make us complicit in the forms of violence that are sure to follow?

To be sure, the AAG has taken a position about military research and human geography. Implicitly it is one that seeks to avoid tensions within the organization between those members who tacitly accept the role of the U.S. military in human geography and those who might be described as critics of the U.S. military. Thus the largest academic organization of geographers seeks the peace of silence. Meanwhile the US military is busily rebranding ‘human geography’ as the way to know where to put ‘boots on the ground’. And among us critical geographers: a mass of undisciplined, apathetic grumbling. A remarkable disconnect, indeed.

Read against the backdrop of his failed attempt to create a “commission to examine the engagements of geographers employed by or contracting with the U.S. military and intelligence communities”, then, Prof. Sheppard’s final column was no mere appeal to peace. It was an emergency signal to those of us who care to connect the dots—a message in a bottle, tossed into the sea by a parting leader, for geographers on distant shores to find. The message in the bottle says: we are losing ground; it is time to organize.


Wainwright J (2012) Geopiracy: Oaxaca, Militant Empiricism, and Geographical Thought. New York: Palgrave Macmillan


  1. jaredp

    thanks for your continued attention to this, joel. it seems to me that two obstacles to the kind of organizing you call for are the scholarly siloing and careerism that underlie longstanding conceptions of education and educational institutions. i worry that too many of us think of our unique/specific critical work as an occupational niche rather than a potential contribution to a radically intersectional politics that exceeds academic debate. i think the disconnect you describe is maintained by the uncanny view that the AAG is a ‘professional organization’ and not the “scientific and educational society” it claims to be.

  2. Kenneth HEWITT

    Dr. Wainwright,timely and much-needed comments
    Perhaps this is the moment to ask why the critical, progressive, anti-war and peace-building legacies of Gilbert White, Bernard Nietschmann, Anne Larrimore, Bill Bunge, Ben Wisner, Niel Smith… among others, seem to have so little resonance these days at the AAG. There certainly are geographers addressing such matters forthrightly, but less and less at the AAG, rarely in courses, or the mainstream journals. It is tempting to revisit Bill Bunge’s belief that, along with so many other progressive developments of the 70s and 80s, there has been a systematic discouragement of interest, or weeding out of critical minds.
    As far as I am concerned, I find armed violence, militarization and initiatives that support them, ‘the elephant in the room’ of all my main interest:
    Natural hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)
    Following the lead of Homeland Security, disaster preparedness and responses are increasingly merged with and embedded in broad national security complexes; in sets of agencies also responsible for war and counter-terror measures, policing of international migration, drugs and other trafficking, border security, disease control, and protection of major infrastructure. Key elements are ever-expanding surveillance, secrecy, punitive laws and carceral systems. This has been identified as the ‘security-industrial complex’ (SIC), which vastly outranks and outspends DRR, whose concerns tend to be elbowed aside. The mind-sets and actions echo what Claude Gilbert calls a “patterns of war” paradigm for disasters, with “militant humanitarianism” and for-profit security companies looming ever larger.
    Yes, presently, there is a strong push, involving many geographers, to prepare a new Hyogo Framework for Action 2, with DRR to remain the focus at the UN. However, as a report of the UK/DOI recently showed, DRR in its first twenty years has suffered, not from mistaken or inappropriate principles but grossly inadequate and misspent funding. It is the poorest relation of international assistance, and receives the smallest share of disaster funding still led, of course, by militarized emergency relief. The poorest countries, in turn, are the poor relations of actual DRR funding, and most of what they receive goes to their military. Most official DRR funding has gone to a few middle-income countries like China and India for a few large flood control projects – a nowhere is there a sense they have read Gilbert White comments on flood control led by the Corps of Engineers! I have not seen much or any debate about this in the AAG or anywhere else.
    Himalayan glaciers
    There is a lively, if somewhat compromised, debate on climate change and glacier retreat, existing and projected glacier change in High Asia. This is surely among the more threatening areas of climate change response. And the future may well hold unprecedented dangers from heat, storm and melting ice. However, climate change dangers past and present are small in comparison with the death tolls, forced displacements, refugee crises, and environmental destruction by past and on-going wars and civil conflicts, including armed actions and arms transfers across glacier basins. The vast numbers of soldiers in the Asian mountains outside active warfare, serve to disenfranchise and ignore the needs and aspirations of the majority of high Asian mountain communities. They do help secure and even build the dams and other major infrastructure, real estate and recreational developments, pushed through by down country and international actors, usually with no regard for local community concerns and needs. Physical geographers are much engaged in the glacier story, but offer small or no witness to the constant threats of violence, from drone strikes to contaminated snow.
    Impacts of war and peace building
    I regard peace research and peace-building as a responsibility of geographers, not least given our huge contributions to wars, strategic intelligence and planning, not to speak of self-serving, racist environmentalism, patriarchy, and the like. On one side, there is the need to bear witness wherever armed violence and militarization affect one’s area of study. In my case, it began with findings concerning civil defence and the origins of modern disaster management and hence, the need to revisit the ‘disasters of war’. On the other side, none of this is worth investigating unless one is convinced of, and committed to, non-violence and peace-building alternatives – never more urgent than in our hyper-militarized world. It seems all the great problems of the day are being, literally, attacked or magnified by military spending and action, from our own borders and war on drugs, to distant civil strife, Haiti or Fukushima – and with singular lack of success. It is clear these problems can only be solved by peaceful negotiation, and peace-building means. In this regard we need a look at how ‘Transformative Justice” and “Peace and reconciliation”, among others, recognize and critically assess violence, and oppose the SIC-ness.

  3. Dr. Sharlene Mollett

    Nicely done Joel! I thank you for bringing to light some of the inherent contradictions in our discipline and the apathy of many people we know and seemingly respect. We (geographers) need to do better.

  4. Kiran Asher

    Kudos to Joel Wainwright for keeping alive the discussion on an important and imperative ethical and political issue for geographers in general and the AAG in particular. Regarding the latter, let me flag an obvious point that may have a seemingly trivial bearing on the issue at hand. Note that the AAG stands for the Association of American Geographers. The term “American” may refer to the continent and not to the USA. Yet in the light of the impasse on the issue of violence in the Executive Committee, I wonder once again how such a name may reflect or inherit nationalist and other ideologies of the US state.