Florida Tweets

It was the height of irresponsibility, but one that should make Jack Dorsey breathe a sigh of relief that at last he is no longer responsible for Twitter, that the Florida Secretary of State used bad data about the rates of COVID infection around the nation to continue the time-honored tradition to boost the peninsula as a vacation land. Exercising the prerogative that Ron DeSantis long claimed to guard the health practices of Florida, apart from the nation, his office and press secretary must have been thrilled at the latest pre-Thanksgiving COVID data vis that the issued by the CDC, that showed Florida as lying apart form the nation in a bucolic preserve of blue of low coronavirus transmission rates.

The situation issued in the header of this post was ripe for a retweet from Florida Governor’s social media savvy press secretary, who seems to have issued it as an invitation to the state’s winter beaches, as if Florida policies had, despite anti-vaccination campaigns and few masking mandates, gone beyond other states in reversing the high rates of COVID-19 mortality that once afflicted the state per public dashboards of years past.

COVID-19 RIsk Rate/Harvard Global Public Healht/Talus Analytics
July 2020

DeSantis was a huge denier of the infectious nature of the virus, even resisting Trump’s own calls for Americans to stay at home when possible to contain virtual spread, arguing that impositng any “lockdown” and “shutting down the country” was an excessive response. INdeed, DeSantis’ presence in Trump’s inner circle of response to the pandemic increased his profile in the COVID response, and inflated his own sense of national responsibility, as well as causing his pro-business policies to shift in March 2020 by closing Florida schools in the end.

The national map of community transmission rates attempted to bolster DeSantis’ national credibility. The arrival of the Omicron variant in the state, boasting over three times as many mutations as the delta variant, became an opportunity to boost perceptions of DeSantis’ public health creds. Despite DeSantis’ vaccine denialism and diminishment of public health risks–and utter lack of interest in vaccine equity–low rates of transmission offered a useful icon of peninsular identity to promote the governor on the national news, from FOX to OANN, as if to suggest that “as winter approaches,” Florida was doing something right–as if in an invitation to the nation to make travel plans to consider visitj g the sunshine state.

It must have been clear quite immediately to DeSantis’ press secretary, who tweeted it to her 22,000 Twitter followers as evidence of an ethically dubious ethical invitation to the Sunshine State for future travelers–per what seemed currently reported transmission levels. Strikingly, low levels of community transmission in most counties south of the Mason Dixon line would obviate the need for mask-wearing even in public after the arrival of new variants, although not the bulk of the nation, colored red for high levels of transmission that merited masking in the all counties colored red for high levels for which the CDC recommended masking in public to contain potentially very dangerous COVID-19 transmission in the form of new variants.

But the map “lacked” a legend and was in many ways cherry-picked–or based on cherry-picked data, as the statistics for infections in Florida were decisively from an earlier date than the rest of the country, artificially rendering its community transmission rates low. It seemed as if the apparently real-time picture was evidence of a stark change of events that talking heads debated as if it were proof and evidence of DeSantis’ underestimated smarts in pushing back against national health policy. Yet the story is far more complicated–and far more Machiavellian–as the pristine blue image of the state–a blue aquamarine that handily recalled those beaches and sun’n’fun for which Florida was long celebrated in the national imaginary-was based on counts from a different time than the dates of cases in all other states, conveying the appearance of salubrity when that was not the case.

Did the state’s office really fudge the public data on its case rates, which it had long ceased releasing daily, using outdated numbers to showcase an apparent contrast sharply evident on state lines? The meaningful legend that might be juxtaposed with the “snapshot” that the delayed reporting of statistics of coronavirus transmission in Florida shaped might be the way that the state had in fact earlier been rocked by successive waves of coronavirus infections, a roller coaster of infections of which the state Governor, who had only recently unveiled a new image for the separate task force of the state that showcased its unique health policies, seemed oblivious, but whose bursts of new cases of infection seemed the bête noir against which DeSantis was forced to tilt in the public eye.

For in taking the emblem of an alligator fiercely guarding its territory, must have loved the data visualization that “mapped”–if deceptively–the improbable case his unique health policies not only separated Florida from national guidelines, as a paradise free from mask-wearing and vaccine mandates. It was a perfect case of how maps lie, which removed him–or his press secretary–from any liabilities, as the map gained a robust afterlife on social media, free from the constraints of real public health data or true comparison of COVID case counts.

DON'T TREAD ON FLORIDA': Ron DeSantis Promotes 'Pro-Freedom' Flag | Sean  Hannity
October 21, 2021 by @GovRonDeSantis

Modeled after the Gadsden flag, the image radiated a stubborn sense of obstinacy as the omicron variant lead to renewed fears of a new spike of coronavirus in Florida, worry that found an odd counterpoint in the map the press secretary took comfort in tweeting out. Yet by Christmas, the gift of the CDC data vis seemed not the gift that keeps on giving at all, as Omicron infections had hit the Sunshine state, proving that its barriers were hardly fixed frontiers.

Although most all Florida had been colored red for much of the summer–amidst concern for the Delta variant, and for “breakthrough” infections–and the new tracker map seemed a lucky break. As the omicron variant leading to rising fear of a new spike of coronavirus in Florida, DeSantis’s press secretary took comfort in an opportune recently issued CDC map to suggest that, low and behold, things had changed, and current COVID visualizations showed “low transmission rates distinguished the panhandle and peninsula, as if the state public health policies had in fact, contrary to recent pandemic history, been doing something right all along.

The crisp borders of low community transmission that seemed to define Florida seemed to be a tip-off, even if the image that was tweeted out was picked up on FOX-TV and other “sources” of right wing or alt right news. The image of a combative alligator defending its territoriality, as a sign of local resilience before fears of rising rates of infection and hospitalization, and is now available at PatriotFlags.

The image of defending a swamp fit DeSantis’ promotion the ports of the Sunshine state as the logjams in ports on the east coast and west coast created problems for transportation hubs in California, Washington state, and New York. “We’re also seeing increased costs, inflation, and higher food prices,” he added. “We in Florida,” DeSantis ventriloquized for the state, showcasing his mastery of boosting public health with the bona fides of a newly minted pro-business eecutive, “have the ability to help alleviate these logjams and help to ease the problems with the supply chain,” with little care for vaccine mandates: In Florida, “At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be discriminated against based on your health decisions.” 

When Christmas did come, it didn’t seem that the state of Florida was particularly bad off in relation to the rest of the nation–but the rising death rates related to COVID-19 dramatically grew across the peninsula in truly terrifying ways, drenching the peninsula pink, and belying those low transmission rates about which Gov. DeSantis’ office was so eager to tweet out.

The level of disinformation is rather without precedent, but speaks in many ways to the hyper-reality of maps of COVID-19 infection that were based on rather dubious and incomplete data providing a rudder in an age of uncertainty. DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted out the CDC map to bate the anti-vaccine commentariat. Arriving pre-Thanksgiving, it seemingly celebrated the arrival of a new state of salubrity: the boundary lines of Florida popped bright blue of unearthly nature not because of what Florida was doing right, but was based on data of community transmission rates at days behind the rest of the nation: state data days out of synch with the national norm created the impression of statistically low transmission rates in the state, and south of the Mason-Dixon line, affirming how things were always better in Dixie.

DeSantis had been comparing the low rates of per capita COVID mortality in Florida, despite its large share of elderly, from March, 2021, claiming higher mortality rates for seniors in forty other states had offered evidence that his policies were indeed far more effective than those states that mandated lockdowns and suspended schools, insisting on the benefits of helping businesses and keeping local commerce flow. As FOX news commentators spun the CDC map of community transmission rates as evidence of nothing wrong with fighting masking mandates, or vaccinations.

Yet by mid-December, 2021, reality had reared its ugly head. Skyrocketing rates of Omicron infections proved the folly of asserting any containment of the coronavirus that any policy of one state might so easily fix, as the high rates of infection shifted the panorama of the pandemic, with the fifty millionth case of COVID-19 recorded, and deaths due to the virus across the country topping 800,000–far more than the deaths of the US Civil War, by recent estimates, and more than the current population of Seattle. And if Florida was increasingly as red as the nation, the rise of COVID death rates by the month’s end had effectively eroded all of DeSantis’ suggestion of the benefits of adhering to alternative models of public health care.

covid-map-us
CDC Dashboard, December 2, 2021

If the arrival of the Delta variant had led to the growth of mortality by another 100,000 in two and a half months, the advance of the more transmittable Omicron would stain the whole map red, bridging boundaries and state divides, as thirty three states hosted large infections, with little clear relation to their health policies–save perhaps low population rates and density. By Christmas 2021, national dashboards of infection rates made it clear that Omicron infections advanced not only through the northeast but along the sandy beaches of the Sunshine state.

National COVID Infections/Mapbox
December 20, 2021

Yet that single CDC map in the header to this post suggested low COVID transmission rates in Florida was suspiciously more than opportune. For it suggested, lo and behold, starkly lower transmission rates across the panhandle and peninsula, as if the state public health policies had in fact, contrary to recent pandemic history, been doing something very right all along, as DeSantis continued to fence with Joseph Biden’s attempts to devise mandates of mask-wearing and vaccines, all but defining himself as a sort of shadow-government in opposition to the White House, in the manner, say, that now-disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo and California’s own Gavin Newsom played to Donald Trump, as if voices of stability in the time of need. DeSantis had provided an alter-reality of risk-free no masking or vaccines, freedoms at work and at school, refusing to limit the social interaction and tourism that Florida needs–even accepting cruise lines and offering to provide shipping ports–arguing that reopening was indeed in everyone’s interest, variants be damned: could it be that the CDC was offering a map validating that his policies were working well after all?

Florida boasted low transmission rates, putting the past history of the pandemic in the past, and effectively inaugurating a new news cycle that made this the map to count on and trust–the one dated that very day!–and putting the DeSantis’ lack of COVID vaccination out of folks minds as they booked their family travel plans for late 2021. Florida regained its storied status as a site for healthiness and well-being, unlike, it looked at that moment, like the rest o the nation, leading FOX commentators to spin new stories about the long-term success of DeSantis’ absence of clear public health plans.

For although Gov. DeSantis had pulled the plug in June, 2021 on a public-facing COVID-19 dashboard tracking daily updates on cases, deaths, and open hospital beds across the state, inviting those glued to their computers to take two giant steps back from the spate of emergency preparedness that seized the nation from March 2020, the CDC data vis plotted handily outdated data, skewed from rising rates of Omicron that were spooking the nation.  As there was no public source of infection rates in the state that was available anymore, the disturbing orange dots that crowded the Florida beaches on the COVID dashboard of the past seemed like it was dispensed with, and the seas calm and skies rosy in a bright blue of low transmission levels–despite DeSantis’ longstanding opposition to vaccine mandates or even public masking across the state.

Instead, the spokeswoman of the DeSantis regime tossed to right-wing news sources a rosy picture of the calm waters of Florida–he must have loved the blue azure that the state was tinted to proclaim low community transmission rates over the Thanksgiving weekend, as if it was a sea of tranquility in a nation that was revving up as word of Omicron spread. (“I hope you make it through Omicron,” the man behind me in Whole Foods said as if a neighborhood sage, finger of the pulse of the rising national pandemic anxiety that had recently seemed safely in the rear-view mirror.)

The CDC image of transmission offered a useful icon of peninsular identity for DeSantis’ media savvy press secretary, who tweeted it out to her almost 22,000 Twitter followers as a dubious ethical claim of the health that the Sunshine State held for all future travelers, according to the current community transmission levels. Indeed, as this detail of the data vis shows, the lower than substantial levels of community transmission in most counties south of the Mason Dixon line would obviate the need for mask-wearing even in public after the arrival of new variants, that the CDC had advised for all counties colored red for high level of transmission.

David Schultz/Orlando Sun Sentinel from US Center for Disease Control Data

The striking if deceptive visualization that Ron DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted out on Thanksgiving morning had the benefit of depicting the desired “low community transmission” rates that seemed to confirm DeSantis’ attempts to bolster confidence in his public health policies, even if his longtime war on vaccination was not the success story that the map showing the state as an island of relative salubrity was based on an outdated tally of infection rates in the state whose public health policies seemed a concerted effort to sew fears of vaccine safety. DeSantis’ press secretary, who has cultivated a broad presence on twitter since gaining the job, aimed to promote public perceptions of the success of the Governor’s bellicose strategy of vaccine denialism and scoffing diminishment of public health risks.

The data vis was important to tweet out at 6:30 am to hit the national news outlets, because it helped begin or frame a narrative that Christina Pushaw, who had long questioned the value of a “piece of cloth” and long defended the Governors’ criticism of mask mandates. The low transmission rates that cast the peninsula as an island of salubrity amidst national rising fears distinguished Florida as a rare area in which the CDC was not returning to recommend mask-wearing even among those vaccinated–at least per appearances, or a superficial reading, endorsing the exemplary nature of its public health protocol. Unlike most all counties in the nation, prominently colored high-risk red to indicate the return of high transmission rates, Florida (a “red” state) was bright blue as a safety of haven as it had, conservative media argued, weathered out the storm of masking hysteria. All of Florida had been colored red for much of the summer–amidst concern for the Delta variant, and for “breakthrough” infections–and the new tracker map seemed a lucky break.

But the data was off, way off. In fact, the data vis used cherry picked numbers of a previous days that concealed the hight rates of transmission that existed for southern Georgia and all of Florida–as an updated vis of community transmission for the very next day revealed. The shifting image of transmission rates suggested the lag in data that the state was providing the CDC, as well as the greater risk for variants the nation now faces as a whole. But the data vis, entered into the media cycle of the nation, threw many off ground, in its apparent objectivity. Perhaps that was the job of a press secretary: to distribute any image that provided cover for the Governor who had faced criticism for his handling of COVID-19 by fashioning a new media cycle.

These maps show the levels of COVID community transmission in Florida's counties on Nov. 30, when data for the state was missing from the CDC's portal, and Dec. 1 after the state's data was updated. (Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control)

So intertwined is travel with the identity and economy of the state, that it was no surprise that the Florida beaches already made it grounds for public health concerns, and the measures during Spring Break, 2021, gave rise to a spike of COVID cases from new variants. In Spring, 2020, infections in Florida had just begun as its beaches filled, and rose again in the summer; but this Spring seemed the textbook case of exactly “what a lot of public health folks have been afraid of.” Increased partying brought rates of infection of a magnitude six times greater, with up to five variants, in the second spike of infections in the state. The Governor came under fire for his resistance to mask-wearing, social distancing, and toleration of partly open restaurants and beaches, as the coronavirus literally ate into his popularity, and he became something of a “mini-Trump” as Trump’s popularity slid, and many questioned if his positions reflected political expediency and short-term gain, rather than Florida’s interest. But by May he was proclaiming “landmark legislation” banning “vaccine passports” in the state, boasting that the state had, unlike others “avoided protracted lockdowns and school closures in Florida because I have refused to take the same approach as other lockdown Governors,” boasting that the legislation forbade the danger of arbitrary school closures or shutterings, and that “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected.” A year after school closures rocked the nation, calling for a rededication of state funds to pay parents for home schooling on FOX, the economic nightmare of state over-reach replaced fears of infection.

Lindsey Burke: Coronavirus school closings should prompt states to pay  parents to educate kids in other ways | Fox News

March, 2020

DeSantis’ sense of himself as a savior grew in public statements and edicts denying any government overreach, his national ambitions were evident. Arguing that while many other states were just beginning to re-open, Florida was responsibly opening up. He cast the new COVID surge as but a summertime blip, as he embraced “freedom” as a choice of parents by keeping schools open, refusing policies of masking in public, and questioning the wisdom of masking or vaccines, even threatening to not pay county officials who enforce mask mandates, trusting the survival of FLorida’s tourism industry would consolidate his status. Governor DeSantis stood his ground as an ardent supporter of his anti-masking policies and a Trump legacy. He attracted admiration and interest of the communications professional, Christina Pushaw, whose admiration of how DeSantis stood up to “persuasive . . . false narratives” begun in the public press. Pushaw all but publicly identified herself as a new press secretary for the beleaguered governor, whose admiration of his public heath policies, landed her a job but helped to transform the press secretary to an alternative news source, to remap the risk of COVID-19 by a new public health narrative–a narrative that, until recently, had only lacked the right data maps to treat her office’s social media as a new news source.

A screen grab of a tweet written by Ron DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw.

The rise of infections in Florida echoed the first opening up Florida to tourism in early May, 2020 that continued through June. The recent promotion on social media of the low transmission rates in the state suggest difficulties in balancing a parallel calendar of tourism on which Florida has long relied to the accurate tally of community transmission–a tension that may go back, for Governor Ron DeSantis, to his office’s extended tussles with the GIS analyst at the Florida Dept. of Health who first constructed the dashboard of daily and cumulative infections in the state.

While the Governor had claimed that he would “follow the data” in his opening plans, there were deep concerns that the data was not transparent. When Pushaw wrote a set of attack pieces on the GIS analyst who felt that figures of infection rates were being manipulated, massaged or suppressed infection rates, DeSantis’ Lieutenant Governor promoted it as evidence of “one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.” DeSantis soon gained a new press secretary, who had essentially applied for the job by praising the skill with which the Florida governor had resisted public masking and vaccines, working to combat the “devastation caused by socialism . . . happening in our country,” and assailed the “big lie” about corruption that a GIS analyst had charged the state. The woman who had worked as an attache in Georgia for Mikheil Saakashvili, now working in Ukraine, might not be a common itinerary to Florida’s Governor’s office, but Pushaw wrote, “If there are any openings on the governor’s comms team, I would love to throw my hat in the ring.” Having assailed the GIS architect of the Dept. of Health COVID dashboard, she offered her services to Florida’s embattled governor to shift attention from COVID-19 infection rates.

After taking the post, Pushaw cultivated a broad social media presence by tweeting some 3,800 times in her first month on the job,–including one arguing watching one’s weight was more protection against COVID-19 than “a piece of cloth” or mask, and promoting the state’s organization for Florida residents of free “antibody infusion treatments” across the state.

Image
State-Run Monoclonal Clinics for COVID-19/@GovRonDeSantis, August 28, 2021

While the map of “state-run treatment sites” seemed to counter the data visualizations of local infection, it tried to set a counter-map to images of level infection or mortality. The notoriety of COVID-19 cases in Florida must have encouraged De Santis’ press secretary to retweet a CDC map dated November 25 that appeared to document low transmission rates in almost all state counties–offering evidence of the healthiness for Christmas visitors. Notwithstanding its Governor’s longstanding resistance to masking and infrequent masking in public spacearding one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.”. The map retweeted early morning on Thanksgiving Day a shout-out for shifting public perception of the state, as it paints the state as the being sole site of “low” community transmission in the nation, and followed the calls for more praise for DeSantis’ brave strategy of handling the pandemic, since Pushaw became press secretary, both from the Wall Street Journal (Media Ignore Florida COVID Recovery,” October 31, 2021) and Fox News, on which DeSantis echoed Pushaw’s points as he claimed poor media coverage in relation to COVID-19 “deadly” in mid-November, after a rough summer in which 60,000 deaths related to COVID-19 afflicted the state. In early November, One America News Network promoted a special report from this summer (“America’s Governor and Florida’s Grit”) about DeSantis’ guaranteeing of increasing access across Florida of “a life-saving COVID-19 drug” that reduced severe illness.

It was hardly surprising with such lead-up of an alternative narrative on Conservative news that Pushaw seemed to seek to boost the narratives that were launched in conservative media when she retweeted a new data map of COVID community transmission news on 6:30 a.m. Thanksgiving morning as if to target Christmas travel plans to be discussed at the harvest feast that rather highlighted the far lower transmission of COVID-19 relative to the rest of the country as fears of COVID variants multiplied nationwide. The map with national imprimatur showed a drop of community transmission levels in Florida alone, and seemed to offer some back-of-the-envelope evidence that the spikes of previous years in the southern states and in Florida had created local resistance to the coronavirus and its new variants.

The bifurcated image of the nation that showed Florida as, essentially, the sole site of low COVID transmission, would be sure to attract attention and conversation, political ethics be damned. Flying in the face of the longstanding resistance of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to curtail out-of-state tourism that encouraged him to keep the state open to travel, DeSantis’ new press secretary used the map to show Florida open for tourism, after having weathered three waves of spiking coronavirus infections. Perhaps the state’s poor planning for public health in the past by lifting guidances ofr mask mandates might, DeSantis ventured, create safety in the beaches of the Sunshine State in a winter of variants, as the ‘conservative’ media–Wall Street Journal and FOX–had hinted might be the case. DeSantis’ groundless claims of safety found somewhat predictable support from FOX commentators in sustaining “natural resistance” to COVID-19 from past exposure, a “natural” immunity better than vaccination, was a data-based strategy, although what sort of data they were using seemed unclear. (The CDC finds those who had recovered from COVID-19 but were not vaccinated were five times more likely to contract it again than the fully vaccinated.) The conflicts that DeSantis’ office seemed to manage between a state economy dependent on tourism and the calendar of increased community transmission suggests not only a lack of transparency, but a duplicity based on improvised off-the-cuff diagnoses of a dangerous disease.

The lack of COVID-19 transparency that had been a continuing issue in the state since 2020 had reared its ugly head again, and just in time for post-Thanksgiving Christmas planning. Indeed, the absence of transparency was particularly troubling as we increasingly depend on dashboards, tracing, and positivity rates in grappling with the virus and its ongoing mutations. As the self-declared attack dog of the GOP, Governor Ron DeSantis was by 2021 boosting the dubious concept of “natural immunity against COVID-19” as the forefront of a fight against mandating vaccines for large businesses, exempting from vaccination all recovered from Covid; with full vaccination rates in Florida about 60%, around the national average, Florida ranked twenty-first among states providing at least a single shot to residents. Those already vaccinated in Florida were mostly elderly–a demographic on which DeSantis had dutifully concentrated to provide the vaccine. But many residents in the state, liberated from mask-mandates, were partying, barhopping, hitting the beaches, as masking was unenforced at schools, kept open five days a week, or on cruises–DeSantis promised cruise ship companies that in Florida, they wouldn’t need “vaccine passports.” Bahamas Paradise Princess Cruise Company promised that “safety, fun, and vaccines” were all priorities as it docked in Palm Beach on June 25, having suspended per CDC regulations on March 14, 202, and the fireworks festivies cancelled the previous July 4 due to COVID restrictions were planned again, now with a Cuban reggaeton as a featured guest for the festivities, voluntary masking, as Florida as a state checked out from updating its COVID-19 dashboard, tracking updated cases and deaths across the state.

Governor DeSantis, amidst COVID spikes, emerged as a Trumpian cheerleader standing steadfast in against a “biomedical security state” as COVID infections spiked yet again: “Florida, we’re a free state–people are going to be free to chose to make their own decisions.”

Daily Cases of COVID-19 Reported in Florida by State and Local Health Agencies/New York Times

Days after DeSantis challenged Biden’s authority by declaring “We’re respecting people’s individual freedom in this state,” and banning businesses from adopting vaccine mandates–even though the state’s sizable elderly population was demonstrated to be at risk for co-morbidity.

At the same time, a DeSantis spokesperson and press secretary retweeted a rather striking map with CDC imprimatur made rounds on Twitter: the striking data visualization suggested that rates of community transmission plummeted in comparison to the lower forty-eight. While the image depended on the outdated data Florida provided the CDC, a symbolically powerful image as rising alarm about rising rates of transmission injected fear in holiday plans.

DeSantis’ energetic and telegenic press secretary, Christina Pushaw, whose Twitter profile shows her pushing her hair over her head with a smile as if seeking to embody Florida cool, seemed all but to channel a vacation advertisement in her retweet. In promoting the alleged decline in COVID-19 cases from it appeared that Florida had been granted a reprieve as folks were finalizing winter vacation plans in the face of worries about increased infection rates. Pushaw’s tweets had been flagged for vacuuming up right-wing media–a constituency to which she had belong–and had already been suspended once from Twitter in the past. But she retweeted a CDC data vis to promote the apparent decline in rates as evidence that the state provided the secure vacation spot to soak in sunshine this winter after a stressful year.

@ChristinaPushaw

The bright blue expansed that so conspicuously appeared to isolate the peninsula in a sea of high rates of community transmission of COVID cases appeared to promise Florida offered some sense of shelter from the storm. Yet in spite of all its apparent objectivity, the CDC data vis Pushaw tweeted out on social media didn’t really prove the assertion of Keesman Koury of the Florida Department of Health that low cases of community transmission the data vis registered reflected the “result of our innovative and strategic COVID-19 response that focuses on prevention and treatment,” as if that included no mask mandates or social distancing. As if providing evidence of how much the global pandemic was fed by local bad messaging and toxicity, Pushaw boasted of its safety as if promoting a healthy vacation site in the tradition of the State Tourist Board: “Florida still has the lowest case rate per 100,000 in the entire country and this continues to decrease,” as if the data vis provided cutting edge news, sufficient to rethink the state’s ham-handed response to preventing the virus’ spread.

The tweet amounted to outright disinformation–and showed sense of the media savvy of a National Interest journalist turned DeSantis spokesperson known for offensive and off-topic tweets of scurrilous content. Few out-of-staters may have known that she had been accused of stalking the Florida Dept. of Health geographer and data analyst Rebekah Jones, the geographer responsible for having publishing and curating data of COVID-19 infections daily tracking infections, hospitalizations, and deaths related to infection across the state–having built the COVID-19 dashboard to track cases and deaths. Jones had been terminated by Florida’s Department of Health for “extensive, unauthorized, communication” about the dashboard–where she was in charge of answering public questions–and unceremoniously fired May 18, 2020, after raising questions about changes in the publication of data and functionality from May 5, including the combination of tallies of total negative COVID tests and positives, perhaps to lower the calculation of COVID positivity on the dashboard she designed, and the re-tallying of deaths certified as due to coronavirus infections.

