Tag Archives: ballistic missiles

Mapping Armageddon?

It didn’t take long from the dropping of the first atomic bombs to imagine the new landscape of mutually assured destruction that would defined the Cold War, before any Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles–ICBM’s–were developed or the technology existed.  Just three months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan–from early August to mid-November–Life magazine offered a map of a coming “thirty-six hour war” accompanied a report of General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces in World War II, for which magazine illustrators created copy visualizing the devastating scope of the air-based “Thirty-Six Hour War” which consisted largely of atomic missile strikes and arrive “with shattering speed”:  rather than map the dangers of a strike of missiles that bridged continents, the article advocated the weapons needed to survive and reach victory in a war which might come with “shattering speed.”

The same terrifying landscape of an arrival of atomic bombardment under starlit skies seems to have haunted our notion of what a theater of war based in intercontinental missiles would look like,–and how it might be successfully waged, as the detection of enemy rockets by radar systems plotted the course and fed their positions and, in the thirty minutes available to prepare for attack,  launch defensive rockets that intercept the atomic explosives in “an effective means of defense,” in ways Arnold imagined and the life illustrator obliged.  These images created the notion of survival–and indeed victory–in an era of near-certain atomic attack , where Arnold felt it only a matter of time we develop our defenses against atomic projectiles, and develop something similar to German V-2 rockets, able to strike with precision “but armed with atomic explosives.”


Defenseive Machines.png


Before ICBM’s were entered the plans of the U.S. Department of Defense, General “Hap” Arnold’s report occasioned a widely-circulated set of maps in Life magazine, whose haunting grey-drenched image of missiles arriving over American cities warned of the coming space-age war, where the sort of total defeat that was visited on the Japanese was depicted as a possible survival.  Even as nuclear warheads arc above unseen populations as they sleep, as if removed from human agency, launched from beyond the horizon, the storyboards that the magazine’s artist rendered with the air of science fiction periodical suggested how such an attack might be resisted, and indeed victory be won–with the development of a large system of underground silos able to fire missiles back against the enemy whose lands might be later recaptured by airmen, in a future war waged largely from the skies.  The image accompanied a narrative inviting readers to imagine the rapid pace and unprecedented destructive scale of nuclear war which so deeply tapped unspoken concerns of the nation’s future survival to lock in a logic of an atomic war.


Atom Bombs Descend on US LIFE 1945The Atom Bombs Descend on the US (November, 1945) (Alexander Leydenfrost)


Alexander Leydenfrost’s two-page spread accompanied an article about Gen. Arnold’s report to the US Department of War flatly recounted what seemed an inevitable future air war.   For “Hap” Arnold, who would work at the Cold War think tank the Rand Corporation,  the expansion of nuclear weapons in airborne war as a crucial matter of import for the Secretary of War–the document was closely tied to the start of the Cold War.  Rather than view the terrible nature of war from the air–think of Picasso’s Guernica and the tragedy of its tortured bodies–the advance of foreign rockets is a problem to be confronted, and the map of the atom bombs descending on the United States in “Thirty-Six Hour War” ask us simply to confront the question of what the nature of the war will be and how it can be best waged and won.  “Security” was best tied to “our ability to take immediate offensive action,” Arnold wrote his letter, in an argument Life diffused to a wide audience as a sound conclusion rooted in expert knowledge, and “we should devise every possible active defense against an atomic bomb attack,” lest the image of “a great shower of enemy rockets falling on thirteen key U.S. cities” armed with atomic bombs not be able to be withstood.  The empyrean remove of the rockets bearing atomic loads contrast with how a fractured picture plane renders terrorized figures and animals who experienced the confusion of an airstrike on the ground in Guernica.




The panoramic map rendered the “startling speed” with which rockets bearing atomic warheads might be expected to arrive over the United States in a future war of short duration, delivering, as Arnold argued in “Air Power and the Future,” “devastating blows at our population centers and our industrial, economic, or governmental heart even before surface forces can be deployed.”  The hemispheric panorama that Life‘s skilled in-house illustrator Leydenfrost designed shows the United States “as it might appear a very few years from now,” above “a great shower of enemy rockets” exploding over New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boulder Dam, New Orleans, Denver, Washington, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Kansas City, and Knoxville ” that will kill 10,000,000 instantly.  While only apparently showing eight occurred sites of impact, the list of place-names activate a future landscape of destruction.  If we might not immediately grasp the map from which place-names are absent in a view that seems terrifyingly removed from any human agency, the terror of the “ghastliest of all wars” is processed as we recognize the landscape–whose remove from the present is compressed by a legend assuring us that this may be “the U.S. as it might appear a very few years from now.”

