Special Edition No2 - SystemsThinking

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We Think Visually: The Urgency of Meaningful Maps

With the active generation increasingly thinking visually, creating meaningful maps is paramount to the military operational art, defined as the arrangement of tactical actions in space, time and purpose in the pursuit of strategic objectives. The challenge lies in understanding how meaning is created and shared, not just within our own organization, in our culture, with our dominant mental models, but also from the perspectives of whole-of-government efforts, our coalition partners, and our rivals. This article refreshes the reader on the theory of social systems, and proposes an approach to creating such meaningful maps, whether as a sketch on a whiteboard, a Powerpoint slide, or the product of professional GIS work.

Major Mathieu Primeau

Military operational planning is a most complex affair, not only fraught with the risks of mass suffering and death, but also dependent on a host of fluid constraints and restraints created by the relationship between policy, strategy, and tactics. The problems it addresses require finding and solving in a context of great ambiguity, but where the necessity for action remains paramount. Military practitioners navigate this turbulent sea with the assistance of a relatively vast array of conceptual and procedural tools, which vary in function of purpose, but almost inevitably include some types of maps. Maps are everywhere, linking an almost infinite number of intangibles and tangibles to space, as a minimum in-printing on our cognition a sense of relative distance. Maps are also produced by almost everyone, from scribbles of a manoeuver option on a whiteboard to the very detailed products of terrain analysis. Hence, all military operational planners are mapmakers.

With the active generation increasingly thinking visually, creating meaningful maps is paramount to the whole of the military operational art, defined as the arrangement of tactical actions in space, time and purpose in the pursuit of strategic objectives (Army Doctrine Publication [ADP] 3-0, 2011). The challenge lies in understanding how meaning is created and shared, not just within our own communities, with our dominant mental models, but also from the perspectives of whole-of-government efforts, our coalition partners, and especially our rivals. Inspired by Discursive Maps at the Edge of Chaos (Primeau, 2017), this paper will leverage the thought processes of two major war theorists since the Enlightenment; Antoine de Jomini and Carl Von Clausewitz, to illustrate the nature of meaningful maps. It will then use philosophy and complex social systems theory to emphasize how we invariably all see the world differently, based on our identity. The result is an argument that most maps fail the operational artist, but that by applying good design methods we can improve on their meaning.

A characterization of Premodern, Modern and Postmodern thinking models (unknown).

Figure 1. A characterization of Premodern, Modern and Postmodern thinking models (unknown).

If you were sitting in a university classroom in Scotland in the mid 18th century, a religious scholar would be reading to you in Latin some passage of scripture. Theology would be the only program offered, and your pious contemplations the foundation for a preordained life of godly devotion (Herman, 2001). Your human desire to better understand the world, or perhaps more modestly to improve on your social condition, would be dogmatically and almost inevitably obscured by this religious lens, interpreted through an inaccessible language, by an inaccessible elite.

What since changed this outlook on the transmission of higher knowledge, and in fact knowledge itself, happened through a complex social revolution which by definition had many causes. In 1776, the same year as the United States’ declaration of Independence, Scottish academic Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, introducing the world to modern free trade, and thus freer societies. For his part, Thomas Paine, early journalist of the American Revolution and later writer of the supremely controversial The Age of Reason (Paine, 1774), challenged the dogma of religion to advance idea of intellectual freedom. Helped by these pioneers, universities across Europe and in the United States also started to diversify their educational programs, and they introduced the commoner’s language (whether English, French, German, etc.) as more suited to higher education. Such are some epithets of what we now call the Enlightenment, when came the belief that the study of the world around us was better fulfilled through logical thought and scholastic dialogues based on empirical evidence.

However, as it often happens when great change is abreast but remains misunderstood, the pendulum swung a bit too far. In our understanding of war, for example, what appeared is an exaggerated belief in the existence of a pre-ordained structure – often even referred to as a “geometry” – where military success was conceived as a direct (or linear) consequence of applying a certain formula. Inspired by theorists like Bulow and Lloyd, and as a consequence of observing Napoleon’s victories, the Swiss Antoine de Jomini became the new spokesperson of such empirical excess (not without a bit of narcissism). Thankfully, this swing of the pendulum was soon to be rectified, when the Prussian theorist Carl Von Clausewitz introduced (or rather re-introduced) in On War the ambiguity that emerges out of social systems, explaining that war’s race to the extremes is inevitably moderated by a trinity of passion, chance and reason (Clausewitz [Howard and Paret], 1976).

