Tag Archives: Donald Trump

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 a former senior staff officer 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 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.

There are problems of balancing an awesome strike ability of a Hellfire missile caused, the association of a missile conjuring the eternal fire faced by the dammed with a “righteous strike”: 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

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?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cia-map-durand_line_border_between_afghanistan_and_pakistan-1.jpg
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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Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

A pandemic is by its nature both local and global by definition–and begins from a local outbreak. But if the only way to gain orientation to a pandemic is by accurate local counts, the problem of balancing–or toggling between–the local and global has become staggeringly pronounced in the case of COVID-19, as if the point-based cartography that we use to track the disease has the better of us, and upper hand, with the absence of accurate local counts. The lack of clear data that came from Wuhan in the days that followed the outbreak of the virus revealed worrisome problems of transparency. The difficulty that the Chinese government had in getting a clear bearing on the zoonotic virus raised problems of even trying to map its rise, to which all data visualizations since seem to respond: as local officials were loathe to shoulder responsibility, the tally of infected in Hubei Province jumped, astoundingly, forcing the government to recognize the ease of its transmission among humans, was far more virulent than believed. But at this point, looking back in the mirror provides little sense of orientation to the multiplication of dispersed local outbreaks of coronavirus that we are increasingly challenged to map in relation to ourselves.

The sudden uptick of cases reveals a reticence in tallying the infected out of fears of reprisals for apparent incompetence, an institutional blame-shifting triggering mechanisms of concealment that has led American meat-packing plants to hide numbers of infected workers, and numbers of tests for infection to be far lower than official records suggest: the absence of ability to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 led us to proliferate maps in hopes to grasp its rapid doubling, uncomfortable at the world they began to show, apprehensive at how to come to terms with the rapidity of local outbreaks of confirmed cases with sufficient granularity, and enough continuities, hoping to track contagion as hopes of containment were beginning to fade in the new aggregates that were increasingly evident.

New York Times

The warning of the virus’ spread was raised by Li Wenliang on December 30 from Wuhan, inter-agency shifting of blame and responsibility in Wuhan– a reflexive institutional blame-shifting by “throwing woks”–abruptly ceased with summons of Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, he who lured Elon Musk to Shanghai, to restore order: as a new hospital was built, tallies of new cases of coronavirus in Hubei astronomically grew by nine from 1,638 to 14,840, shocking the world–a figure was in keeping with the nearly 1,400 people dead in the country, but suggesting a viral load of unprecedented proportions. Americans apprehensively watched the disease afflicting passengers of cruise liners as if it would arrive ashore, its virulence was in fact already of pandemic proportions: yet American disinformation here took over, as we were told to stick our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, as fears were overblown, and tried to keep calm. And then, the tables were turned, as the United States President described, or suggested, a national policy of intentional undercounts, and limited testing, lest the counts discovered tank his popularity–the stock market value of Trump, International, or, rather, Trump-in-Office, Trump-as-Chief-Executive, whose new season might be canceled due to low ratings. And although the virus began in China, how the United States increasingly came to be the outlier in the numbers of infection confirmed weekly suggested a national story of mismanagement, as the narrative we told ourselves of American exceptionalism before illness seemed to have boomeranged, with the three-day averages of confirmed infections skyrocketing, and setting us apart from the very nations we compare ourselves to, but whose health-care policy we increasingly realize we are distinct from.

Americans were soothed by deceptive common-sense talk. But the results of a lack of investment in public health are all too evident, if our maps are . Robert Redfield, a virologist who served as the public spokesperson of reassurance who had long sustained false theories about retroviruses causing HIV and AIDS, argued that even if the fourteen confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus were monitored and traced, “the virus more exploded . . beyond public health capacity,” he seemed to forget he had not developed that capacity. Virology is of course Dr. Redfield’s area of expertise, but he won his political post in no small part by being practiced in massaging truth statements for political ends. During AIDS outbreak, the last major plague in the United States, he had advocated unproven drugs billed as HIV vaccines and encouraged quarantine, abstinence, and stripping the medical licenses of HIV-infected medical workers, more than accelerating cures; Redfield took time to blame the Obama administration for implementing clinical tests, to please his patron. Bt he obscured the level of infections that in truth were not known, blinding the nation to a cartography of COVID by not advancing adequate levels of testing, that returned us to the simple equation of the dog days of AIDS, only able to make us yell, yet again, this time with Larry Kramer, stalwart resistor of the silencing of AIDS by the failure to use on-trial medicine–

–at the utter deception with which we met the pandemic. Dr. Redfield must have met his commission to radiate calm by assuring Americans in late February. As he assured us only fourteen cases had been diagnosed in the United States, the number meant little, as any virologist should kmow; while hindsight is a benefit that obscures us from the need to life life forwards, we suspect urban hotspots were already laden with infected individuals by March 1, a silent ticking bomb of urban outbreaks already infecting 28,000 as it spread broadly its “hotspots”–New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago–all of massively different density, without tests being able to affirm the scale of its spread.

There was no map. And then, all of a sudden, the globalization of coronavirus hit home; any place in the world could be related to any other place, as rates of infection bloomed globally in geographically disjointed hotspots, spatially removed from one another, even as a standard for uniform testing lacked. And there was no sense of an art of dying, as the amazingly rapid contraction and worsening of illnesses left many without a script, and many more silent before a dizzying multiplication of statistics of mortality in the face of COVID-19, several weeks later.

Every other map of COVID-19’s spread seems an attempt to persuade the viewer of its accuracy and totality, in retrospect, even as we have no clear sense of the total figures of infection-or even of the paths infection takes. We are mystified by the geography and spatial dynamics of the virus’ travel, but realize the severe communicability of a virus whose load is stored in the naso-laryngeal passages, and can be communicated by airborne drops. Is distancing the best way we can constrain the geographic spread of infection? Can statistics demonstrate the success of curtailing its spread?

It was a hidden agenda in the maps of news agencies and to register the accurate levels of infection, promising the sorts of transparency that had been clouded in much of January. And while we watch the progress of the pandemic on screens, there is a sense of truth-telling, as a result, of revealing the scope of the virus’ actual spread that compensates for the lack of clarity we once had. But it is also increasingly difficult to orient ourselves to the GPS-enabled scales of its spread, for we still are looking at pretty limited and almost superficial data, in the sense we have trouble plotting it in a narrative context, or find a reaction more than shock. The virus is easy in ways to personify as a threat–it wants us outside; it comes from afar; it pervades public spaces and hospital grounds; it demands vigilant hand-washing and sanitizing–but the very numbest are elusive. While we try to track reported cases, hoping that these limited datasets will provide orientation, we have been lumping numbers of tests that might be apples and oranges, and have not found a consistent manner of testing. Deaths are difficult to attribute, for some, since there are different sites where the virus might settle in our bodies.