As the beaches of South Florida were readying to re-open, Jones, fearing the state fudged public health data irresponsibly, unethically adding negative tests in a false aggregate–even if conducted for the same person–to diminish the ranking of positivity, even as DeSantis proclaimed he was “following the data” in re-opening. Months earlier, Jones had created the dashboard and apologized for the lowering of mortality rates announced per Florida’s Dept. of Health, in the course of reclassifying many coronavirus-related deaths, as the Dept. and adding fewer deaths despite rising mortality rates in Florida to deaths verified as related to COVID-19. The state argued it would “continue to provide the most up-to-date information to arm Floridians with the tools and knowledge necessary to flatten the curve,” but seems to have shifted the nature of its total counts of deaths or indeed of positive cases of infection. But, unlike the state dashboard, Jones showed the density of confirmed COVID infections and the few Florida counties which, by her count, ready to reopen. 

1. The data aggregated on Jones’ alternative dashboard suggested that rather than the curve flattened, only two of sixty-seven counties in Florida met the state’s established criteria for re-opening. She complained Florida’s Dept. of Health had wanted her to delete the report card of infections per county, as it showed “that no counties, pretty much, were ready for reopening;” FDOH didn’t want that visible on the dashboard in ways that would “draw attention” to an inconvenient truth, she said in mid-June. (At the same time, the state had witheld data on deaths certifiably related to COVID-19 at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, unlike other states, to keep figures low.)

As the data guru in charge of publishing the data, Jones would be expected to be central to any public health work that was based on the data. But she alleged her refusal to lower the state’s positivity rating to allow it to meet its target for reopening led her to be dismissed: as the state became an epicenter for infection in March 2020, the state faced increasing pressure to meet goals to be “ready to open” for the summer.

Rebekah Jones in her office at the Florida Department of Health.
Rebekah Jones at Florida Dept. of Public Health/Photo Courtesy Rebekah Jones

Despite noting the “dramatic changes” on the data portal of concern back in May, 2020, Jones, whose dashboard had long been trusted as a source, seemed to feel it had swung beyond her control: she would only say in early May, “I helped them get it back running a few times but I have no knowledge about their plans, what data they are now restricting, what data will be added and when, or any of that.

The long familiar site which Florida residents had used to orient themselves to daily updates of county-by-county breakdowns of new and total positive cases of COVID infections, virulence, hospitalizations, and deaths had shifted,–about a month before infections would peak–

Woman who built Florida's COVID-19 dashboard removed from project | wtsp.com
April 22,2020

–and infections in the state broke previous records, adding nearly 9,000 new cases in a new daily record by June 22, 2020, before the arrival of the Delta variant.

New COVID-19 cases for Friday, June 26 - IMAGE VIA FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
Screengrab via Florida Dept of Health, for Friday, June 26 2020

The numbers of positive cases for state residents grew, as hospitalizations, during that very summer, when they ballooned, and multiple counties in the state grew deep blue.

SCREENGRAB VIA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

As if in response to what she contended was an unmerited ouster from Florida’s Dept. of Health for failing to fix datasets, Jones quickly founded her own alternative “rogue” informative COVID-19 dashboard, Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard.

2. While DeSantis had outlined, under the approving eyes of then President Trump, plans to re-open the state by placing “public health-driven data at the forefront” along fixed “benchmarks,” his data guru insisted her refusal to be part of promoting “misleading and politically driven narrative that ignored the data;” she constructed an alternative dashboard showing only one of the sixty-seven counties in the state revealed sufficiently low positivity to warrant reopening or easing restrictions on social distancing. The exclusion of positive antibody tests on the Dept. Health website was clarified on the new site, which aimed to be far updated daily and far more user-friendly when it appeared in June, 2020, and tracked the rise of positive cases that summer, adding increasing features of legibility and of tracking change over time.

Florida's Coronavirus Dashboards
Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard, June 2020

The new site foregrounded total “COVID Positive People” detected in both PCR and Antigen tests in running tallies, listing new positives from the previous day, running counts of recoveries, and available hospital beds beside a county-by-county breakdown, the dashboard offered a far more synthetic fine-grained map of the COVID-19 ground-game of public health to grow public trust. The rival dashboard that debuted in mid-June aimed to show accurate geodata of “what’s going on in a straightforward, nonpolitical way,” FloridaCOVIDAction.com synthesized publicly available open data, mined from state reports but not reported straightforwardly on state-run websites.

As it became clear that the data for which Jones and a group of epidemiologists had been never incorporated in DeSantis’ vaunted plans to rely on the data in plans for re-opening the state; reopening brought a five-fold surge in COVID infections by mid-July. The expansion surpassed the rate and number of Covid-19 infections than any other state in the pandemic, breaking records for the highest number reported in a single day–15,300–or in New York in early April, during the worst outbreak in the city. The wave, which might well have been prevented, strained hospital and treatment by antivirals. It called into question the logic of DeSantis’ reopening plans, or how much he had relied as promised on health-driven data, but a blind adherence to the sense of “best practices” that could allow the economy to be open, beaches and restaurants stay open with adequate distancing, and schools not be closed–meeting short term demands and needs for the summer economy, but sewing skepticism.

April 23, 2020/Drew Angerer

The state in fact seemed to lack even sufficient testing to measure the scale of the outbreak, even as he reopened the state at a far faster clip than New York or California, re-opening all gyms, bars, indoor dining at restaurants, schools, pools and salons and ending stay-at-home orders but a month after they went into effect, to welcome tourists to the state from Memorial Day, increasing the risks to the state’s older residents greatly, before closing the bars in late June. By November, after an other rise in COVID cases ran through the state, Jones’ public message to the Florida Dept. of Public Health to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead” as the dashboard stood at 17,460 COVID-related deaths in the state, law enforcement served a search warrant at Jones’ home, guns drawn, seize the laptops from which the former GIS manager of the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection ran the alt dashboard–“all my hardware and tech”–seven months after her firing from the Dept. of Public Health.

The dashboard of rising COVID infections released on an ArcGIS platforms was a bombshell that placed her in the public eye–and was regularly updated. The alternative website seems to have led to her attack as a discontent “rogue” rather than a whistleblower in the national news. Its release lead to subsequent national media slamming of Jones in conservative media as a serial social media abuser, as outlets tagged the former public health official as a “super-spreader of COVID-19 disinformation,” to defuse her own charges of community transmission. Jones was charged of being guilty of having openly invented lies “about Ron DeSantis’ Press Secretary” using social media to pedal pandemic falsehoods. @GeoRebekah temporarily de-platformed on Twitter, Pushaw crowed that her suspension revealed Jones’ untrustworthiness and abuse of the medium, calling it “long overdue.” No doubt infuriated and flustered by DeSantis’ own consistently relax and dangerously reckless policies on keeping schools open and removing COVID protection policies, Pushaw must have been not only frustrated, but a target of DeSantis’ ire.

Pushaw went further by attacking the GIS systems manager as nothing less than “the Typhoid Mary of COVID-19 disinformation,” echoing the bombast of the DeSantis regime. DeSantis and his office dutifully applauded Jones’ temporary suspension as evidence for her duplicity, as guilty of “defamatory” statements and a “COVID super-spreader,” happy to see her public profile reduced. Comparing the systems manager to an Irish-born cook whose asymptomatic infection spread to her employers what was known as Salmonella oddly served to demonize her as an immigrant carrier of disease, echoing Trump’s obsession with “foreign” origins of COVID-19; it shifted attention from dangerous mortality levels in the state, and gestured to an era when the pathogenic transmission of salmonella was not understood, more than inadequate responses of the Governor’s office to three waves of COVID-19 in the state. A leader who had and would repeatedly cultivate “strongman tactics” in a dangerous time, as Ruth Ben Ghiat recently noted as this blog was first written, DeSantis performed a version and vision of leadership that seemed to establish himself as an autocratic leader of Florida, with a proposed a new Florida State Guard to assist the National Guard in public emergencies, that he would oversee as a state militia, that could act “not encumbered by the federal government” or federal regulations, from federal masking policy to vaccination mandates, and banned vaccine mandates or masking in public as unsafe and unscientific.

DeSantis chose another official to be an attack dog to step up vaccine disinformation. The campaign of disinfomation continued DeSantis had appointed a surrogate “State Surgeon General” who stood beside vaccine skeptics who encouraged misinformation from claiming the vaccine altered your genetic RNA to a lack of scientific consensus in its value. Surgeon General Ladopo spread dangerous COVID denialism, instructing the public “to stick with their intuition and their sensibilities,” demeaning the public health value of the vaccine a misguided “religion” and emphasizing the monoclonal antibodies treatments DeSantis has vigorously promoted in the place of vaccines–and indeed as an alternative public health policy. In so doing, he mimicking the public health maps like Alabama’s “COVID-19 Dashboard Map” that foregrounded Monoclonal Antibody Therapy (mAb) therapy as a counterpart to Vaccine Distribution in an ESRI Story Map; Alabama’s Dept. of Health boasted a 60-70% success rate at “preventing high-risk patients” from being hospitalized–a strategy of off-loading any public health care policy or plan.

Monoclonal antibody therapy
Alabama COVID-19 Dashboard;Non-Hospital Providers of Monoclonal Antibody Therapy

If we are approaching a time in the history of COVID-19 when our fears of catching the disease may soon be replaced by an acceptance that we may become infected, and will manage that infection, the hope to navigate infections that would be more severe among the unvaccinated populations suggest a tinderbox that will require an armed guard of the sort DeSantis has imagined as running when he announced in Pensacola his plans for a military unit with uniforms tagged “FLORIDA” rather than “U.S. ARMY” from a podium bearing the sign “Let Us Alone” that echoed the “Don’t Tread on Florida” sign displayed at a special October session of the state legislature to counter federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The curious unveiling of a “civilian volunteer force that will have the ability to assist the national guard in state-specific emergencies” seemed design either in case of another surge, or to support DeSantis’ distinctive public health policies. The banner “Let US Alone” first displayed in the 1841 inauguration of Florida’s first Governor, William Moseley, was a cause for celebrating the independent health policies in the state, which had by then reached the third-highest number of infections in the nation–3,730,395.–and the third-highest number of deaths, 52,647.

The image shard of a combative alligator defending its territoriality, Florida’s own Gadsden flag was unveiled at a press conference speaking out against vaccine as the new logo of the state: the alligator with gaping jaws, ready to attack or defend its ground, was tweeted out on October 21, 2021 by @GovRonDeSantis as a sign of resilience and power in the face of the fear of rising rates of infection and hospitalization, and is now available at PatriotFlags. The image of defending a swamp fit DeSantis’ promotion the ports of the Sunshine state as the logjams in ports on the east coast and west coast created problems for transportation hubs in California, Washington state, and New York. “We’re also seeing increased costs, inflation, and higher food prices,” he added. “We in Florida,” DeSantis showcased the pro-business benefits of his health politics with the confidence of a newly minted executive, “have the ability to help alleviate these logjams and help to ease the problems with the supply chain.” In Florida, unlike Biden’s America, DeSantis proclaimed as a rallying call, “At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be discriminated against based on your health decisions.” 

DON'T TREAD ON FLORIDA': Ron DeSantis Promotes 'Pro-Freedom' Flag | Sean  Hannity

Gadsden flag - Wikipedia
Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden Flag, beloved by separatists–and displayed at the door of a neighbor of mine in Berkeley with the slightly menacing words “Don’t know what it is? Look it up!”–has of course become a treasured emblem of the right, and Patriot groups, as well as militias, and was flown on the U.S. Capitol briefly on the morning of January 6, 2021.

3. Pushaw and Jones had a long history of entanglement. The ways that their fraught relations determined the battles over the local messaging on the pandemic remind us of how its global spread was brewed in the toxic channels of local miscommunications about public health. Governor DeSantis had only hired Pushaw as a press secretary, per WaPo, after realizing public messaging on COVID-19 crucial to his public image. The Florida Governor seems to have been especially keen on Pushaw’s exposé of Jones’ “big lie” about DeSantis’ reticence in releasing total counts of positives, long before he restricted state dashboards to weekly updates of limited information by June, 2021, as total cases of infection surpassed 1,7783,720, creating a crisis in calm as the state faced a second spike. By then, Florida ceased reporting deaths or infections daily to the CDC, making them hard to tally with regularity, and shifted the format to weekly tallies of vaccination and infections, as the “surveillance dashboard” radioed staying away from the beaches around Daytona Beach or from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach, even as new cases seemed to decline, and hospitalizations grew, as the daily tabulations of resident deaths and COVID positive suddenly ceased.

COVID dashboard 020821
June 4, 2021

The articles Pushaw had written attacking Jones’s whistleblower status may have encouraged a long-running conflict that led her to be charged with “computer crimes”; Jones’ charged the press secretary with having stalked the GSI analyst obsessively and aggressively, slurring her reputation after she was fired, allegedly for insubordination for refusing to undercount infections and magnify the number of people tested. The vindictive attacks on the data analyst obscured the problems of reduced clarity of replacing the daily updates on which viewers had relied with weekly tallies.

Florida Covid-19 Dashboard and Surveillance Dashboard
Florida's Rising COVID-19 Numbers: What Do They Mean? : Coronavirus Updates  : NPR
June 24, 2020/Florida Dept. of Health Public Dashboard

The Surveillance Dashboard offered a comprehensive running count and cumulative tally that Jones was charged with having crashed before her dismissal from the Dept. of Health, six months before the police entered her house in December, 2020, weapons drawn, to seize her computers as the novel coronavirus was spreading widely across the state.

Despite the value of allowing state residents to orient themselves to the spread of COVID-19, Jones disturbingly suggested the state was playing fast and loose by manipulating data of infection rates by slimming counts of positives by omitting almost 10,000 antibody tests from its tally. Yet by June 22, 2020, twice broke records for single-day infections in a week: the state dashboard of daily data announced a new record of nearly 8,000 infections and 13.5% positivity rate–a critical number just over the early baseline for re-opening of 10% positivity–even if the WHO baseline for reopening was set in May, 2020, in preparation for summer, at 5% or lower for two weeks. Playing fast and loose with time-stamped data in troubling ways, DeSantis assured the public in mid-June as positivity grew that journalists should realize the past was more important than the present in his allegedly data-driven response, rather than the policies he had adopted: “the main thing is just for folks to look, in May, if you remember end of April, May all the way through, you know coronavirus was relatively quiet in Florida. You had manageable cases. Our positivity rate was 4 or 5 percent consistently.

Only in late June, 2020, was a Public Health Advisory issued that back-tracked on Governor DeSantis’ longstanding objections to preventive measures like public mask-wearing, social distancing, and caution. In fact, some 20 million cloth masks distributed statewide that “all individuals in Florida should wear . . . in any setting where social distancing is not possible” and social interactions limited for all over age sixty-five. The cautionary tone was not alarmist, keeping bars and restaurants open in the sixty-four counties it defined as in “Phase 2,” and allowing all retail businesses and gyms to operate at full capacity, entrusting their clientele to practice social distancing from one another, as part of a “plan on public recovery.

Coronavirus Rising in Florida, Arizona, California and Texas: What We Know  - The New York Times
June 24, 2020

Yet the Governor, in his wisdom and care for his pubic perception , issued an Executive Order Affirming Freedom to Choose emulating the then-President, by June 2021, after school boards considered adopting mask-wearing mandates for their students, as a part of schools being “open for instruction” since the summer of 2020, noting how “masking may lead to negative health” and the CDC “guidance . . . lacks a well-grounded scientific justification.”

By August, as the weekly counts of new infections surpassed 110,000, according to CDC data the most in any state of the country, Floridians missed getting daily updates on the counts of infections per county. The old regularly updated dashboard has became a focus of public attention in what seemed a laboratory case of an unfolding public health disaster–DeSantis had phased out county-by-county daily breakdowns as he issue weekly tallies, having argued that the state had rounded the bend, and removed the regular daily updating of dashboards on which Floridians had long relied on to orient themselves. Age breakdowns and a geographic distribution by county–features of the old dashboard–were no longer available, even as schools were reopening, parents deciding on vaccination and masking, and public trust frayed.

June 22, 2020, via Florida Dept. of Health (screengrab)

Since the escalating records of early summer cases in 2020, the state dashboard had provided a familiar breakdown of infections, offering real time information based on age in a county-by-county breakdown that all of a sudden wasn’t there as a guidepost for local decision at a critical time, once it had been removed.

More crucially to this post, the constraints over how much information of COVID transmission was publicized–and how accurately it was compiled–suggested that DeSantis’ office commitment to ensuring the calendar on which the state’s economy for tourism depended had displaced the monitoring of a calendar for community transmission. By June, 2020, the Florida Dept. of Health substituted weekly COVID tallies in place of the daily breakdown and count that Jones had worked, explaining that the state wanted to streamline information and reported daily case data to the CDC. The new weekly dashboard failed to orient users to a geographic distribution of COVID-19 or what counties infections had occurred, so prominent in the old dashboard; it provided little data that could be drilled down into, by abandoning a county-by-county distribution and dropping the stark visualization of state counties as a “third wave” of COIVID-19 infections hit in 2021, and DeSantis mused that the county-by-county breakdown might be useful to some.

July-August “Third Wave” of COVID-19 infections in 2021 in Florida/New York TImes

DeSantis proclaimed the state had turned the bend. But as Florida led the country in newly confirmed cases in early August, 2021, folks wondered why the daily dashboard of old was no longer readily available as a tool of visualization, worrying that the daily updates were pulled by the Governor’s office prematurely in June, as the pandemic led to more hospitalizations in the state than ever before, but the Governor’s office, rather than offering public health data to state residents, asked for patience “in returning to normalcy”–even after twenty-four days with over 1,000 new cases discovered daily. And in tweeting a map of low transmission rates in the post-Thanksgiving days, claiming COVID cases had begun to “bottom out in Florida,” while they started to peak nationwide, Pushaw seemed to seek to clean up Florida’s public image, by directing attention on social media to an alternative reality that may have benefitted a map that rendered rates of community transmission taken, albeit a map that had benefitted from the new timeline at which Florida was releasing data to the CDC. Indeed, the release of figures of community transmission at different times from the country seemed to offer evidence of how clear-headed policies had kept local transmission rates low, even if the data ws comparing apples and oranges.

The tweet seemed to seek to erase memory of those dashboards of the recent past, that might well have kept tourists away from Florida, due to high positivity rates. The apparently credible picture showing low risks of viral transmission statewide was a retrospective reprieve of sorts for the inexcusably poor public health policies of the past. Although the CDC had updated data on community transmission for the nation, the state received a rather convenient break: for local data had ceased to be updated with much regularity for Florida, compared to the rest of the union, rendering its counties an almost continuous bright blue. Pushaw’s early a.m. tweet was the perfect graphic for her smiling Twitter profile, which recalled the vacation ads of old that promoted the salubrity of the state’s sunny beaches.

The imaginary fault-line that seemed to isolate the panhandle and peninsula as a sight of purity and safety was itself a creation of the lag in the reporting of state data, rather than reflecting a break in community virulence or the “bottoming out” of COVID cases. But the implication that Florida had suddenly become an area of low community transmission reflected cherry-picked data crafting a false comparison between apples and oranges, so to speak, since the state’s data had stopped updating as the rest of the country suffered from rising rates of COVID-19. Was the absence of inclusion of available data on the national COVID data tracker a mistake, or a convenient untruth of deeply unethical nature?

The maps of cases, infection levels, and fatalities, had been if only six states have mask-wearing mandates for the vaccinated and unvaccinated, whereas in 2020, forty-three states had adopted them, the low levels of transmission seemed to promote an image of azure seas across the peninsula that was oddly akin to the images promoting the Vacation Land U.S.A state from the mid-1950s, presided by a beneficent smiling sun, whose rays boded health for all–where the sun was able to be drunk to good health daily in the state’s unofficial elixir, fresh orange juice. Concerns about the continued popularity of winter beach destinations during the rise of the new Omicron variant may have been leading many to rethink their vacations, but the data vis was dropped at a strategic time to plug the beaches’ open space as a space for rejuvenation, a ready get-away for those seeking escape from COVID stress.

“Come on Down to Fabulous Florida,”
State of Florida Tourism advertisement placed in National Geographic, 1952

The couple romping through the surf promised escape in a “lovely peninsula, with its 30,000 lakes and 1,400 miles of mainland coastlines, which is continuously cooled by refreshing [ocean] breezes” is removed from the fears of coastal erosion that recently reared its heads in the collapse of the Seaside FL towers. But the coast beckoned as a site of sociability, for many who had been spooked by the rise of COVID-19, the beach offered an image of health in ways that rehabilitated the classic cinematic myth of the sunshine state of ocean fun.

The past imaginary was one of all carefree abandon, promising a year-round vacationland, outside of the normal flow of time or the seasonal change–as the 1954 advertisement put it, “WARM in Winter–COOL in Summer!“–that would produce “a fabulous state of well-being.”

1954 State Travel Advertisement, “Fabulous Florida . . . WARM in Winter-COOL in Summer!

The “extra special” nature of Florida as “one of the world’s greatest concentrations of fun facilities” was tied to its beaches, but stretched “border to border,” mapping a vacationland free from worry. Was Republicans’ not readiness of to nix the federal budget over mask mandates, and resist previous mandates on vaccination that would buck the federal advisory that folks “resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing” in areas of high or significant transmission risks, mandates for the unvaccinated only existed in reliably “blue” states–California, Connecticut, and New York–where they did not face legislative pushback, and the mask mandate for all only applied to those island territories with uncertain public health infrastructure–Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands–where an outbreak could be devastating, and where Democrats acknowledged the public costs as critical, from Hawaii to New Mexico to Nevada to Illinois, where the COVID scare remained fresh in memory.

Florida was long an outlier of mask-wearing, especially on its beaches, per this classic Mapbox data visualization of the likelihood of meeting masked friends in public from mid-July 2021, that reflected the split sort of realities with which the nation had been confronting COVIDThe rarity of spotting mask-wearing in midsummer 2021 was super spotty in the Sunshine State, especially on its beaches, in a state seemingly torn by parallel realities.

Wat is the Likelihood of Encountering Groups of Five People Following Mask-Wearing Mandate in the United States? New York Times/July 17 2020

The stark local divisions of adopting masks in public space won world-wide attention early in the pandemic. No masking regulations on beachfronts were a sort of albatross for the state governor DeSantis, famous for issuing a forceful Executive Order later in the month, resisting school boards trumpeted the absence of “well-grounded scientific justification” that mask-wearing reduced transmission and finding an absence of sufficient evidence masking could reduce community transmission in the state schools, had openly run against national opinion and allowed “all all parents have the right to make health care decisions for their minor children” affirmed patients’ “rights under Florida law” and vowed to protect all Floridians’ constitutional freedoms. By the time that the new CDC visualization dropped, anxiety was growing the rebound of COVID-19 both in Delta and omicron variants would kill the tourism industry for Christmas Vacation 2021, and DeSantis’ spokesperson must have been primed.

The flimsily persuasive nature of the cherry-picked data of the data vis can be handily spot checked on the CDC website itself, by stepping back just one day for a better view of the risk levels of putting caution aside and heading to the beach. For the lag of a few days of renewing data reminds us of how important the daily release of accurate data is, and how easily it can skew a national image of community transmission that seems to provide a “snapshot” of national levels. Florida’s rates of infection didn’t remain an island from the nation, so much as a lag in reporting failed to show comparable rates of infection to the rest of the nation. The differences were not so pronounced: indeed, the previous day–November 24–mapped the state as being a site of moderate and substantial transmission that could not have suddenly shifted in but one day, so much as the new visualization fit the “narrative” about DeSantis and COVID-19, more than the situation that Floridians experienced on the ground.

And flipping back just a few days previous, the stark divides of low rates of transmission and the substantial to high rates in other states offered little grounds for off the cuff collective diagnoses of the greater hardiness that exposure to COVID due no mask mandates offered a benefit to the state’s population, or might in fact be considered a viable public health policy: a month earlier, transmission seems roughly equivalent on the Florida or Texas coast, and relied on uniform assessment and tallies–but we may have reason to suspect Florida of undercounting to keep its numbers low.

The lay of the land was basically not at all that clear-cut. One can only hope that few made travel plans after seeing that bright blue peninsula on social media: a better bet, it seems, would be Puerto Rico, if the mask-wearing mandate could be tolerated by visitors. In fact, the very areas that visitors might be hoping to travel–from Daytona Beach to Cocoa Beach, or the area around Miami and South Beach, down near the peninsula’s tip–suggested areas of substantial and even high risk, save for the area lying in the Everglades.

Community Transmission by County in the United States, November 26-December 3,
CDC Covid-19 Data Tracker by County

Indeed, a Moderate Risk seemed the fate of much of the state, if the tracker were looked at with regularly updated data sets. And this is relying on the numbers that the Department of Health provided–numbers that might be well scrutinized, given the complaints their former data guru had raised. All said and done, the “narrative” was not one of the power of a Governor to imagine his ability to purge COVID infections from the state, so much as a burst of virulence that demanded to be mapped and tracked in better detail.