The cartography of fear that Arnold helped develop is still very much with us today.  For is the surreal map that accompanied “Hap” Arnold’s prophecy of the winnable atomic war still not somehow informing Donald Trump’s rather grotesque saber rattling today?


Atom Bombs Descend on US LIFE 1945

panoramaThe Atom Bombs Descend on the US (November, 1945)/Alexander Leydenfrost


The rendering of the rain of bombardment under the cover of night-time skies is eerily prescient, and in fact predates technologies of intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying atomic warheads that it foretold..  Although in-house illustrators like Leydenfrost, a former professor of industrial design at the Royal Joseph Technical University in Budapest, are often credited for the chilling panoramic view of arcing strikes from an unseen antagonist, “Hap” Arnold, as well as a commander of the Pacific theater of war in World War II, helped create the first propaganda training films for the US Air Force.  In addition to being “the Architect of America’s Air Force,” he founded the office that helped  produce some 400 propaganda films for the US Air Force during the war; the panorama of arriving enemy rockets image, which accompanied a striking realistic painting of New York destroyed by atomic bombs, was effectively propaganda for the expansion of the military budget in the post-war era of what was then the US Department of War.

Whatever the case, the cinematic staging of such an ominous image of arcing arriving intercontinental missiles landing in multiple North American cities was close the images that not only haunted the national psyche but lodged itself for future years in the mental landscape of the duck-and-cover era as an image of immanent destruction, against which counterattack–the hope of exploding impending atomic bombs in the air by a rocket–can forestall the rain of atomic bombs over what we now recognize as the United States.  The idea here, which haunted the mental imaginary in the Cold war, is that the United States, even as it was poised after World War II to be the preeminent world power, could be struck down by warheads while most of its citizens are asleep, without any warning.




If the continent was difficult to recognize, the article showed Washington, DC as the target of attack, as it had never been seen, below an incipient mushroom cloud.


DC under attack.pngThe Thirty-Six Hour War (November, 1945)/Alexander Leydenfrost


The apocalyptic landscape conjured a new primal fear in incredibly stark terms, drenched in grays to suggest a grim future, beneath the brilliant “shower of white-hot enemy rockets [that] falls on Washington, D.C.”  The panorama from outer space was perhaps not easily recognizable by readers at first; but the actuality of the destruction of a familiar landscape was activated by a litany of place-names in the article that were suddenly seen as targets of the arcs of long-range missiles, in a strike occurring while much of the country lay shrouded in darkness, unprepared for the sudden attack.  The darkness was appropriate, as it suggested the dangers of being unprepared for the new landscape of war; and a case could be made that the image prefigured if not inaugurated the Cold War.  It acknowledged the terrible nature of the discovery of the atomic bomb might soon be used against the cities of the United States capitol. “It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered,” Truman mused in his diary on July 25, 1945.

There is something about apocalpytic imaginaries that makes them particularly striking occasions to consider one’s mortality.  The above panoramic map was printed beside an article that described a letter that “Hap” Arnold wrote as the commander of the U.S. Air Forces to the Department of Defense.  It served as a call to stir up public opinion about the need to continue boosting preparedness, on the eve of Hiroshima, for the Next Big War,–a war which would demand a system of returning missiles armed with warheads.  The article effectively asked in 1945 whether American cities might suffer the fate the United States had inflicted on two Japanese cities in such a historically unprecedented show of force.  And as if to make the point about the damages air strikes had inflicted on Japanese cities that were roughly the same size as cities in the United States and England, Arnold seems to have made sure that a map tabulating the percentages of cities American bombing raids had destroyed relative to American cities for readers of Life, listing the percentage of “the principle industrial cities which were burned out by B-29 incendiary attacks” noting beside each place-name “with U.S. city of approximately the same size” to make the rhetorical point and invite readers to consider what the shifting of place-names would mean for the future landscape of the United States, or indeed could have meant if another nation developed the atomic bomb, as many had worried:


% Japanese cities obliterated by air strikes.png

Bombed out Place names Japan %.png


If Arnold had worked on propaganda films for the war effort, he may well have helped placed this piece of public opinion propaganda in the premier magazine in order to boost support for expanding our dedication to an expanded military and Air Force even after the war’s close.  The image of the possible future destruction of Washington, DC, captured in the most visceral way possible Gen. “Hap” Arnold’s deep-set belief that the only “real security” against atomic weapons in the visible future will rest in our ability to make potential aggressors realize” that “an attack on the United States would be immediately followed by an immensely devastating atomic attack on him [sic],” after which, he argued, airborne troops could follow-up to secure the country’s infrastructure.  The sequence of maps created an argument that forced readers to try to process the issue of future nuclear strikes far more compellingly than words alone could make, and made explicit some of the greatest fears on everyone’s mind.  And they suggest, much as the current crisis with North Korea, the quick migration of military maps to civilian readers.