Even while not really following the pathways of its transmission, and the microscopic scale of the progress of the pathogen in bodies. And if we rely on or expect data visualizations will present information in readily graspable terms, we rarely come to question the logics that underly them, and the logics are limited given the poor levels of global testing for COVID-19. It is frustrating that our GPS maps, which we seem able to map the world, can map numbers of surrogates for viral spread, but we have yet to find a way to read the numbers in a clear narrative, but are floored by the apparently miasmatic spread of such a highly contagious disease that makes us feel, as historian of science Lorraine Daston put it, that we are in “ground zero of empiricism,” as if we are now all in the seventeenth century, not only in being vulnerable to a disease far less dangerous or deadly than Yersina pestis, but without explanatory and diagnostic tools.

This was, to be sure, a past plague come to life, requiring new garb of masks, face-shields, and protective gear for health workers–

–as the cloaks, leather gloves, staffs and masks that made up early modern protective gear returned to fashion, as if in a time warp, in new form.

We find a leveling between folk remedies and modern medicine, as we live collectively in what she calls a “ground-zero moment of empiricism”–if one in which we are deluged by data, but short in knowing what is data, as we are lacking in explanatory models. This is a bit unfair, as we still can profit from autopsies, and have been able to contain spread by hand-washing–but the images of a single magic bullet, or antiviral cure, are far, far away in time. But there is no longer any familiarity with an art of dying, although we found we encountered death with an unforeseen and unpleasant rapidity: we moved from hopes for awaiting immunity or antivirals to a basic need for some consolation of our mortality. There was no possibility of transcendence in a crisis of mortality of dimensions and scope that seem outside the modern era.

And it is ironic that distancing is the best mode to prevent infection–and many deaths may have been enabled by quicker decisions to adopt practices of distancing that could manage viral spread, Trump seemed not to notice that the very globalization he had resisted, and swung against with all his force to win votes, had facilitated the spread of a viral agent whose arrival was denied even as SARS-CoV-2 had already begun to flood the United States, in ways we only mapped in retrospect, as a global village that by March 1 had already grown satellites of viral loads in South Korea, the Middle East, Iran (Teheran), Europe (Milan; Gotheborg), South East Asia, and Hong Kong, as we anticipated its arrival with no health policy in place and no strategy for containing what was already on our shores. The global crossroads defied any choropleth, but we had only mapped the virus for some time in choropleths, as if believing by doing so we could not only map it by national boundaries to keep the virus at bay.

New York Times

But if we lacked a model of infection and communication of COVID-19, we lacked a sense of the geography by which to understand its spread–and to map it–and also, deeply problematically, an inter-agency coordination to assess and respond to the virus’ spread as we sought to contain it: and in the United States, the absence of any coordinating public health agency has left the country in something like free-fall, a cluelessness emblematic by a map cautioning American travelers to take enhanced protections while traveling in Italy or Japan, two major destinations of travel, and avoid all nonessential travel to China, but refrained from ceasing travel plans.

1. The most compelling language of the novel coronavirus is “false positives” and “false negatives,” that seem to betray the unsure nature of standards; the most haunting is the multiple sites COVID-19 can appear in the sites of the body we use to map most disease. While we associate the virus with our respiratory tracts, the virus can do damage to multiple organ systems, as well as create blotchiness of “covid toes” due to burst peripheral blood vessels; it can damage multiple organ systems simultaneously, including the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, and linger in our intestinal tract where it can flourish and proliferate; the virus can reduce the ability of our blood to form clots, or disable our ability to form clots.  The ACE-2 receptor protein, a launching pad for viral infections, lies in our lungs and respiratory tract but in stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain. Increased sensitivities among those suffering from high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and diabetes reflect the nosological difficulties of classifying the virus as a cause of death or to grasp it as an illness, let alone to read data about the disease. If the virus lodges in the most delicate structures of the alveoli, which it causes to collapse as it infects their lining, it can take multiple pathways in the body, and as its pathway of infection may be multiple, medical response must be improvised with no playbook for clinical care.

All we know is that our medical staff desperately need protective gear. On top of that, it hardly helps that we are without a clear national policy, and find that the United States government has engaged in far less transparency that one could have ever expected.

We can only say its spread is accelerated dramatically by structures of globalization, and it stands to disrupt them. utterly Even as we map what seem total global knowledge of the disease, analogous to what we have come to expect from Global Positioning System, the multiple holes in our picture of the spread of the disease provide little sense of mastery over the pathways of communication, contraction, and infection we have come to expect from maps. These maps may even be especially disorienting in a world where expertise is often dismissed in the United States–not only by the U.S. President, but out of frustration at the inability to distance, diagnose, track or supervise the disease that is increasingly threatens to get the better hand. Have our visualizations been something of a losing battle, or a war of atrophy we will not win? Or do we even know what sorts of data to look at–indeed, what is information that can help us process a sense of what might be the geography of the contraction or the transmutability of the virus? Is the virus eluding our maps, as we try to make them? These sort of questions of making sense may be the process of science, but they trace, suddenly, a far steepder learning curve than we are used.

A dismissed biomedical researcher who ran efforts to develop a vaccine cautioned that we still lack that the failure a trusted, standard, and centralized plan for testing strategies must play a part in the coordinated plan “to take this nation through this response.” Dr. Bright, who was abruptly removed last month from his position as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, bemoaned the limited statistics, alas, in large part as fear of providing too many tests–or fanning the flames of insecurity that testing might promote in the general public and in our financial markets, seem to have created the most dangerously deceptive scenario in which the United States seems to be committed to projecting confidence, even if it is the global epicenter of the pandemic.

Have we developed a language to orient ourselves to the scale of emergency in the spread of COVID-19? While we turn to images of natural disasters in describing the “epicenter” of the outbreak in Wuhan, this hardly conjures the species jump and under-the-radar communication of the virus that was not tracked for months before it emerged as a global threat. In tracking COVID-19 globally, or over a broad expanse of nations or states, we often ignored the pathways by which the novel coronavirus is spread in crowded spaces, where the single strand of RNA may hang in droplets that linger in the air, and are looking at the small scale maps to track a microscopic pathogen. But we are increasingly aware the spread of these strands, of the virus SARS-CoV-2, that infect populations along increasingly unequal fault lines that divide our cities, nations, health care systems, and crowding, or access to open space, are all poorly mapped in the choropleths into which we continue to smooth the datasets of infections and hospitalizations. While the problems are posed for national health services in each region, the devastation and danger of overloading public health systems and hospitals outweighs are local manifestations of a global crisis of the likes we have not confronted.