CDC COVID-19 Data Tracker, November 26-December 2 2021

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Filed under COVID-19, data visualizations, Florida, public health, social media

Blurred Boundaries and Indigenous Lands

Geodesy has long increased the number of claims by extractive industries through remote sensing, and especially over indigenous lands. Yet crowd-sourced tools of geolocation have also enabled a range of counter-maps of indigenous native land claims that have pushed back on how industries that have increased access to the resources buried beneath the very lands to which indigenous groups have ancestral claims. Indeed, inovative webmaps like NativeLands.com provide not only a new standard for cartographic literary, but offer an ethical redress of the lost of lands indigenous have roundly suffered from the uninvited Anglo settlers of North America. For although the maps of Anglo settlers–attracted by the shifting global markets for goods, from cotton, to gold, to petroleum, all claimed without consent from their longtime inhabitants–erased or omitted local claims to land by those seen as nomadic, and of an earlier historical developmental stage, with a cutting logic of relegating their very presence to the past, the reframing of collective memories to inhabiting lands and regions offers a plastic and particularly valuable cartographic resource for remediating the future.

Although lack of fixed boundaries on native lands have long provided an excuse to stake claims that exclude inhabitants who are seen as nomadic, or not settled in one place, and laying claim or title to it, and “without maps,” the blurred boundaries of NativeLands re-places longtime residents on the map, wrestling with the long-term absence of indigenous on the map. There is a sense, in the crowd-sourced optimism that recalls the early days of OpenStreetMap and HOT OSM, of the rewriting of maps and the opening of often erased land claims that crashed like so many ruins that accumulate like a catastrophe as wreckage that has piled at the feat of an Angel of History who is violently propelled by the winds to the future, so she is unable to ever make the multiple claims and counter-claims in the wreckage at her feet whole, and the pile of ruins constituted our sense of the progress of the present, even as it grows toward the sky.

Yet the very cartographic tools that facilitate international petrochemical corporations to target lands valued for mineral production with unprecedented precision have helped to stake a claims for the land’s value that undercut local claims to sovereignty, never staked earlier so clearly. It is as if, within the specters of extractive industries’ deep desire to possess the targeted energy reserves, and at the end of a history of dispossession and destruction, the indigenous that were systematically killed and removed from their lands over the nineteenth century, at whose close 90-99% were killed, in a massive and unprecedented theft of land, forcing them from migratory habits to receive religious instruction and live on bound lands to which they were confined. (In Canada, where NativeLands was first based, such displacement began from the clearing herds of bison herds from Prairies to begin construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the principle commercial artery to the West, that had by 1869 shifted indigenous resources to rations that rarely arrived, to be replaced by cattle on lands settled by European famrers and style of agriculture. As Plenty Coups, facing the extinction of a way of life on Crow lands, as their nation was abolished, “when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift hem up again: after this, nothing happened.”

Time stopped because the imposition of new modes of agrarian regime recast native lands as terra nullius to be settled by Anglo and European farmers, a surrender of land title from 1871-1921 that nullified local land claims. The cartographer and framer of the U.S. Census, newly appointed to what would be the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Francis Amasa Walker conducted the first review of 300,000 Native American in the United States of 1874, trying to sort out the theft of land over four hundred treaties. Walker’s agency was not clear, but if he bemoaned theft of ancestral lands fertile and rich with game, confined in land that could not support them and dependent on rations, there is some sort of redress in how the NativeLands maps invites us to retrace the sessions of lands that undermined these tribal claims, and erased these nations, not deemed fit to have place or stake belonging in American made maps that Walker helped to codify, placing the loss of land that Plenty Coups did so much to try to protect and retain, against all odds, in making trips to Washington DC to allow Crow claims to survive in this new White Man’s world. Even if the claims that he preserved were less than they ahd been originally allotted–just 80%–he forestalled desires to claim land for gold prospecting and mineral extraction that are effectively on the cutting block once again today.

By 1892, the Territories of the five civilized “Indian” tribes, west of the Mississippi, confined in fixed frontiers after the forced migration in a process of Indian Removal of indigenous east of the Mississippi, later forced to resettle in the early 1820s into the area adjoining modern Oklahoma, where indigenous already lived, renamed “Indian Territory” but within newly fixed bounds. What was a rich area of hunting and without permanent settlement was long understood as their own lands, but were absent from maps until the relocation of “civilized tribes” into the boundaries of Indian Territory, imposing a new notion of territoriality on Indian Lands that delegitimized nomadic presence in earlier native lands–tribes whose presence was “civilized” as they had gained governments and legal traditions modeled on America.

Map of the Indian and Oklahoma Territories (1893)/Library of Congress

While we see these maps as pinpointing mineral claims with precision that might allow extraction of underground reserves, it would be better to learn to regard the map of claims as akin to an ecological haunting of North America, disrupting not only settled modern treaties with indigenous peoples in Canada, but disrupting the longstanding claims of historical inhabitation of lands by those who long conserved them, a conflict of two geographies that, globally, is steaming to a head in the twentieth century, as global claims risk obscuring the local claims of the custody and preservation of historic claims: an entanglement of overturned treaties, renegotiated sites of mining and mineral extraction, and actively negotiated land claims, the map is not a record of spatial knowledge, but also something of a historically determined palimpsest, if urgency of locating energy reserves for collective good risk flattening the rich historical record in the search for petrodollars–the dominant global currency of the day to which ancestral lands are compelled to accommodate.

This post seeks to address ongoing questions of land use decisions that are of increasing importance in an era of shifting ecological niches and ecosystems by pollution. While the lines of indigenous territory were long discounted and seen as less easily translated into terms of territoriality–the roaming or spatial dispersion of households of indigenous bands over a vast area were seen as not having a fixed perimeter, or a “map-like representation” of territory and a communitarian notion of land-use–whose “use” of a territory was foreign to concepts of a nation, or able to be compared to the bounded territoriality settler communities understood their own worlds., or territorial demarcations and partitioning, and foreign to “true land ownership”–their maps did not indicate lines of property ownership.

Before such a map of the recent land claims that seem to grasp smattered mineral deposits for extractive possibilities, it seems counterintuitive that the modern tools of geolocation have provided a new basis to affirm indigenous claims to the land–as if the two maps are departing from one another, red splotches revalued and excised from established treaties.

Mineral Claims in Land Claims Currently under Negotiation in Canada

The abrogation of treaties is nothing new to the history of indigenous claims from the nineteenth century to ancestral lands, but the heightening of debates in recent years accompanies the expanded scale of destruction of mining and the logic of geolocation of mineral deposits from remote sensing, leading to a growing number of claims removed from treaties that were intended to preserve a site–see the range of claims eagerly made on land in Bears Ears!–in a mad scramble to unlock mineral resources buried under the land.

But if the patchwork of red dots denoting mineral claims seem located with a terrible certainty in historical and modern settled treatises, tools of mapping have opened indigenous perspective on land claims as a form of private property and ancestral lands that descend from the Enlightenment defense of how states secure private property rights John Locke most clearly articulated as the right taking into possession of the lands of indigenous who had failed to cultivate or farm lands, or, in modern terms, extract their resources. While Locke developed ideas of property while working for the Secretary for the Royal Council on Trade and Plantations in the Carolinas, eager to settle areas of “New World” to benefit Atlantic trade, crafting a constitution for the Carolinas, based on the cultivation of those lands that indigenous “failed” to cultivate, the export of the current underground resources lying in land claims currently being renegotiated is based on a terrifyingly similar logic.

It is in the context of the proliferation of mineral claims that the creation of new online maps of ancestral lands have been developed, as a counter-mapping of land claims that have long been insufficiently preserved in treaties or recognized. They seek to pose questions of the long unresolved questions of possessions, raising deep ethical questions of the limits of ownership, and artfully articulate the need to formulate forms of acknowledgment of the expropriation of indigenous rights. The collective nature of the crowd-sourced response to the erosion fixed lines of property long posed to indigenous lands, forested or unploughed, offers a provocative cartographic riposte to the toxic multiplication of claims of mineral resources that upset modern treaties, swept aside with historical treaties that seem to fall as if at the feet of the Angel of History, blown backwards by time, as if so many ruins of the past.

As we try to calculate the depth of historical obligations of nations to native peoples and indigenous land claims, the crisis of extraction may provide more than healthy starting point. While the probability of gas reserves may be more difficult to pinpoint above the Arctic Circle, as exploratory studies are less rarely authorized, and since their discovery in 2008 were newly classified as “potentially recoverable”–although as arctic ice sheets melt, that story is potentially beginning to change: but if the chromatic variation in geolocated gas reserves north of the Arctic Circle seem suitably drained of color, the apparent absence of any land claims on the map seems almost strategic. Is the absence of any indication of ancestral lands in the circumpolar stereographic projection not privileging advantageous opportunities for oil extraction, rather than recognizing longstanding land rights, or sites of residence?

Land Claims for Mineral Reserves (Red); Federally Recognized Indigenous Possessions (Black); Historical and Modern Treaties (Green and Tan Overlays)

Yet the naming of the land, or its recoloration by the likelihood of extracting mineral profit, irrespective of the environment, is a dramatic remapping of value in the land, in ways not seen by its inhabitants, and a triangulation of human relations to the land, and the demand for oil, as much as a reorientation of objective record of geographic space.

Maps presented something like vestiges of the indigenous past of places past–“Ye say that they all have pass’d away/That noble race and brave;/That their light canoes have vanish’d,/From off the crested wave/ . . .But their name is on your water,/Ye may not wash it out,” wrote Lydia Sigourney in Indian Names; Whitman described “the strange charm of aboriginal names” that “all fit” the places, rivers, coasts and islands that they describe as adequately as onomatopoeia–“Mississippi!-the word winds with chutes–it rolls a stream three thousand miles long,” yet most names of “Indian” origin, if avoided by early settlers, to be absorbed y American tongues as they grew emptied of indigenous title. Yet the removal or blanching of indigenous geographies suggests a new relation to extracted spaces, under the ground, unanimated and sensed, remotely, for a commodity value cast as objective in its blueness, as if to convert space to a calculus of market values that exists less objectively than as a grounds for its extraction and universal needs of energy consumption, as if the probability of access to products provides the universal index of meaning indicated by shades of blue.

This relation to space, if akin to John Locke’s classic description of the value of cultivated and enclosed land that Anglo settlers are able to create in “America”, gaining value by cultivation that they would otherwise lack among indigenous, is a classic move of appropriation by means of revaluation, stated as so self-evident that it seems not an act of revaluation, but recognition of opening the “fruited soil” or “petroleum reserves” to global markets–whether markets of a global Atlantic trade for sugar, cotton, and that reveal their intrinsic value in ways not apparent to their previous occupants, by a re-designation that will elevate the land’s value of lands as the demand and need for products washes over them, to benefit “all” mankind.

A similar logic haunted how Henry David Thoreau described the benefits of displacing indigenous inhabitants, in 1861, as a historical logic that might be found in the land. For Thoreau transitioned from how “the civilized nations–Greece, Rome, England–have been sustained by the primitive forests, which anciently rooted where they stand” reasoning that it was evident that such nations “survive as long as the soil is not exhausted,” and as nations are “compelled to make manure of the bones of its fathers,” prevailing wisdom agrees “It is said to be the task of the American ‘to work the virgin soil,’ and that ‘agriculture here already assumes proportions unknown everywhere else” in its exorbitant wealth.

The American story is a dialectic process of agricultural transformation of landscape by which “the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural” as fields were transformed by plough, hoe, and spade. And while we often see these claims as “modern” in their reliance of using maps to claim lands for a global energy market–if it is only the latest commodity to secure unchallenged status as a public good of global consensus. The reservations on which most indigenous were confined as deemed less valuable or desired land, in a process of geographic displacement and forced migration that began after the Gold Rush in California but could be traced to the arrival of planters in the southeast coast of the colonies, but was suddenly creating a run on property claims in the Sierra foothills to which the world’s eyes seemed to turn, as emigration to the Gold Country set a new standard for mapping the global ties to the Gold Country long before the accurate geodetic determination for extracting a universally acknowledge good.

Important Directions to Persons Emigrating to California

The periplus-like legend that was paired with the composite hemispheric and regional map of Upper or New California offered guides for enterprising travelers to set eyes on the newly mapped western state, the accompanying legend acknowledging the lodestone, as “gold mines of California . . . known to have existed in the sixteenth century, for as early as 1578, about the time Sir Francis Drake made voyage to the coast,” Jesuits had gained possession of “certain tracts which they knew of more than ordinary value,” whose value they depreciated by false reports: but now the map delivered this valuable insider knowledge that never commanded attention of the Spanish court, but was now safely in the hands of whoever owned the map to allow global emigration to the “fertile and picturesque dependent country, [distinguished by the] mildness and salubrity of its climate” that is with a “latitudinal position that of Lisbon” whose global geographic position makes it one of the most desirable “point of commerce, in this or any continent,. . . destined to be one of the greatest disbursing depots in the world.”

The global circulation of goods were spectacularly invoked to displace native land claims in wyas that didn’t even require geodesists, as a spectacular conjuncture of capital displacing land claims. For the 1879 mapping of global routes to the Gold country, the year that the coutnry adopted the Gold standard, oriented audiences ready to get rich quick the necessary “important directions” for orienting themselves to claims in the Gold Country of California–the same years at which “Indian” reservations were effectively marginalized outside the state, when Francis Amasa Walker remapped the western states to cast white populations in mauve apart from the indigenous hunting grounds or reservations set off in bright orange in official maps drafted as Commissioner for Indian Affairs, modeled on the maps on rainfall and natural resources he had compiled for inclusion within the decennial U.S. Census of 1870.

from Francis Amasa Walker, The Indian Question” (1874)

If these rigorusly bound reservations and hunting grounds followed clear lines of jurisdiction determined by latitude and longitude, preserving many of the tribal names situated in a clearly demarcated “Indian Territory,” the surveyed bounds confirmed a broad displacement of indigenous across western states.

The map placed the Gold Country in national if not global visibility, before GPS, or geodesy, centered on placing the valued commodity of the day in easy reach. The topically colored region–tinted in ways that hinted the riches bound to be seen underground–was suddenly in access of all, advertised as able to be reached by boat via Panama or Cape Horn or the midwest, invoking an early globalization to erase and displace local land claims. The “gold regions” were in fact long inhabited Indian lands. The map shows the region as if mapped anew, soon after the first massacres of indigenous in a spate of “Gold Country” maps confirmed the voiding of all title tribes might have had, with little trace or reminder the historic presence of the peoples who once lived in the region save by the historic resonance of evocative place names, Longfellow style. It was shown ready for resettlement–or “settlement”–in growth small towns as Sacramento, later the state capital, without reminder of the migrant tribes resettled on confined inland land, far from the coast or the fertile Central Valley. One can only sense a whiff in almost mythical regions (as Yuba and Yola) or the aptly named “El Dorado” attracted eyes to rolling hills where riches were to be made: regions today best known not for gold but fires, the over-settled Wildlands-Urban Interface.

The currency gold gained as a universal standard in the first years of the gold standard adopted that very year treated gold as a universal logic of land claims for areas effectively prepared to be rendered as open to settlement, having been purged of inhabitants, and erased from the maps that were sold of “the mining district” in increasing numbers, that can be cast as a growing cartographic literacy purging California as a multi-ethnic state.

Wiilliam A. Jackson, Map Of The Mining District of California 1851
from Jackson’s Map Of The Mining Districts Of California 1851

Courtesy David Rumsey Map Library, Stanford University

The relatively rapid shift in title to the land from 1848 that would be all but accomplished within thirty years, as by 1879, the American Genocide all but completed some years earlier, two decades after Anglo newspapers opened an unofficial “war of extermination . . . until the last redskin of these tribes has been killed” to take the gold-rich lands as their own, and gold the national standard invested it with global currency and a logic of land seizure.

Lands opened for prospecting were not marked as being cleared by permanent displacement, a massive resettlement effort that prefigured the displacements of the twentieth century, but focussed on the lustrous gold arrowhead hand-tinted in an 1879 map as a destination promising the bounty of extractable wealth from its rivers, mountains, and valleys ready for the taking by all able to pay costs of passage as a near-universal “right” of access to this map that shows California as if island, shown at larger scale in an odd frame situated in the Pacific, as a new land where new rules applied, but where all could access by shipping channels from other continents, drawn to this one site by the lure of the glowing gold ready to be pried from being lodged in the region of California inland from the coast. west off the Great Interior Basin, as the world must have been suddenly heading and focussing attention on the mecca of the newly affirmed universal standard of financial currency in a globally contracted world.

Gold Regions in Calfornia, Showing the routes via Chagres and Panama, Cape Horne, & c
Ensigns & Thayer. New York: 1849, courtesy Donald Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Library

The long tradition in such maps was to exclude an indigenous perspective. But what might it be like to map from the other side, as it were, less in terms of land claims of property than inviting a greater negotiation of the land use with the longstanding use of land that indigenous communities have often long used?

This question, long pressing but rarely recognized as pressing to address, was subsumed by the logic of capital and the demands for extraction, either in the maps of oil extraction in the header to this post, or the Gold Country maps, placing less emphasis on boundaries than the ability to target, access, and export to a market whose demand trumps the local customs of the inhabitants of the place–far from the Far Utah Indians living far inland, or “Utah Indians,” but offering a separate plot that immediately attracts the viewer’s eye to rest on this region of “Upper or New California” newly open to all who sought all that glitters, as if it were a land of luxury, an island generating huge wealth for the taking, even if it wasn’t an island at all.

But California wasn’t at all an island for practices of forced displacement or territorial claims,–more like a workshop or staging zone for practices of extermination and land seizure of the twenty and twenty-first century. That maps might preserve the memory in which indigenous not only live, but long inhabited, could recast the lands as part and parcel of a sense of self, long obliterated or erased from earlier maps, whose content we would do well to interrogate and examine in terms of the erasure of the very idea of the existence or collective memory of earlier land claims.

And as Thanksgiving comes as an opportune time to seek deeper truths than are evident in the map of acknowledged tribal lands, or the violence of the longstanding aims of eliminating the presence of indigenous from the map, this post took a deep dive, as it were, in musing about the possibly preserving native claims in maps. For many indigenous in North America, indeed, Thanksgiving is better known in indigenous communities as a National Day of Mourning, the displacement of indigenous land claims from the current maps of nations has offered little space to negotiate land rights.

The new opportunity to map a persuasive representation of past land use has provided a new cartography akin to a pharmakon, remedying the erasure of indigenous presence in crowd-sourced remapping platforms, whose overlapping boundaries of tribal space may derive part of its compelling power and increased impetus from the erosion of “boundaries” in the mapping of the nation state,–if not of the integrity of the nation state as a semantic unit of clear bounds. Might the platform that promotes a sense of the blurred nature of indigenous space on TribalLand.ca be more than a purely virtual representation of an affective relation to the lost title to lands, but eventually be effective in giving rise to something new in the shifting structure of the nation state, where the place and space of indigenous inhabitation deserves increased prominence than it has long had? Such are the questions posed as the longstanding inequities of dispossession of lands, heightened perhaps by recognition of the failures of custodianship of environmental health, but providing increasingly undeniable dilemmas not only of the naming of place, but the ghosts in the closet of our civil society.

As the nation wrestles with its troubled pasts, and the ethics as well as objectivity of mapping space, as well as the danger of environmental devastation on several fronts, the resource of NativeLands opens new questions of how we understand our relation to the land, and the place of engaging indigenous inhabitants in collective decisions of land use, from the leasing of mineral rights to the potential devastation of oil pipelines and energy transport, or underground fracking and petroleum prospecting. It might be a way of using the very tools of geodetic mapping that extractive energy has profited so much to create a new forum for interrogating land use, and empowering indigenous communities as stake-holders to questions of property from which they were long excluded.

Western North America/Native-Land

The attempts to crowd source a layer of the boundaries of indigenous land claims on TribalLands.com, noteworthy as suggesting a new ethics of mapping, both with a clear historical online apparatus that serves as a dynamic legend, and the refreshing colors of a distinct cartographic palette of light lavender, green, violent, and yellow that broadens the divides of territorial claims sharply-edged cartography of the past. The oddly open space in these maps are not legally binding–or rooted in law–but offer a poignant and indeed healing cartographic pharmakon of ghost-like claims we are currently learning to negotiate with the lines of jurisdiction or sovereignty inherited from the past. While the web map is finally turned to only in §8-14 of this post–perhaps a section that deserves to be its own post!–the time-laden nature of obscuring native or indigenous claims are examined as a cognitive problem and historical project in earlier sections, turning to the complex place of indigenous in California’s formation as a state, before the Native Land maps are examined as a productive undoing of the historical violence worked by the marginalization of native land claims–effectively a cartographic distortion and omission that has deep logic and cunning roots.

For mapping, and all mapping, fascinates as an ethical project of knowing, as much as for its accuracy and persuasive form. If all mapping is time-bound, this remapping of land claims is not based on erasure of settler sovereignty, but an opportunity for deeper dialogue with the past–and with the relation of maps to remembering–that might offer a way to produce a responsible acknowledgement of the difficulties of the notion of sovereignty, and indeed. a new way of negotiating the fraught history of the past maps predicated on a logic of displacing native or indigenous inhabitants, and eradicating indigenous land claims.

1. The recent emergence of web-based tools and maps attempt to counter increased dangers of encroaching upon ancestral claims, by offering tools that might effectively empower indigenous claims if not to legally binding records of sovereign space, of the inhabitation of lands that property maps often elide. The many treaties of land–and history of land cessions–that have reduced North American indigenous land claims have found a powerful response to try to address, if not to meet the devastating precision with which remote sensing and geolocation tools have provided indices for extracting minerals, mining, and drilling for petroleum, if not in a legally recognized form, by providing powerful set of tools for asserting and envisioning the deep historical value of lands increasingly at risk of irreversible ecological and environmental damage.

If land has been allocated or reallocated for energy extraction in recent years, the definition of mineral reserves echo the “doctrine of discovery” that defined the boundaries and ownership of land long occupied by naive or indigenous inhabitants has posed questions of the existence of proofs to prior claims–the basis for staking indigenous claims. The very existence of large numbers of oil and mineral deposits across the Canadian north coincide most problematically with marginalizing indigenous knowledge claims, raising questions, as Global Forest Watch has helped us visualize, of the conflict between resolved treatises and expanding land claims being negotiated to access mineral deposits, most of which lie in areas covered by abrogated historical treaties. While the language and logic of extraction depends on the localization of mineral deposits on isolated points, boundaries, and edges, the blurring of maps of ancestral lands first in Canada, and now globally, posses a shift in perspective on the bounding of appropriated space that upsets the logic abstracting property claims from a historical context.

 Indigenous communities (Red), Intact Ecological areas (Dark Blue) and Intact Forest (Light BLue) Layer. Image: Artelle et al. (2019)/Science Direct

Indeed, the tabulation and mapping of Reserves, First Nation Settlement Lands, Inuit Owned Lands, Tlicho Lands, Inuvialuit Lands, Gwich’in Lands, and Sahtu Lands offers a dynamic mapping of “aboriginal lands” absorbed into the commonwealth at an earlier era–local land claims challenged and intact landscapes challenged by the globalization conundrum of the corporate and often national elevation of “global” over local needs.

The increased demand to reconcile nationally recognized indigenous land claims and ancestral lands poses something of an epistemic and a political challenge for the twenty-first century, unable to be recognized by purely cartographic terms, but which cartographic contrast promoted by indigenous-led claims for local governance and land-use have put into relief as an ongoing engagement. The parallel existence of these different geographies suggest a coming crisis in the need to resolve limited recognition of federally recognized claims with the existence of an increasingly visible collective call for recognizing ancestral lands, now crowd sourced on the vibrant webmaps of Tribal Lands, maps that suggest the far greater haunting of nations by the seizure of indigenous lands on which they were founded.

Federally Recognized Claims to Indigenous Land in Canada/Crowd Sourced Boundaries, NativeLands.ca

If the allegedly limited scope of lands federally recognized in Canada–while far more expansive than in the United States, a mere .2% of the territory of the expansive nation to the north–

Federally Recognized Indigenous Land Claims

–the spectral nature of indigenous nations that has been mapped on NativeLands.ca demands to be seen as haunting the nation on the day of American Thanksgiving, and provides an entree of sources to turning to some serious introspection on the territorial configuration of the

Native Land Map of Ancestral Lands

Indeed, as we move to living in a globalized economy that places a premium on logics of extraction, recorded and determined by remote sensing form satellite space, maps of mineral resources threatens to alienate traditional knowledge claims across a global setting.

The pressing crisis of mapping indigenous lands seeks to balance the claims mad in maps privileging “discovery” of and extraction in the petroleum industry’s identification of oil deposits over and above local land claims that has threatened the erosion of ecosystems in huge swaths of formerly forested lands swiftly reduced native land claims in Canada to a mere .2% of the nation, as we come to terms with the destructive role maps occupied in vacating native claims to land-ownership by voiding all memorial value of indigenous land-use.

The story did not begin in any way with the global demand for energy extraction that is all too often phrased in gilded terms as “energy independence,” even if this “independence” is primarily for the wealthy extractive industries. Maps help sell plans for energy extraction to the public in suitably patriotic terns as a “freedom” from global energy markets, confirming the recognition of the rich “basins” of sediment at home and offshore, as if it awaited the bravery of a scratch-‘n’-sniff scraping of their color-coded surfaces might easily reveal its oily petroleum odors that would cascade to a populist demand for cheaper prices at the pump.