Arnold’s rhetoric of course mirrors the threats of nuclear reprisal Donald Trump has recently made, startling much of the world as well as South Korea and Japan.  The earlier Life article sought to reach a mass audience of readers to create pressure about the request to continue to grow the post-war military budget.  It is striking that Arnold’s article was accompanied by an image designed by the Life in-house illustrator conjuring an underground facility dedicated to manufacturing, storing, loading and firing ICBM’s that did not yet exist, an underground city not able to be attacked from which retaliatory missile strikes could be fired through hidden “firing tubes” that could readily respond to the enemy in an hour.  The scary article invited readers to visualize a coming nuclear apocalypse raised the possibility of a missile defense system, while allowing that “our defensive machines stop few attackers,” and advocating the expansion of a retaliatory strike mechanism as the best possible defense. While the illustrator who signed the apocalyptic panorama is credited with their truly cinematic effect, Arnold’s own acquaintance with cinematic scenarios may be revealed familiarity with storyboards and scenario both in planning the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Forces, after his sustained efforts from 1942 to persuade Warner Bros. producers and screenwriters to create war propaganda films for the U.S. Air Force–resulting in “Winning Your Wings,” a recruitment film for the Air Force starring Jimmy Stewart–which glorified the future of war combat in the air and the ease of enlisting as a pilot, minimizing any potential personal sacrifice.

The recent mapping of the sudden and sizable growth of missiles from North Korea that can be classified as of intercontinental range from March 2017 raise a similar alarm.  The   firing in May of the Hwasong-12, or KN-17, which broke all previous records for the distance at which North Korea had fired missiles suddenly reactivated such a landscape of first nuclear strikes.  For the course of its flight, which rose some 3,000 km before falling into the Sea of Japan, when leveled out suggested the attainment of a striking range able to reach even beyond the U.S. army base in Guam–and it was followed by two subsequent missile launches in July of startlingly greater range.  The apparent range of the Hwasong-14 on July 17 may have revealed an ability to strike Alaska, possibly Denver, or even Chicago–attaining an ability to target cities in the United States and North America–even though it is far from clear that the missile would survive the trip.




Troy Griggs/New York Times (March 4, 2017) Source: The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


Recent news maps take care to list the names of places where American military personnel could be struck by North Korean missiles, to concretize fears of the cities that North Korean missiles of greater range might attack.  The maps posed questions of first strike capabilities without any consideration of the local dynamics of power on the Korean peninsula.

Even in an age of web-mapping and data visualizations, the rehabilitation of classic cartographic projections have been used to situate North Korea at the center of a theater of conflict.  The employment of an azimuthal equidistant projection–a useful strategy to be able to show each point in the world lies in a uniform scale from North Korean missile bases, if in ways that its Renaissance pioneers, Gerard Mercator or Guillaume Postel, would hardly recognize.  For the azimuthal projection serves to activate fears of future nuclear strikes by rendering North Korea at its center in bright red–and process the fears of what a first strike would entail, and indeed to globalize what is in fact a confrontation between the United States and North Korea–and a response to the sense of vulnerability that the North Korean government has to joint military exercises near its shore..  The projection helps to map North Korea as a prime global threat, however, as if to mirror the responses it had provoked from Donald Trump, and its place at the center of global media attention, isolating the country that has tested increasingly powerful ballistic missiles from May to July as an absolute and undeniable danger for the entire world.  The map helps process the emergence of North Korea a hot-button issue, to be sure, but also removed it from networks of local knowledge or diplomacy, identifying it with the color associated with danger signs to map the newly expanded striking capacities of its missiles as a focus of global concern in no uncertain terms.

North Korea Can StrikePolitico


The arrival of a projection centered on North Korea suggests not only a shift in perspective on geopolitics in the post-Cold War world.  It foreground a new threat tied to nuclear proliferation:  North Korea has been recognized as able to produce compact missile-mountable nuclear weapons with rapidity and the fear that North Korea is able to deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States–and that North Korea has enough a fissile material stockpile sufficient for 60 bombs today to produce additional fissile material at a rate of 12 bombs per year–meant that it would even have the chance or possibility of exploding warheads over multiple American cities, even if the July launch of a Hwasong-14 that shot up to a height of 3,700 km didn’t demonstrate successful atmospheric re-entry on which the delivery of a nuclear warhead would depend, although North Korea claimed it suffered no structural damage during its July 4 test; but the test suggested that the new North Korean missile was able to travel the 5,500 km to qualify as a truly “intercontinental” ballistic missile the country had ever constructed.