2. And the crowding of such numbers beyond the buffers that began with lead to a visual crowding by which we continue to be overwhelmed–and will have been overwhelmed for some time.

April, COIVID-19Iinfections Globally by Country/Clustrmaps May 12, 20202020

For although the global pandemic will clearly be with us for a long time, spatial narratives might be more likely to emerge in networks and in forms of vulnerability, in ways that might reveal a more pronounced set of narratives for how we can respond to a virus than the deep blues of even the limited and constrained datasets that we have, as we struggle against the blindness we have in containment and mitigation, and the frustration of the lack of anything like a vaccine. (This pandemic is almost a metastasis of the anti-vaxxers: confirmation that a vaccine cannot check a disease, it gives rise to concerns that vaccinations might have left us immunologically more vulnerable to its spread . . .and a sense that the hope of eradicating COVID-19 by the availability of a vaccination in four to five years will be widely resisted by anti-vaxxers and their acolytes, to whom the pandemic has given so much new steam. Yet as the virus interacts with the viral posting of anti-vaxxers resisting social distancing or collective policies of response, the stresses that exist in our society will only be amplified.) And if as late as February 24, only three laboratories in the United States did test for COVID-19–artificially lowering public numbers–even confirmed numbers through March and April were as a result tragically low. Could maps even help to track the disease without a testing apparatus in place?

Global Covid Infections/Datascraped by Avi Schiffman, May 11, 2020

The prestige of the data visualization has been a basis for reopening the nation. Yet if less than a tenth of the world’s population has yet to be exposed to the disease–and perhaps only 5% of the American population, in one estimate, if not lower–the virus is bound to be endemic to the global landscape for quite a considerable length of time. At the same time, one must wonder if the many fault lines that have created such peaks and valleys in the virus’ spread, if confirming its highly infectious nature, to be sure, are not removed from us in some degree by the smooth surfaces of the screens on which we watch and monitor, breath bated, with some terror, its spread, unsure of the accuracy or completeness of the data on which they are based but attentive to whatever they reveal. In many ways, these maps have created an even more precarious relation to the screen, and to the hopes that we find some sign of hope within their spread, or hope to grasp the ungraspable nature of COVID-19.

These datamaps suggest a purchase on a disease we don’t understand, and we don’t even have good numbers on contraction. Yet we are discussing “reopening” the United States, while we do not have anything approaching a vaccine, let alone the multiple vaccines that medical authorities desire before resuming social contact at pre-pandemic levels. How to process the data that we have, and how to view the maps not only by hovering, zooming in, or distancing the growing rates of infection, but tracking the virus in spaces, mapping levels of infection against adequacy of testing, mortalities against comorbidities, against with the chronic nature of the virus must be understood, as well as levels of hospitalization levels; and distinctions or mutations of the virus and against age ranges of afflicted–by, in other words, drilling beneath the datasets to make our maps’ smooth surfaces more legible, as horrifying as they are?

Can we use what we have to pose problems about the new nature of this contagion we don’t fully understand, but has been mapped in ways that seek to staunch fears of a decline in the stock market, as much as an emergency of public health, with up to one third of the population at risk of infection? The instinctive reaction of the Trump Health and Human Services to create public-private “community testing sites” for drive-thru or drive-up testing at Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger and other pharmacies seems reflexive for a government wanting to minimize federal overhead, but a far less exact means, and a far less intuitively sensible basis to attract potentially infected individuals to sites of public congregation. The hope of Verily–a subsidiary of Alphabet, whose Project Baseline boasts the slogan, “We’ve Mapped the World, Now Let’s Map Human Health,” in a bizarrely boosterish rhetoric, aggregates medical for medical screening in California–

Select States for Project Baseline Testing/Verily

–and select states–was the primary response that Trump had promised of a network of drive-up testing sites that has never materialized, even as it expanded to a hundred sites in thirty states. After Walmart opened two sites, and Walmart 40, the difficult accuracy of creating multiple testing sites was prohibitive, the testing sites that were rolled out with the assistance of private entrepreneurs that Jared Kushner enlisted, that filled the absence of any coherent public health response–perhaps, terrifyingly, in concert with his brother’s health care company, Oscar, which also partnered with CVS and some of the same pharmaceutical services, focussing on drive-thru sites more than sustained medical care, focussing largely on calming retailers who feared the arrival of infected patients on their parking lots, more than on the efficacy of testing, which they didn’t understand. If only 40% of promised test kits were made available, the absence of providing staffers or selling, as in Massachusetts, self-testing kits–and failing to provide many in large cities like New Orleans, as if to keep the final tally of infected artificially low. Even if the Center for Disease Controls had never done clinical tests on hydrochloroquine, whose dangers on humans were not studied, and despite some benefits of the antiviral on cell cultures, none appeared in mice, the drug was promoted widely on social media as late as April, although its mention on Twitter grew, even as the government delayed any roll-out of testing sites.

The demand to calm the nation, a position dangerously close to concealment, delayed action on a wave of infection that President Trump had long sought to deny, claim to be overblown, or call Fake News. The lack of a public testing initiative, and rejection of the tests of other nations, forced the United States to adopt a disorganized go-it-aloneist approach, akin to isolationism, not benefiting from the potential ties to Chinese doctors’ response, or the testing kits that would have been available that the World Health Organization (WHO) had suspected since January, and made test kits for poorer countries that might be replicated in the United States–which chose to make its own tests to ensure the highest quality. When WHO had urged countries “test, test, test” for the coronavirus to contain its spread, the global health organization provided 1.5 million tests to 120 countries who lacked the ability to test by March 16; the United States went without the diagnostic tests developed in Berlin by la Charité, implemented in Germany. If the United States had submitted a test to WHO as well, the German test the health organization adopted was never used or ordered–and by mid-March processed a sixth the specimens as in Italy, with found over six times as many cases, and an eleventh as in South Korea, which found double the cases.

By April, the picture had improved, but not much.

COVID Tracking Project (Data)

And based on later data of the virus that spread to other American cities, the virus that had infected so many in New York seems to have spread to other American metropoles by May, as we were still awaiting broad testing.

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Get Me Out of Here, Fast: Escape from D.C.?

The forced monotone of Donald Trump’s public address to the nation on March 12 was a striking contrast from his most recent State of the Union address. He sought to calm the nation as it faced the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in what was perhaps his most important public address. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, however, rather than show his customary confidence, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events.