These two points of view, while related to war as a whole, also directly characterize how mapping for military operations came to change, and continues to exist to this day. On one side, Jomini-inspired, maps became the most accurate illustration possible of a given portion of space, as if god-like, to serve a purpose focused on representation. These are the road maps, the 1:50 000 to 1:250 000 tactical military maps, or in other words just about any map that is to a type or standard; a tapestry of the natural and man-made world. They are informed by the geometries of surveying, and their character is primarily descriptive.

Conversely, here rather in a Clausewitzian way, some maps evolved to effectively suggest the complexity associated with ambiguous or “wicked” problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973). They do not aim simply to depict or inform, as would any geo-tagged list, and expect the user to put the end-result to good use based on external inferences unknown to the map-maker. These maps aim at directly conveying a message, with the map-maker informed of the nature of the problem. In the realm of the operational art, this is the complex discourse between strategy and tactics, informed by the operating environment. Hence, Clausewitzian map-makers think about what they want to communicate before they put pen on paper, with relatively little concern over standards, but rather the desire to create purposeful meaning for decision-makers.

How such meaning is created and shared is first a question of philosophy, and in our times is extremely well-informed by concepts explored in Postmodernism. This is not referring to the postmodern paintings or sculptures exposed in mostly empty art galleries lined with exotic cars. Rather, what is useful is their suggestion that meaning is not only the result of our social interactions since birth, a topic beautifully explored by Berger and Luckman (1966) in The Social Construction of Reality, but also the result of a web of intangible communicative structures that are in themselves both impossible and irrelevant to study. In other words, Postmodernism claims that no two human beings can possibly conceive of the same idea, say “chair,” in the same way. It is admittedly self-defeating, since with meaning being impossible to share, theories about such meanings are a fallacy. However, its value to the operational artist is the realization that no notion can reasonably be expected to be common to all, with some more insecure (or ontologically-fragile) than others. For example, notions derived from one’s sense of identity are particularly insecure, since they are value-based (they relate to emotions). Armed with this conceptual tool, the operational artist turned map-maker can better address the most fundamental questions of operational design; such as how we see ourselves, how we see our enemy, how the enemy sees us, and how the enemy sees itself, all of course in relation to space.

The basic and social map communication models

Figure 2. The basic and social map communication models, conceptualizing cartography in terms of stages in the transmission of spatial data from cartographer to reader via the map. Expanded by Primeau (2017) from Keates (1996).

Admittedly, these questions are difficult to answer in most cases, let alone to communicate through maps that drive decisions and action. This is because they directly relate to what is the most complex of all systems; that of individual’s interactions in large diverse societies. That said, systems theory helps us greatly in this endeavor by positing that how individuals see themselves in relation to their environment – their identity – ultimately ends up as territorial ambitions that can lead to conflict. As the following model proposes, this is systemic emergence, with the catalyst being politics.

Military operations in the context of identity ideology

Figure 3. A systemic model of military operations in the context of identity ideology (Primeau, 2017).

To understand this model, it is necessary to consider how identity and space define each other. First, identity is relative to the social environment that surrounds the individual, evolving through time based on narratives and circumstances. As Derek Gregory (Hatch & Cunliffe, 2006) explains, “social structures cannot be practiced without spatial structures.” In other words, identity is a social function consequent and dependent on space. For an example close to home, the notions “Quebecer,” “French,” “Canadian,” “Roman Catholicism,” and so on are all cognitive derivatives of a physical reality, respectively: the province created from lower Canada; the language that evolved from Italian Latin and beforehand Latium from Northern Europe; the Iroquoian word “Kanata” which means village; and “Rome” itself. No idea exists without a meaning, and since the answers to questions are invariably anchored in a time and space as they are explored, they imply a spatial consideration.

Second, identity leads individuals – and when politicized, whole communities – to value territory to different extents both physically (as in where they think it ends) and mentally (what it means). Again, the key term here is value. Anssi Paasi and David Newman (1999) summarize this by stating that a “collective identity is not generated naturally but is socially constructed and produced by the social construction of boundaries.” To exemplify this in the context of physical space and boundaries, consider the work of David Kaplan (1994) in Two Nations in Search of a State: Canada’s Ambivalent Spatial Identities, where he argues that French Canadians in Quebec have a very strong identity. After the decline of Roman Catholicism in the 1960s and the 1970s, the author explains that French Canadians generally considered their identity as (1) attached to the homeland of their ancestors from France, (2) associated with the French language, and (3) aligned with the provincial legitimizations of territorializations. These are all the results of political currents acting on different spheres of society, notably the religious (diminishing), the cultural (including but not limited to language) and lastly the governmental. Thus what is suggested here is that French Canadians care about where their ancestors lived, where francophone populations live, and then also where some governments implicitly suggest they do or should live. In this reductive context, these are their spatial ambitions, based on their values.