But the geographical imaginary of the Cold War is not able to be so seamlessly translated to the Korean peninsula, where the “arms race” that seems to have developed as the result of the buying of warheads and technological expertise  suddenly available on the black market, and perhaps from a missile plant in Ukraine, from a factory from which Russia had canceled their order to upgrade their own fleet of nuclear warheads, and from which North Korea tried to purchase “missile systems, liquid-propellant engines, spacecraft and missile fuel supply systems” a year earlier, according to  United Nations investigators, much as memos from the Obama administration released by WikiLeaks  described North Korea using missile designs used in Soviet-era thermonuclear warheads.

Maps are good to think by, and important tools to process such striking and difficult to digest information about a shift in power reand global threat.  But if maps are what we use to think about conflicts, although the technology transfer of Russian-designed missile engines to North Korea may have come from missiles languishing in Russian warehouses, the translation of a geographic imaginary from the Cold War North Korea’s use of the missiles makes little sense:  the confrontation about increasing ICBM potentials able to strike the U.S., about which rumors circulated in 2009, and for which bomb testing began from 2013, is poorly mapped as a confrontation only between two adversarial nations, but complexly enmeshed in the tensions and politics of the Korean peninsula,–and not successfully visualized as from an adversarial unseen enemy lurking over the horizon, and threatening to strike cities in the United States, as in the terrifying panorama rendering “Hap” Arnold’s dark view of the future of warfare.

Alarmingly, if the global relations of Pyongyang to the inhabited world were shown in ways that better accommodated imagined arcs of ICBM’s along its surface, the global reach into North America, so long desired by North Korea, can be alarmingly shown in ways that suggest the expanding reach of North Korea to cities in the midwest and east coast, assuming the missile’s standard trajectory to crest above 10,000 km, and, given the eastward extension of this range by the planetary rotation of the Earth, allowing an even greater range depending on their direction, perhaps placing New York and Boston within striking ability of North Korea, if leaving Washington, D.C lying just barely beyond range.



nyt hwasong 12.png

Troy Griggs/New York Times (March 4, 2017)Source: The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


The “growing reach” of North Korean nuclear warheads has been showcased repeatedly in recent months, as the firing of ballistic missiles launched on rockets has brought renewed speculation on just how far the ability of Pyongyang to target cities in North America is–raising questions that indeed echo “Hap” Arnold’s own concerns, and seem closely tied to support for renegotiating the military budget in the Trump administration.

The maps that visualize the growth of North Korea’s striking range displayed in the news are, after all, far from disinterested, and often seem designed to alarm.  It has been pointed out that a series of misleading maps, often involving estimates of intercontinental missiles “currently being tested” or under construction, have also expanded the striking range of North Korean missiles into North American territory, in ways that concretize the immediacy of their threats, and the need to expand American military spending to respond to their clear threats, given the alarming rate at which North Korea is “growing nuclear and missile capabilities,” as Heritage Foundation expert Bruce Klingner has recently argued on television news shows in a locution that oddly sounds as if it were an organic process that is self-contained, but threatens to escalate what was an “existential threat” to South Korea into a “direct threat to the continental United States” meriting a nuclear response when it becomes “imminent.”   Korean news agencies KCNA released an image of Kim studying a “Strategic Forces Firing Strike Plan” that traces a missile’s path arcing above the Sea of Japan to strike the island of Guam from a launch site on North Korea’s coast in a flight of but fourteen minutes as it traverses Japanese airspace, above U.S. bases on the islands–


imminent threat to Guam?.pngKCNA via Reuters




–but is the mid-August map an “imminent” threat?  Or is it only a public taunt?  The North Korean media certainly staged this photographic opportunity as a means of shifting power from Washington D.C. to Pyongyang, where generals using pointers indicate the missile strikes they might now achieve.

The notion of “imminent” threats, an opaque language first used by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, suggests the start of a new post-Cold War world–or at least recuperates the threat tied to lobbying for new military budgets that “Hap” Arnold advocated.  How this notion of “imminent threats”–although the quite chastening threat North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Po made to the press, and to the United States, that “Should the US pounce upon the DPRK with military force at last, the DPRK is ready to teach the US a severe lesson with its strategic nuclear force,” indicates eagerness to stage nuclear strikes for defensive ends–the compromising of the Department of State having hampered possibilities of skillful negotiation or fruitful talks.

The problem of mapping the flights of bombs or ballistic missiles was rarely shown so openly in intervening years after the “Hap” Arnold’s letter presented the specter of nuclear holocaust to readers of Life magazine.  How we map the flights of arcs of ballistic missiles over space are distorted by the Mercator projection, leading the bulk of Russian ICBM’s pointed at the United States to be located in its heartland of a nation that we still seem to prefer to color red:




But the arcing nature of missile strikes, not able to be clearly communicated in Google Maps, and the considerable liabilities of web-Mercator, or pseudo-Mercator, has also led to a resurgence even in the age of web-based mapping of the globe to render the fears of such strikes more credibly communicated–at least to understand them as the existential threats they truly are.




