Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Scale Model

--The Treachery of Images
This is Not a Pipe),
Rene Magritte

The territory never gets in at all. ...

Always, the process of representation

will filter it out so that the mental world

is only maps of maps, ad infinitum

--Form, Substance, Difference,

Gregory Bateson

[T]he Cartographers Guild drew

a Map of the Empire whose size

was that of the Empire

-Exactitude in Science,
Jorge Luis Borges

The map is not the Territory

--Alfred Korzybski


The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have moved beyond wars of liberation -- they are
Wars of Identity.

The inhabitants of those nations are fighting to maintain their identities, and we are fighting because war has become, as Glenn Greenwald recently noted, our national identity. When non-veterans like Obama call our armed services a "warrior elite", then it is obvious we have re-defined our national ideals.

The U.S. cannot win these wars as we lack the scale to deal with them. Using military maps as metaphor, Ranger will explain his concept.

Higher headquarters, Department of the Army, Theatre, etc., use scales larger than 1:250,000 on a daily basis. Corps and Division use 1:100,000 and 1:50,000. The larger the scale, the smaller the detail, the less exact the rendering of any meaning
ful reality.

Maps of this scale are deceptive as they can show nothing of significance beyond gross features which are beyond the comprehension of the planners. On the news, it is common to see maps of the region which imply that we civilized, mechanical western men can impose our will on those borders, by means of animations showing movement and occupation.

That is the illusion of maps, which reflect terrain features but can never express the reality of the situation on the ground.
Maps are one-dimensional, hopelessly limited representations of gross outer spaces. Maps at this level are optimistic briefing points which are easily digested. They can handily represent any illusion.

The reality devolves down to the Battalion, Company, Platoon and Section, which are operationally bound to 1:25,000 scale maps for daily use. Even though these maps show features more clearly, they still do not reflect reality.

Take any fight in Iraq or Afghanistan and look at the reality versus the map. U.S. units never move without maps distributed down to Platoon, and often, section. Now we probably have GPS in every vehicle and at Platoon level, and what good has that done?

It doesn't matter what the HQ level or the map scale. The U.S. faces implacable adversaries that have no need for maps since they use local guides, have indigenous intelligence assets and are intimately knowledgeable about their Areas of Operation. Add to this their belief that they are fighting for their identity and have no place to go except their tribal homelands and it adds up to an unpleasant reality from which maps, no matter how precisely rendered, can save us.

The Afghanis and Iraqis need no maps; they will steal and extort weapons and remain willing to delay, disorganize and deceive the foreign invaders in perpetuum. That they can do this for generations is not something that can be depicted on any map in any Army HQ.

It is all a matter of scale. The President can look at his One Over the World scale map and feel perfectly in control; meanwhile, an infantryman stows his 1:25,000 and prepares for another night of touch and go.

Wars are always a 1:1 scale.


  1. jim,

    I should point out that today scales on paper maps no longer bear any relevance. Paper maps are very much out of vogue, everything is digital now. Every vehicle has a digital moving map with satellite imagery. The President and senior military leadership don't look at JOG maps anymore, they look at TV screens with actual images of the battlefield at a 1:3 scale. Their PowerPoint presentations show pictures of the brutal results of raids and bombings.

    I wonder how much of this new information technology has changed things. I don't think it has. I don't think that your point about maps not saving us from Afg or Iraq is any more valid than the effect maps had in Vietnam, or any of countelss other wars. Are we suggesting that war is just now becoming the American Identity? I would argue war has always been the American Identity, are you suggesting that isn't the case, are you suggesting that only now do to Afg and Iraq that we have some how changed as a people?


  2. editors note: I did exaggerate the transition to all digital maps, of course patrols on foot in Afg still use paper maps. But this has, unfortunately to an old infantry guy, the exception.

  3. jim: But didn't FDR look at those same sort of large-scale maps when he, Churchill, and Stalin planned to give Adolf his conge'? Didn't Ramses, Caesar, Charlemagne, Saladin...all those strategic and geopolitical leaders do the same?