Therefore, the Clausewitzian map makers cannot purely constrain all their maps to their own preference/or bureaucratically approved perspectives of space, as they only answer one point of view, based on one possible combination of identity. Rather, they must imply existing social structures and inform judgment based on a culturally literate arrangement of symbols, colours, text and shapes (Leuenberger & Schenelle, 2010).

A full exploration of these three types of cartographic variables exceeds the scope of this paper. However, what the operational artist turned map-maker needs to do to create meaningful maps is to (1) question how identity is being politicized and turned into spatial ambitions on both sides of all conceivably relevant boundaries, beyond the obvious such as geopolitical lines. Examples of such boundaries could be racial attributes, language, clan ancestry, history, or infrastructure such as roads and drainage pipes, or even a favorite sports team. Then (2) they must prioritize which of these boundaries, and their associated meanings, is relevant to the military problem at hand and needs to be communicated to empower the operational dialogue, always considering how the strategist thinks. Only then (3) can the map-maker use either or both textual or visual signifiers, such as emphasizing shared infrastructure or the colors of the sports team to create the actual graphical map and depict as prioritized spatial elements that create meaning. Doing so, these new symbols, lines and areas on the map will represent the limits to spatial ambitions as breathed, emotionally, by a much more relevant community of actors in a social system/conflict. With sound graphical design, they can also be progressive boundaries, merging one over the other to illustrate a growing imbalance, often so telling of civil strife (Kalyvas, 2006). Nevertheless, the key here is that these maps, so empowered, are no longer intangibles; the product of a law, rule or other meaningless standard constrained by excessive Jominian geometry. They now represent the Clausewitzian passion and reason that drives conflict and potentially moderate its outcome.


What this paper proposed is that, if we were to put side by side what was dubbed a Jominian map and a Clausewitzian map, what would differ is the design method that led to their creation. The first is a complicated process, where data obtained from remote sensors such as satellites or various sources are compiled to a given standard, driven by geometrical considerations. The other, while also populated from similar data sources, is complex rather than complicated, because it is the result of the map-maker answering a question, or rather a series of questions, for which no given answer can be assumed. The effect of Jominian mapping on the operational art is therefore limiting. To narrow the problem to what boundaries to depict, for example, a self-centered bias such as the one towards internationally legitimized geopolitical boundaries is utterly reductive to answering just about any of the operational design questions such as how we see ourselves, how we see the enemy, how the enemy sees us, and how the enemy sees itself. In other words, such maps may address international agreements (as in the Oslo accord in Israel/Palestine), but convey no shared meanings for the operational artist (such as depicting the communities generally opposed to settlements in the West Bank, shared infrastructures, or others). They are mechanical, standardized and uninspired to frame the problem for the decision-maker on the subtleties of beliefs and values by all involved stakeholders to a conflict. Conversely, Clausewitzian maps generate meaning by considering these intangibles, most notably by attempting to depict the boundaries of what groups of people value; what they like and want. They address how passion and reason moderate conflict, war. Operational artists generally intuitively understand this notion, but their maps fail them “à-la-Jomini” for lacking such considerations. This problem is the testament to the urgency of meaningful maps.

Author Biography

Major Mathieu Primeau is Deputy Commanding Officer of the Canadian Armed Forces Mapping and Charting Establishment in Ottawa. He is a graduate of the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), and holds two Military Masters in Arts and Science (MMAS) from the US Army Command and General Staff College, a Masters of Science degree from Cranfield University (UK) in Defence Geospatial Information, and a Bachelor’s of Engineering degree in Civil Engineering from the Royal Military College of Canada. He served as Chief Geospatial Officer in Regional Command (South) of ISAF in Afghanistan in 2007, commanded the School of Military Mapping, the administration squadron of the 5e Régiment du Génie de Combat, and worked both as lead planner (G5) and Senior Observer/Controller/Trainer at the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Center.


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