The fears of such strikes were long contained by arms control negotiation and nuclear arms bans, but the resurgance of the nightmarish image that can be traced by to “Hap” Arnold has led to a SALT talks temporarily froze numbers of ICBM’s that were held by Russia and the United States from 1970, trying to hit a “reset” long before Hillary Clinton presented a “reset button”–although weapons designers and manufacturers managed to circumvent the treaties’ stipulations, and helped Ronald Reagan run on the platform to “rearm America” as if strategic arms negotiations had hindered military modernization–and while reducing strategic arms, introduced futuristic speculation about building a missile defense shield:  “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” Reagan asked the nation, as if to accommodate the threat of intermediate range missiles, in ways that evoke the very solution that “Hap” Arnold had provided.

The proposal responded to “Hap” Arnold’s problem of the need to rely on retaliatory nuclear strikes as the best possible option of defense, by imagining the early detection by United States military surveillance satellites of high-altitude missiles that could be zapped before they even returned to the earth’s atmosphere.  Did Reagan draw inspiration from the futuristic scenario that “Hap” Arnold imagined?  (Was Arnold at all a model for Reagan’s growing post-war involvement with Hollywood’s Screen Actors Guild (SAG), of which he became President in 1947, three years before Arnold’s death?  At any rate, Arnold’s ideas seem to have percolated into Reagan’s later devotion to the SDI program known as “Star Wars”, which he championed as US President, as a way to eliminate the threat of incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.)


SDI map end MAD


While the notion of a space-born system including particle beams and “battle mirrors” and ground-based lasers removed the question of nuclear conflict from the earth, with the promise of destroying nuclear warheads as they soared far above the stratosphere, and before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, and non-nuclear deterrence seemed to merit the name Star Wars in 1983, if the use of surveillance satellites is eery, mapping the eventuality of such a ballistic missile strike more terrifyingly acknowledged its fear as all to real, and depended on the accuracy of interception far above the earth–hopefully above a place like Greenland, which seemed pretty well removed from most inhabitants, but recuperated and modernized many of “Hap” Arnold’s ideas.


SDI againt Millise attack.png


North Korea’s recent plans to expand its ballistic missile arsenal from June, 2017 provoked similar considerations of just how far such strikes could extend and what cities they could strike:  maps are presented as the way of defining something of a red line of aggression, even if the nature of these strikes is totally hypothetical, and the precision of the missile strikes may be totally off.  Despite the apparently unbalanced desire Kim Jong Un voiced to reduce the United states “to ashes” by “invincible Hwasong rockets tipped with nuclear warheads,” the vainglorious boast seemed to gain new levels of reality after the success of ballistic missile tests that were shot into the Sea of Japan to altitudes of above 1,300 miles, but which seemed to be able to gain far further strike capacities.

Although military experts assure us that the Korean missiles currently developed could strike targets as far as New York, but the precision of these strikes cannot be guaranteed.  But the accuracy of the genre of mapping seems to presume that the accuracy of strikes against cities is most likely.  And even if the accuracy of North Korean ballistic missiles can’t be ascertained–and the embarrassment of a strike that fell in the ocean or in the desert demanded to be avoided, even if the threat to target Guam is all too real for many, after North Korea  promised to fire missiles into the waters surrounding the island at a distance of just fifteen miles from the shore–a threat that echoes the charge that Kim Jong Un gave his military to develop arms capable of striking Guam and Hawaii, as well as the continental U.S.  (The dryly worded fliers offering emergency tips about surviving a nuclear strike from North Korea published and distributed by the Department of Homeland Security caution against looking directly at the flash or fireball and not wearing conditioner after the strike as it might bind radioactive elements to one’s hair–although showering off is recommended to remove contamination–although the fourteen minutes that residents would have to prepare for an actual attack wouldn’t give one much room to take cover or protect loved ones.)  What the official readiness website advocated as the most important mode of preparation–to be as far from the site of attack as possible, according to Ready.gov, of course seems by far the most unattainable.

