This article was written on 26 Apr 2014, and is filled under Urbanities.

Notes on Maps and War

Screenshot from CNN's 1991 coverage of the Gulf War. Image taken from YouTube.

Screenshot from CNN’s 1991 coverage of the Gulf War. Image taken from YouTube.

I recently came across footage of the first twenty-four hours of CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War. It was an accident but no coincidence—I’ve lately been trying to understand the relationship between maps and thought. This broad inquiry stems from the dual conviction that we are living through a golden age of cartography, characterized by a constantly mutating array of sophisticated tools for representing space, and that its impact has been poorly understood. The maps we now use every day are incredibly complex, infinitely more so than the ones I used to stare at, hours at a time, when I was a kid—maps of states and countries mostly, maps in encyclopedia volumes or road atlases, maps whose most dynamic feature involved the overlay of various plastic sheets, which could be peeled back to represent, for example, the gradual westward expansion of the United States. Those maps, which seemed so natural, just sat there on the page and yet were infinitely fascinating to me. They gave me a sense of a world outside my town; they gave me a grid, literally, through which to think; they put everything on the same plane, related through lines of latitude and longitude. In light of those maps, I’m interested in how today’s maps are transforming the way we think space.

Those older maps weren’t so different from the one above, which appeared not in print but on the television screen during CNN’s newscast on the evening of January 16, 1991, as Operation Desert Storm was beginning. The image is unremarkable. White outlines enclose countries. Rivers are faintly suggested by greenish blue lines. Shadows indicate mountains. Pools of blue around the edges show us where the sea meets the land. Everything is yellow, I guess to signal the desert, and Iraq, in the middle of the screen, is just a bit brighter. Later on in the same broadcast, we see other maps: Baghdad in relation to the airport; Baghdad drawn in shades of gray, each hue standing perhaps for an area of the city, major roads and waterways in white and blue, the hotel which is the reporters’ crow’s nest featured prominently; and Baghdad as a still satellite image, this time with a more complex picture of the web of streets. As these maps succeed each other on the television screen, we hear the sounds of bombing and anti-aircraft fire, along with some truly banal observations by the reporters. They marvel at the precision of the air attack. “It’s obvious that the people doing the attack here have a very tight method involved,” says a reporter named John Holliman. “I mean, we can tell that they know what they’re doing by the way the attack is going on.”

That method, of course, entailed the use of maps infinitely more complex than the ones displayed onscreen. “The Gulf War,” Laura Kurgan has written, “was a battle unprecedented in its reliance on maps, from the digital ones stored in the on-board memories of cruise missiles to the commercial satellite data purchased by the Pentagon during the war” (92). These sophisticated maps tell a story not just about the execution of war, but also about its relationship with the civilian sector. Kurgan mentions a particular digital mapping effort undertaken by the Kuwaiti government before the war. The resultant maps first worked as emblems of national sovereignty, as they painstakingly charted the country’s territory. They were then deployed by the US-led campaign against Saddam Hussein. And finally, after the war’s end, they guided the country’s reconstruction. In sum, the same maps drew the space of the nation, the space of the battlefield, and the space of investment. The episode stands as an example of the porosity between the military and commercial interests.

Apropos of that porosity, Kurgan mentions a well-known collection of essays that attests it, even if hermetically: Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. The French theorist offers multiple reasons to justify his counterintuitive thesis: the mismatch between antagonists, the foregone conclusion of combat’s ultimate result, the interest in maintaining a power structure consistent with what George Bush (Sr.) was calling the New World Order. Televisual technology beamed the war into the homes of spectators, but these images were mere components of a global simulacrum—a dance of masks obscuring a non-event. In this direction, the collection’s final essay, written after the war had taken place (or not), mentions CNN in its opening paragraph:

Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed. We will never know what an Iraqi taking part with a chance of fighting would have been like. We will never know what an American taking part with a chance of being beaten would have been like. We have seen what an ultra-modern process of electrocution is like, a process of paralysis or lobotomy of an experimental enemy away from the field of battle with no possibility of reaction. But this is not a war, any more than 10,000 tonnes of bombs per day is sufficient to make it a war. Any more than the direct transmission by CNN of real time information is sufficient to authenticate a war. (61)

CNN’s broadcast does not confirm the existence of war, says Baudrillard. It rather participates in the simulacrum, the images of war that have been spun together as if a textile. There were real bombs, real casualties, but this was not “war” as it had previously been understood. “War is no longer what it used to be…,” Baudrillard writes, using ellipses for the only time in these essays (85).

He was not the only observer to note the changes in the nature of war represented by the Gulf War. Paul Virilio wrote, in a similar key, that high tech weapons and high tech communications were two sides of the same coin. “The news pool under the sway of the Pentagon performs a key role in this stealthful and intensive conflict where telecommunication satellites will have played a prominent role both during the course of operations and in the presentation of news in the mass media.” In both cases, real-time technology transforms conflict: “transfiguration of the site of war and its representation, both for the opposing forces and for the tele-spectators” (113). Virilio insists, like Baudrillard, on the centrality of representation, obfuscation, and virtuality in the course of contemporary war.

In light of the deployment of the media as weapon, and of the common technological core at the heart of both weapons and communication systems, the question of maps acquires new importance. Regarding them, Baudrillard returns to a text he had famously cited in his earlier work (Jorge Luis Borges’s “Del rigor en la ciencia”): “Today we see the shreds of this war rot in the desert just like the shreds of the map in Borges’ fable rotting at the four corners of the territory” (68). In the fable, the map had become coextensive with the territory, and its rot was an outgrowth of its abandonment. “Later generations,” Borges writes, had judged the map to be “useless.” If the war is what’s rotting, in Baudrillard’s text, then it corresponds to the fissured, yellowed map—it has covered the world and has now been left exposed to the inclemencies of the sun. Put otherwise, war is everywhere: the New World Order announced after the Cold War is itself war, hence the impossibility of any one war being specified as such and hence also the impossibility between distinguishing combat weapons from media weapons—or maps of national sovereignty from maps of investment opportunities.

In light of the convergence of technology, war, and capitalism, a convergence dramatically staged by the Gulf War, the maps deployed by CNN stand out for being so basic, so static, so traditional. Later footage certainly showed real time footage of bombs raining down as showers of green lights, but the network’s initial representations of the terrain of war fell back on the conventions of print mapping, so different from the digital, satellite enabled maps about to be deployed in American missiles.

My concern isn’t so much why CNN used these maps, but rather what the likely effects were. I can think of at least two. First, maps such as these, in which the nation or the city is enclosed in an appropriately sized box, serve to generate a sense of mastery. Far from the scene of carnage, they presented Iraq as a contained and containable object. This first function is related to the second—the insulation of the viewer from the possibilities opened up by new communication technologies. That is, they not only insulate the viewer from seeing carnage and destruction (as with footage of the Vietnam War); rather, they obscure the obscene possibilities of instant transmission and circulation, phenomena that were already being deployed on the field of battle and whose full infiltration into civilian experience would become ever more apparent a decade or so later.

One Comment

  1. Sinking worlds
    May 8, 2014

    Thank you for this article, since Desert Storm it only got worse unfortunately…