Crain’s Petrophysical handbook/Oil and Gas in Canada

Although the map below shows the extent to which mineral claims lie in the boundaries of Canada’s boreal forest, the conflicting claims of property rights that appeared long settled in historical or modern treaties seem punctured by the speckling of claims that suggest an intense competition for legal recognition of mineral claims. It might understood as imposing a distinct logics to understand space, one covered by ceded land, and one covered by a sharp-edged rationality of geolocation, rooted in a geography of extraction that takes global markets as its common denominator. As we balance the collision of such conflicting cartographic rationalities, the claims of ownership of ancestral indigenous lands may yet gain new purchase and new currency, as the contestation to access to newly valued lands that have emerged as properties–and cast as properties of the “common good”–has become increasingly intense.

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Filed under American genocide, California, data visualizations, native lands

Drone Warfare, Carpet Bombing, Righteous Strikes

This problem seemed to come from Hell. The “righteous strike” of a drone-fired Hellfire Missile killed Afghan aid worker Zemari Ahmadi, his nieces and nephews was America’s military doing what it did best–a targeted precision strike. As much as targeting a human target who was instantaneously dismembered as his car shifted into park, the “Over the Horizon” strike cell commander who fired the missile from the drone was firing at a coordinate, and trusting in its authority. United States Dept. of Defense spokesperson John F. Kirby vowed “to study the degree to which any policies, procedures or targeting mechanisms may need to be altered going forward,” to be reviewed by former senior staff officer s who served in Afghanistan, assigning it high priority–but insisting that the strike was only green lighted after the American General at Central Command, or CENTCOM, who remained apprised of surveillance found “a reasonable certainty of the imminent threat that this vehicle posed.”

The CENTCOM Commander himself apologized, saying “we thought [we had] a good lead,” the balance between “certainty” and “threat” was not so clearly mapped as the pinpoint targeting of the vehicle, watched for over eight hours. As if in a surplus expenditure of energy at the conclusion to the war, or a final moment of fireworks, the huge discrepancy of wealth and technology between two sides was made manifest in the explosion that took the aid worker Zemari’s life with his nine family members, a final salvo of the Forever Wars. -But the striking of the vehicle containing Ahamdi, and which his nieces and nephews surrounded, were perhaps the fault less of a human error–if that was involved–than of a desire for a new method of war conducted in alarmingly disembodied terms,, in which “it is exceedingly important to shoot the missile, not at the target, but in such a way that missile and target can come together in space,” as Norbert Weiner wrote in 1948, in a classic work of communication networks in animal and machine, in which human judgement become part of feedback loops, but not ever making anything like what we might classify as ethical calls: the transmission of information in this model is based on the clear transmission of alternatives, and reduction of ethics to so much background noise, based on the probability of how much accurate information was available or at hand.

Moreover, and perhaps most crucially, at a time when ISIS had effectively internalized the danger of a sense of western besiegement, and the United States had almost amplified its power to suggest that waves of besiegement were utterly insurmountable and impossible to defend against, the arrival of a final Over-the-Horizon strike of a Hellfire missile seemed a parting strike of particular cruelty, by accident effectively perpetuating the inevitability of a continued narrative of besiegement for the world; as the escalated pummeling of ISIS presence in the hills of Peshwar and Afghan provinces had provided ample evidence of besiegement attempting at exhausting the “enemy,” in record numbers, over a decade of intense bombardment focussed firepower one final time on a residential courtyard in Kabul.

American Drone Strikes, 2004-2014, The Economist

There are problems of balancing an awesome strike ability of a Hellfire missile, a missile conjuring the eternal fire faced by the dammed with a “righteous strike,” and the scale of local damage it can cause: the death sentence that the missile passed as a remotely tracked technology of obliteration was invested with curiously religious terms, the fire of damnation a sentence of divine wrath, sending the fire of hell to the courtyard of a Kabul family residence to shatter the life of the wrong man who had been tracked for eight hours by Over-the-Horizon Strike Cell dedicated to disrupt the Islamic State Khorasan. But this time the Over-the-Horizon strike in Kabul was, if precise, focussed on the wrong white sedan, as the intelligence about the car that was being tracked for over four hours was terrifyingly incorrect. The poor debut of “Over-the-Horizon” strikes was a bad omen of the value of geospatial precision.

Afghan Neighbors Ponder the Courtyard of the Zemari Ahmadi’s Home in Kabul, Afghanistan
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Were the mechanisms for firing the laser-guided missiles encoded in the authority of the mapping tools that sent the laser-guided Hellfire missile to Kabul, as much as in faulty intelligence, and the limited guidance on targeting individuals? In what was almost a bravura use of force, American military drones fired Hellfire missiles as the airlift continued, on the eve of the United States departure, pointing to the appearance of secondary explosions as fireballs to indicate presence of explosives inside vehicles that ISIS operatives might drive into the airport for a second suicide attack. But if the strike was “deliberated” and the information military had collected “all added up,” the rules of engagement of airstrikes, as much as the human intelligence, implied deep ethical problems of trusting in the logic of maps to sift through evidence with greater accountability, especially as we seem to be approaching a threshold of increased engagement without men on the ground in Afghanistan, in developing an “over-the-horizon” strategy for the immediate future, as President Biden pursues his commitment to fight ISIS-K without actually increasing civilian deaths.

An Afghan man who lost family due to US drone strikes weeps.
Ajmal Ahmadi, Mourns Members of His Family Killed byu Hellfire Missile in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. 
Marcus Yam/Getty Images

The mechanics of the decision-making process that led to fire a drone that later killed Ahmadi and his children, nephews, and cousins is under review, but the verbal and epistemic confusion between what was first described as a “righteous strike” of vengeance, evoking the theory of “just war” that was invoked by President Barack Obama in invoking “just war theory” to rationalize the use of the military force not as a wanton or needless display of power and with the hope of saving lives to prevent the loss of lives, required, in his hope a “near-certainty of no collateral damage.” And while this was of course collateral damage of the most extensive time, the coverage of the extent of mis-targeting of believed terrorists reveal a terrifying cheapness of life, undoubtedly only able to be researched in detail for the jaw-dropping mistake of targeting of innocent civilians by a laser-guided missile due to the density of journalistic coverage of this particular strike, and journalistic presence documented the costs of erroneous strikes and the scope of civilian casualties as horrific as carpet bombing–if far more surgical–as if this were a far more humanitarian form of war whose precision could be labeled just. We were able to see the Taliban checkpoint that let in suicide bombers to Kabul’s airport, causing almost a hundred and fifty deaths, we became convinced of the ability of targeting precision strikes of the perpetrators of similar crimes, and amped up the intelligence networks to scour the city for signs of any activity appearing that it demanded to be targeted, and snuffed out.

Planet Labs Inc., image of Taliban checkpoint blocking access to Kabul’s international airport Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021
(Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Precise targeting, unlike bombing raids of the past, provided this certainty, or was supposed to offer surety of not being needless. But if such near-certainty depended on a map, it rests not on the accuracy of mapping. The strike that killed Zemerai Ahmadi — and ten of his family members–was mistakenly categorized as a “righteous strike,” killing an innocent aid worker and his family members. While it occurred in the heady atmosphere of retaliatory strikes for attempt to sabotage the withdrawal from Kabul’s airport attempted to be just, the slippage between the logic of targeted bombing and justice became apparent. It was a lurch to affirm global strength, more than justice, in using a technology of geolocation that had evolved to coordinate hand in glove with surveillance from Reaper drones. The ability to pinpoint track the progress of one car tagged as an imminent danger.

U.S. Central Command maps movement across Kabul of white Toyota Corolla on Aug. 29, 2021. CENTCOM/via Military Times

The mistaken of surveilling and targeting a young Afghan civilian in a Toyota Corolla was terrifyingly akin to the senseless bombing campaigns of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and Laos, or more terrifying. Surveillance of Kabul and its airport were much better than Vietnam, by remote satellite and drone photography, the ability of such targeting–and the rush of such precision killing–seemed to follow the logic of the map, as much as people on the ground.

1. The maps used to conduct action at a great distance in Vietnam were not as transparent or evident, but they were for the time. In the 1960s and 1970s, they offered grounds to pose the eerily analogous question of the extent and expanse of the globalist claims of American power. The trust in the accuracy of maps provided an eery precedent for the confidence in strikes an old theater of empire, a theater once defined by imperial maps. The surety of the strikes that the UTM and LORAN B offered to American pilots existed in two theaters–the arena of the map that determined the strikes and the geographical space to which it corresponded, and old imaginaries of imperial and colonial power. The British empire was driven from Kabul in 1842 and 1843, and the French hold on Indochina had led them to withdraw; as the mapping techniques of post-war Europe led the United States to inherit Southeast Asia, global technologies of mapping opened the possibility of launching strikes that would offer lasting reminders as America withdrew from the Forever Wars in Afghanistan, leaving as the English did from both Kabul and Kandahar, but, in an attempt not to be forgotten, leaving a lasting imprint of the power of long-distance bombing. If combatants of most all wars fight with different maps, often reflecting differences in military intelligence, both these post-colonial wars were defined by the drastic dissonance of radically different maps of geospatial intelligence, one from the air and one on the ground, and the pursuit of a stubborn logic of air maps as if they offered both superior exactitude and geospatial intelligence, modernizing the struggle for control by defining a logic of modern military operations by which to understand and to shape the “sharp edge” of war.

Carpet Bombing in Vietnam by B-52 American USAF Planes

The beginning of the end of American Empire has been recently pegged to 1972, a year that marked and took stock of the the end of a huge expenditure of sustained bombing drives with little apparent enduring accomplishment. The geospatial logic that drove such earlier long-distance aerial bombing campaigns in Vietnam were driven by perhaps misplaced confidence in how maps enabled and facilitated military action at a distance: maps offered a logic, if there was one, for conducting the over six hundred sorties and operations over eight and a half thousand miles away. There is an eery analogy that we have the most complete and exact database for bombing raids of the American military in Vietnam, coordinates that were painstakingly compiled by Americans, so analogous to the geodata of thousands of drone strikes in Northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, from 2004-2018, that the New American Foundation asserts the vast majority–over 80%–of those killed, were militants, though the Brookings Institution counters that drone strikes killed “10 or so civilians” for every militant who died,; Pakistan’s Interior Minister complained vigorously that a preponderance of the killed with civilians–especially in habitual follow-up strikes, targeting those responding to victims of the first hit, targeting of funeral processions, or mourners, or simply less surgical strikes. In an attempt to respond to these attacks from above, the Taliban’s weapon of choice was improvised explosive devices–literally, IEDs, placed on roads and activated by radio signal, mobile phones, or triggered by victims who step on them.

Paul Scruton, The Guardian

The warscape that developed 2004-9 of explosive shells, made often from diesel or fertilizer, along the major Afghan highway by the border with Pakistan where the Taliban was geographically contained–an increased density of which was tracked by Paul Scruton in the screen shot maps to the right of the map. The first attachment of a Hellfire missile to a drone followed the sighting of Osama bin Laden by one of the Predator Drone of the sort that flew across Afghanistan from September 7-25, 2000, in search of the terrorist who was wanted from 1998 suicide bombings in two U.S. embassies, his first strike at American territory; the unarmed CIA Predator was able to laster-illuminate and geolocate him so that it tracked him fro almost four and a half hours, but he could be hit by a Tomahawk missiles, but the time-lag for firing Tomahawk missiles failed to guarantee a similar sort of accuracy; as the new tool of the CIA and US Air Force were mounted with Hellfire missiles, they sighted and shot at Mullah Omar in 2001, but missed him, destroying only his car.

When Barack Obama assumed office in 2009, he tweaked George Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan by rehabilitating the “just war” theory, of medieval origin, formulated by Christian and protestant thinkers. Obama chose to rely on the accuracy and surgical nature of precision strikes as surgical means of not striking civilians, or focussing on enemy combatants, although the berth of such distinctions lay in the military or CIA: ifAfghanistan became the terrain for “the future of our military,” where Predators defined the mobile “edge” of warfare waged overhead and across borders. Targeted assassinations by CIA and USAF targeted the Waziristan region, mapping the region with pin-point in the notion of a “just-war” theory, rehabilitating an ancient doctrine of right conduct in war–“jus in bello” doctrine of Christian thinkers–by modern tools of geolocation, leading to the escalation of pin-point targeting by drone-fired missiles. In the face of global opposition to the use of missile enhanced drones as tools of targeting objectives in war in the mountainous areas of Pakistan province where the Taliban had fled by 2011,–

Escalating Drone Strikes Targeting Taliban in Remote Mountainous Region of Waziristan

–and, from 2012, the CIA went out of its way to try to design alternate missiles to “shred” vehicles and their inhabitants, but without blasts, to attempt to minimize “collateral damage” or killings.

Secret U.S. Missile Aims to Kill Only Terrorists, Not Nearby Civilians - WSJ
 Hellfire Modified to Limit Damage of Bystanders, Used from 2012

By the time the final American forces were set to ferry the final civilians from Kabul, however, the logic of drone strikes shifted to the home front of Kabul, set motion by the terrifying suicide bomber who struck Kabul’s airport, killing 143 Afghans and 13 American servicemen. In what was either the last gap or new frontier of geolocated killing, drones targeted Hellfire missiles in pinpoint strikes across Afghanistan, in “just” retribution of the fear of further K-ISIS suicide attacks on the ground during the last days of American presence in Afghan territory focussed on flights departing Kabul, revealing an ability of surveilling, targeting and striking far into the country as American forces departed the ground, as if to alert the Taliban of the continued proximity of CENTCOM bases in Qatar.

However celebratory the drone strike seemed, hellfire missled that killed Ahmadi suggested the haunting return of a lack of justice on August 29, as twenty pounds of explosive struck the car of the breadwinner of an extended Afghan family, with seven children who depended on his work. The children who had rushed out to greet him as he pulled his own white Toyota Corolla into the driveway of his personal home were not seen by the man who fired the drone missile, who felt secure no civilians were nearby. As we examined footage to detect the alleged secondary explosion, we found a weird echo of the airstrikes of an earlier war removed from our continent. While much comparison between the messy tactics and poor planning American withdrawals from Vietnam and Kabul spun, the incomplete coverage of the “collateral deaths” of civilians from the strike led to the military’s eventual backpedalling of its story of striking ISIS-K as an act of counterterrorism or “righteous strike.”

It was only due to careful investigation on the ground that the horrendous mistake was discovered. Reporters used footage from security cameras to follow the forty-one year old aid worker before he was driver targeted by the Hellfire missile suggested the poor intelligence which operators of “strike cel commander” who had been operating the drone in Kabul. Even as we await analysis of the decision-making mechanisms, we wonder a the high degree of certainty in public statements, even as questions circulated from the start of accurate video analysis of an after-blast confirming, as was claimed, that the Toyota Corolla was carrying a payload of ISIS-K bombs, and the lack of a mechanism of review before the drone strike. The accuracy of targeting the car was questioned by journalists as Spencer Ackerman all too familiar from the targeting of civilians that had escalated in previous years. Although announced as compensatory for the deadly suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport, killing Afghans and thirteen U.S. military, as a second drone strike on ISIS-K leaders in Nangarhar Province of an “Islamic State planner” in retaliation for the deadly suicide bombing–and entranced the world with the surgical take-out of the very operatives who allegedly planned the airport attack that killed thirteen American service men and 146 Afghans, as they rode a three-wheeled truck near the Pakistani border from 7,350 miles away in the Nevada desert, injuring an associate but killing the two men immediately. There was a perfect symmetry in the image of men who were riding in a tuk-tuk being obliterated by a strike that left a crater four feet deep.

While removed in time, the bombing campaigns in Vietnam have left precise geodata for bombing raids so comprehensive to be able to map cumulative raids over time. The result privileges strikes over deaths, in the eerily lifeless and quite terrifying record of Bombing Target Maps,–charting sustained campaigns of bombing at a distance waged in maps. This blog considered human costs of aerial perspectives both as a result of the acceleration of bombing campaigns in World War II and how maps jusfitied and normalized the Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. As the longest and least accomplished use of maps to sustained military engagement at a distance, is impossible not to consider the retrospective view it offers and reveals on the logic of the role of drones in Forever Wars. Systematic carpet bombing of Southeast Asia was pursued 1965-1973 as if by a logic of mapping, escalating by 1972 in a failing attempt to illustrate global dominance. The increased exactitude of the map becam a rationale for the power to wage war from afar, both to compensate for a lack of information on the ground, and to compensate for more irreducible problems of distance: mapping tools promised a logic of the ability to operate smoothly across frontiers. The unprecedented global coverage of GPS coordinates was administered and run by the United States for Vietnam through 1975, long after the war concluded. But the role of maps in waging war early emerged. If the United States in 1959 had blocked adoption of new standards of global projection, perhaps linking knowledge to power, the Army Service had recalculated surveys of Southeast Asia–Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam from the global projection that became a basis to collate new geodata–the Army relied on for staging helicopter raids in Vietnam, and, later, for long-range bombing campaigns.

Tet Offensive, 1968

Not that this was always smooth. Despite troubling distortions inherent in the UTM along South Vietnam’s north-south axis and border with Cambodia, coordinates provided a basis for conducting war at an unprecedented distance, even if they would necessitate revamped geodetic networks to minimize built-in distortions.

Serial Aerial Bombing by United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1975
Hatfield Consultants, Ltd; Ordinance Data Prepared by Federal Resources Corporation

Aerial strikes offered a sense of security, notwithstanding, and aerial sorties that continued to exercise claims to global power even in an unfamiliar theater of combat, evident in the dark lines of ordnance dropped along fairly fixed flight paths on what were deemed strategic locations in North Vietnam, and dense napalm dropped in the Thura Thiên region, where the saturation with napalm provided a carpet bombing of unprecedented scale, with limited sense of the effects on the local ecosystems. The planes’ almost indiscriminate blanketing of the strategic Thừa Thiên province and mountainous border with Cambodia where Việt Cộng hid were blanketed with ordnance and herbicides including Agent Origin, creating a massive deforestation there and on the network of roads known as the Hồ Chí Minh Trail.

Serial Aerial Bombing by United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1975
Hatfield Consultants, Ltd; Ordinance Data Prepared by Federal Resources Corporation

Despite the bracketing of huge ethical questions and costs, the authority of maps assumed huge costs as they were were able to conceal huge liabilities, changing the nature of the battle line at which we were now, as a nation, waging war, and its ethical costs: for we were bombing locations, not people, and the people were faceless who the bombs were targeting, othered, and in the national imaginary all but erased. It would take a force of consciousness, indeed, to place them on the map–on the ground photography remained relatively rare. And it is the ability to erase people by dots that provided, this post argues, a similar logic for the expansion of drone raids and drone-delivered bombs.

As bombing raids hit the the Seventeenth Parallel, the war was fought on a map: as much as Võ Nguyên Giáp revealed his military tactical genius as military commander of the Việt Minh, who had developed with stunning success the principle of Sun Tzu in successfully applying minimum military force to maximum effect in deploying light infantry in the First Indochina War, and in engineering of the network of roads known as the Hồ Chí Minh Trail, whose targeting continued in the war, even as its north-south course were distorted in UTM projections. The uncertainty is almost registered by Americans turning for solace to sing Toby Hughes’s “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” a wartime blues to the tune of “Billy the Kid,” as a blues of airspace: “When you fly on the Trail through the dark and the haze/It’s a think you’ll remember the rest of your days./A nightmare of vertigo, mountain, and flak,/And the cold wind of Death breathing soft at your back“? “Uncle Sam needs your help again,” is the mock-resolute start of another of the many songs that tried to process distance and space during the war, “He’s got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Viet Nam,” as was no better evident than in targeting the elusive Hồ Chí Minh Trail.

File:Ho Chi Minh Trail network map.jpg
Hồ Chí Minh Trail Netork (1990)
Week of September 27 | Vietnam War Commemoration

Americans administrators plagued by lack of knowledge about Southeast Asia or South Vietnam’s leadership relied on maps crippled by distortions. If the blues developed on the plantation, the wartime blues was a lament popular with American pilots as a new folksong of a technological divide pilots sung for psychic stability seemed to balance the demands they shouldered and fears–“the trucks must be stopped, and it’s all up to you,/ So you fly here each night to this grim rendez-vous”–as each sortie tempted fates in contested military space above the Trail; they watched from above “trucks roll on through darkness not stopping to rest,” consigned to their fate nervously navigating airspace by charts, “our whole world confined to the light of the flare,/And you fight for your life just to stay in the air./For there’s many a man who there met his fate,/On the dark roads of Hell, where the grim reaper waits.”

Carpet bombing was hardly comfortable, but was filled with fear. And one is filled by an eery apprehension at the ease with which geolocated records of bomb strikes in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Cambodia translate across time into a Google Maps platform, and the translation of the coordinates to a geospatial grid that we all have come to adopt to navigate space. UTM grid zones in Southeast Asia, as Bill Rankin noted, split in inconvenient ways in Southeast Asia, and although bombers were relying on them in raids that spanned over five years, As the provisional line of demarcation between North and South Vietnam, the so called “DMZ” of the Seventeenth Parallel Mendès France negotiated in 1954 was pounded twenty years later with all the firepower America could muster, trying to secure its border by a crazy huge show of power at a distance.

The result of these compound offensives was to riddle the countries with some 2.7 tonnes of explosives, as we were asked to keep our eyes on a static maps on television screens. This was described poetically as “carpet bombing” or continuous bombardment, first used only in 1944, in response to destructive V-1 and V-2 bombs, to mark a shift from the largely targeted bombing of industrial sites in the war. The sense of a lack of restraints or targets dramatically grew in the Vietnam War, as a no holds barred method, long before Ted Cruz vowed to recommit American to the carpet bombing of the Middle East to “utterly destroy ISIS,” asserting, as if in a perverse science experiment, that while he didn’t “know if sand can glow in the dark,” he would ensure American planes bomb ISIS positions until the sand glowed, in 2015,–intimating a carpet bombing of nuclear proportions. Donald Trump amped up Cruz on the campaign trail in Iowa, by promising not only to “bomb the shit out of ’em,” and “bomb the pipes, bomb the refineries, and blow up every single inch” of refineries to prepare for several months of rebuilding of pipelines by Exxon to “take the oil.” Since the debut of smart bombs in global video during the 1991 Gulf War, the sense of carpet bombing seems to have been consigned into the past, with the trust in the security of drone-fired bombs from 2003 promising to strike targets in a far more humanitarian way.

As the Vietnam War intensified, the long year of March 18, 1969-May 28, 1970 brought daily bombing of Cambodia, all but omitted from the entry of troops into Cambodia we watched on a static map on black and white televisions. Even as the escalation of disproportionate bombing campaigns that only ended on August 15, 1973 grew, they set a standard of sorts for the elegance of airborne strikes from afar.

Tet Offensive Bombing Campaign, 1968

Is it only a coincidence that after serving the nation as Special Assistant to the Undersecretary for Policy in George W. Bush’s Dept. of Defense that the right-wing columnist who has romanticized Gen. Custer devoted time to dispelling the “flawed Tet mythology still shaping perceptions of American military conflicts against unconventional enemies and haunting our troops,” completing This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive (2012), winning praise from Henry A. Kissinger, who agreed that “the self-perpetuating myth that the Tet Offensive ended in a defeat for America continues to do us harm,” while endorsing Jerome S. Robbins’ re-examination of the bombing offensive “through the lens of terrorism, war crimes, intelligence failures, troop surges, leadership breakdown, and media bias”–as if to champion the very losing strategy that informed bombing raids in Afghanistan.

2. The limits of local intelligence recalled the opaque maps before which an earlier Commandeer-in-Chief who, convinced of the logic of military strikes, attempted to project assurance at having directed American troops to enter Cambodia in April, 1970, as bombing grew. Just two years before the continued expenditure on aerial bombing campaign seven thousand miles away revealed a failure to reach military objectives announced a start of the decline of the American empire, the drone strike at the old colonial city of Kabul CentCom ordered revealed a continued commitment to the logic of military engagement by drone that animated the logic of war under an inauspicious promise to Maker America Great Again: the conducting of increased bombing strikes eight and a half thousand miles away would grow in intensity from 1970, but the argument Richard Nixon made was not apparent, as it rested on a geospatial map, but used the crude maps of boundaries of states few Americans were familiar–Laos, Cambodia; South Vietnam; North Vietnam–that hardly reflected why such intense bombing would be occurring around the seventeenth parallel, or mapped a clear vision of strategy.

American Troops Enter Cambodia, April 30, 1970

Even as we knew enough to be skeptical of his map of crude cut-outs, remembering Dresden Hiroshima, and My Lai aggression against civilians, but knowing we had heard stories from reporters on the ground about its intensity. And so we watched the maps of new offensives, distrusting escalated air bombing in times of war–if we knew not to trust them, we took to the streets in protests because we remembered, and because the official news maps of selective hits in one offensive was a partial story–and the danger of what was being targeted by a carpet of explosive bombs dropped.