The discussion by North Korea of the eventuality of a strike by intermediate-range ballistic missiles on the island of Guam, traveling several times the speed of sound, evading the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system–a land-based anti-ballistic system located in South Korea to counter North Korean nuclear missile threats deployed since July.  (Pyongyang and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea have seen this system as an initial stage of aggression, and have responded by accelerating missile launches.)  The fears of the strikes have been accelerated by maps of the expanding capacities of North Korean ballistic missiles, although this is unable to  test.  Accuracy and precision be damned, however the recent cautioning that 120,000,000 lives would be “compromised” or endangered by North Korean airstrikes as the range of North Korean ICBM’s grows over time echoed the same landscape of fear from February 2016–as the number of ballistic missile tests and nuclear tests ordered by Pyongyang grew–occasioned a return of a similar iconography of terrifyingly unknown agency:


screen shot 2016-12-02 at 105318 am.png


Confidence in mapping the precision of these strikes seems to have led North Korea’s News Agency KCNA to release photographs of Kim, surrounded by military advisors,  studying maps on video and paper alike that displayed the new range of North Korean ballistic missiles–


Kim Jong Un with Map KCNA.png


–as the increased range of intercontinental ballistic missiles of over 7.000 miles suddenly seems to put cities like New York, Washington DC, and Chicago within striking range.   Although it may be more terrifying that cities in Japan like Tokyo are most directly in range of the common Taepodong-1 missiles, the notion of American cities lying within striking range has been taken as the most bellicose action–in large part because it can be mapped, even if the intersection of such a map of capacities with the bellicose rhetoric of the newly “elected” American President more of a concern than the maps Kim studies.

Rather than being based on an actual launching of an act of aggression, the promise of the American president to met any military action will be “met with fire and fury” used apocalyptic rhetoric of biblical proportions to suggest a deep panic over the inability to contain North Korea’s nuclear capacities–although the departure of North Korea from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, during the Bush Presidency, was something of a ticking bomb, as it led to accelerated nuclear weapons development.  As much as throw a familiar alliteration of mass destruction to Trump’s base in the fundamentalist right, North Korea was given a jump start when Trump used America First bombast to urge nuclear programs be developed in Japan and South Korea, and that the Unite States would no longer station troops in bases in both of North Korea’s neighbors.

The specter of a proliferation of warheads close to North Korean shores must have triggered a deep-set fear in Pyongyang of the need to ramp up their own defenses, following the same sort of logic that “Hap” Arnold long ago advocated, shortly after he had moved the bomber force of B-29 planes that became the Twentieth Air Force to Guam? Actor Ronald Reagan would probably have best known Arnold for his role in creating the First Motion Picture Unit which produced over 400 war propaganda films after 1942, including The Last Bomb, about the payloads that B-29s delivered over Japan–a film which began in Guam and which concluded in operatic fashion with the mushroom coud over Hiroshima explosion, as a reassuring voice-over reminds viewers at its close saved hundreds of American lives.   If Reagan starred in many of the films the the FMPU produced, a young Donald Trump would likely have been impressed with the cinematic standard such films set for mass destruction by guided missiles, or provided the basis for the level of destruction that the world had, indeed, seen–if only on a screen.

The mapping of missile ranges are removed from any broader military context of troop movements in the declarative statements of the missile ranges that North Korea has been able to achieve, as if to place the entire story within its shores.


Map-North-Korean-missile--001Guardian (2016)


The eventuality of such an expanded ballistic missile program has, quite surreally, led the country to issue a new series of commemorative postal stamps that proclaimed its arrival on a world stage of ballistic missiles, which North Korea has done its best to promote in order too suggest the range of its missiles–most notably in a stamp, pictured below at right, that makes a clear visual case that it would be no problem to fire a missile into any site in North America, by juxtaposing its launching from the red peninsula of North Korea into the North American heartland–or at least suggesting that North America lies increasingly within striking distance.  (Inflammatory rhetoric of North Korea that the country was studying plans to according to state media.to create wall of “enveloping fire” about the island has helped ramp up the hysteria of the United States.)  The philatelic celebration of the benefits of dedicating so much of the defense budget of a poor country to the development of nuclear warheads and ICBM’s suggest that the goal of striking the once-elusive continent of North America is finally in reach.





North Korea proudly claimed that all of the mainland United States was “within striking range of the DPRK missiles” with considerable satisfaction, as if to mark the arrival of the country on the global stage, and, as if in response, terrified news organizations imagined the results of this increased striking range of long-range missiles in global projections.

Exploiting the elegance of a shifting projection, North Korea suddenly was placed at their centers, as if to confirm a narrative proclaiming North Korea’s new image of itself as a nuclear power:   maps alarmingly showed North Korean missiles like the Hwasong-12 gaining a striking range beyond 3,700 km; maps reflected the estimated expansion of the radius of potential missile strikes in an azimuthal equidistant projection centered on North Korea, in order to better render the danger of North Korea’s development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles–or ICBM’s–to carry missle-ready nuclear weapons.



over 3,700 kmpng.png


Pro Publica:  Natural Earth, Defense Manpower Data Center; May 2017 reports


Maps indeed have a terrifying ability to increase the real effect of such strikes, and rather than merely tracing estimates of the striking range of bombs on the globe–




–the grant immediate concreteness through the inclusion of specific place names, allowing us to envision the very white-hot arcs that “Hap” Arnold helped us to imagine.

