Category Archives: World War II

Sneak Attacks?

The anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima gives one pause as it marks the emergence of a world of remote military strikes conducted by GPS, or on a UTM grid that cast agency at a distance from ethics or ethical choice. One thinks not only of the global cartoons of global expanse that seemed to unroll geopolitical spaces for their American readers, but of the new ethics of point-based precision. For the point-based maps created vertiginously elevated the subjectivity of their readers across the 40,000 maps produced between 1941-45 by the U.S. Army Map Service so as to remove them from a shared ethical framework of humanity. The framing of military invasion as a game of geospatial dominance discounted the massive incalculable loss of human life in campaigns of prolonged fire-bombing and atomic holocaust. While the American military insisted that radiation burns were but “Tokyo tales,” as the government mole in the New York Times, William Laurence, asserted, due to the levels of radioactivity of the Atom Bomb, the cartoon suggested this was but the latest case of action at a distance, asserting a clear causality between the “invasion” of the city in Hawai’i, recently part of Japan, and the drawing and quartering that the explosive man-made catastrophe. The disembodied head miming words of feigned apology invoke a racist stereotype of a hasty apology delivered in pidgin English, disproportionate to the cascading effects it brought.

The oddness of this cartoon rests in its effective displacement of responsibility for the start of the atomic age. Indeed, the narrative this cartoon bears traces of how this new spherical global space suggested suggested a territorial dominance across the new spaces of air travel: the cartoon that appeared after the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6, 1945 are particularly striking as it appears to remove any sense of the agency of atomic holocaust; it cast the explosive logic of the atom bomb as a delayed quid pro quo response to the “Jap Sneak Attack” of 1941; it asked readers to consider not the effects or impact of the atom bomb, but, rather evasively, who really was “the Fellow who Lighted the Fuse,” as if he were to blame: before any images of the destruction of both cities was described, the Chicago Tribune included testimony of Enola Gay crew members, hailing from Chicago, as an exclusive, with a discussion of the physics of atomic bombs and a reminder that a number of B-29 bombers were posed for further destructive missions. The front-page color cartoon hid the explosion of the Atom Bomb over Hiroshima, offering an occluded view on a spherical globe: in colorful Hearst style, the cartoon map was the sole visual documentation of the bomb’s effects, masking the devastation of its impact by the geopolitical logic that led to dropping an atom bomb. The only sense of agency in the cartoon is that poor fellow, his head now rising into the sky, severed from his body, as his bloody knife, patriotic flag for the Empire of Japan, and his military boots and gloves were imagined to be blasted far above the globe’s atmosphere.

Carey Orr, “the Fellow Who Lighted the Fuse,” American Newspaper Repository

The spent match that lies on the “big island” of Hawai’i where Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor on an extra-territorial military base, and processes the devastating destruction of the bomb to a palette of a sunset removed from U.S. territory, where the curling fuse that we can only see as running across the Pacific theater leads to a land lying behind global curvature of the earth, that almost occludes the global significance of introducing the atomic age. Is there a sense of out of sight, out of mind? The odd shirking of responsibility for immediately killing 70,000 Japanese civilians and killing another 50,000 by radiation poisoning created a precedent of instantaneous mass slaughter, , paired with a sustained campaign of disinformation that William “Atomic Bill” Laurence drove, downplayed any destructive effects of the atomic blast’s radiation levels as purely “Japanese propaganda,” as if to conceal its own efforts to portray the role of radiation in contributing to particularly painful and gruesome deaths.