B-52 Carpet Bombing of Vietnam

–hardly mapped the increased intensity of air strikes of carpet bombing, the new illustration of force that blanketed the nation with strikes to cover borders between north and south Vietnam and the coast, as Air Force data reveals, releasing over two and a half million tons of bombs on over 115,000 sites in Cambodia, from 1969-72, of which over 11,738 were indiscriminate–with the blatantly false assurance from the military commander in South Vietnam, who requested the sites be targeted in a neutral country, that Cambodians did not live in them, in the wave of secret bombings ordered in violation of international law, and quickly developed by Nixon’s National Security Advisor Kissinger–

The unprecedented concerted orchestration of carpet bombing campaigns by air sorties attempted to wipe out all VietCong bases in eastern Cambodia, vaunted precision in dropping 7.5 million tons of bombs across Laos, Vietnam , and Cambodia, between 1965-75, from Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-68) and Operation Steel Tiger (1965-68), to the extended campaigns in Laos of Operation Barrel Roll (1964-1973) to Cambodia, before Operation Menu (1969-70), blanketing the nation and creating untold civilian deaths and injury in a show of force.

The latter raids covering the country in toto, but to target Khmer Rouge ranged widely across borders of Cambodia and Laos, which was facing a communist insurgency in its borders, and the nation Vietnam had invaded became central to the Domino Theory that rationalized an expansion of boming across borders, before returning with intensity to the seventeenth parallel from 1971-2, trying to hit precise coordinates, and effectively carpeting the old DMZ with bombs. There was something weird, as from a nation of the crossers of borders, we flew bombs across borders, carpeting regions with devastation, from the shorelines of Southeast Asia, to the interior, to the shore again, this time with even greater intensity and around what was then Saigon.

The intensity of carpet bombing was astounding in Cambodia and Vietnam, literally coloring huge swaths of the country red, in these maps that use red dots for cumulative tallies of bombing strikes.

Taylor Owen, University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues
U.S. Secret Bombing of Cambodia | rabble.ca
Aerial Bombardment by US Air Force of Cambodia, 1965-1973

The danger of those bombing strikes on civilians were rarely described, or even comprehended, at a distance. But visualizing the faces of the civiliians whose towns and life were disrupted so violently became a basis for protesting the war–and a crystallizing factor in antiwar protests as the bombing campaigns grew–as the ends of carpet bombing as a targeting of civilians nonetheless grew all too painfully clear, as the very intensity of such carpet bombing created a new architecture of destruction in an already profoundly unethical war.

Anti-War Protest Button, 1972

3. Precision strikes seemed more humane than carpet bombs. But the precision bombs of the Forever Wars were, perhaps haunted by those images of civilians with targets on their crudely drawn heads, trying to advertise themselves less as a global over-reach of the targeting of precise strikes in another hemisphere, a campaign that in fact began, back in the response to the apparent hubris of 9/11, in the battery of B-52’s brought out from retirement, before the Defense Department hit on the new idea of acquiring drones and investing in drone technologies, a budget that has risen to above $7 billion by 2021, whose use is severely restricted in American airspace, but seems the perfect medium for fighting forever wars, on which the United States has come to rely since at least 2005. Fighting the Forever Wars and for counterterrorism programs, a new logic of military engagement, although the program that was first used in 2003 to strike targets developed in secrecy as a way of blurring the “sharp edge of battle,” described by British military historian John Keegan as incomplete or elided in most military histories. Now the “sharp edge” is both everywhere, blurred, and intentionally difficult to see.

The airspace for operating for the 11,000 drones or “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” in the United States that the U.S. Department of Defense currently owns and operates in American airspace are far from civilian centers in the United States–but the logic of pinpointing strikes 7,000 miles away provided a precision bombing that replaced or antiquated carpet bombing, billed in a new humanitarian guise.

Department of Defense Special Use Airspace, 2006

–but the rest of the world is, as the Kabul airstrike reveals, an open surgical target. And the increasingly intentionally reduced transparency of an increased national commitment to military drones in the Trump administration has created a new logic for the use of military force, via armed drones, and the unprecedented mobility of military theaters, under the cover of the advancement of either military or national security objectives. The bulk of the drone programs run by the CIA are shrouded in entire secrecy, although the commitment to reducing any sense of transparency and accountability–a main operating strategy or modus operandi of the recent Commander-in-Chief–has left a stamp on the U.S. Drone Program that will be difficult to erase, and a new sense of the secret maps by which war is waged.

As military operators of drones gained far greater air-strike-decision ability and independence, both in the military and the CIA’s separate drone strike operations, a new level of security was increasingly embedded in the logic of the map. There was, moreover, not even a requirement for registering enemy or civilian casualties, even if they might embrace deaths, since Trump issued Executive Order 13732, exempting both the US Army or for the CIA for any such responsibility for strikes outside combat zones; strike-enabled drones were granted greater operating grounds with less scrutiny or oversight. At the same time, oversight of sales of U.S. drones waned, and the Department of State gained the ability of direct commercial sales without oversight or special export conditions. Drones, in short, became the new currency of the war, and the means by which anything like a familiar battle line vanished. Removing strikes of pin-point precision from a system of military review so localized the “sharp of edge of battle” that it might migrate, given the ease of mapping, to a civilian garage.

Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 30, 2021. Marcus Yam / MCT

The drone strike seems emblematic not of a hasty withdrawal from Kabul, but of the confusion of military and civilian space in the war that readily relocated anywhere on the geospatial grid. In targeting the driver’s side of the white Toyota with incredible precision, we can see something of a history lesson in how mapping tools offer terrifyingly increased precision strikes. Although the Pentagon assured us that the existence of “significant secondary explosions” occurred, indicating a “significant explosive load” in the car with “minimum collateral damage,” and “reasonable certainty” of no nearby civilians, the lack of any grounds for certainty of explosives or an absence of civilians suggest not only the fallibility of human intelligence, but the Hellfire warhead that ruptured the tank while targeting the driver’s seat was a disproportionate show of force of awesome precision led its operators to trusted was trusted with “reasonable certainty” to pose “imminent threat.”

Drone strikes were not particularly effective against Taliban forces, and rarely contained them. But the act of power of pummeling Afghan locations that seemed worrisome with credible degrees of “reasonable certainty” was a release. It led to an escalation unprecedented in airstrikes against the nation as a show of power–until the end of DOD releasing of air strike data during negotiations with the Taliban; if airstrikes stopped, the shipment and stockading of increased armaments funneled to the Afghan army’s American-built bases in an attempt to overpower the nation that created its own dynamic of awesome war all but erasing the sharp edge of battle. The escalation of strikes as Trump assumed office had only recently grown to unprecedented heights.

More seriously, without any public release of the principles and procedures guiding the U.S. drone program, secrecy shrouds the legitimacy of the use of drones or the notion of the responsible use of drone strikes of increasingly powerful capacity, undermining the accountability of the military’s actions. It is perhaps ironic that this is being revealed on the eve of the departure from Afghanistan, and twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, which were such a shocking violation of territoriality: the expansion of no oversight on drone strikes risks undermining legitimate military goals, and even undermining national security interests, in finally attaining the capacity to act as a rogue state.

4. Although the possibility of retributive payments for these lives have not been publicly raised, although America has discussed “considering ex gratia or reparations,” the demands for some sort of compensation for those who were killed outright by what U.S. Cent Com admits as a “mistake.” If the walking back from early qualifications that rather than being a direct hit in retribution for the airport strike against U.S. military, the strike was “unlikely . . . those who died [jn the drone strike] were associated with ISIS-K,” or a “righteous strike” foiling a strike, the admission of guilt by the “strike cell commander” located in Kabul raises questions of the logic of military engagement in an era of drone war. The increased trust in the mapping systems–rather than on-the-ground intelligence or a need for confirmation–had brought the war on rural Afghanis to the nation’s capitol, leaving looming questions of why the country was not so concerned to use arms left by Americans to repel the Taliban, and how the logic of drone warfare expanded in the Forever Wars as a logic of surgical strikes that had boasted to not involve or affect civilian populations.

This time, the on the ground tracing of the Toyota Corolla’s movement in downtown Kabul led it to be targeted based on faulty information, and faulty flagging of suspicions in Ahmadi’s white Corolla, or the proximity with which it was parked or had stopped near an ISIS-K compound. The tracking of the car as it moved along city blocks and well-known streets led to the capture of surveillance footage of Ahamadi filling his car with water bottles, and dropping off coworkers, while he returned to his family, but it is unclear how a review of policies and procedures of targeting mechanisms will alter the logic of the drone strike as a surgical tool of war; just after the admission of mistakes in mapping and targeting of an Afghan civilian, CENTCOM followed up with announcement of the drone strike of a “senior al-Qaida leader” in Syria, in which “we struck the individual we were aiming for, and there are no indications of civilian casualties as a result of the strike,” as if to demonstrate how the smoothly the logic of drone strike technology could continue to work.

Yet, as journalists were increasingly present in Vietnam to film, witness and provide testimony of the devastation of bombing raids, with increased secrecy around drone strike programs, we have to wonder whether the mapping of civilian casualties will be something that would be in the government interests to continue, or if it is the case that the sharp edge of war has been definitively blurred. There was, by chance, due to the intense on the ground presence of journalists, an attempt to review the way that we set up what was almost a “home front” in Afghanistan; the victims of strikes were captured on closed circuit television, and could be tracked through the city of Kabul. Unlike for most drone strikes, we have faces, making it all the more possible to grieve their deaths and need to figure out how best to mourn their needless deaths, if not to take them as emblematic of the 71,000 civilian deaths from military campaign in Afghanistan we are told will come to an end. Though this time, we know their names–and can say them–the children of Mr. Ahmadi, Zamir, 20; Faisal, 16; Farzad (10); the children of his cousin Naser, Arwin, 7; Benyamin, 6; Hayat, 2, Malika, 2, and Somaya, 3, as well as a former Afghan officer who worked with the US military, Ahmad Naser–and we know how to say their names, that basic, elemental form of mourning that we never had access to in the past–let alone the series of smiling head shots.

More to the point, our actions are effectively setting international standards for drone strike accountability and for the limits of drone use, running counter to global security, and how drone strikes in the future wars that may be, eventually, used against us, as well.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, bombing raids, military maps, military weapons

The Undue Burdens of Heartbeats on Health Care

We are rightly alarmed. Indeed, red seems the only color to use to map the shrinking territory where women who are pregnant have an option of access to abortion. As abortion has been demonized as if it, too, were poised to join mass-culture society, and Supreme Court justices resurrect the specter of a society collectively endorsing “abortion on demand” as an apocalypse more apocalyptic than climate change or environmental degradation, the fate of life seems to have been projected to the unborn, even as maternal mortality rates remain staggeringly high across the nation–and seem especially high in those places where the strongst opposition to abortion seems to have arisen on a local level, as a new rebellion in which a substantial, and unable to be ignored, part of America is persistently dedicated to worrying about the fate of the unborn, aggrieved this demographic had been failed to be considered in earlier judicial reasoning about abortion rights.

We have, at the same time, changed how we map access to abortion, now part of our civil society, and also a part that would be wrenching to have invalidated as a individual right. Or is abortion poised to become a civil rights issue, more than a medical one, as it is understood through what this post understands is, rather terrifyingly, a theological context, as it is uprooted and removed from a scientific or medical one?

The color spectrum of these charts flip, but the human impact of how we remap abortion access–or have come to remap it in the United States–indeed seems to bears attention, as it can help us map the situation on the ground. If the header to this post suggests the radical contraction of abortion access in the manner of a geographic warper, similar to the distorted global maps of the prolifically virtuosic Ben Hennig, whose Views of the World are worth perusing to orient oneself to a changing world–but far more dramatically shifting the landscape of access to abortion, in ways that would make maps as important for finding legal access to abortion–suddenly made as complicated a question as migrant routes for asylum.

Indeed, even as the landscape of access to abortion had been creepily and rather creepingly changing by 2014, as a spate of local Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers–TRAP Laws–were enacted across much of what came to be called the “heartland” of the nation, the sense of “abortion havens” was mapped already by Business Insider, reflecting how imposition of commercial restrictions on abortion providers had forced many to close–as the introduction on a county and state level of specifics from the width of their corridors, the size and equipment of procedure rooms, and admission privileges at local hospitals, if rarely necessary, imposed costs that compelled many clinics to silently close, even as the “rights” to abortion access were nominally intact–and as no clear “burden” was detected in the partisan decisions and policy moves of state legislatures. The divide between “red” and “blue” states is rarely reduced to abortion, but the notions of family planning, women’s control over their bodies, and the privacy of a woman’s relation to her doctor–if all cast in terms of “cultural” differences among regions of this great nation–are now turned to be resolved, the deck having been fully stacked, to the august institution of the U.S. Supreme Court, having been entrusted with multiple landmark cases in the past to move us to a more perfect union.

Yet it doesn’t seem as if that union’s perfection is on the horizon. The rifts portrayed by Business Insider India in terms of havens in the midst of the hopes to expand health care grew in the United States, but debates about that expansion raged on right-wing television, and among evangelists, was shifting toward the terrifying tones of alarming reds in which we seem compelled to map abortion access as a good that is not only scarce but shrinking at an amazingly unfamiliar and unforseeable rate, as our oceans warm, and fill with more bacteria, and rise, as the polar ice caps melt. It is alarming, because the courts do not seem able to resolve this issue, as the opinions issued on a local level seem incapable of being resolved–and belong do differently framed logics and differently dated discursive fields. One cannot have a rupture, perhaps, but there seem parallel realities that the country is yet again either in danger of entering or existing, which any federal legal resolution by Supreme Court justices seems improbable to provide.

In recent years, judicial opinions have gained a unique status in the headlines of national news. As the courts have gained new status as a battleground where judicial positions rehearse divides in our body politic, the new status of abortion rights as a strategically posed issue has distanced debate from public health–or access to better health care–but a return to “first precepts,” to guiding freedoms, to understand the role of the court on maternal health care practices relate to abortion. Mapping the rapidly shifting nature of this medical landscape as a concerted partisan strategy is only part of the point. For the redefinition of maternal health is nothing less than a deep effort of misinformation, recasting the termination of pregnancy as early as six weeks as a criminal act in the community’s–and state’s–interest to protect, even if the actual “topography” of where abortions occurs has become increasingly uneven.

The prospect of the outright banning of abortion in twenty-six states in the nation demands you to read the current statistics of aborted pregnancies not only as a new “culture” of abortion in the northeast, California, and Florida, but a register of the need that these states meet and provide: if there are “sharp edges” to where abortion is accessed, they reflect population density, poverty, and increased stresses on family planing and growth.

For that map, a poor proxy that shows the steep divides across the nation, many sharply drawn in states–perhaps most unevenly in Texas, with its complex palette of light greens, dark green, and pockets of red giving it a sense hardly of a backwater, but state where, even more than North Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia, sharp dissonances in the availability of medical care for maternity give it a complexion that seems almost as divided as the nation, and unlike the several states–Alaska and Louisiana among them, but also Colorado and the Dakotas, as well as Florida, New York, and California, of far, far greater homogeneity. Compare this county-by-county map to the prospect of “trigger laws” banning abortion in twenty-six states of the nation, local legislatures have staged a bit of a trap for the vast majority of women nationwide, whose legal access to abortion should the constitutional protections of a right for women to access abortion facilities in their pregnancy fail to sustain a local challenge.

The result is nothing less than a crisis in national health care policies, marking red those states either certain or likely to ban abortion, and those likely–Florida, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming–arrayed in an unmistakable echo of the familiar breakdown of our electoral maps, reminding us of the partisan origins of such a challenge–a challenge that has been reframed not in terms of the rights of women, but the rights of the unborn, as if this new demographic and constituency had been discovered by legal sleuths in recent years.

 States Certain or Likely to Ban Abortion Should Supreme Court Weaken or Overturn Roe v. Wade
Guttmacher Institute

Unlike the county-level map of aborted pregnancies, this future map is a prognostication. It dramatically and monitory but maps a landscape of sharp and stark divides, suggesting the remove of women across a sea of continuous states who stand to be placed at a geographic removed from abortion providers without moving themselves. The legislative strategy of rolling back rights that have been presumed for two generations is akin to storming the U.S. Capitol, but reflects a long lain groundwork to secure the state’s compelling interest in protecting the lives of the unborn.

An even starker version of the map by the Guttmacher Institute of amplified monitory value is an image of a brave, new world, with far greater respect for such creatures in it unborn. This landscape, enforced by local legal challenges more arcane assert a compelling interst that the state has in protecting of the unborn, is far more prescriptive than any seen in the twentieth century. It is something of the ground-plan of a strategy that seeks to nail the nation, and its body of laws, to a cross: the red expanse is a sagging net for maternal health care , tracing an opening salvo in a battleground for states’ rights or, more accurately, for the conscription of the unborn fetus in what is cast as a heightened “culture” wars about health care–

–in which the mute protagonist of the unborn fetus is persuasively made a compelling interest of the state. to use its laws to protect, the health or well-being of mothers put aside from any compelling interest that the state might be able to entertain. Unlike the county-level map of clinical practice, which shows variations, the impositions of cookie-cutter prescriptive laws is an intentional an alteration of the terrain, lacking justification or reasoning behind a shift so dramatic, or sense of its implications on the ground in peoples’ lives, out of a deep belief that the previous decision is a pestilence across the land that needs to be contained. But it is also a strategy of promoting the lives of unborn, or of using that line to foster deep social divides.

The seemingly scientific justification of reducing the threshold to permit abortion not only removes the practice from the context of maternal health, but suggests “rights” of the unborn that are removed from the subjectivity of the mother, as soon as they are seen–and “mapped”– within the womb. By overturning the notion that the state had a compelling interest in reproductive health, constitutional liberties, or bodily health, attempts to preserve fetal personhood that lacks medical logic has been increasingly dressed in pseudo-scientific garb, by exporting the visual logic of ultrasound to grow a shifting “legal” landscape entertains the rights of the unborn–rather than the burden on women, the health care system, or the law. And if pregnant women were once forced, in the past landscape of the pre-Roe world, to travel outside the nation for abortions–heading to Mexico or Sweden from the east coast and to Japan or Mexico from the west, many states are bracing for an efflux or overflow of women seeking abortion arriving from Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi–including Florida, already emerging as the go-to sanctuary for female reproductive care, given difficulties of border-crossing, with California, Illinois and to some extent New Mexico more costly alternatives.

The current attempts of states to devise local workarounds that evade the constitutional right of access to abortion–and guarantee of access as a binding precedent of the court–has come up against loggerheads with the concept of the freedom of “unborn children” posing pressing questions of what is a “compelling interest” of the state in a fetus before life can be sustained outside of the womb. The recent focus of on the heartbeat, or rather the appearance or perception of the heartbeat, as an index or sign of value–if without basis in medical science–has become a new basis to increase the burdens on women in most states to access maternal health. For the designation of cardiac contractions as evidence of a “person” or a soul that in the interest to the state to protected is, in fact, a terrifying smokescreen for the radical contraction of a pregnant women’s rights.

Cardiac Activity in a Fetus of Eight Weeks

In ways that have framed the question of access to abortion in the nation in terms of how they are addressed in the U.S. Constitution–reticent or silent of any issue of women’s health–the question of what the role of courts is in preserving states’ rights to restrict access to abortion and health care, or to defend the access of women to be able to terminate a pregnancy, has placed undue stress on the place of legal reasoning in determining access to maternal health care. The current drive to regulate abortion, itself a pronounced response to the expansion of the health care markets from 2008, have become a national divide of striking proportions, so much that they are cast–wrongly, for this blogger–as a cultural divide.

But the storied cultural divide of abortion is a deeply geographic one, as we have long been habituated to preserve access to abortion since reproductive rights first came under attack before Casey, in the 1990s, as preserved by cities as the National Institute for Reproductive Health shifted their ground game to ensuring that cities–not necessarily where abortions were most in demand, but where voters and elected officials were far more sympathetic–lived. As if the riots of January 6, 2021 attempting to stop the end of Trump’s Presidency by a show of force in Washington DC, the latte-drinking liberal city-dwellers before their laptops–a tired political cliché we all love–is also apt. For it is among urban audiences of a certain age that a political precipice seems to have suddenly reached, as constitutional grounds for health care shifted beneath their feet.

John Cole/Scranton Times Tribune, PA

The protection of “abortion rights” by local safeguards in cities emerged in dialogue with, to be sure, the expansion of local restrictions on access to abortion from 2010-2016, and the cumulative weight of three hundred and thirty measures to restrict abortion, and a logic of shoring up rights in a deeply divided polity where rights of migrants, unhoused, and poor were feared to be evanescent or at risk, and the law no longer a stable fabric. Urban preserves where women’s rights to access maternal health care were predominantly coastal, and often, far removed oases from the sites lacking sanctuaries of legal protection, revealing the shifting palette of access to “freedoms” protected in the constitution by standing legal opinion. From 2016, at the end of the Obama era, as battle-lines over Obamacare concealed fights about abortion, reproductive freedom was a mixed bag across the country, reflecting in terrifying ways the 2016 electoral map of a broad continuity of red states as a mythical “heartland.”

The new ground-game of shifting the threshold of permitting abortion–imagined as enacted by local legislatures–suggests an endgame of a territorial fragmentation of once-universal rights to access abortion would shift the clock back five decades overnight. The ground-game is swift, and demands to be drilled into, both in Texas, and in other states, as it may well be poised to be recognized as law of the land, setting off tremors of health care and desperate searches for access to clinics–or potentially unsafe, if used as a last resort, abortion pills designed to simulate miscarriages–across the land, placing pregnant women at only greater risk.

The swift pace of shuttering abortion clinics in Texas by local legislation–magenta dots marking the actual closures of clinics offering abortion in Texas due to local laws, chipping away at or decreasing the actual liberty of access that is ostensibly the law of the land some years ago.

Abortion Clinics Forced to Close by Local Legislation in Texas, 2012-15/ Bloomberg Business Week

The map can be drilled down into far more deeply to describe the distance at which local laws have “placed” women of child-bearing age from clinics–creating a skewed topography in which, by 2014 data, women were compelled to travel nearly two hundred miles, at their own expense, to obtain abortion services, curtailing health services that were available to women and the abortion “deserts” that were quickly–and intentionally–created across the state.

Distances Women Forced to Travel for Abortion, 2014/The Lancet Public Health

The burden of such restricted access to clinics that can offer abortion in a substantial area of the state where women would be demanded to travel upward of 100 miles to a clinic has created exactly such a burden, but has emerged as a state’s right, by expanding the “compelling interest” of state counties to ban abortion not by the yardstick of the trimester of pregnancy–a standard in Roe v. Wade or fetal viability, measured by twenty-three to twenty-four weeks after conception, permitting the procedure up to that non-arbitrary date. Yet the unequal remove of women from abortion providers seems a burden as undue as an other, especially on women without the economic option for extensive travel to locate a provider within the state’s bounds–or, as seems poised to become the need, outside of them.

Should Roe v. Wade fall, and the constitutional right of women enjoy to access abortion as a form of maternal health care vanish overnight, “tigger laws’ already on the books would prompt an immediate jump of average distances of women to abortion clinics from 36 to 280 miles, as 41% of women in the United States would find the nearest abortion clinic closing overnight, no preparatory window or period of adjustment–or alternative–in place. The ground-game, rooted in the election of local Republican officials of a pro-life strip on city councils and state legislative chambers, is an open attempt to erode the affirmation of rights that cut against the , creating something akin to “cities of God” that follow outdated norms of the protection of unborn lives by using the odd index of the sonograph as a proxy for what medieval theologians called “ensoulment,” adopting Aristotelian science to gloss scriptures, in a proscriptive model that has little relation to medical science or health care, or the freedoms to privacy and self-determination that were once protected by the Constitution.

It was another helpful service to American webizens, the Decolonial Atlas, your place to go for go to remedies on the web, posted a travel map of routes to abortion providers in southern states, collating affordable transit routes to clinics that would provide abortion services–services that were still technically “legal” but out of the range of many, and prohibitively expensive for most in need of them. The bus routes women might take to reproductive health service centers in many states–Illinois; Missouri; North Carolina; West Virginia; Tennessee; Florida; South Carolina–would be open, but prompted questions of economics and opportunity. The further question of the fear of undocumented being stopped by a zealous Border Patrol, should they move across and be stopped at checkpoints en route, would be wary to avoid. The feature lending prominence to the “border zone”–an inheritance of the over-policed border of the Trump Presidency–was kept from an earlier map that had gone live September 4, 2021, setting a six-week window for abortions as state law overnight, panicking women across the state who had suddenly lost access to a crucial piece of their health care.

Already, the mobility of women seeking abortion had seemed a steep threat to many in Texas, where an undocumented woman seeking an abortion might risk deportation for traveling from Laredo or Corpus Christi to Health Care Centers in New Orleans or Jackson, or even on her return from Austin.

nTo be sure, the heightened mobility of women seeking abortion is a new iteration of the regular plans that, before Roe, the Society for Humane Abortion offered those with sufficient means to travel to doctors outside of the United States’ borders–from the west coast, Japan was a destination of choice from the late 1940s, if not Mexico, helping some 12,000 with their passage to clinics outside American territoriality. These burdens of travel, indeed, were no small part of the logic for revisiting the placement of “substantial obstacle[s] in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable fetus,” a tricky problem that seemed a necessary point of consensus in the modern world of birth defects, often due to other medications. Yet the image of increased out-of-state travel and the burden that this would place in the paths of women was not clearly addressed by the Court, nor does it seem to have since. The rather terrifying image of freedom to access abortion being curtailed or removed due to the orthodoxy of a majority of justices recalls the pamphlet of the same organization protesting the right to “breath unpregnant,” wom the Society for Humane Abortion would happily send forth to another shore, her rights and liberties curtailed in the United States.