North Korea Can Strike.pngPolitico  SOURCE: Natural Earth, Defense Manpower Data Center May 2017 reports


The range of individual North Korean ballistic missiles’ respective ranges provides the most effective way to describe the abilities of their arsenal, but the most accurate mode of assessment may be to specify the ranges of specific missiles.  However, the ranges of missiles in question does not seem to be nearly so stable as a map might suggest:  the estimated range might vary by over a thousand kilometers.




While the panorama that “Hap” Arnold may have imagined inaugurated the landscape of atomic fear that became known as the Cold War, the resurgence of fears for visualizing the new nuclear landscape strikingly omits any sense of the effects of such bombs’ explosions, and only pauses to indicate the range at which such strikes may occur.

The imperative to view the actual implications of what such strikes might bring has led increasing numbers of users to visualize the destruction of cities in historian Alex Wellerstein’s Nukemap.  The website immediately attracted after its 2012 launch thousands to detonate bombs of varying payloads over cities worldwide after visiting the website–after thousands used it soon after it was first posted in 2012, the site has become astoundingly popular as a platform to allow visitors to stage over a hundred million virtual detonations of nuclear bombs since its launch.  In the website that invites viewers and users to consider the impact on actual targets of the bombs–an aspect that is handily omitted in most maps of the range of North Korean missiles, though one would not have wanted it any other way, the effective but rather flat Google Maps API provides a salutarily chastening platform for viewing the potential scale and devastation created by such mass destruction and even for quantifying its human losses likely to occur, if only to remind us of the unthinkability of starting a nuclear war.  And although the rhetoric of the North Korean state-run media undoubtedly escalated matters when it cautioned in an item intended for domestic consumption, that the United States “will sink into an unimaginable sea of fire on the day when it dares to touch our country by stupidly causing mischief and brandishing its nuclear and sanctions clubs,” the improvised if ill-considered response it provoked about “fire and fury” suggested a willful avoidance or ignorance of human lives that would be the consequence of such devastating attacks.

The detonations that can be placed in any neighborhood mapped on Google Maps offers a chastening but increasingly popular exercise of imagining the erasure of one’s home town that seems to be the inverse of an art of dying well, if not preparation for the inevitable–far more popular than its designer, Alex Wellerstein, predicted, although the apparent objectivity of its option to “detonate” a bomb of different payloads seems a video game of its own, although one without much action–and whose own apocalyptic narrative has a pretty abrupt conclusion.  (Wellerstein devoted an great post, to which I’m indebted, on his Restricted Data blog about the 1945 Life panorama of nuclear destruction, which conjured a graphic rendering of Arnold’s report as Commanding General of the Air Forces.  After the Washington Post called his 2013 Nukemap website a “sign of our jittery times,” Wellserstein rightly observed that visualizing nuclear apocalypse has actually been an “old media pastime”–existing at least from the time that the first atom bomb was dropped.)  The platform Wellerstein cto visualize the implications of the aftermath of a nuclear strike should give one pause–for they are far more honest than visualizations that privilege the incursion into our local airspace or sovereign space.


Blast of Topol SS-25Ivy King over SF


The ready mapping let one map the consequences of a nuclear strike on any browser that supports the Google Maps API, effectively dropping Fat Man-style bombs or H-bombs or the largest fission bomb in the United States’ arsenal or bombs from the Russian battery of nuclear warheads on the city of your choice in a “nuclear effects calculator” of the intensity of the airburst and fireball, rem exposure, major overpressure, number of fatalities and injuries–as well as radioactive fallout, across bombs of different yields on any place in the earth that is mapped by Google Maps–allowing us to come to terms with destruction of different levels in different centers of population, imagining that any city anywhere may be indeed subject to a nuclear strike of a significant payload.  The notion of mapping your own apocalypse in ways that are pretty conclusive may have been designed as a cautionary and chilling website, but a few years after it has made the rounds online has perhaps ramped up hysteria about a foreign ballistic strike.

All this seems startlingly concrete once again in the age of Trump.  In rightful response to the fears of the greater range of missiles from Pyongyang, one cannot tell if the current American President would want to test the actual accuracy of North Korea’s new ballistic missiles.  But the sort of saber-rattling in which Trump has indulged seems designed to promote the growth of the military budget in allegedly exceptional circumstances in ways that echo “Hap” Arnold’s project of inviting us to envision strikes that would bring nuclear disaster.  The heights of missiles fired from May to July suggest strikes that would not offer much of a response from US interceptors in Guam, or Alaska, as their trajectories their engines allowed would only permit targeting at low altitudes.  The missiles would, in other words, in deeply frustrating ways, evade the massive military presence of the United States in South Korea and Japan given their high altitude.