As U.S. President Harry S. Truman would explain to the world that the delivery of the bomb had released nothing less than “the force from which the sun draws its power . . . against those who had brought war to the Far East,” in an impromptu lesson of nuclear physics, the payload of greater power than 20,000 tons of TNT, describing the bomb in empyrean terms that took one’s eyes off the ground as an act of “harnessing of the basic power of the universe” against the Japanese empire that had taken the rising sun as its emblem and flag, as if he was righting the natural order of the universe by using the sun’s awesome power to right the imbalance of a natural order and to deliver destruction in a purely retributive fashion. If almost a quarter of Americans stated after Japan’s surrender that they would have accepted the destructive explosive powers of more bombs earlier in the war, press dispatches claimed that the bombing would not leave any greater medical injuries than conventional bombs; as mortal effects of the absorption of radiation became clear, Lt. General Leslie Groves, having directed the atom bomb program, affirmed the same logic, enjoining reporters who “did not like the way we ended [the war], to remember who started it.” How many times had Lt. Gen. Grove, observing the same map, had arrived at the conclusion after contemplating the range of air routes the bombers would take, as a way of rationalizing the inhumanity of the event by reducing its devastation to the military logic of quid pro quo retribution for military deaths.

Lt. General Groves Observes Map of Air Routes to Japan
A journalist stands on the former site of a movie theater in Hiroshima, Japan, in September 1945, one month after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city.
Journalist Surveys Damage of Hiroshima Bomb, September, 1945/Stanley Troutman

Who, indeed, was making the sneak attack? If the yellow and orange hued pyrocumulous clouds caused by atomic blasts suggested the fireball of a nuclear or atomic explosion, the cartoon clearly referenced not only the explosion that left 200,000 estimated dead in its immediate aftermath, but the fireball of the atomic explosion as a sunset of the Japanese Empire. The first dropping of an atomic bomb on civilian population by the United States–

–was sunset of the Japanese empire, seen from the empyrean perspective of the navigation of aeronautical space that allowed its delivery at precise global coordinates. Did newspaper readers who smiled at the grotesque cartoon vicariously delighting in the ability of precise targeting on geospatial coordinates to target two cities for atomic devastation, without considering the humanity of their civilian inhabitants? Or did it prepare the consumption of the news of the delivery of the payload

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Filed under atomic age, geopolitics, globalism, Hiroshima, World War II

The Earth of Nvogorod

Nvogorod [is] the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus,” Jared Kushner clarified on the eight page of 11-page of testimony he provided to the U.S. Senate, intending to reference Novgorod, off the Volga, but not following Belarusian geography or Kushner family history.  when he sat down with the head of the Russian state investment bank that had funded many state projects, to “help advance the President’s foreign policy goals” in a half-hour meeting perhaps designed to open the secret back-channel between the incoming Trump administration with the Kremlin many suspected both Trump and Putin had desired. Gorkov is a banker, but had studied in the arm of the intelligence agency of the Soviet Union, like Putin, and was suspected to have been a trusted agent to Putin–as well as to be seeking to address the sanctions that were imposed on the bank since the invasion of Ukraine. Gorkov said meeting with foreign companies–not governments!–was “normal practice” for an officer of Vnesheconombank, without mentioning the Ukraine, but he hoped to talk to Kushner as a businessman, stressing a business angle outside diplomatic contacts between foreign ministers; his ties to security services made him precisely the sort of individual entrusted for delicate tasks of a personalized government, as it had led Putin to appoint him to run a state bank tasked with financially funding many of his own personal pet projects.

The sort of kinship that the donation of earth Gorkov carried to New York seemed a way to forge a human tie to Kushner, and to suggest something like an odd token of fealty–although it does not seem that Kushner got it. But the sense of a tie to the earth akin to the ties that Russia had long claimed to Ukraine, seemed an odd sort of argument about the ties to land the Russian government felt to the area of the Crimea in Ukraine, and the pro-Russian separatist factions in Ukraine that Moscow has supported since 2014, and Putin hoped that Trump would recognize as a part of Russian territory. If Kushner sought to minimize the stakes of the half-hour meeting by describing the exchange of trinkets and tokens like a bag of dirt, the gift symbolized questions of territoriality and Russian rights to Crimea–to personalize a territorial conflict that led the European Union to target Russian energy, defense, and finance sectors, but which insider ties to Kushner–and Trump’s White House–might help smooth.