Society for Humane Abortion, September 1968

While Roe resulted in the reasoning that voided “the purpose or effect of creating a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable fetus” as placing “undue burden” reflected a standard that a burdensome restriction of constitutional rights could not be imposed by states, a finding of the late nineteenth century. The unconstitutionality of imposing an burden by any state in the union from the late nineteenth century: the standard applied in 1992 preserved women’s right to terminate pregnancy before viability does not relate to counties, only recognizing rights to ban abortion after the “viability” of a fetus outside the womb, save when the pregnancy endangered the mother’s health, and not using the rhetoric of personhood to describe the unborn. Definition of a burden as “undue” “either because [it] is too severe or because it lacks a legitimate, rational justification,” posits protection of rights of mothers, but are argued to deny the rights of “unborn.” But the shifting global limits on abortion are practically unique in multiple standards that are on the books in the United States, with some states holding no gestational limits, and some shifting them to a window as small as a month and a half, producing a forced mobility for obtaining abortions in the horizon. Perhaps this is all to familiar in a nation that experiences multiple realities and opportunities–and now liberties– for different levels of wealth.

Spectrum of Different Global Policies of Legality of Abortion, 2021/Wikimedia

Put another way, equal access to abortion is no longer the law of the land. And the drilling into the data of the multiple laws that have been locally proposed in states reveals not only a partisan strategy, but a deeply unworkable system of different tiers of maternal care. Since 2011, these rights have been attempted to be defined nowhere more prohibitively than in Texas. In the nation, over half of the closure of clinics that offer abortion services to women have closed by local legislation, in a concerted partisan push unfairly argued to reflect “local cultures.” The partisan nature of closures has been a template for “red state” policies from Iowa to Ohio to Louisiana, changing the on-the-ground landscape of access to abortion by forcing many closures due to safety violations, difficult work environments, and business decisions,–already a bleak landscape for maternity care for over the past decade, in eery contemporaneity to a public health option that would provide more maternal health options.

The opposition to abortion that focuses on the “unborn”–and the humanization of the heartbeat of the unborn, rather than the fetus–has become one of the more striking defenses of pseudo-freedoms. These are freedoms not ever articulated in Enlightenment thought, and foreign to it, from freedoms of belief, to freedoms of owning automatic rifles and military-style arms in one’s home, that extend to the protection of freedoms of the unborn. Such freedoms are resonant with full-throated opposition to mandates for mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing, or vaccines. The spread of challenges to the access to abortion and abortion pills across the nation deny the life-changing role of pregnancy on all women, and the greater dangers that childbirth–hardly a risk-free event!–imposes on women, let alone the dark topography of sharply disproportionate and increasing rates of maternal mortality in many of the states that have restricted access to abortion.

Maternal Mortality Rates per 100,000 births (2015)
Changes in Maternal Mortality in United States of America 1997-2012/BMC Health

The freedom to restrict abortion is similarly anti-scientific, and theocratic, strategically removed from the undue onus that state laws against abortion would have on women–especially if a good share of the clinics providing abortion to clients–sites marked below in orange and black–cease providing clinical care to women. Although it is argued that this will shift demand to mail-order abortifacients, safely used only in the first ten weeks of a woman’s pregnancy but providing subject to local and state provider restrictions, 99.6% successful if used at nine weeks from conception or less, and require in-person–consultation with a physician to be prescribed in fourteen states that have enacted restrictive abortion laws–including Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina–of thirty-three states permitting only physicians to provide mifepristone, creating divides to access “self-managed” that are poised to sharply grow along clear fault-lines, and perhaps creating a undue underground economy for abortifacients of unseen proportion; states limit abortion pills to being dispensed by physicians, despite that they are as effectively dispensed by nurse practitioners or midwives, create compromised access to health care in thirty-three states.

–and five states that have ban telemedicine for medication abortions, including Louisiana and Arkansas.

The result is a terrifyingly unequal deep, dark landscape distant from abortion facilities, whose loss is indicated by dense orange colored dots, suggests the severe restriction of health options for pregnant women that would result from overturning Roe v. Wade. Twenty-two states have adopted laws that the overturning would ban abortion within their borders.

Distances to Clinics ShouldTrigger Bans on Abortion Go into Effect /Axios

The undue burden on women who unable to provide the option to terminate their pregnancy before viability would grow in such ‘abortion deserts’ and impose a significant burden on states that affirm abortion on their edges, whose surviving centers would face ethical problems of facing a greater demand–if women travel to them, the states are potentially now exposed to the legal suits for violating laws restricting women’s access to terminate a pregnancy they do not want. Concerns that overturning Roe would increase travel to California to seek an abortion by almost 3000% is born out by the map below–restrictive laws in other state long increased out-of-state clients in California; increased demand for access to abortion from women residing in state laws restricting access to abortion would expose California to legal action for violating their laws.

The urgency to address the demographic of the “unborn” recuperates a category from the thirteenth century that enjoying a recent resurgence with the legal parsing of personhood. But while one spoke of the “fetus” in the 1970s, when Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, the shift to “fetal personhood” expressed by 2018 in Iowa, then the state with the most restrictive abortion laws yet, which made abortion illegal after a fetal heartbeat is detected, skipped over the question of a woman’s right to abortion, but expanded the ability of states to “regulate access to abortion” to the extreme, by permitting a ban on abortion earlier than most women would be likely to know they are pregnant, putting Iowa in the range of states with court-imposed restriction to abortion, contraception and reproductive services. While not framed as about sexual freedom, anxiety about women’s sexual freedom in 2017 and moral arguments led many central, southern, and midwestern states to adopt court-ordered restrictions parallel to the expansion of health care that included access to abortion–

-and must be seen as a resistance to it that set the basis for the “red states” which emerged as a united front in 2016 and the pro-life candidacy of Donald Trump.

The majority of states in the union adopted restrictions without any basis in scientific evidence at all, or clear roots in jurisprudence. The restrictive laws that were predominantly of proscriptive cast, betraying a terrifyingly theocratic origin in identifying the origins of “life” as a focus of judicial inquiry in a neo-medieval cast. Is establishment of any “heartbeat” law not in itself an undue burden on women, inviting the undue burden of placing a ban on abortion before fetal viability, that would demand to be struck down as such? While placing burdens on women throughout a large number of states, the local laws create new concepts of strict scrutiny around heartbeats, arbitrary weeks since conception, or the detection of reflexive movements in ultrasounds, all of which are coercive controls that serve to undo the undue burden concept.

1. Abortion was historically challenged by the medical profession as a way to restrict the role of women healers–and female agency–in the nineteenth century. But the search for legal obstacles to abortion is wrongly treated as a return to first principles but a shift in freedoms of access to health care. But the question of fetal “personhood”–or indeed of personhood of the unborn–dispensed with the very logic of potentiality that Roe left in the law by reserving for the state an “important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life from the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy,” dissolving that interest in favor of shifting the question from “potentiality” or a “Golden Rule” that grew out of attention on the fetus as a focus of protection; the expansion, due to stem cells, in vitro fertilization, and fetal tissue transplants on the moral status of the embryo as a subject in place of the woman’s right to access abortion or abortion providers.

While Aristotle was primarily concerned with the emergence of a rational soul, a concern that was adopted by twelfth century theologians who embraced his notion of the formation of the soul in the developing human embryo—the vegetal soul, the animal soul the intellective or human soul–the notion of personhood dispensed with the epigenetic stages of ensoulment, but focussed on vital signs located in the heart as a sign of life, independent from science, but reflecting the technologization of birth. The adoption of policies hostile to abortion rights in 6 states and of laws extremely hostile to abortion rights in 23 states) to abortion rights, and the hostility expanding to Iowa and West Virginia for the first time, created not only a new map of abortion rights, but mapped the origins of personhood in the womb. The result, according to the Guttmacher institute, placed the majority of American women able to bear children in states hostile or extremely hostile to abortion–without rooting their arguments in science.

Policy Trends in the States, 2017 | Guttmacher Institute

The defense of the “unborn person” flew in the face of science, beyond questions of cultural difference, from “mandated ultrasounds” to regulations on abortion clinics, including removing clinics from Medicaid, to, in Alabama, a state-wide ballot initiative to agree that personhood began at conception, the Human Life Protection Act, signed into state law in 2019, that “defines all unborn children as humans”–and allowing no exceptions for rape or incest. The bill was adopted only to encourage the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade around the question, in the word’s of its sponsor of whether “the baby in the womb is a person.”

For by redefining the fetus as a “life,” with freedoms and liberties attached and pursuant, Iowa’s legislature abandoned the standard of viability outside of the womb, asserting that the unborn is a person, and abortion tantamount to killing a life, as if “the burdens of carrying a child to term [could] justify the killing of a child,” per the lawyer representing the state of Iowa in 2018. It takes arguments of the potentiality of the unborn to the extreme, not discussing the Thomistic idea of potentiality of human life recently promoted by Catholic theologians as a middle ground, but mapping the heart of the matter–the heartbeat–the visual evidence of personhood. Fueled by the affective relations of ultrasounds that offer the “science” that seems to sever the personhood of the “unborn child” from the standard of viability that had set the threshold for up to what point the protection of a woman’s access to abortion was permitted by constitutional law. The rise of proscribed ultrasounds across multiple states reflect the new focus on personhood and heartbeats, whose mandated display and discussion provided a preventive basis for persuading those seeking abortion to forego the procedure.

Prespcriptive Ultrasounds as a Form of Clinical Counseling about Abortion
States Mandating Women View Ultrasounds if Taken or Ultrasounds Mandated by Law (2015)

Cast as a “Right to Know” legislation that was introduced in Pennsylvania in 2012 mandating all women who are seeking abortions to view the ultrasound designed to determine the gestational age of the unborn fetus–a means of placing the abortion in a window of viability–offered all women seeking an abortion the “right” see the image, and to hear the heartbeat, offering a new way to map life and epigenetic questions of ensoulment around the “beating” of the heart, although no ultrasound was mandated in states protecting abortion rights.

0206righttoknow

The states that have pushed back on this definition for one more consensus hardly appears scientific, gives a scholastic sense of ensoulment first articulated in the thirteenth century contemporary relevance, mapping the unborn on an ontogenic continuity of personhood that reduced the concept of viability that the court once embraced to a relic as quaintly outdated as Plessy v. Ferguson’s ruling that segregation did not violate the fourteenth amendment. The insistence of a Justice on the highest national court that the compelling interests of the “unborn” has become grounds to review the liberty of women to access abortion prior to the line of fetal viability outside the womb. Defining personhood from conception has pushed back these freedoms to the unborn in ways without legal precedent or, championing the court’s role to represent the interest of the unborn, preventing violence against those being carried to term, handing down a sentence against all women asked to carry a child to term.

The imaging tools of the ultrasound after all transformed the fetus to a “baby’s head” and “baby’s heart” able to be recognized on the screen, and indeed labeled for identification, in ways that seemed to deliver a deeper truth, in an age when we have difficulty distinguishing representation and reality, expanding the case in the courtrooms that the presence of a fetal heartbeat offered incontrovertible evidence in a court of law that a “a human child with a heartbeat is a living child,” even if few judges in Iowa were ready to hear the argument, if the state’s lawyer refused to accept that the fetus with a heartbeat was a “potential life”

An ultrasound is performed at Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines.

Although Roe v. Wade has been discussed as precedent for decades, occasioning only recently clear skepticism about reducing women’s right to abortion by restricting the window of “viability” of the unborn to twenty weeks, in North Carolina, one to two months less than the usual 24-28 weeks, but currently nineteen states take the date as the cut-off for access to abortion, in ways that have made the former standard of viability to seem virtually arbitrary, rather than grounded in embryology. The emptying of any embryological standard–or indeed medical expertise–has come to be cast as a “cultural divide,” out of the court’s sphere of decision making or competence, with seven states on board to limit abortion to the greatest extent possible to twenty weeks: Kansas; Kentucky; Arkansas; Louisiana; Missouri; North Dakota; and Ohio. The critical curtailing of this access in Iowa, the site of the first primary to select the United States President, suggests an undue prominence of an ambivalence to abortion in our national politics.

the latest you can get an abortion in every state map

The effective reframing of rights to access abortion as a question of “states rights,” rather than public health, and of local “liberties,” makes Texas the perfect site at which a national debate about abortion access can be balanced, however, as the current debates on similar local laws in Mississippi–reducing the window to fifteen weeks–it almost even left Chief Justice Roberts flummoxed to ask if the window would always be effectively arbitrary, as if the number of weeks were divorced from a woman’s body or a woman’s womb. The voiding of any constitutional right to abortion in four states of the deep south–Alabama; Louisiana; Tennessee; West Virginia–already pushed the debate away from constitutional rights. Yet the result of shifting the “burden” pregnancy places on women from the nation’s courts suggests a seeming time warp for much of the country, maybe not to the the 1200s, but at least to the years before 1972 at the stroke of a pen–or a verdict of 5-4.

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Tools of War

The dramatic if quite abstract GIF in the header to this post tracks the rapid return of the Taliban to power as a drawdown of the Forever War. It echoes a sense of loss–a ceding of territory, echoing the “loss” of Korea, China, or Vietnam–as if it were the never imagined conclusion to the War on Terror. It is perhaps just a pivot to an unknown future, where that war will no longer be fought in terms of a map of Afghanistan. But the GIF dramatically collapses the past four years as they unravelled over the months from May to April 13 to August 16, 2021; if it is only one of the several theaters of war, it seems to offer a compelling, if distorting story of a fall of provincial provinces in the state that the United States and NATO committed to rebuilt from 2008, a loss that seems to ratchet up one’s sense of a lost opportunity. The failure to compel Afghanistan to present Osama bin Laden and Taliban officers or training camps led to a huge show of power to render the submission of Afghanistan by bloody bombing campaigns, drone strikes, and military incursions; the loss of what we imagine territory held by our troops seems almost to cleanse the bloodiness of that past history. The advance of the Taliban into areas allegedly once in “government control” offer a wash of deep crimson across the country as the tragic end of the War on Terror, something of a blood bath in the making, a spurt of pink and deep crimson red–as if the bloodshed was not cast by an American show of power.

But the arrival of bloodshed to Afghanistan was something that the United States, of course, brought there on a scale no one had ever before imagined, flooding the nation with arms of a level of modernity as if they would defeat the society we had once called ‘tribal’ and incapable of tactical maneuvering or high-tech weaponry. As the United States assures we are As the area under “Government Control” contracts to an isolated the limited area, leaving us asking how the United States mapped it so badly. As the Government four Presidents promoted military ties contracts to a dot, but the dream of such an independent state now apparently eclipsed and recast into what may now seem more of an inter-regnum of two rulers–Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani–in a Taliban regime. Rather than being cast as a restoration of power, the map illustrated to Americans the fall of an American dream, and an eclipse of the idea of nation-building as a primarily military prospect, that the US Army took over from NATO. The hope to recreate firm borders of Afghanistan at untold expense fell like a house of cards. The Taliban’s strategic operations for controlling the very roads on which they once attacked American and NATO forces, and paralyzing the country’s movement and flexibility of its soldiers or national infrastructure.

The fiction that was long nourished of an Afghan state that America had been able to try to fortify by the importing armaments–the “tools of war”–over more than twenty years. While the map is a visualization that derives from the work of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and poses as a vision charting the erosion or loss of the coherence of a liberal state in the borders of Afghanistan, it both isolates the nation from its broader context in the Middle East and War on Terror–from the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) in Qatar, from the allies of Taliban in Pakistan and elsewhere, or the exit of many Afghan forces as refugees, or the seizure of weapons, humvees, and armored vehicles abandoned by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who left them behind as they fled north across the border or abandoned their posts. A map of the arrival of firearms and materiel–the procurement of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Assistance (IMET) programs that American Presidents are authorized, and with Donald Trump escalated and Barack Obama had previously–would be as helpful, as it would track a vision of a significant increase of security assistance for geopolitical dominance.

Finally revealed: UK drone strikes in Afghanistan by province – Drone Wars  UK
UK Drone Strikes in Afghanistan
Heat htTableaux Heat map of Drone Strikes in Afghanistan by Amderican Military under Presidents Bush, Obmaa, Trump tps://dronewars.github.io/narrative/Map of Drone Strikes in Afghanistan by American Military, Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump (2018)
DRONE WARS | Narrative
Total Drone Strikes in Afghanistan and Somalia by Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump

The investment in drone escalation as a tactical relation to “space” redefined territorial dominance to replace one of community building, often confusing targets with the territory. Drone strikes not only served to “take out terrorist commanders”–but as if this did not destroy the stability of the fabric of a nation America was allegedly trying to rebuild since 2008–defined a view far from the ground. Over 13,000 drone strikes on Afghanistan alone–a minimum of 13,072 strikes killed in Afghanistan alone over 10,000–conducted by the United States Reconnaissance created a landscape being invaded by foreign powers. The dynamic of incessant drone strikes–conducted by a tool not owned by the U.S. military before the Forever Wars, and now showcased in targeted strikes is an invaluable prism to understand the mapping of the land that appears a hope for peace and end to the Forever Wars, as much as a lack of training, strategy, or American assistance. In ways that make drone strike fatalities pale, the recent estimate of 46,310 Afghan civilians–if below half of the estimated 95,000 dead Syrian civilian casualties of the War on Terror–suggests the way that the United States has benefited form the low presence of reporters on the ground.

The war in Afghanistan was located predominantly in the countryside, and across the many provinces that “fell” to a Taliban newly fortified by the windfall of armaments they accumulated as provincial cities, abandoned by the AFSN, fell. The logic that we had supplied the ANSF with sufficient arms to defend the territory reveals a confusion between the territory and the map–and the theater of combat and the situation on the ground. When Joe Biden marveled at how American-trained Afghan security forces Americans out-numbered Taliban fighters fourfold, and possessed better arms, the 298,000 armed ANSF were thinly spread and at low morale; if trained and armed by Americans, perhaps amounting to but 96,000, they lacked decisive advantage against Taliban force of 60-80,000 whose leaders effectively exploited internal weaknesses off the battlefield.

The real map–or the inside story of the progress of the Taliban across the nation–lay the perhaps not control over districts’ capitols, but the many well-stocked bases, airfields, and army depots long cultivated by American troops. The long-running bases across the country–sites with often mythic and storied names, like Kandahar and Bagram airfield, where tens of thousands of United States soldiers had been stationed from 2001–had posed a site of immense military materiel that the . The Bagram Airfield was a site for drones, of course, but also for storing cutting edge Blackhawk helicopters that the United States committed to Afghan forces, even if they were not well-trained in using or maintaining them, munitions, and firearms, even if the larger American aircraft and drones were withdrawn. As American forces withdrew, the rifles, ammunition, and tactical vehicles–as well as cars–were left at bases that the Taliban had long attacked–as Bagram—and had their eyes and were particularly keen. American commanders, as if intending to disrupt the withdrawal’s smoothness, disrupted the smooth transition by not even telling Afghans before they arrived at the Kabul airport–allowing the looting of laptops from Bagram, as a sort of bonanza, by local residents, before the arrival of Taliban forces. Over three million items were abandoned in Bagram, from food to small weapons, ammunition, and vehicles–as if presuming that the “tribal” Taliban did not know how to use them, or not caring, before they down-powered the entire base–doubting that they could ever operate them. As ammunition for weapons not being left for the AFSN was destroyed, the abandonment of materiel, planes, helicopters and ground vehicles followed departure from ten other bases before Biden took office, often over NATO objections–that bestowed a huge symbolic victory of sorts to the Taliban of having driven foreigners from the land as they long promised, if not one of military materiel as wall. If American military argued “They can look at them, they can walk around — but they can’t fly them. They can’t operate them,” the ludic inversion of Taliban displaying armaments of Americans was profound theater of deep symbolic capital.

Taliban forces celebrate the withdrawal of US forces in Kandahar.
Taliban Forces Celebrate American Withdrawal from Kanadahar

If the hundreds of bases that Americans sent soldiers had long declined to dozens, the withdrawal of American forces without clear coordination with Afghans left a vast reserve of symbolic military material ready for the taking. How much was left at the bases closed in Helmand province, Laghman province, or Kunduz, as well as the bases in Nangahar, Balkh, Faryab and Zabul? Did these sites, and the reduction of American presence in Jalalabad Air Field, Kandahar Air Field, and Bagram not provide targets on which the Taliban long had eyes? The seizure of Kandahar provided an occasion for a triumphal procession of sorts, showcasing armored vehicles, as Blackhawk helicopters flying the Taliban flag flew in the skies overhead. In a poor country, the large prizes of American bases stood out like centers of wealth inequality, stocked with energy drinks, full meals, medical care and other amenities, and stockades were impossible to fully empty as the American bases closed from 2020.

Sites Supported by United States Military in Afghanistan, 2006/Globalsecurity.org

Few gave credence to Taliban boasts 1,533 ANSF joined the Taliban by May, or that June saw another 1,300 surrender, but the numbers of deserters only grew, expanding “contested” areas where Government forces lost ground without a fight. All of this crucial information is absent from the map, but we still believe, despite all we might have learned from Tolstoy, that generals and strategists determine the state of play on a battlefield, without knowing how the war was waged, or that the war was never seen as geopolitical–as it was waged–but across borders and rooted much more locally on the ground, as Taliban entered sites of former bases, and amassed arms caches in a drive of increasing momentum to Kabul–one of the only areas that wasn’t bombed so intensively, hoping it would be a reprieve from the violent bombed out landscapes on the ground.

For a war that was long pursued remotely, the image of territorial “loss” obscured the failure of engineering a transition to democracy. We have already begun debating the extent to which an executive decision-making shouldered full responsibility for the folding of the government of Afghanistan that followed the withdrawal of United States soldiers. –and air cover. We like to imagine that an American President has continued to steer global dialogue about the Afghanistan War, the remainder and reduced proxy of the War on Terror. Perhaps it is that we have a hard time to imagine a sense of an ending, and loose the ability to imagine one, and have lost any sense of a conclusion to the War on Terror that was long cast as a “just war,” against evil, and in terms of a dichotomy between good and bad, as if to disguise its protracted disaster. If we could never “see” the results of a an end to the War on Terror, Orwellianly, we were told it was not endless–Americans must have patience, said President George W. Bush as he promised us he had, to pursue a simple, conclusive, and final end to terrorism, assuring us the war would not, appearances to the contrary, grow open-ended, with a “mission creep” even greater than the Vietnam War. Barack Obama, after he presided over the military surge, hoped to “turn the page” on it in 2016. But any “exit” receded, and may not even be able to be dated 2021–as we imagine–but more protracted and indefinite than resolute–as Barack Obama, who presided over the military “surge”–hoped to “turn the page” and wind down by 2016. The logic of the war grew, as if deriving from Bush’s refusal to negotiate as was requested after the eight day of the bombing campaign, or move Osama bin Laden to a third country, but employ military might to force destruction of the camps of the Taliban, and delivery of all Taliban, fixating on the Taliban escalated the war far as an American struggle, far beyond attention to the situation on the ground.

The nightmarish reversion of Afghan territories was seen as the culmination of the withdrawal of American troops at large levels, almost achieved by President Obama in 2016, after the heights of the first “Surge” in 20011, but which was delayed by President Trump. The war that refused to end or conclude was never seen as a protracted struggle–or presented as one–but it was, and perhaps because of this never had any end in sight. “This is not another Vietnam” was announced by the father of that President, President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Americans changed the organizational structure and leadership of Afghan troops with each U.S. President, making it hard to conclude or manage, shifting how Afghans were trained, that must have encouraged a sense of clientelism and corruption of which the Afghan government became increasingly accused–and perhaps introducing a lingering suspicion of corruption and clientelism, more than bringing anything like a modern fighting army or New Model Army. There was never a sense of refusing to leave for fear that the failure that the maps depicted of the collapse of all districts of the new “Afghanistan” depended on continued American investment and support to endure.

Although the rapid reversion of districts to Taliban is far more likely to remain perceived by Republicans as a fiasco in leadership, the poor state of the country and ineffectiveness to work with the increased military materiel it was provided as if the army members did not have to be motivated and organized. The impossibility of mapping the geopolitical interests America felt onto the Security Forces–Lt. General William Caldwell IV reflected Defense Dept. opinion in the military when he assured the world Afghanistan National Security Forces were effective and trained, in fact “probably the best-trained, the best-equipped and the best-led of any forces we’ve developed yet inside of Afghanistan,” by June 2011, after a decade of military training, and only able to get better, even if American Generals were clear they would tolerate a degree of chaos, and didn’t want Afghans to be defining priorities, but only to instill a “particular kind of stability“: by 2016, National Security officials openly worried about the lack of any metrics–levels of violence, control over territory, or Taliban attacks that presented or projected confidence. The distrust, missed assessment and mutual mis-communications between American Generals who promoted and mistrusted Afghan troops whose efficiency they promoted created a disconnect between Americans as they downplayed the military ability of the Taliban, regarded as lacking sufficient air capacity or military prowess to command the nation or pose a threat to the Afghan Security Forces who folded before the Taliban’s military and threats of reprisals.

Is it possible to trace a transfer of military technologies and armaments in the twenty years since the crashing of airplanes into the Twin Towers by jihadist militants and the appropriation of sophisticated arms, night-goggles and humvees of members of the same Taliban who now occupy Baghdad? At the same time as American purchasers of handguns and firearms grew, the transfers of weapons and military firearms to the Afghan areas–UAE; Saudi Arabia; and especially Qatar–in a massive transfer of military technology that paralleled the emergence of the very groups cast as primitive rebels who had commandeered aircrafts to strike the Twin Towers into an efficient user of enhanced military tools and technologies, rather than the primitives who occupied the outer peripheries, but were both trained and prepared to occupy a nation’s center in disarmingly modern ways. Although the image of the plans flying into the Twin Towers presented an image of modernity versus premodernity, a lens through which the protracted war was pursued, as we cast the Taliban as “tribal,” and drove the Taliban into the opium production business, selling “modern” weapons and military tools into Afghanistan, the dichotomy of modern and primitive failed to present anything like a proper lens to pursue the war, although it was one American military had adopted on cue from an American President who had promised a “crusade” in no uncertain terms.