President Trump tried to look as presidential as possible, re-inhabiting a role of authority that he had long disdained, as he was forced to address a nation whose well-being he was not in control. The national narrative, as it was begun by WHO’s declaration of a pandemic, was perhaps seen as a narrative which seemed to spin out of his control, below his eyes, as he tried to calm markets by addressing the nation in what he must have imagined to have been as reassuring tones as he could summon. With his hands grasped but thumbs flickering, as if they were a fire under which he sat, as if he were wriggling like a kid strapped in the back seat of a car where he was a passenger to God-knows-where, wrestling with the increasing urgency that his aides demanded he address the outbreak of the virus in the United States that he had long tried to deny. Serial flag-waving continued to fuel President Trump’s attacks on China and the World Health Organization, as if trying to toe the line of adherence to America First policies of nationalism before a global catastrophe, that did not compute. If America First as a doctrine allows little room for empathy, affirming national greatness and the importance of a logic of border closures was all he could offer, and would be predictably lacking reassurance or empathy as he attempted to create a connection at a defining moment of his Presidency, but looked particularly pained.

March 11, 2020

If Trump rarely trusted himself to make hand gestures as he plighted through the speech, thumbs flickering, hands clasped, he every so often seemed distinctly out of synch with his austere surroundings, gold curtains drawn to reveal two flags, barely aware, perhaps, that the eyes of the world were very much on his performance in this new sound studio to which he was not fully accustomed, trying to explain that he had undertaken measures that had made us safe, even if he must have been worrying that the lack of worry he had been projecting and urging in previous weeks had risen across the nation, and his performance was not calming them at all. He was tasked with describing the vulnerability of the nation to the novel coronavirus whose effects he had downplayed repeatedly, but was no longer able to dismiss, and no longer able to concede posed a far greater threat to the American economy than the danger of “illegal” migrants he had so often pointed to as a cause of national decline: the virus that had already crossed our borders repeatedly, since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in San Jose and Seattle, would potentially bring down his presidency, and he lacked any ability to explain the scale of the effects of the virus that he had effectively helped release by ignoring warning signs.

Oval Office address of Wednesday, March, 11, 2020. Doug Mills / The New York Times)

The link of America to the world defined in his America First candidacy–even made the very identification of a pandemic difficult to process. And he did so in the starkest national backdrop possible, vaunting his closing of borders, suspension of “flights” from China, and ties to Europe–even as he encouraged Americans to return from abroad, and had allowed unmonitored entrance of Europeans and world travelers into New York that would make it the site of the entrance of the disease to the majority of American cities where the viral load arrived, with over 900 people entering America through New York daily for months after China suspended travel from Wuhan on January 23–after China called the outbreak “controllable” on New Year’s Eve. The declaration that echoed the concerns of the World Health Organization may have been buried in global celebrations, even as Trump blamed it for starting a sense of false complacence before undeniably “real” news that he feared would come to define his Presidency.

Trump was unable to accept declarations of the World Health Organization had just called the coronavirus outbreak–an outbreak which, we now know, he had in fact been hearing alerts from American intelligence as early as November 17, about the outbreak of cases of the novel coronavirus in Hubei province, rather than January, when initial infections in the United States were reported. As much as Trump found it difficult to admit the vulnerability of the United States to a global pandemic–or to the recommendations issued by WHO–who set the caduceus that symbolized medical ethics authority over the North American continent–at which he bristled at the notion of a global scope of edicts across boundaries, as if a map where national divides were erased as if it compromised national authority for a disease the President has been uncannily persistent in localizing in China, even before an increasing preponderance of evidence of its global circulation and transmission over a series of months.

Fabric Coffrini, AFP

As cascading fears grew in markets across the world, Trump was perhaps forced to realize his new relation to the world, even as the German stock exchanges plummeted as the measures he announced seem either difficult to process, or failing to address the importance of maintaining trade ties–or of taking adequately prudent steps of public health.

Slumping in his seat at the Resolute Desk, perhaps contemplating how no predecessor had ever delivered on air unprepared remarks from the desk, and visibly discomfited in doing so. He must have hoped to make up for his televised performance by sending surrogates scrambling to social media, issuing clarifications for misstatements–as the exemption offered U.S. citizens to return from China, or the exemption of Ireland, as well as England, and an assurance that trade would “in no way be affected” by the ban, as markets had reacted poorly to his performance. While it seemed that Trump was cognitively unable to process the possibility of a crumbling American economy–and a decline of America’s place in a global economy–under his watch, a prospect faced since he had met with airline executives with whom he discussed the effects of stopping flights of foreign nationals from China in a March 4 meeting, offering them a bailout that limited the impact economic effects of heightened travel advisories, is it possible he had no sense of the massive fallout on the national economy?

March 11 Address/Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

As Trump spoke, global markets not only failed to register confidence–but plummeted, as he revealed no clear plans to to call for social distancing to contain the spread of the virus, and revealed that lack of national preparation for confronting an infectious disease that had no vaccine. He may have remembered that he had outright fired a former cabinet member, barely remembered in the rogue’s gallery of administration, Tom Bossert, who had demanded preparedness “against pandemics” and a “comprehensive biodefence strategy” of the sort the previous administration of Pres. Barack Obama had tried to institute, or that a simulation of a pandemic that could devastate the American economy and kill up to half a million revealed in October 2019 “just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.”

It seems likely he was rather trying to conceal the massive scale of lying to the nation about the effects of an economic downturn unprecedented in scale, but which the increased lines at Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital the previous November had already indicated had a problem of infectious diseases on their hands that would have a potentially global consequence. Trump tried to spin the consequences as purely local, in an unprecedented wishful thinking whose scale of deception far exceeded the pathological deceits he had long taken to perpetrate on investors, business partners, and even on family members–from hiding his older brother’s treasured trucks that were a Christmas gift and then admonishing him not to cry, or he would destroy them before his eyes. Even as satellite imagery showed a clear rush to hospital emergency rooms in Wuhan in November, as clusters of cars marked in red crowded the emergency rooms that revealed “a steep increase in volume starting in August 2019 and culminating in a peak in December 2019,” when China began epidemiological investigations that led to identifying and sequence of the novel coronavirus by January 12, ten days before the city went on lockdown to contain its spread.

Annotated Satellite Photographs of Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital in September 2019

While Trump registered no alarm at the arrival of the very pandemic whose global impact American simulations feared would cripple the national economy, he tried to offer spin on having closed borders to the virus, as if it were not already diffused within the country, in a mind over matter sort of exercise that suggested limits purchase on reality, as if he was able to recognize the risk earlier administrations had identified as a national priority.