Tattered Ukraine Flag Planted in Contested Earth

It is no surprise Russia wanted to shift from a topic of international debate to an internal issue of administering domestic affairs, asserting irredentist ties to the region settled by Peter the Great, by securing a personal and confidential contact to Trump’s team before it assumed government power.

So why the dirt from Novgorod on the heels of the 2016 election? It seemed a personal touch, if one that Kushner didn’t get, and that Gorkov seemed to have aimed fairly low as a way to present a token of opening a personal tie to the son-in-law Trump clearly trusted. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the gift is how openly Kushner didn’t get it–and the land of Crimea that Gorkhov probably wanted to personalize as a part of Russian lands Putin had only sought to restore to his country in a rightful manner might conceal the 1.6 million internally displaced that the aggression into Ukraine had produced, and the conservative estimate of over 10,000 civilian and military casualties, and almost 24,000 injured, as it entered its fourth year.

In concealing the personalization of a major foreign policy initiative, by dismissing the presentation of a “bag of dirt” Kushner may have foregrounded the highly personal nature of the back-channel of foreign policy–the meeting was set up by the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who had ties to several members of the Trump administration in waiting. Donald J. Trump administration has continued to pressure Russia over its involvement eastern Ukraine. Although the United States, soon after Trump’s inauguration, in fact imposed new sanctions that Russian called tantamount to a “trade war” on nine companies and twenty-one individuals tied to Russia’s occupation and annexation of Eastern Ukraine, engineered by Rex Tillerson and Kurt Volker, Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, and approve sales of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine in 2018, Gorkhov seemed eager to open a personal contact with Kushner between businessmen, parallel to American national interests. Was the bag of earth and art from “Nvogorod”

Might Jared Kushner have mis-remembered his ties to a Russian region where Charles, his father, regularly took the kids–suggesting that it was Novgorod? The bag of dirt might seem a link that Putin or Gorkhov wanted to consolidate, and probably brought from Belarus, but the suggestion of the strength of regional ties to a region in Russia’s sphere of influence, who also hoped to develop close ties to the United States. It arrived beside “a piece of art from Nvogorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus,” although the ideas of this being a tie of affectionate remembrance is contrived. Oddly, displacement, death, and invasions would have been told in the dirt that Gorkhov sought to present to Kushner, could well have evoked the city from which Kushner’s grandparents were in fact refugees, albeit because they had fought as partisans in Belorussia against Nazi invaders–now the nation of Belarus. In describing an ancient Russian city, long part of Lithuania, that was residence for many Jews, Kushner revealed his hazy purchase on a site dear to his father Charles, whose parents had once been members of the city’s large Jewish community from the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were granted permanent residency in a region imagined fenced off and enclosed, as if to be the site where Jews had long lived apart–a point of memory not dear to Kushner, where Jews had made up a large part of the overall population, and had been a large group of partisans, but faced anti-semitism.

But Jared oddly used the term associated with Novgorod Land, near Moscow, where, one suspects, the dirt he had been brought by the Russian banker Sergey Gorkov, personally appointed to run Vnesheconobank (VEB), the foreign bank of the Russian Federation by Vladimir Putin, had derived–a region close to Moscow, where Kushner’s father-in-law had famous ties.

Novgorod Land in Duchy of Moscow (1593)

Kushner’s admission to receiving a ceremonial “bag of dirt” from Gorkov not only played down its ceremonial status quite adroitly–“he gave me two gifts–one was a piece of art from Nvgorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus, and the other was a bag of dirt from that same village”--seemed a token that this grandson of immigrants thought to be innocuous, but in underscoring its incidental nature. But the city in the Pale of Settlement where Kushner’s family hailed was from from the bucolic land of prancing reindeer mapped in 1593, he betrayed his deep sense of ethics in claiming that bag as his own, and may have called attention to the somewhat conspiratorial gesture the head of the VEB, revealing ties of a broader sphere of Russian influence the bank had Combe to embody.