9/11

Perhaps the story of the War on Terror, in both its Afghanistan chapter and in other ways, demands to be written, when it is, as a massive transformation from the perspective of a shift of military engagement on the ground, and the military experience of the soldier, or what John Keegan called “the face of battle,” rather than the grand narratives of a conflict of civilizations in which it was framed. If the experience and strategic outlook Keegan emphasized might well be expanded, following increased awareness, to the long-term psychological and physical costs to those who were fighting, the erosion and fraying of the sense of nation and national motivation for combat must be included in the history as well, but the shift in war experience of the soldier must have shifted far more dramatically for how the “sharp end of war” appeared for the generation of the Taliban who matured in a terrain where American weapons had increasingly arrived in abundance to become part of the landscape of the state, and might be understood in terms of the shifting eras of military engagement from being attacked by bombers, targeted by drones–none of which were owned by the U.S. Army before the war, a telling index of engagement that reflects the way the war was in fact pursued at its sharp face. While in America disdain candidate Obama showed for how his opponent thought the military operated by measuring might by its navy or air force–“we have these things called aircraft carriers . . .,” suggesting one might use cavalry or bayonets as metrics in the Presidential debates in condescending tones–the shifting theater of military engagement of the Taliban, from placement of IED devices to the mastery of roadways and local influence–more than the numbers of American soldiers on the ground.

From IED placement to suicide bombers, to rifles, kalashnikov, helicopters, and humvees, Taliban developed a new mastery of terrain, control of road networks for shipping materiel, to a n increasingly sophisticated tactical and performative use of arms and modern fighting tools that altered its experience and skill at the “sharp face of war” that we ignore, or attribute to outside assistance from Pakistani military, preferring to see the Taliban as primitive fighters without access to the technology America possesses and our provision of military “aid” as destined for “Security Forces” alone, rather than for a theater of war.

1. The current appeal of the clear mapping of the “fall” of Afghan districts to Taliban omits any senses of the line of battle. This is perhaps convenient for the military observers, who digest the war as it is pursued by American interests alone, even the NATO presence was increasingly defined in terms of the development of Afghan forces and democracy, although the “military alliance” shared by America and its Afghan ally is most often understood only in American terms. In mapping the “fall” of districts as if they were of purely strategic outposts in a geopolitical game, the map not only ignores the face of battle, but emblematizes the mis-mapping of American geopolitical interests onto Afghan interests. Despite the continued perhaps overzealous promotion of the skills of Afghan Security and the continued presence of American and NATO military failed to transition to Afghan Security Forces, even if we have continued to equip them with robust “tools of war,” without having trained them fully to fight our wars or to imagine their territorial mastery as anything like a strategic advantage for themselves.

Although the first elected President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was a friendly figure for Americans, trained in international relations and fond of Islamic philosophy, the promise invested in him as a “transitional figure” uniting “all Afghans” was better received by the British Queen and American President, Americans have been more concerned to map Afghan strategy as if it aligned with American interests, and a global war on terror, which Afghan Security Forces were deputized to adopt. We had long mapped the Taliban Resistance or “neo-Taliban” after the Taliban had been crushed as confined in the mountians, rather than in terms of its engagement with the “sharp face” of battle and its toll on both soldiers and the civilians who lived it. We saw the Taliban as an “insurgency” confined to the mountains as if these were the margins of the nation, and located them in Tribal grounds that were opposed to the vision of a central state–or as the inhabitants of a “Triangle of Terror” they had created.

File:Neotaliban insurgency 2002-2006 en.png
“Neo-Taliban Insurgency, 2002-6”
“Triangle of Terror”

In the images of Afghanistan’s “fall,” the “face of battle” is conveniently absent. In the visualizations of “district control” that were produced in the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy and reproduced across Western media, serving lambasted President Biden for some sort of dereliction of duty in concluding a forty-year old poorly thought out war? Democracy becomes something that the United States defends in these maps–or deputized Afghans to learn to defend–but the American President is suddenly seen as asleep at the wheel and not vigilant, the reverse of the image of a powerful Commander-in-Chief we desire, or the necessary and needed military “genius” who can strategically protect the national interests these visualizations reveal to have been tragically imperiled. And so we watch the “fall” of districts that had never gained independent unity, as if they failed to protect themselves from a theocratic opposition. We pretended that the failure was not the entry of increased materiel to the nation, but the global dismay at the levels of arms that are left in Afghanistan–more than are possessed by some NATO countries, and an unknown remainder of the $83 billion of materiel shipped to that nation–and the failure of Afghans to learn to use them against the Taliban, as if they were the exponents shaped by a Triangle of Terror, not affected by the shifting face of battle and “sharp edge” of war.

Increasingly, the promotion of the image of success in containing the Taliban that the U.S. Government promoted was doubted in the press, and seen as not an accurate reflection of the dominant role that the Taliban already had gained and controlled in Afghanistan, but which United States military assessments had rather dishonestly diminished, a scneario in which the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy provided a needed reality check as the true crowd-sourced story of the limited amount of control that the Afghan Government controlled. The extent to which the misleading military map by which the US government was seen as exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan was US government is exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan reflected the more bracing judgements of the right-wing Long War Journal, which valued its ability to present a clear-eyed view of America’s strategic interests in an unvarnished or not sugar-coated geopolitical assessment that America needed in the Trump era, when the confidence in our own government declined.

We did not ever map the “sharp edge” of war, preferring to view the nation from above, either against a “Triangle of Terror” we sought to bomb and domesticize, or parsed into tribal affiliations that became the preferred means of translating Afghanistan to an American audience, which almost acknowledge the failed imperial fantasy to project Afghanistan as a nation with clear sovereign borders, or to define an objective for Afghan independence that is not backward-looking, and rooted in the cartographic attempts of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, translated into the crucial “buffer” function that might contain Pakistan, and stabilize Central Asia in a geopolitical struggle defined by the War on Terror, and not the situation on the ground, or how Americans altered that situation by their increasing military presence and profile. As the Taliban slowly gained ground over the years, and in which the logic of waging war as a protracted struggle had ceased to be worth the $6.4 trillion American taxpayers have invested in post-9/11 wars through FY2020, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan–and the escalating future costs that the war would mean. As we have lost sight of the logic of continuing the “forever wars” into the Biden Presidency, and the vision of a “just war” has become clouded and polluted in the Trump yeas, we have lost site of any ability to imagine the ground plan for the resolution of the continuation of a War on Terror or imagine at what scale such a conclusion might ever occur.

To be sure, the advance of Taliban was not how we wanted to imagine it as a restoration of “normalcy” or a status quo, and a rejection of a theocratic government for a secular liberal ideal. But perhaps the image of Afghanistan as a liberal state was indeed a failed project, and it only existed in maps that had outlived their usefulness or reflection of the area on the ground. The “fall” of Afghanistan reflects the inability to contain the Taliban from the nation, and the weird blindness that America–and the American military and perhaps military intelligence–have to the effects of war on Afghanistan on the ground, wanting to believe in a clear chain of command, recognizable in other militaries, in the AFSN. The GIF seems to raise as many questions as it resolves of the fall of Afghanistan’s provinces to imagine what that ending looks like. As much as the number of districts that speedily negotiated a resolution of hostilities with the Taliban, the fall of Afghanistan and painful and deadly withdrawal from Kabul has been cast as the final cataclysmic episode of the War on Terror, as if President Joseph R. Biden–and Donald Trump before him–had already decided on a military withdrawal from the region was both long planned, and was indeed a means of cutting losses and leaving a region to re-dimension or re-scale the War on Terror that had been fought.

The mapping of the collapse of Afghan districts to the Taliban, cast as sudden and without any sense of occurrence, seem to justify the continuation of that war, but track the erosion of a territorial war, long morphed into a struggle whose aims are unclear. Maps that suggest a “country” of Afghanistan as land that was lost help us imagine that the authority of US forces might have trumped geography. And so we are retrospectively questioning the reporting of intelligence on the ground, trying to read the records of intelligence, or debate the false confidence projected by U.S. military through the final years of the campaign, as if this were an American decision, and a reflection of American global authority, as a microcosm of the image of the United States in the world theater, and seem to present the reassuring picture of a scenario of global politics in which wars are still fought on the ground, and which the loss of the War on Terror was not a failure of the American military, but the ceding of land by Afghans themselves who lacked ability or conviction to fight the war against theocracy that was largely scripted by American Presidents and military–who were unwilling to share their sense of their mission in Afghanistan with Afghan leaders, certain, as last as 2016, that Afghan “priorities are different from ours”–perhaps making it impossible for Afghans to take charge, as leadership of the nation was less of a gridded battlefield that became the dominant graphic that filtered, processed and mediated the withdrawal of American forces across the mainstream media.

In viewing a nation as a battlefield, we are not looking at the right map, or perhaps not looking at the right maps at all–or at the role that the arrival of military weapons played in the rendering “Afghanistan” all the more difficult to map. Perhaps the exportation of arms to the Middle East and to Afghanistan in the years since the nation’s invasion provides a better legend, and indeed a necessary legend, to map how control slipped out of the increasingly corrupt Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, established in 2004 after the United States as it assumed control of most of the country, which has been ceded–and destroyed–by the advance of the Taliban. The drawdown of troops in the country from the heights of the first surge under President Obama of 10,000 men and women has in fact been declining for years, but we have not noticed, or even looked closely at it. Yet the compelling nature of visualizations of “control” over individual districts by 2020 seemed a sudden loss of the nation, a progression of a fall of provinces culminating in the Taliban taking control over almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces, and entering Kabul, perhaps as Afghanistan seems a fitting theater or field for the master-trope of America’s imperial decline. Indeed, the attention in media maps to the delusion at an apparent absence of groundplan for American extrication or withdrawal.

These graphic visualizations are hardly accurate maps, but conveniently omit all information about the “sharp end” of battle, falling back on the geostrategic place of “control” over provinces–is this by the flags flying in their capitals? what is control in a war-torn area?–that can be understood as an element of a “Global War on Terror,” rather than the ways that the war was fought. As uncomfortable as such images might be, we prefer the “objective” GPS image “mapping” control, not pausing to ask what they miss or distort, or process the war in an episode on the War on Terror, or a lost field of battle for Afghan independence which it has long ceased to be.

The time-lapse visualization in the header to this post, of Afghan provinces shifting from “Government Control” or “Contested” to “Taliban Control” offers an image of dramatic impact, as if it were real-time, compelling as a tragic narrative, but erases the deep roots of the “lightning drive” of Taliban forces, fueled in large part both by absence of administrative unity and a massive uncoordinated influx and abandonment of arms–both left to Afghan Security forces or in caches. So strong was the flow of arms to Afghanistan and Qatar from the United States that the Biden administration only suspended arms contractors from delivering pending arms sales. Caches of arms left abandoned by Afghan Security Forces and, presumably, American military who had left them to be used by Government forces, not only destabilized the landscape of local government, but amplified a landscape by men with guns long fed by the over $40 billion contracts for firearms and ammunition flowing to the Middle East since 9/11. But if Biden assessed the Afghan Security Forces as being “as well-equipped as any army in the world” in contrast to the Taliban–and greatly outnumbering Taliban fighters–the long-term distrust of Afghan priorities and concerns left them with little sense of a common grounds for defense. As Americans were making similar assurances, Afghans were already fleeing in July to Tajikistan, where over a thousand Security Forces had already fled.

The arrival of the Taliban did not embody the victory of a theocratic to a secular regime that Americans have cast the War on Terror. The arrival of the Taliban as an armed infantry group, with its own modern military power, is an unwritten history, but was fueled by the arrival of an increased number of weapon that arrived in the region, and the transmission of military technologies across borders in ways that American governments could not perhaps imagine. Whether they were not exposed to the arrival of high tech arms of US manufacture in previous years or not, the idea that the arms that allowed Taliban members to arrive with speed in Kabul and negotiate a ready capitulation of districts, perhaps with Pakistani assistance, the seizure of of an unaccounted number of weapons caches turbocharged the advance to Kabul, in ways that not registered adequately in daunting images of the shift in districts to Taliban control. Such visualizations map a checkerboard of district that seem to track the government “control” of districts that image the erosion of a secular vision of Afghanistan. The division of Afghan lands into “districts” is almost a shorthand for the localism of Afghan politics, an admission of the difficulty of knitting together a secular state from into a centralized state, was never resolved by occupying forces or the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. More than confirm the alienation of ethnic groups from the vision of an allegedly secular government, inter-ethnic divisions have dramatically grown in the place of a coherent strategy for forging a multi-ethnic state, emblematized by an unknown CIA analysts’ map of circa 2017, that continued to map a nation bound by the red line of Afghanistan’s historical border–the “Durand” line, negotiated in the last decade of the nineteenth century–a conceit bisecting a region of Pashtun dominance and mountainous terrain that poses questions of Afghanistan’s ‘borders’ as much as it answers them. Was the retention of this imperial cartographic imaginary not suited for the sense that Afghanistan, as Samuel Moyn argued, offered a chance for the “last gaps if imperial nostalgia” in the post-Trump years, that was, improbably, able to play across the political spectrum?

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CIA Analyst’s Map of Afghanistan, Pashtun dominance in Blue “Tribal Belt” (CIA, c. 2007)

Is it possible that the among of weapons funneled into Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia that have disguised the cost of the War on Terror to some degree have created a huge concentration of arms in Afghanistan.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

If a rationale for the increased ability of Taliban members both to manipulate negotiations may lie in their attention to negotiations at Doha, their use military weapons may lie in the increased arrival of arms in the region. The escalation of imports and sales of arms to Afghanistan–many not registered or under the radar–escalated in the course of the Afghanistan War, and reflect a growing geopolitical significance that the nation was given to the United States, rather frighteningly similar to Vietnam, if the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been most focussed on as the greatest similarity between these two long wars, both fought at considerable hemispheric remove, only conceivable as they were logistically mapped by GPS. In both cases, wars were pursued across a complex and often oversimplified logistic chain, pursuing an elusive vision of global dominance or geopolitical strategy, whose obstacle appeared a lack of geopolitical “vision”: but was the presumption of a possibility of “global military dominance” that mismapped both military projects from a purely American point of view. The flattening of the effects of waging war only seems to have increased, paradoxically, as the geopolitical significance of Afghanistan overwhelmed the well-being of its residents, blotting it out, as the country modernized by force as it became a focus of the arms trade.

2. The investment of American taxpayers’ monies in the region was astounding, and hardly democratic, so much as a tantamount to a massive dereliction of national vision amidst the faulty reprioritization of mission creep that may be attributed as much to the military-industrial complex as to leadership or governance. Over half of all American foreign military financing arrived in Afghanistan directly by 2008, but aid had long flowed to Mujahideen and other insurgents through Pakistan, yet in later years billions of substantial materiel flowed via Qatar, location of the $1 billion CENTCOM headquarters where Americans coordinated all air operations in Afghanistan–a small nation that became the tenth largest importer of arms in the world, after South Korea, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, from 2015-19, largely from the United States, with contributions from France and Germany, jumping by 631% from 2010-14–becoming the eighth-largest market share in arms imports for 2016-2020 behind South Korea.

The absence of attention to the situation in the ground is nowhere more apparent than in the GIF that is the header to this post, which reveals the “fall” of Afghan districts to the Taliban from April, 2021. We map the hasty conclusion of the long war in GIF’s of districts, as in the header of this post, the flattening of a country that has been divided for over forty years, a form provided by the Long War Blog. The division of inhabitants of the land, or the effects of previous combat on the nation’s infrastructure and sense of security, is hardly rendered in the shape-files that flip from one hue to the other, suggesting a “lightning” advance of a militarized Taliban, evoking a sudden loss of a territorial advantage for which Americans long fought, and for which Aghans are to blame. Yet as much as the linked maps of “district control” suggest a traumatic collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the ally of the past five American Presidents, the maps collapse or elide the deep disturbances the war and importation of arms has brought to the territory that lies beneath the map, or oversimplified visualization of regional control.

Financial Times via Global Investigative Journalism, “The Taliban’s March”
source: Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s “Long War Journal” by Mike Roggio

The quandary of designating Afghan regions by questions of “control” presumed a sense of stability and allegiance more akin to an idealized military map than to the situation on the ground. The checkerboard image of areas of “government” and areas of “Taliban” control became thinly veiled covers for a Global War on Terror in which the United States defined itself on the side of the good, that was current in a variety of maps long after the First Surge. In the context of the broad drawdown of American troops after the First Surge, as US troops level fell below 10,000 and Afghan Security Forces were celebrated for their effectiveness, the Taliban made steady gains on the ground. But the maps that suggested “stability” in government-held areas created a cocoon from which to affirm stability of a regime that never had broad institutional support as if the dangers it faced were from an “insurgency” 2002-6, and promoted an image of government control within the outlines of a national map, arriving from outside of a nation that still had retained its integrity and clear bounds as if they were able to be preserved.

“Neo Taliban Insurgency, 2002-6”

Even as Taliban presence was more clearly established than we liked to map, the image of the Taliban as outsiders in Tribal lands created a sense of justifying a “civilizing mission” that was understood as more pacific than military, underpinned by a myth or conceit that the disciplined bodies of American warriors would beat the undisciplined bodies of the Taliban. This myth was confusing the goals of the military occupation, but creating an increasingly real edge for Afghans who experienced much more fully “the sharp edge of war” both forged increased bonds between the members of the military and the fighters and the landscape among the generations of Taliban fighters, and their logic of responding to a military strategy American generals mismapped on a geostrategic checkerboard–the very checkerboard that Foundation for the Defense of Democracies encouraged us to understand the success, progress, or challenges of combat, and indeed control their fears and responses to technologies of combat imported to the region by the United States.

Fall of Districts by July 1, 2021, documented by Fazl Raman Muzary, from local media and on the ground reports

The deep concern of a lack of “strategic vision” was not the best way to understand military engagement of Taliban forces, or to cast the compact shift of district loyalty after the American withdrawal. But these terms provided the terms to condemn and bewail the broad geopolitical military failure read into the maps of Taliban advance in August, 2021, apparently confirming that the AFSN had built up as our surrogate was unable to “face” the Taliban militia we continue to cast as “rebels” or “insurgents.” But the negotiated settlement allowed te rapid fall of a number of districts, as while it required the Taliban cease hostilities with NATO and American troops who had negotiated the settlement, the terms allowed Taliban forces to concentrate on negotiating settlements with local regions, exploiting divisions and existing corruption of Ghani’s Afghan government, boosted by the concessions to release 5,000 prisoners in the past, and the opening of jails in districts whose centers they captured or negotiated a solution.

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The New Arid Regions of the United States

The southwest and states east of the Sierras magnify the effects of global warming in the intensity of their aridity. But global warming reveals a new relation of regions to overheating, and reveals the depths of inflexibility to accommodate water scarcity, as well as the tragedy of its effects. As aridity of the soil and reduction of groundwater reaches unprecedented scales, our passivity is accentuated as we are suspended before maps that try to visualize unprecedented aridity magnified by global warming and its magnifying effects.

For the cascading effects of warming on the land and environment might be mapped in ways that cannot essentialize the greater “aridity” of the region, but the effects of increased aridity of soil, air moisture, and dry air on a region that we have remade into a region of food supplies, agriculture, and livestock, but, beyond, on hydropower. While the Colorado mountains long provided an effective basin to gather rainwater for western states that have been funneled to state reservoirs for agricultural irrigation, the man-made irrigation networks were drying up as the snowpack determinedly fell, and warmer temperatures evaporated what snowpack fell.

The logic of this longstanding pattern of appropriation of water from across the Colorado Basin was in a sense begun with the Hoover Dam, but was, writ large, organized by very process of appropriating water rights to redistribute water that had been enshrined in California from the turn of the century, circa 1914 and the policies of filling reservoirs to redistribute water rights. While we have considered appropriative water rights a distinct feature of how water is redistributed unique to the Golden state, the appropriation of water rights by reshuffling of water in state’s now precarious supplies how diverts over 99 million acre feet of surface water diverted along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to farmland, created a powerhouse of national agriculture. Much of the 75 million acre feet that flow from reservoirs across the state evaporates before it arrives at crops, however–far more that actually reaches the farms or cities.

–and the growing heat of the Great Plains have likewise diminished surface flow of the Colorado Basin already reduced by diminished rainfall. The increasingly warmer atmosphere of recent years has created a new “Arid Region” of the United States, of even greater aridity than when it was first mapped by John Wesley Powell in 1890, and the renewed aridity of the region not only challenges the calculus of water distribution according by appropriative rights that is structured by the Interstate Compact, but the very logic of redistributing water.

The past two decades have seen the departure of seven trillion gallons from Lake Meade, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, holding rainflow from the Upper Basin before it crests the Hoover Dam. The drop will trigger hydrologic stresses across western states, as ever ever-increasing amounts of water are sucked up into drying out air and atmosphere, requiring more abundant irrigation of croplands and grazing grounds. This new and expanded “Arid Region” suggests a return of the repressed, returning at even greater scale and aridity to haunt the nation by a lack of groundwater again.

Evapotranspiration Rates in Colorado River Basin, Landsat 13

that is not to say it ever left. But the solutions of diversion have been undermined by the cascading effects of climate change and increasing temperatures, across an expanse of irrigated lands where water from the Upper Colorado, as from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, are funneled to cities, farms, and irrigation projects, and used to generate electricity. Even as Californians and westerners face the threat of further fires more destructive than any in recorded history–potentially enough to energize an implausible recall effort in the state of California–we face the problems of managing not only historic drought, mandated energy shortages, reduced water supplies. The climate crisis appears to have provoked a deep crisis in leadership, but one without easy means of resolution.

The most improbable political candidates–global warming skeptics after Donald Trump’s heart–have argued drought, wildfire, and electrical storms reveal Gavin Newsom’s lack of leadership, even as they stridently object to aggressive climate legislation aimed at emissions reduction as restraining the free market business,– preferring a free market approach for all climes that would be the laissez-faire redistribution of water to the highest bidder, monetizing a scarce resource to consolidate financial profits and gain in response to diminished water supplies.

As more water is being released from Upper Basin reservoirs to make up for the shortfall in Lake Powell, but the shortage of water in Lake Mead–the largest reservoir in the United States–to less than 40% capacity by 2022 will mean reducing water for lower basin states like Arizona of 812,000 acre-feet, Nevada–by 21,000 acre feet, and Mexico, by 80,000, that have led to the call for new “water markets” to be created across the western states. Indeed, even western states no longer carry the brunt of increased use of freshwater for irrigation–

High Country News

–the demand for conserving water in agriculture is increasingly incumbent on western states, so much so that the shift to less water-intensive crops–like California’s almonds–at a time when many crops require more irrigation, and a shift toward fewer acres of pasturage for livestock–good luck–have become a necessity. Increasing the efficiency of irrigation systems is necessary–ending customs of flooding fields, increasing drip irrigation, center-pivot irrigation, or micro-irrigation, in a New Deal for agriculture, even regulating irrigation systems before water markets price rural communities out of their accustomed access to freshwater. The increased trend toward shifting the distribution of water by “water markets” from lower- to higher-value use is dangerous for farmers, and indeed all rural areas, but also for the western ecology, as it would be the most difficult to preserve water in rural communities or farming areas less able to pay for pricing of water for higher use-value, although they currently consume over 70% of the water in the Colorado basin, or encourage sustainability in regions that are increasingly facing realities of sustained drought, if not megadrought of unprecedented intensity.

United Stated Drought Monitor for Western States, October 2021

Yet the systems of allocating water from the Colorado River by a system of dams, diversions, and canals have led to broad calls to end further projects of water diversion, as the diversion of water to western states may be drying up itself by up leads to calls for new policies of allocating water, not based on the highest bidder, as the river we have made increasingly mobile across boundaries will be divided or redivided between agriculture, urban use, indigenous Americans, and land trusts, as we are in need of redefining the working basis for conserving the redistribution of water rights beyond capture and diversion, and outside of existing water markets and appropriative water rights within states. While the Bureau of Land Reclamation has run the reservoirs, dams, canals, and hydroelectric plants and contracting with individual districts, a broad reconception of practices of regulating water markets, allocations of water, and costs of large-scale water diversion, as demand for water outstrips supply.

Yet as increased farmers are withdrawing water from the ground, or from rivers, from California’s Central Valley to the Lower Colorado River Basin, in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada, the need to reduce the eighty percent of water dedicated to agriculture across the west will demand new practices of conservation, beyond what John Wesley Powell mapped, in 1880, when he advocated new practices of land use, as climate change increasingly destabilizes the Basin, including the thirty sovereign Native American tribes along the river basin. The need to manage demand and riverflow that will begin with the start of the “Tier One Shortage” from 2022, will introduce new rules on water-use and supply that stand to reduce the amount of water flowing to Arizona by a third. Water diversion from the Colorado River has transformed the land west of the hundredth meridian by re-engineering its flow to make the “desert bloom.” Yet the recent dramatic reduction of rainfall, river flow, and increased aridity of the lands, leave us contemplating the viability of relying on water diversion.