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Filed under borders, Coronavirus, COVID-19, data visualization, national borders

Monuments in New Worlds: Placing Columbus in America

Christopher Columbus’ transatlantic voyages assume problematic status as part of a “discourse of discovery.” For rather than markers of the fifteenth century narratives, they serve to frame a range of narratives of discovery that promote the fifteenth-century navigator as an icon of nationhood that were foreign to the fifteenth century. In making claims for the foundational role that the navigator’s transatlantic voyage, they create a new narrative of nation, particularly powerful for its ability to occlude and obscure other narratives, and indeed the presence of local inhabitants in a region, so that they assume the deracinating violence of a map: as claims of possession, and indeed mastery over space, they dislodge nativist presence in a region, much as Columbus did as a royal agent, and glorify the acts of renaming, and taking possession of, the new world, in ways that ally the viewers with the heroism of the Genoese navigator’s foundational act of taking possession of the New World by staking the transatlantic “colony” La Navidad as the first settlement by Europeans of the New World on Christmas. The event’s commemoration has continued in statuary across the Americas, even if the thirty-nine settlers left behind in the settlement were all massacred by natives after their ship, the Santa Maria, was dismantled after it hit a sandbar, and the men of the lost caravel that ran ashore on a sandbar off the island Columbus had auspiciously renamed Hispaniola, as evidence of Hispanic claims to sovereignty for his patrons, its hull and crossbeams converted to a fortress that was later burned to the ground. While the crew left with a translator who were instructed to collect a store of New World gold as they awaited his return may have been overzealous in courting natives that they were all killed, the extraction of riches and wealth and slaves motivated the New World settlement. Yet for the commemoration of Columbus Day, the landfall has been renarrated as an inspired revelation of new lands in the painting that Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín, staged before uncomprehending natives cowering offstage as a missionary raises a cross on verdant shores where sailors triumphantly raised recognizable standards of the Spanish sovereign in the New World.

Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín (1832-1902),
First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, W.I., Oct. 12th 1492,

re-rendered by Currier and Ives, 1892/Library of Congress

The bucolic image of arrival was cast as a triumph of technology, civilization, and deliverance. The bucolic scene not only denied violence, but was an image of paradisal promise that Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín rendered in a manner widely reprinted in the lithograph of the commemorations of quadricentennial celebrations of 1892 as a narrative of westward expansion of Manifest Destiny. The recent re-questioning of Columbian commemoration as a common national identity led to the questioning of commemorative Columbian statuary across the United States, from Columbus, Ohio to San Francisco to Kenosha, WI, to Miami. As the statues were dislodged from the common memories of an Italian-American community–as many once were in New Haven, Boston, and Philadelphia as well as New York City–their place loosened in a narrative of nation in ways that needs to be told. Attracted by a remarkable burst of creative iconoclastic energy, San Francisco’s City Arts Commission preemptively monument to Columbus somewhat preposterously overlooking the Pacific to be removed from its monumental pedestal in order to maintain the local peace–a statue long defaced in recent years–before it was defaced.

The removal of monuments to Columbus spread as a retallying of moral accounts, but a restoration of civil peace. The importance of refiguring the commemoration of colonization grew as a form of reparations whose logic was unmistakably national in character, if the first questioning of Columbus Day had been local and selective in 1992-3. The deposition of the 4,000 pound statue, with a violence that would repeat and channel the rejection of the figure of Columbus whose monuments were already deposed in Boston, St. Paul, Minnesota; Camden, NJ; Richmond, VA, and other cities in New York state, one of which was beheaded–if long after the statue to the navigator was ceremoniously pushed into the ocean in 1986, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with a placard “Foreigners out of Haiti!” And by 2020, the ease with which statues of Christopher Columbus were assimilated to the confederate monuments preserved across many southern states–and preserved at considerable cost to American taxpayers–reminded us of how easily the memory of Columbus as colonizer was cultivated among white supremacists as iconic testaments to a sense of historical security of another era we were trying to pry ourselves free in hopes to gain distance on.

Southern Vision Alliance,
Confederate Monuments Removed since George Floyd’s Murder

If monuments removed with an eye to toppling racism across southern states that had commemorated secession in the attempt to defend enslavement and chattel slavery were a stain on the nation that emerged like a return of the repressed in the summer after George Floyd’s murder by overly zealous “law enforcement” forces, the removal of monuments had begun as undeniable evidence of their talismanic status as lodestones for white supremacy became clear after violence in Charlottesville directed attention to the degree to which commemoration of the Confederacy kept a memory alive in national and local consciousness, revealing how undecisive the Civil War was for the preservation of local memories across many border states or secessionist states, and the toxic nature of preserving memories of southern secession as a defense of what were cast as local liberties within the union.

The division assessment of historical legacies that shape a narrative that informs the present landscape of inequity had been contested for decades around the heroicization of the figure of Columbus as a shared national point of reference. As much as the seven hundred and eleven standing monuments of commemorating secession–over 1500 statues which are collectively preserved by taxpayers’ money at a cost of $40 million for annual upkeep. The standing statues dedicated to anti-abolitionist figures have kept the memory of the Confederacy alive across the United States, including of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee in Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, creating a topography that has inflected political identities in ways Donald Trump was savvy if hateful to tap, as if to present or re-present an incubus already planting seeds across the land, many of which were only removed by energized (and disgusted) protestors or whose remove was ordered by city councils in an attempt to preserve the local peace–including of the unidentified heroic “Confederate soldier” who removes his hat in downtown Alexandria, VA, removed only in June 2020–if similar statues remain in Jacksonville FL, and San Antonio TX, heroizing as if sanctioning the very option of local resistance to according rights to enslaved populations, beyond preserving memories of war dead.

Mapping the hundreds of Confederate statues across the US | Black Lives  Matter News | Al Jazeera
Southern Poverty Law Center/Al Jazeera graphic

The confederate statues were long mythologized as an alternative system of justice, echoing the reduction of rights and civil equality across the landscape by holding up a distorting mirror of Southern victory and secessionist pride, gaining legs as grounds to advocate an outdated status quo reflective and constitutive of an alternative order unto its own, as is evident in the naming of courts of law after Confederate names.

Visualizing a Confederate Present, 2017/Loretta C. Duckworth/Scholars Studio/Temple University

The spattering of blood on Columbus memorials call for a revision of public memory complicit in a culture of spatial colonization that perpetuates the fundamental nature of racial hierarchies. The requestioning of commemorating the act of violence as fundamental to the nation’s values is a questioning of their place in civil society, and their meaning to the nation, motivated in no small part by the ugliness with which they have been seized with new currency as images justifying a racial superiority and sanctioning the violence of enslavement along racial lines. For their removal had tried to call attention to the dangers of commemoration by targeting the figure of Christopher Columbus, whose statues had first multiplied across American land in roughly the same era of the later nineteenth century, following Confederate statues, in a sort of monument trick that served to naturalize white possession of indigenous lands.