Kushner’s orthodox religion is public record, and a matter of considerable pride.  But Kushner cloaked that ethnic identity and whatever significance his family might have assigned the dirt–and whatever Gorkov thought he was doing carrying the earth to New York City–a bit too smoothly.  The conspiratorial nature of the gift seemed symbolic, but the associations that the earth seemed spiritually impregnated were deprecated in odd ways in Kushner’s haste to play down the meeting’s significance as an exchange of family trinkets. Kushner’s grandparents had fled the walled Litvak ghetto of Nowogródek months after it was established in June, 1941, in Belarus, joining a fierce Jewish partisan resistance in as Nazi troops extended the Jewish genocide into Russian lands. As the Nazis ghettoized Jews and extended policies of extermination in the city near Minsk, the Kushner elders joined a Jewish partisan squad in the Belarus–escaping the ghetto via a tunnel of over two hundred yards dug over weeks by his grandmother Rae, then seventeen, with her brother Chonom, by hand-made instruments, successfully tunneling underneath electric fencing surrounding the ghetto walls, and helping some 350 Jewish men and women fled the ghetto to nearby forests where many lived for a surprising stretch of time, often in underground bunkers: would the groups trained in Zionist Youth Groups in the Pale of Settlement think of themselves as Russian? Or was this the history Gorkov tried to conjure, to forge a tie to Trump’s son-in-law?  

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Filed under Belarus, Cold War, geopolitics, Vnesheconombank, World War II

Bombed Out Landscapes over Time

When the Germain army declared, in April of 1942, as accelerating violence of global war brought the arrival of the British bombing of German towns, the wartime Nazi government boasted that they would use native maps in the public domain to destroy valued buildings in England with impunity. In blood-curdling claims that prefigure the American threat to violate international law by targeting of historical sights in Iran, the Teutonic boast that ‘We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide” suggests the terrifying slippage between German superiority in objective tourist maps once tied to educational formation to the superiority of airstrikes from the German Luftwaffe’s arial blitzkrieg that was determined to destroy historical sites, using V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets to act as “Vergeltungswaffe” or vengeance weapons, in an air-launched arsenal designed to destroy whatever was celebrated on the map. The bombing of London followed the escalation of raids launched on Germany from seven airfields built for the purpose in East Anglia, after 1940, which had dropped seven hundred and thirty-two thousand tons of bombs on German cities by the new strategy of “carpet bombing,” creating firestorms in German cities from Cologne to Bremen, from Würzburg to Stuttgart, and many more, creating landscapes of instant ruins in a form of psychological warfare that seems to effective to be almost omitted from German postwar literature.

The experience of a bombed out landscape was hard to distance oneself from–and all but impossible to map. During the blitz, Graham Greene gave it his Eton best, chiding Anthony Powell with customary sarcasm how the bombing raids made London “extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new spaces” as rocket bombs had torn through buildings: Greene distanced himself from violence by affecting admiration for the “rather Mexican effect of ruined churches.” He was not only being picturesque, but looking back on the hatred he felt for the Mexican landscape whose ruins he had officially visited in 1937-8, while investigating Socialist outlawing of Catholicism in Mexico; the dark sarcasm no doubt concealed fears rockets rendered the capitol akin to the landscape he saw as a periphery whose poverty and dishonesty he loathed as “a state of mind” without morals, economic precarity, bad food and drink, and bad faith. Whatever churches Greene saw in Tabasco and Chiapas were empty of ritual or priests by state decree, secret Masses confined to private houses by priests who register with civil authorities after agrarian and land reforms stripped the church of property.