John Wesley Powell, “Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Zones” (1880)

The new arid region is reflected in weather maps, but will be a region of radically reduced piped water and a new landscape of hydrologic diversion. If the “Arid Region” was mapped in earth-tones of clear distinction as a cautionary way by explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell, to alert the government to the distinct climate of lands west of the hundredth meridian, the recent area is both based on more detailed and specific remote sensing records, often from satellite observation, but suggests a far more complex area to manage.

For the western states are linked, both by projects of water diversion, and by hydropower, to a region where rainfall and snowpack has declined, and far less water enters into the river-flow of the rivers whose diversion allowed the expansion of agriculture and livestock across the western states. Due to global warming, the earlier “arid region” expanded, returning bigger and better than ever since it was described as extending west from the hundredth meridian by John Wesley Powell, in one of the foundational maps of climate aridity. In today’s parched California, dangerously low levels of rainfall across the central valley seem to belong to the Arid Region. But we have hardly come to terms with its new expanse or migrating edges. The “lands of the ‘Arid Region'” that Powell had hand-colored with earth-tones to communicate the dramatically falling rainfall west of the hundredth meridian long ago mapped a biting response to the eagerness of homesteaders to Go West, cautioning about constraints on water-rights that division by states–rather than drainage districts–would bring. If current rainfall maps of USDA or EPA seem to engage in dialogue with Powell’s old polemical cry, the limited traction of mapping policy against increased pressures of climate change place most maps in a sort of Scylla and Charybdis, located not in the Straits of Messina, but the scissors of decreased rainfall, rising temperatures, and lack of groundwater retention.

1. The problems of managing water rights and ensuring flow are now far greater than what Powell’s creative palette of before the fact overlays even imaged was able to depict, and was a puzzle beyond the interlocking pieces of drainage districts that he–as if akin to the first puzzle-boards composed of hand-painted maps, as this forty-nine piece puzzle map of ca. 1849, painted by Kelly & Levin, of the similar region, that curiously compressed the western United States. Was Powell’s map indicative of the difficulty of solving the puzzle of allocating water resources across arid western states?

Puzzle “Map of California, Mexico, Texas and the United States,” ca. 1849, Kelly & Levin. Boston MA

While the puzzle pieces rarely echoed the shapes of individual states, undoubtedly because o the difficulty of their cutting the contours of states, the puzzling of how the rivers of the west would align with states in this roughly contemporary 1880 Milton Bradley map-puzzle, an “Outline Map of the United States,” posed by including light blue rivers across a map with little sense of varied topography.

ca. 1860, M. H. Traubel, Lith., Philadelphia PA/American Antiquarian Society

In contrast to the resolution of assembling individual pieces of a map of fixed bounds, the expanded arid region mapped by remote sensing spans a farther territory and expanse, and raises deep questions of access to water or even soil moisture in a region that developed as an agricultural breadbasket and locus of husbandry of livestock.

The growing puzzle broached by how the water supply of the west will be reassigned is rarely faced or addressed, although it is ruminated upon as the sub-text–or super-text?–of terrifying maps of rising aridity and low rainfall across the western states, that magnify a new “arid region” with less clear suggestion of an outcome of land management but pause before the cyclically compounded effects of rising heat, low soil moisture, limited run-off, and the specter of drastic irrigation cuts.

Current remotely sensed maps use far less clearly set boundaries or edges of water-shortages, but pose similarly pressing puzzles of how to resolve the appropriative logic of water rights, as drought intensity reduces the water that once flowed from the “upper basin” of the Colorado, feeding the river and redistributed water, and even more surface water is lost to evaporation.

Snow drought is worsening the American West's water woes | The Economist

The puzzle of hydrological access to land-water has become so curtailed across western states, that increased pumping of groundwater risking depleting aquifers by draining vital aquifers, irreparably damaging rivers and riverine waters. The New Arid Region, afflicted by far more aridity and low soil moisture than at any time, parallel to increased global suffering of warming and increased heat, the persistence of private water “rights” to agrarian expanse stand increasingly on a collision course with global warming throughout the new arid West in ways we have yet to address, even as we recognize that we are facing a climate emergency of the sort without precedent in modern memory.

2. No single visualization can, perhaps, adequately come to terms with the unprecedented aridity of the recent years. For no visualization can fully capture the cascading and magnified effects of declining water and soil health, and their effects on ecosystems, as much as on livestock or irrigated crops: the distance from reduced irrigation and new climate specters demands an intensified map. But the terrifying nature of the intense aridity of western states in part lies in how we have seem to forgot the semi-arid nature of the region. The deeper effects of a drying out atmosphere were evident in the huge deficit in water vapor in the past decade during the “fire season” from August to September, dramatically unlike how fire fighters navigated the same terrain in previous decades, when many fire containment strategies were developed and many active firefighters had trained. The map is one that should raise immediate fears of the loss of a landscape of future irrigation, and the need for tightening agricultural belts and shifting our conceptions of food supply and water budgets–as well as the same landscape’s increased combustability and inability to manage or control by an old playbook.

Decreased Water Vapor Present in the Air in Past Decade from Two to Three Decades Previous

The previous month has brought an even more pronounced record of drought across the Upper Basin of the Colorado on which so much hydropower relies, as do other schemes of water diversion.

US Drought Monitor for Colorado River Basin, September 23 2021/Brad Rippey, USDA

The revelation of a new intensity of exceptional drought in many pockets of the Upper Basin of the Colorado River presses the bounds of how we imagine dryness, aridity, and their consequences, even as we rely on older methods of fire-fighting, and fire-prevention, and outdated models of water diversion and energy resources.

The historical denial of what John Wesley Powell had already called the “Arid Region” west of the hundredth meridian, has become a snare for ecological disaster translating into a process of the drying out of long-irrigated zones, with consequences that the nation has not been able to comprehend–and demand a New Deal of their own to replace the diversion of water and generation of energy in the Hoover Dam. Or have we forgotten the intensity of a differential of climate, soil moisture, and increased aridity that Powell long ago mapped in order to illustrate the new regime of government its unique atmospheric conditions it would require, using his uniquely designed palette to hint at the best way to organize the region of water scarcity according to the units that its drainage districts–rather than the state lines surveyed by latitude and longitude?

John Wesley Powell, “Arid Region of the United States, Showing Drainage Districts” (1890)

Powell had explored the canyons, rivers, and plains, as he addressed the Senate Select Committee on the Reclamation of Arid Lands in 1890, he crafted an eloquent seven-color map of rich earth-tones to impress readers with the sensitivity of the region’s texture and urge restraint for expanding the westward flow of homesteaders with hopes to make the desert bloom. Indeed, by circumscribing areas for which sufficient water in this “Arid Region” would be able to providently allow future settlement, Powell neatly divided areas for settlement in a region by hydrographic basins collecting sufficient rainfall for farming. Whereas rainfall maps of previous years mapped a blank spot of water scarcity, Powell hoped to direct attention by a devising a map of the region’s subdivisions that called attention to its soil quality and decreased moisture, focussing on its distinctly variegated terrain in ways foreign to Senators in Washington. Powell hoped to convince who were removed from the region to acknowledge the commanding constraints created by these drainage districts for all future agricultural development and settlement–an unpopular position that ran against the notion of allocating free land in an age of expansive homesteading. If the image of a “drainage district” was foreign to existing state lines, Powell’s image of an “arid region” long haunted the geography of the American West–and contributed in no small part to the subsequent reengineering of the waters of the Colorado River.

In light of the dramatically increased aridity now endemic to the western states, Powell’s map gains terrifying relevance as western states enter severe drought, placing the breaks on once-expanding developments across western states. Powell’s map articulated a historical vision of the limited infrastructure of water in the American west. While the technologies of irrigation that allowed such a massive project of damming and canalization only later developed, did his map inspire the need for a project of such scale as a better model of land management? The intensified aridity that afflicts the western states responds not only to low levels of rainfall. We continue to hope groundwater depletion that afflicts the lower basin won’t extend to the Upper Basin of the Colorado River that has captured water on which so many farmers rely–and thirty-five million north of the border and three million living in Mexico depend, across its Lower Basin. The escalating megadrought has created pressures across the overpopulated west that the water-sharing model Powell proposed for drainage districts cannot resolve, but the distinct forms of water management he advocated have been forgotten, as the declining water level on the Colorado River seems a time bomb as its waters have fallen so far below capacity that while the waters that drain from the Upper Colorado into Lake Meade, the largest reservoir in the west, have left it only 37% full, and Lake Powell stands at 34% of its total capacity. As less and less water enters the river system of a drying-out west, the future of the river on which so many rely for irrigation and energy is all but uncertain.

The water-level of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US and a critical source of water for millions across the Southwest, has fallen 140 feet since 2000, a third of capacity.  Can we come to terms with the increased aridity across the west that the drying out of the Colorado River may bring?   The western states are haunted by the return of the "Arid Region" John Wesley Powell once mapped.
Lake Meade, May 2021

Demand for water in the upper basin and older technologies have meant far less water reaches the lower basin, but what does has been redistributed across western states–absolutely none reaches the ocean at the river’s old delta. Supplies of surface water and groundwater barely provide for the border region, as the overdraft of the basin’s aquifers have made trans-border water management a crisis often overlooked in favor of water management north of the border. As unprecedented soil aridity currently seems to run off the rails, after three summers of no rainfall have depleted soil moisture, may remind us how we have missed the lesson of Powell’s map of instilling new set attitudes toward the land, as the volume of riverflow consistently dropped as it crosses the Mexico border since the filling of the Glen Canyon Dam.

Does selective amnesia underlie how we map the drying out of the west? Most data vis of rising temperatures and low rainfall across the western states is already magnifying and escalating the effects of unprecedented heat over twenty years in a deeply melancholic vein, daunted by the scale of dryness across such an interstate expanse, and passive before an absence of atmospheric moisture that seems a modern casualty of global over-heating. If we were already “living in the future” in California’s frequent and increasingly extreme fire regimes, the multi-hued data visualizations electrify the landscape–and not with power or hydro-energy, but by the all-too familiar color ramp of the extremes of climate change we have been trying hard not to normalize. These images chart a landscape that has gotten away from us, outside seasonality changes, making the American West a cautionary case study for global climate change inspires melancholy.

The additive logic and graphic syntax of maps, long before the separate map-“layers” that accommodate information from GPS, provided a basis to define the fungibility of water and the emergence of “rights” to water across the Arid Region, enabling the idea of governing the transference of water and water “rights” across the region, that separated water from the landscape and environment. The flow of water had long been understood and reconstrued in the west by a logic of irrigation needs–and the “rights” to unpolluted water for livestock raising, pasturage, and agricultural needs of land owners–that was removed from conserving groundwater needs. The increased nature of the fungibility of water as able to be transacted across basins, state lines, and counties reflects the legal fiction of considering water as a “good” tied to the needs of property owners, that, long before global warming, had already sanctioned the removing water from the ground.

If we use metaphors rooted in temporality that try to come to scale with the new era of global warming that cut down and perhaps minimize the era of water scarcity. in which we are entering–“heat waves,” for example, that broke records in states from Washington to Idaho in June and July, breaking or matching records of hot temperatures, the levels of aridity that have allowed the ground to grow arid and degrade have not only led to a spate of western wildfires, but have changed the levels of soil moisture over the long term in ways we have difficulty to map in the scale of our weather maps, or even the maps of the U.S. Drought Monitor, as the cascading influence of such unprecedentedly dry conditions–where stresses on river water create extraction of groundwater that stresses aquifers and groundwater supplies–can be scarcely imagined, or confined to the conventions and color ramps of weather maps.

We have struggled for decades to process the cascading effects of waves of unprecedented heat that over time have produced a drying out of soil and reservoirs over the past twenty years, resulting in an expanded and far more destructive fire season and parched lands whose effects we cannot fully come to terms or comprehend, as we have not seen or experienced the extent of dryness of subsoil, soil, and low rainfall which the US Drought Monitor seems to have mapped, as drought expanded not across the entire Pacific Northwest, from Oregon to Idaho, or 86% of Idaho–by the land’s combustibility, impossible to read without premonitions of lost forests–including old growth forests–melancholic fears more than tinged by an acute sense of a lack of agency.

The sense of struggle with an absence of agency–at the same time as an almost moral urgency–reflects the difficult to process such absence of water as a landscape we have inherited from the rapidly accelerating dynamics of climate change. The history of the increased aridity is all the more poignant as a source of melancholy not only because exceptional drought was the standard before President Trump, and a national emergency before his Presidency. We have failed to register this national emergency with the same immediacy, even as the theater of the border was magnified in disproportionate ways in public discourse on migration. The sense of melancholy is compounded as the map seems haunted, if only tacitly, and perhaps without acknowledgment, by the fact that the head of the USGS in 1890 admonishingly illustrated virtually the same basins now suffering severe and moderate drought as distinguished by semi-aridity–if the current levels are nothing like those faced over a century ago, when the transition of public to private lands. We have recently mapped the substantial threat of increased aridity to the Great Plains–less than a tenth of whose croplands are irrigated–where farmers depend entirely on rainfall to grow soybeans, sunflowers, cotton, and winter wheat, the fear of greater “dry spells” as anthropogenic emissions drive decreasing rainfall and groundwater reserves–a term that tries to convince us they are not permanent–led red flags to be drawn in broad brushstrokes in those states, where extreme and exceptional ‘drought’ .

But climate change has created a new concept of “water stress”–stresses best be pictured not by the isotherms of weather maps, but the watersheds and drainage districts that were the basis of Powell’s revolutionary map, and matching the very region of the Arid Zone where the soil scientist Powell turned viewers’ attention to the crucial index of ground and soil moisture, the true determinant of the future of agrarian settlement and the future of food. The regions determined of greatest future stress were the very basins that Powell mapped, and suggest the relevance of his map, as well as his caution of the difficulties of governance in an area of severe water stress-stress being understood and indexed as a relation between supply and demand, as well as rainfall, in national watersheds.

3. The “Arid Region” of the Untied States had been austerely and admonishingly described by John Wesley Powell as a geologist to caution against the administration of its future settlement with a level of clarity that reveals his Methodist upbringing. It is hard to know how clearly we can ever parse aridity, in an age when rising temperatures have unremittingly drained soil of water. As if informed by a deep respect for the map as a clarity of record, possessing the power to reorient readers to the world by preaching a new relation to the land, Powell had placed a premium on cartographic form as a tool to re-envision local governance–and prepared his striking eight-color map of the limited rainwater that arrives west of the hundredth meridian, the eastern border of what he baptized as the Arid Region, an almost zonal construction akin to a torrid zone.

The imposing title of this reclassification of the interior of the United States revealed Powell’s own keen sense of the map as a visual record of the territory, whose transparency as a record of the quality of the land would be a basis for all discussion of settlement. Powell parlayed his own deep study of the geography of the Colorado Basin to query the value of parsing the administration of water rights by state lines in 1890, convinced of the need to oversee later apportionment outside the jurisdiction of the arbitrary boundaries of western states, but joined them to his sense of duty of preparing a legible map of striking colors to convey the constraints and difficulties for its future settlement– not only by the scarcity of the threads of rivers curled against its topography, but the few watersheds.

Powell trusted the map might mark the opening of the “Great American Desert” in order to alert the US Congress that the dry lands west of the hundredth meridian was a divide. Even if the meridian no longer marking as clear a divide of reduced rainfall, as we confront the growth with unprecedented degree of global warming of a parched west–both in terms of reduced rainfall and declining soil quality–it may serve as a model for the map we need for the future governance and administration of already contested water rights. Powell’s place in the long story of soil quality reflects how neatly the American west as a microcosm of global warming is rooted in the conversion of public lands to private ownership, into which warming has thrown such a significant wrench.

Arid Region of the United States, Showing Drainage Basins (1890)

For the Arid Region’s aridity has since been unremittingly magnified, producing a region more arid than we have ever experienced and struggle to find an adequate color ramp adequate. But we would do well to try to map the forgetfulness of that arid region, even as we confront the quandary of the stubborn continuity of sustained dryness of a megadrought enduring multiple years, compounding the aridity of the soil, and multiplying fire dangers–and the conditions of combustibility of the region–far beyond what the west has ever known or Powell imagined possible. If aridity of soils and poor land quality has spiraled out of control due to “global warming,” raising questions about the future of farms and livestock, the absence of groundwater and surface water alike, global warming demand we shift from national lenses of water shortage to beyond American territory,–but also to discuss the warping nature of national lenses on the remaking of the sediment of the west–and Colorado Basin.

The difficulties of parsing river-flow by “states” as helpful political aggregations for future settlement was rebutted by the map, which sought to direct attention to the aridity of the ground’s soils to orient its administration in a region where water was destined to remain front and center on settlers’ and residents minds for the foreseeable future. The subsequent attempt to jerry-rig the question of scarcity of water by entitlements that rely on re-apportioning unused water escaped the constraints Powell located in the basic common denominator of groundwater.

As much as the region needs to be mapped outside a national context–despite the national nature of climate tracking–the hope of revealing imbalances of the drought indeed exist across borders, and impact water-sharing agreements, much as the smoke from recent northwest fires has traveled across the Pacific northwest. National territory is as meaningless an analytic category for global warming, or water scarcity, which, this blogpost argues, exists in a global contest of migration, as the migration or transborder transit of fires’ smoke.

4. The conditions of aridity that Powell described in the Colorado Basin and its neighbors offer an oddly productive image of the dryness of the ground, in an era before irrigation, that may be useful for how we can come to terms with the fear of a suspension of irrigation across western states. But it is as if the very definition of aridity was forgotten, as infrastructures of irrigation have re-mapped the region that John Wesley Powell in 1890 mapped as an area of difficult agrarian settlement, as farmlands of agrarian fertility and wealth. Powell proposed to view the “arid region” of the United States east of the Rockies with a clarity approaching scripture in a powerful eight-color map to instructively show how limited water constrained settlement of the region after surveying the Colorado Basin.

Powell probably imagined his map in somewhat revisionary as much as rebarbative, reorienting attention to the dry nature of the soil of the semi-arid region of the Colorado Basin by parsing it in areas by which the availability of water constrainted the settlement of the “open” government lands of the west, obscuring that they were seized from indigenous, to correct the mythic geography propounded by official state-sponsored geologists. Unlike Powell, most state geologists had boosterishly endorsed a site for future pasturage, to be enriched by unknown artesian springs, and ripe for settlement by homesteaders, and Powell’s map posed a more tempered image of resettlement that would obey the laws of the availability of water in the Colorado plateaux and other regions he knew so well, cautioning against the encouragement of settlement and sale to prospective farmers in ways that have improbably made the map something of an icon of conservationist thought. Against promise of prospective bucolic lands of pasture, the dry colors chasten viewers by communicating scarcity of water of drainage basins.

The arid region that Powell correctively propounded was long inscribed in the psycho-geography of the United States to be forgotten, but the arrival of irrigation infrastructure allowing irrigation of western states continues to inform, even in our own era of global warming, the return of the boosterist sloganwhere water flows, food grows,” that is still raised in Northern California’s San Joaquin Valley, to protest “cuts to farmwater” in the recent order of an “emergency curtailment” across rivers of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed — essentially the entire Central Valley. The recourse to an engineering “miracle” of making water flow uphill and redistributing more water from reservoirs contest calls for conservation–and only demand the further construction of dams, reservoirs, and water storage for better irrigation. The very promises that the flow of the Colorado River would irrigate lands, that made good on the promises made to homesteaders by describing the region to settlers as a New Canaan, where the growth of future streamflow and even rainfall that had never been documented, would make it suitable for the expansion of animal pasturing and farming, suggests a mythic geography of timeless bounty has replaced its actual conditions.

Friant-Kern Canal Flowing past Kern Dam/Septmeber 2020, Eric Paul Zamora, Fresno Bee

The mythic geography led to a rewriting of America’s irrigation infrastructure that in itself may be one of those pieces of infrastructure just no longer adaptable to extreme climate change. And as we face the scale of the national emergency of water shortages about to be triggered by falling reservoir levels, the crisis of using and recycling water, and the inefficiency of desalination plants of riverwater and groundwater, on which the world currently relies–and were predicted by the US Bureau of Reclamation back in 2003 to provide a “sustainable” solution to the dwindling water provided by the Colorado River, which had allowed the unexpected expansion of the settlement of western states. While desalination plants currently generate worldwide over 3.5 billion gallons daily, with 50 million gallons produced daily in Carlsbad, CA alone, desalination plants in one hundred and twenty counties, only half using sea-water, its energy expense justified as Colorado River decreased, promoted as a “sustainable and drought-proof water supply in Southern California” in an era of climate change, as if to calm our concerns at the dramatically decreased groundwater of western states.

Reclamation scientists assured the nation in 2016 of future recharge in the Upper Colorado Basin would offset temperature increases in their modeling scenarios through 2099, projecting basin-wide precipitation, the fears of the persistence of a mega-drought of extreme aridity with little recharge that may last decades has left fifty-sevens million living in drought conditions across the west according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, that has brought a new era of mega-fires. The thin blue line of the Colorado River is but a crack or thread coursing through a combustible landscape in this recent map of the expansion of unprecedented extreme drought in western states from National Geographic:

For all the disturbing and disquieting elegant if terrifying spread of deep red isotherms in Riley D. Champine’s map, the consequences of such exceptionally below-average levels of precipitation and aridity are difficult to comprehend as cumulative and deep in our nation’s history, as well as the effect of man-made climate change.

The utter saturation of this data vis of growing dryness of a region where rain far below previous norms fell forces the viewer to process an undue range of measures of aridity that they must struggle to process-if the deep orange and reds approaching emergency warning to suggest that surely a climate emergency is at hand. The absence of text in the visualization invites viewers to acknowledge they stand an eery remove of familiarity with an irrevocably landscape, posing unspoken if also unanswered questions about hydrological infrastructure in the Colorado basin, and greater west, that all but erases the geopolitical formation of this landscape–interruption of a rich color ramp at the southwestern border compartmentalize the large-scale decline in precipitation apart from national categories; but the danger lies in its focus on the economically developed north, more than the global south, as if it lacked adequate resources to prudently respond to groundwater shortages, but as an emergency for the developed world.

The focus of the climate emergency is on a large scale, daunting the possibility of individual response, but focussing on prudence at a local level, even if its scale is not defined, questions whether state politics can even resolve the intensity of the dilemma of declining rainfall levels below a thirty-year norm, a deviation on so broad a scale to be impossible to process save in local terms, but that omits the way the basin has been engineered as a site where groundwater now all but fails to accumulate, increasing the basin’s deep aridity more than the color ramp reveals.

The trust that Powell placed in his maps stand in sharp contrast to the “purple” coloration of regions of extreme heat introduced across western states to suggest so many “red-flag” warnings of excessive heat. In a year already tied with 2017 for receiving “excessive heat” warnings from the National Weather Service, already in early summer at a rate that is increasingly alarming, purple designates the need for caution when leaving air-conditioned environments, and suggests the booming of electric cooling across the west: the metric of a prediction of temperatures reaching 105°F for a two-hour stretch has paralleled the debate in Washington on infrastructure spending that suggest a similar disconnect that Powell confronted when he tried to describe the need for constraints on planning settlement west of the hundredth meridian in 1890.

Four Excessive Heat Warnings issued from late May 2021 have introduced yet a new color to prominence in National Weather Service maps, the new deep purple was introduced in weather maps in 1997 as a venture of the NWS into health alerts; rarely used in other weather maps, which in recent years have shifted from urban areas to large stretches of the nation, shifting from a use of red to designate high temperatures to purple to designate risk of triple-digit temperatures, especially in man-made surfaces like asphalt (able to rise to 170°-180° Fahrenheit–territory of third-degree burns–or cars which can rise thirty degrees above air temperature.

Heat Advisories, July 11, 2021/National Weather Service

During the decade before 2003, the water-level of Lake Mead had begun to decline precipitously, inaugurating a historical decline that led it to fall to but 35% of its storage abilities. While the decline was not more precipitous than the two earlier declines in its water-levels in the reservoir from the mid-1950’s and mid-1960’s, the current decline in storage capacity of what is the largest reservoir of water in the United States has raised the unthinkable and unimaginable arrival of water cutbacks, as Arizona’s share of the Colorado River’s waters will be reduced by 7%, and Mexico–where the Colorado runs–will lose 5% of its share, in a scenario never foreseen in the dam’s history, but that reflects the increased aridity of the watershed from which the Colorado River draws. The decline to 1,075 feet in the reservoir’s depth that triggered the Tier 1 reductions in flow may only be a harbinger of the arrival of future Tier 2 reductions, should Lake Mead drop to 1,065 feet, as is expected in 2023, and raises the fear of a Tear 3 reduction, should the lake level fall below 1,025 feet, reducing the water allocated to western cities. In ways that the infrastructure of irrigating the Arid District of the United States could never have foreseen, the arrival of the driest period that the basin has ever experienced in 1200 years has brought longer periods of drier weather without rainfall that have reduced the riverwater that fills the reservoir.

The declining level of Lake Mead plunged below average lake elevation of 1173 feet, by 2003, in ways that should have sent alarms across the west, were we not consumed by a war against terror. The Bush administration’s attacks on global warming grew, questioning the science of global warming and the dangers of increasing aridity. But the disconnect between the expectation for irrigation by the farming industry and farming states was dismissed, with global warming and climate change, as temporary shifts that wouldn’t alter the landscape of irrigation or river flow.

Robert Simmon, based on data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

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