The overturning of commemorative statues of the fifteenth-century navigator so deeply dissonant to our sense of national belonging, common memories, redressed disturbingly long-lasting spatialities–the average statue was almost a hundred years old–as the nation entered a temporal loop of recursive nature of reparative bent, as the destiny Columbus imagined for himself as a civilizer and discoverer of a New World–and new continent–emerged in increasingly pressing ways, opening up the very speech act of taking possession of the Americas as a fiction, only masquerading for utilitarian ends as a binding legal precedent. For only by confronting the painfully exclusionary nature of such an act of taking possession, deriving more from the practices of enslavement and mastery of others that run against the very basis of our own civil society, or the civil society we seek to create.

Owen Thomas, San Francisco Chronicle

Indeed, the San Francisco’s 4,000 pound commemorative statue of Columbus, often defaced as a symbol of enslavement and subjugation in recent years, was removed by a crane and as a call to dump it into the Bay was circulating, on Thursday, June 18, removing it from a scenic site by the Pacific beside Coit Tower, leaving an empty pedestal, perhaps to reduce the need to clean up a statue that had been repeatedly defaced in recent weeks but also to show consensus about lack of interest in defending a symbol of oppression, enslavement, and colonial violence, and public outbreaks around the call to depose the statue off Pier 31, not as a symbol of colonial resistance, but an expunging of the navigator from national history. All of a sudden the dismantling of public memories of Columbus’ heroism were national news, a divisive issue responded to not with understanding but professed shock for besmirching American history, not reassessment of values, battling Italian-Americans Nancy Pelosi herself as forsaking, as if to bemoan her betrayal of the preservation of the hallowed memory of Christopher Columbus in the summer of 2020 to stoke lines of political division in the heat of the 2020 Presidential campaign: the fate of the statuary of Columbus was a bell whistle for stoking fears of a danger to the status quo.

It was as if the spontaneous prominence across the nation of memorials to George Floyd, proliferating on street walls in full color, and in haunting offset likenesses, provoked introspection demanded introspection of what sort of memorials we identified with and wanted to see the nation, placing on the front burner of all the question of commemoration in terms that had long been glossed over and tacitly accepted. The questioning of commemoration after Floyd’s murder came to articulate a spontaneous rebuke of the continued validation of racialized policing and police violence, throwing into relief discriminatory monuments. There were soon few defenders of the monument able to tolerate how they emblematized division of the social order, eager to ask us to situate Columbus more broadly rather than historicize his complicity in “some of his acts, which nobody would support,” without addressing the framing of the logic of “discovery'” in imperial narratives of conquest and disenfranchisement of indigenous claims to sovereignty and to recognize the need for reparations.

For the navigator embodied an imperial relation to space and terrestrial expanse, discounting the inhabitants of regions, and affirming the abstract authority of sovereign claims and sovereign expanse, however improbably early maps placed the islands in the Caribbean–later called Hispaniola–based on his conviction that the Atlantic Ocean was able to be traversed, enabling transatlantic voyages for which Spain was well poised to expand commerce far beyond the coast of Africa and the Mediterranean for economic ends in an “Enterprise of the Indies” that Columbus proposed to John II of Portugal, before he set out to claim the new lands for Ferdinand and Isabella. The longstanding embedded nature of Columbus in a discourse of claiming land–a discourse from which he was not only inseparable, but embedded maps in claims of the administration and supervision of lands far removed from seats of terrestrial power, a map-trick that has been celebrated since as a form of inscribing territorial claims on a piece of paper or globe.

And if Columbus had no actual idea of the form of North America, the persuasiveness of fictive reimagining of his mastery over space–a mastery cast almost uniformly in intellectual terms, rather than in military terms of disenfranchisement or enslavement–provided a logic that is aestheticized in the monument as a mode for the possession and persuasion of possession over terrestrial space more akin to American hemispheric sovereignty in its open heroizing of a national geopolitics of the 1890s than to a Renaissance discourse of discovery–comparable to the reimagining of hemispheric sovereignty in the years after the 1867 withdrawal of Spanish sovereignty to Mexico.

The origins of these reframing are perhaps obscure, but lionizing Columbus was always about rewriting the American narrative, and distancing one race of immigrants–the Italian migrant–from the very native inhabitants that the story of Columbus displaced. The navigator was promoted actively as a figure of national unity in the post-Civil War centenary of 1892, in which Columbus assumed new currency as a national figure, a map on silver able to enter broad circulation as a memory for how a three-masted caravel mastered terrestrial expanse, resting above a hemispheric map of global oceanic expanse. The anachronistic map suggests as much a modern triumph of hemispheric cartography–the coastline of the United States was surveyed by geodetic terms and that established the role of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in producing maps of uniform toponymy and hydrographic accuracy had only recently set standards of coastal surveying that unified triangulation, physical geodesy, leveling, and magnetic of authority within the US Navy to produce coastal maps of the nation extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alaskan shoreline.

The imperious gaze of the limp-haired navigator seems the first self-made man as he gazes with gruff determination on the coin’s face, almost entirely filing the surface of the first American coin bearing human likeness. Columbus was an icon it identified with how the hemispheric map took charge over a continent, and gave a sense of predestination to the recently settled question of continental integrity–and a territorial bounds that new no frontier up to Alaska, whose coast had been recently surveyed, and much of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Its design for the Chicago Word Exposition suggest a hemispheric dominance reflecting the growth of Rand McNally in Chicago, a map-publisher for America, as well as the self-assertion the United States as a hemispheric power, as much as the Genoese navigator about whom so many meanings have encrusted.

The striking hemispheric map of global navigability on the obverse of the coin circulated in Chicago’s World Exposition was global, but would also mimic the claims of hemispheric dominance that the hemispheric projection recalled, prefigured the Pan Am logo, in its global in reach–as if the image of a spherical projection devised by Rand McNally that spanned the globe and erased all borders might be cast as the seedbed for globalization was itself contained in the transatlantic voyages of the small trade ships, the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria that were led with hopes of a profitable economic voyage with Columbus at the helm. (Rand McNally had not only sponsored the world’s fair, but its double spherical projection that recalled Columbus’ conviction of a spherical world by ahistorically featuring a cartographic design Columbus would have known; the planar projection was an icon of global expansion and conquest, more detailed in coverage than late seventeenth century double spherical projections.