If Mexico seemed a periphery, London seemed in danger of becoming one, as Britain’s bombardment by Germans hoped to reduce England’s capitol to ruins; he disdained American superiority to Mexico whose wealth they had extracted, and thought little of the “cold, snarky chambers” of Mexican ruins in the seventh century Mayan city of Palenque, but the bombing of London by “vengeance weapons” threatened rapidly to reduce the metropole by a Third Reich that hoped to triumph over Britain by consigning it to the past to bring to a close an early historical epoch. If Mexico was “a country to die in and leave ruins behind,” the specter of silent, majestic ruins were hard to map onto London.

The evocation of a ruins was telling at a time in the almost exactly eight month bombing campaign from October 1940 to early June 1941. V-2 “vengeance weapons”–or simply “revenge weapons”–were unlike earlier types of war, definitively shifting military hostilities to a home front. If Graham Greene had imagined Mexico as the glamour site of the adventures of Pancho Villa in his childhood, the dangerous landscape of wartime suggested , the start of a campaign whose targets were chosen from a travel guide was a metaphor of how bomb strikes might close a historical epoch by sheer application of force, confirming the imperial destiny claimed for the Third Reich, and reduce London to the material traces of a past Germans long studied of Rome’s Empire and ancient Greece. It was hard to watch the raids at a stoic remove. The emigre bookseller and intellectual historian Chimen Abramsky tied to wacth at close hand London’s bombing unfold by binoculars from the roof of his Highgate residence, scanning the urban landscape for the sight or sound of bombs’ inevitable before joining fire brigades to rush to the scene to mitigate flare-ups in urban neighborhoods, stunned “London was on fire, burning from four sides,” as if the Nazi invasion of Poland, Belarus and Russia had followed him and his father refuge. The V-2 bombs were perhaps only a rehearsal for the aggressive carpet bombing of the Siege of Stalingrad of late August 1942 they preceded; the utter destruction of those air raids challenged novelist Vasily Grossman’s points of reference–“Everything burned down. Hot walls of buildings, like the bodies of people who have died in the terrible heat and not yet cooled down . . . miraculously standing–amid thousands of vast stone buildings now burnt down or half-destroyed,” he wrote in his notebooks. Stalingrad became a landscape of historical ruins, “like Pompeii, caught by destruction in the fullness of life.”

Is it an an oddly English response to try to map this destruction in poignant pastels, as in the header to this post? The elegant maps of the destruction of buildings that were tallied with care during the Blitz cartographically process the bombs’ arrival in an array of watercolors, as if to hold at distance the violence done to place with which each writer–Greene; Abramsky; Grossman–struggle to frame in a language of ruins that suggest historical breaks. They affirm the continuity of the landscape, rather valiantly, against Ordnance Maps, as if to chart hopes for rebuilding.

They are far leess abstracted than recent dense collection of red datapoints of where bombs hit in the recent webmap “Bombsight” charts, which illustrate the overpowering reach of the rockets but makes it hard to comprehend the scale of their effects by the density of these crowded datapoints on a Google Maps base map–even if one zooms in on closeups on individual neighborhoods against the muted generic landscape of a base map. The unprecedented intensity on London, temporally collapsed, challenges the viewer to process the impact of eight months of rockets in totality. The preservation of a set of hand-painted Bomb Damage Maps created to assess the rockets’ devastation in real time offer keys to navigate that experience, as records of the cartographic reaction to the modern violence they wrecked and the transformed urban landscapes that so many Londoners continued to inhabit.

Mapping the World War II Bomb Census: Rockets Targeting London, October 7, 1940-June 6, 1941
Bombsight

As the destruction of these cities fades from collective memory, the online sources of like “Bombsight” that aggregate actual geodata placing the density with which all rockets and bombs dropped on the city in individual time frames offer something like a slider bar to view the violence, without the fire and death, remotely on our screens. But how to describe or take stock of the scale of such devastation, let alone to do so in a map, or to make contemporary maps and accounts to be embodied in an adequate spatial form? For the journalist Grossman, bombs that fell amidst the flames of burning houses over Stalingrad redefined the place as it had been known from maps, and redefined the lived space of the city that were unable to take stock of by a single observer. “It was no longer a matter of individual explosions; all space was now filled by a single dense, protracted sound” of the howls of bombs, air cloudy with white dust and smoke, the characters of his novel search for images of Pompeii, wondering if any one will remember them, the thunder of explosions and crack of anti-aircraft guns marking time against the howl of a bomb that grew in volume, altering one’s sense of time as “howling seconds, each composed of hundreds of infinitely long or entirely distinct fractions of seconds,” erased desire, memories, or “anything except the echoes of this blind iron howl.”