THAAD interceptReuters Graphics


The missiles, however, in an attempt to shift public discussion and concern from the issues of racism, hate-filled language, and homegrown violence that seem to be most central on our national plate–or from the inquiry into coordination with foreign actors or governments to tilt the results of the 2016 Presidential election.  Perhaps Trump merely wants to create a media sensation and rush of endorphins that seem designed to obstruct any inquiry into his administration’s ties to foreign governments or distract from legal inquiry into its potential crimes.

The mental imaginaries of destruction that the maps of the newly increased range of North Korea’s missile set off alarms, however, and compelled Guam’s Homeland Security office–the local branch of DHS–to issue a “Guidance entitled “Preparing for an Imminent Threat”–using the same term adopted by Rex Tillerson as if to acknowledge the arrival of an occasion of imminence of an explosion that would release enough radiation to compel islanders to locate windowless shelters with thick concrete walls “dense enough to absorb radiation” that the nuclear warheads would release.  The genealogy of images of unmarked missiles arcing over inter-continental space is not that submerged a current in American history but has a genealogy that might be forgotten, but parallels the swings in the pendulum of increased requests for a military budget.  The transmission of this political demonology is less targeted against demons that are located within the country, to be sure, but the threats to security that arrive from afar are rooted in a language of the future in order to justify the expanding horizon of military expenditures against an unknown menace.  If the demonology is less directed toward internal subversives, it is of a piece with “Hap” Arnold’s conjuring of a nightmarish landscape of impending clouds of war, and demonizes subversives who don’t recognize or distract from the war effort.

As much as serving to demonize a cultural “other”, the “first strike” landscape of intercontinental arcing missiles paints an indelible picture of ongoing existential threats from the outside, with the ends of magnifying fears of an unknown other, who is seen as a threat to the world.  Continuing to evoke the specter of nuclear strikes has served to stage false claims of patriotism in particularly effective–if dangerous ways–in recent American history over several generations.   But the false patriotism reflexively instilled by invoking nuclear attacks in public media is, strikingly, no longer particularly American, but broadly diffused as the same sort of false patriotism has been widely imitated:  it has now globalized, and is not easily exorcized, in large part because it both seems and is particularly real.  We demand maps to process the expanding threats of ballistic missiles, but their threats are all too easily summoned to discount diplomacy, ignore negotiation, and naturalize a global threat of nuclear Armageddon–as a threat that merits dangerously confrontational rhetoric–although rhetoric that demonizes the threats to global and national security only serves to exacerbate actual global conflicts, imperil the world,  and do so with potentially catastrophic consequences.

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Filed under graphic design, military maps, missile attacks, North Korea, nuclear attack

Re-Mapping Terror

Going to Teherean

It’s hard not to admire the design of this poster that advertises the coming talk of Flint and Hillary Mann Leverett.  It’s not a secret  to readers of this blog that maps make great, cogent arguments:  and even a map without a clear road map or national boundary lines–or noting cities or centers of inhabitation.  This map effectively uses the lay of the land to shift the pragmatics of mapping our relations to a country and region poisoned by political posturing, and how–in a world without clear boundaries–it makes no sense to continue to demonize Teheran as a site of terror or the prime site of nuclear threat.  (It’s not as if non-proliferation treaties are in vogue across the rest of the globe.)  After years of some pretty oppositional if not Manichean rhetoric, shifting the map, emptying it of the targeting of danger is sane and salutary and quite a relief.

It is a counter-map to militarized map to distort actual geography and, whose cold-war paranoic cartography that imposes the ranges of missiles arrayed as geometric concentric rings on the land, designed to provoke panicked visions and activate one’s amygdala.

Map - Iranian Missile Range(1)

If we retain a memory map of the 44 active bases of the United States Army that surround Iran in eleven surrounding countries, most of which share borders with Iran, we could just as easily offer a different and equally compelling map of fear.

US Army Bases around Iran

The all too familiar military map below presents an even more haunting spectre of a military scenario all too easy to map. (The German text might underscore the active belligerence of the red missiles streaking from Tel Aviv toward Fordo, Arak and Isfahan, or the red Israeli Dolphin U-Boats floating in the Arabian Sea.)  Those provocatively elevated anti-aircraft guns noted in black in Iran map the seat of militarism and violence, unsurprisingly, that naturalize its military threat in the landscape of the Middle East.


It’s not a surprise we need to create another and radically different map of the region, and do so by a counter-map of aggression.  The swirls of yellow between the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman to the Caspian Sea conjure the muddiness of our maps of the region and benefits and needs of remapping its place in our spatial imaginary.

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Filed under Iran, Map of Fear, News Maps