–but devised and issued its own elegant version of a world map based on the Mercator projection in following years from 1895, in atlases issued subsequent to the World’s Fair, to meet a growing market for global maps. Leaving much of the African interior unmapped, in a manner that cannot but recall Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the image is a confirmation and announcement of global triumph, centered on the North American continent and United States, if it shows the world.

Rand McNally Global Map based on the Mercator Projection (Chicago and New York 1895)
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Filed under American history, Columbus, commemoration, Voyage of Discovery, whiteness

Specters along the Interstates: Mass Incarceration and the Geography of Fear

What seemed a terrible corrosion of public discourse before the mid-term elections is difficult to attribute to any single cause, person or a single election cycle.  The ominous staccato of alarms at the arrival of improvised pipe bombs sent by mail to prominent Democratic party figures and Trump critics were readily visualized across the nation as a disruption, the degree to which the man who had sent them, Cesar Sayoc, existed in a hermetic world of Trump slogans made the map of destinations less relevant in comparison to their relation to the toxic tweets our nation’s President has directed to immigration as  a threat to the national security.

Raising the specter of criminals and aliens–and profiling all refugees as criminals for crossing the border illegally–as an invasion of our territory, even if no members of the Caravan had approached the border, the Commander-in-Chief allowed it was not ‘conceivable’ the Caravan did not terrorists from the Middle East among their midst–and exposed the nation to a disconcerting word salad of apparent free associations in which “caravan after caravan” would be invited to enter the nation should Democrats gain majorities in mid-term elections, foretelling “a blue wave will equal a crime wave” in late October in clear attempts to disconcert and disorient in a haze of heightened paranoia in time for Halloween, not protect our national security.  But the specters that he provoked and elicited are not only empty charges, but permeate our society, fears of subjects that are often perhaps not cast in such openly political terms of oppositions between parties–“a blue wave will equal a crime wave; and a red wave will equal law and safety,” but exist in our landscape.

They exist in the huge diffusion of mug shots and Most Wanted images that jump outside of the confines of Reality TV as something like click bait–online images that have migrate to billboards or into the separate sections of small print newspapers–and instill a fear of the violence of those operating outside of the law, and are mirrored in how the us v. them categories existed in growing numbers of imprisoned within our borders, and the fears of fugitives stoked in billboards, and indeed in the growing epidemic of incarceration that feeds the idea of the criminal, and indeed of an expansive category of criminality, that has haunted the United States, and is perhaps magnified as an interactive spectacle both in the growth of Reality TV shows as “America’s Most Wanted” and the digitized billboards promoting the apprehension of fugitives along the interstates–and the fears that Donald Trump promotes of “murderers and rapists” at our borders, now with terrorists as well in the mix.

 

The repeated invocation of national security concerns, to argue those seeking asylum constitute threats to the nation, stand to change the United States from a place to seek sanctuary, ordering 5,000 troops–and perhaps up to 15,000–to the border with Mexico to bolster Border Patrol forces, and add more concertina wire, as he tweeted to refugees the “you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process” and called their approach in no uncertain terms “an invasion of our Country” for which “our Military is waiting,” before Halloween, sending more troops to the borders than as are stationed in Syria and Iraq combined.  This military mobilization set the national atmosphere on edge on October 31, 2018, focussing our military presence on the border in a way no Commander-in-Chief has ever done.  The alarm that we should all feel at the bulking up of a military presence in a zone that lacks any actual combatants suggests a sick hollowing out of the value of military missions globally, not to mention military morale.

 

United States Troop Deployments on US-Mexico Border (expected) and in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq on October 31, 2018; other numbers from June 30

 

The civil disruptions that had occurred within the country were taking up most of the media, but were hard to map, even though they were bound up so tightly in delusions and fears that spun from the border.  Cesar Sayoc was accused of mailing poorly improvised DIY pipe-bombs that were thankfully badly improvised, and found before they arrived in the hands of their destinations or exploded; but fears spurred by their arrival at multiple sites across the nation echoed maps of “sprees” of terrorizing pipe bombs in the past.  This time, they revealed the terrifyingly captivating nature of alt-right discourse even as they seemed destabilize the nation by attacking individuals.  Even if they didn’t explode, the sequence of bombs revealed tears in our political and civil space–and of a politics of demonization, targeted at how Trump had designated  dangers to the state, and of fear more than hope or civic involvement as we knew it.

The rash of violence that we couldn’t help but map to try to make sense of it, and it was viewed as a national wake-up call and emergency that it was–

 

 

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–unfolding over a series of days in one week, either because of the vagaries of the U.S. Postal Service, or the actual intention of their maker–which seems beside the point–as the impression that they created of a plague of violence, tapping into the repeatedly foiled plots of terrorist attacks, ranging from teenage with contact to Al Qaeda to the twenty-one year old accused of planting twenty-four pipe bombs which would form, connecting their dots, a smiley face that would stare back at the viewer, whose smile was to arc from Colorado to North Texas to Tennessee.  If the latter used a map to plant pipe bombs in mailboxes that would create a giant “smiley face” so that the map would stare back at the nation, the map stared back as a staccato punctuation of the civil fabric, even if they did not explode or injure anyone.

 

Cesar's bombs map USA

 

Their progress raised alarms and confusion as to the uncertainty about what was to come, and if the illusion of civil peace could be sustained.  The planned set of attacks that seemed to destabilize public discourse was born out of Donald Trump’s head–who else links George Soros and Tom Steyer with Cory Booker, Eric Holder, Jr., Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Jr., Maxine Waters, Michael Moore, Kamala Harris and Robert DeNiro?–even as they seemed to tip an already uneasy nation over a brink of whatever decorum remained.  They seemed to threaten to rend the very fabric of the nation, on the eve of the midterm elections, as the arrival of  sent pipe-bombs planted alarmist messages and reminded us of the increased escalation of oppositional rhetoric in United States politics, as these anonymous acts of terror created a terrifying instability of our civic space.

There was twinned let-down of tensions and a terrifying realization as the man who sent them, holed up in a white van in Florida so covered with Trump-Pence stickers aptly characerized as a MAGAmobile–whose inhabitant seemed to have spent the last two years in the virtual world of an online campaign, drawing sustenance from the ideological slogans of Trump’s campaign.  Sayoc made bombs that failed to explode, probably from downloaded instructions, in a van with windows were so fully covered in garish divisive slogans they had effectively obscured any relation to a real world.  The pipe-bombs spun from the frenetic identity of an online discourse, allegedly used in the subsequent massacre of Jews, a mass-murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue, driven by fears of immigrants and the promotion of immigration as if both were dangers in danger of “suspected terrorists” destabilizing the state.   Trump has erased all integrity when with recognizable narcissism he described how both both of these tragic events served to “stop a certain momentum” going into the elections, as the acts of “two maniacs” he energetically disowned, as if they had shifted attention from the impact of GOP theatrics when they only shone a light on the dangers of Trumpets rhetoric and re-examination of his tweets  in relation to the nation’s psychological health.