Whether referencing the obliteration of space by the Baedecker guides was a conceit of historical migration of empires or conflated cartographical superiority of touristic guides with the precision of aerial bombardment suggests the crossing of categories of bombarding civilian populations. The obliteration of clearly demarcated lines haunted Stalingrad’s bombardment included modern incendiary bombs, for Grossman, as tens of thousands of which small canisters that could tumble out of in containers of thirty-six filled the air with a distinct screeching unlike the whistles of high explosives, a screeching that echoed the screeching of the V-2 bombs that Thomas Pynchon employed as the arresting auditory perception of the mesmerizing opening sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow focusses on the “new sound” then unknown of “A screeching came across the sky” . . . Grossman focussed on the “new sound” bombs made in Stalingrad as unlike the whistle of hunters of high-explosive bombs, but “penetrated every living being [from the] hearts of those about to die [to the] hearts of those who survived–all hearts clenched in tight anguish,” so that “there was no one who did not hear it as they plunged into the city, rendering “building after building joined in a single blaze and whole burning streets fused into a single, living, moving wall . . . as if a new city of fire had appeared over Stalingrad,” introduced by the distinct sounds that follow the arrival of “planes coming from north, west, east and south [that] met over Stalingrad,” whose descent on the scientific “seemed to be the sky itself that was descending–sagging, as if under dark, heavy storm clouds, under the vast weight of metal and explosives.”

To register the new city rendered by daily destruction, lest the earlier city by lost, the London City Council undertook in a valiant act of cartographic preservation during the air attacks from September, 1940, just after the Germans had planned to invade Russia, to 1941, and amplified with the attacks of V-2 rockets by 1944, to ensure a level of destruction more sudden and more terrifying than the incendiary bombing of Stalingrad. The ways that the British Army mapped the destruction that V-2 rockets of terrifying precision were able to carve out of the city of London had been long lost, but the recovery of these map provides an eery echo of the historical models and precedents of civilian targeting of historical sites that haunts the contemporary world. For he scars of ethanol-fueled V-2 rockets that speedily struck wartime London seventy years ago are a good place as any to start to map the systematic bombing of civilian spaces.  As if mapping the liquid-fueled fantasies of destruction of Wernher von Braun, the V-1 and then, subsequently, V-2 bombs silently arrived to create a psychologically searing topography of death that transformed the city, immersing civilians to new topographies of fear.

The contemporary graphic tabulations of damages in recently published Bomb Damage Maps  orient one in chilling ways to the progress and degree of bombing wartime London in purples, violets, oranges, and light blue on London’s familiar plan.  The pastels are disarmingly tranquil if not placid in tenor, but seem to conceal within a Benjamin Moore-like in their variety, which seem to reveal a of destruction wonderfully measured concealment  resistance of a British culture of grim-faced exactitude to the horrific episode of wartime destruction, generations away from the bombardment of images of bombed out landscapes in Beirut, Syria, or so much of the Middle East and Libya today.  If these pencilled sketches seem oddly antiquated and removed, the poignant attempt to come to terms with the radically escalation of destruction in the  devastatingly regular tempo of accelerating bombardment that is known as the London Blitz–even if they cannot capture the panic, commotion, terrified screams or chaos, in the muted pastels in an aerial perspective that affirm the organic city that once existed in a still alive past.  

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Filed under London Blitz, military maps, Vietnam War, war crimes, World War II