 

1. The bombs’ destinations may be a bit revealing, even if maps couldn’t capture the tragedy, or reach the violence Trump’s oppositional rhetoric plants in our civic space.  The pipe bombs were sent where media hubs of its coastal states, which President Trump has indulgently attacked as “elitist,” in an attack on cosmopolitanism and coastal elites–and the mapping of such regions to members of the Democratic party seen as especially dangerous to the nation.  The geography of the bombs was less striking than their destination for the coasts–the eastern seaboard, but also the western in California–coastal sites in “blue states” that Trumpists have distanced from the heartland, sewing divisions in the nation.  The sequence of a week of pipe bombs was terrifyingly followed by a terribly  violent attack killing and maiming members of a Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue before Shabbat services, allegedly after crying “All Jews must die,” as if mainstreaming the need to defend the ‘nation’ against immigrants seen as terrorists.  Joseph Bowers’ social media post on his intentionally unmonitored Gab–“I can’t sit by and watch my people getting slaughtered”–used its alleged protection of “free speech” to ready himself to open fire upon innocent congregants.  The killings mapped the distortion of reason on a platform that wanted ideals of free speech, promising to “promote raw, rational, open, and authentic discourse online,” and would defend the best response to hate speech as more speech.  Even though the two men had never met–and didn’t know of one another–they were triggered and animated, as Noah Berlatsky notes, by a common manufactured fears of migrants, and an antisemitic attribution of assistance for immigration and animosity to globalist Jews, and left the a good part of the nation mourning or in shock.

 

Memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

 

Unmonitored platforms may create alternate worlds, but cannot radicalize, even though no platform for attention of such heinous attacks should exist.  No space should allow calling for violent acts or promote the fostering of violence.  And as I traveled outside Berkeley, CA, where the absence of civility in the nation is at times hard to map–I was struck by the proliferation on the side of freeways of strikingly analogous oppositional rhetoric is evident in the proliferation of specters of fugitives, frozen in mug shots placed in digitized billboards, as a broad expansion of our notions of criminality:  by advocating a public sort of retributive violence, the specters that increasingly haunt the interstate in such digitized billboards allow drivers to enter versions of “America’s Most Wanted,” the old television show FOX created and endured so long on air, while behind the wheel.  The direct engagement of such an oppositional rhetoric of danger seemed outside the political world–it was from a federal law enforcement agency, after all, but triggered a deep sense of unease that is echoed in the fear of outsiders and rampant criminality at our gates:  as Vice President Pence intoned quite surreally and without any proof that it was all but certain terrorists were among the Caravan of central American refugees and migrants approaching to seek asylum in racially charged terms–“It is inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent” who would “not be in this large throng” approaching the border, in defense of Trump’s outrageous claim“Middle Eastern” people will emerge among the migrant caravan if you “look with cameras” and his instructions to the press to “take your cameras, go into the middle of the Caravan, and search” for MS-15 gang members, Middle Easterners.  In these ungrounded assertions, the danger of refugees was linked to those who the President, as Rebecca Solnit wrote, had pushed the nation, but also Bowers and Peyoc to focus on.

Driving to an airport in Newark, NJ, I couldn’t but think of the new means of civic involvement–based on fear–that has spread in the nation, as the face of a glassy-eyed fugitive from the law jumped out from other surrounding signage, as if the digital billboards of wanted criminals drew attention to targets of public wrath and danger,–their identities were obscured by their felonies, as the terror of their crimes seemed a means of striking fear into my heart, as it suddenly seemed as if the space through which I was driving outside Newark was considerably more dangerous than that of Manhattan, and that I had to escalate my guard as I had entered a new space. I was struck by the prominence of such haunting billboards of haunted men and women shortly before the spate of bombings prompted reflections on how such a corrosive political discourses began,–or could be blamed for the rise of such horrific acts of violence in  public life–and the odd relation they created to criminality and to the law, or the project of federal law enforcement and the role of the state.  The billboards stake out a notion of civic involvement and participation by identifying and apprehending federal criminals that eerily echoed the demonization of  dangers to the nation–the deepest “we” and the broadest “collective”–that the arrival of criminals, whether they be concealed in groups of refugees, or among those who sought asylum, or were those guilty of crossing the border “illegally” and were hence felons as a result–indeed, true national threats–that has been the logic of sending troops to the border, and protecting our frontiers.  But these posters invited citizens to search for similar dangerous faces in their memories, and to direct attention to the fearful presence of fugitives among us, and indeed likely to be seen in their own states, perhaps lurking right off of that very interstate.

The rhetoric of civic engagement was terrifying as the elevation of a new notion of national security.  Can one look at an origin point in the direction of a redefinition of criminality, outside the court of law, in the register of Reality TV as much as in reality.  The mug shots of most wanted and images haunt not only the freeways, but the mug shots that come to constitute entire sections of newspapers, as if to grab attention of audiences against their online competitors?  The emergence of set the scene for arrival of Donald J. Trump and the intensity of his almost baseless baiting by his personalized taunts about immigrants, ICE, and deportations, and the threats of gang violence, rapes, murders, human trafficking, and terrorism that have haunted his demonization of immigrants, refugees, and the approaching Caravan. For the images of fugitives that haunt the freeways seemed an invitation to participate in an ongoing form of Reality TV, as much as to invite citizen participation in law enforcement, expanding an elastic category of criminality as a sort of place-holder for all to see.

 

EastCoastRapist.com

It is comforting that it was at the borders, however, that we saw borders broke for Beto in Texas, even if he narrowly lost the state, and that the candidates spewing anti-immigrant pro-border platforms in Arizona failed to capture the sort of attention we had feared.

 

TX for beto?

 

 

 

But the prominence of the haunting images of faces of fugitives posted on the freeways, and the image of clear and present dangers that they personify and promote, seemed to create an eery reality at a remove from reality–a dram of Reality TV, in which the designer of a President who spent many years of thought dedicated to Reality TV ratings as a way he could better compete, seemed to haunt his own discourse of opposition, and his irrational obsessions with the dangers of criminality that needy hopeful immigrants in the Caravan are contaminated by, and indeed by the fears of contamination of the nation that Trump has so willfully sought to promote, as if to over-ride and obscure the choices that were at stake in the impending mid-term elections.

 

EastCoastRapist.com

 

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