    So it would seem that the critical factor isn't just distance from the guy with the e-tool and the gladius, but the failure of imagination and understanding of things like achievable political ends, matching them with realistic political and military means, and knowing where and who you're fighting.

    My point has always been, about these silly adventures in central Asia that

    1. Any "strategy" whose basis rests on somehow changing the fundamental nature of the central Asians and the sociopolitical character of central Asia has failed before it has been envisioned, much less implemented.

    2. Much of what we claim to be doing, or attempting to do, is based either on #1, or magical thinking that assumes that if we just find the right strategy, or the right commander, or the right ally, everything will suddenly change and we will all get magical ponies.

    The "big map" picture that our leaders can and should be able to see includes:

    - the reality that we cannot both uncritically support Israel and get support from more than something like 2-10% of the publics in the Arab lands.

    - the reality that supporting unpopular but Western-aligned despots like Mubarak, the Sauds, the Maronite axis in Lebanon, or (back in the day) the Shah in Iran will lose us most of the rest of those who would otherwise not have objected to Israel.

    So don't think it's so much a question of map scale, jim. It's that there's a honkin' huge fucking mountain range across the center of the 1:100,000 map, and our "leaders" are insisting "We'll just launch the armored units through THAT grassy plain..."

  4. jim-

    I too have argued this for a long time, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are both about imposing a new political identity on both communities, one which fits our view, but is hopelessly alien to them. I've got a longer take on this, but I'm saving that for a roundtable at Chicagoboyz I've been invited to participate in August . . .

    Cut to the chase? In 2001 we as a nation embarked on a series of wars to remake foreign political communities in order to provide ourselves with permanent security (that is we were waging a war against a method using essentially the same method). Since "permanent security" is impossible to achieve, especially when the enemies list only gets longer, the war is by definition endless, or will go on as long as we commit the resources to fight it. This of course were the war aims sold to the people, the actual aims are more in line with domination and control of natural recources and foreign economies . . .

    From a strategic theory perspective, both wars are irrational given the stated public war aims, and even if the assumed war aims of the various controlling political/economic interests are taken into account, how do they correspond to the national interests of the United States? Wars put political communities and systems under tremendous strain . . . it is no accident that wars often usher in revolution and/or political collapse . . .

    Andrew Bacevich as more on this


    and here . . .


    "They have never been even remotely conservative, especially with regard to foreign and national security policy. However, I'd say that they do not exercise that "stranglehold" to which you refer. The Republican Party is not owned by the neocons; instead, it's intellectually bankrupt."

    Neocons = Radicals; GOP = intellectually bankrupt, amen brother!

  5. BG,
    The TV screen maps still adhere to my thesis.
    The TV image just adds another dimension of illusion.
    Let's plan our future wars on Sesame street.

  6. BG,
    Are you saying that map scales have no relevance-OR- old Rangers lack relevance?
    Somehow , i sensed an implication in your reply.

  7. Off Topic.

    Found this political typology quiz. Took it and, to my surprise, it calls me a Liberal.

  8. Andy,
    I've stopped wondering or even caring what i am anymore.
    But thanks for the link for those that want to take the quiz.

  9. Sorry to step on your thread Jim - these tests which purport to politically classify people hold some kind of fascination for me.

  10. Andy,
    No problem, say whatever you wish.
    It's all good.

  11. jim,

    "old Rangers lack relevance?
    Somehow , i sensed an implication in your reply."

    Anything but, I apologize if my comment came off that way. My point was more that things don't change, and therefore any comments from an older, experienced guy such as yourself will always be relevant.

    I meant scales no longer have relevance because anyone on the battlefield, private to POTUS, can flip through scales and perspectives as easily as clicking on a mouse. Privates read the political theater on CNN, or on blogs. The President watches the war up close and personal on TV, and can visit the war zone at his leisure and then can fly back home the same night to tend to his business.

  12. bg,
    Correction- the Pres flies home and attends to OUR business.
    I stand behind my contention that all of the means of representing war, or the economy for that matter, reflect the shadow and not the reality.
    Thanks for your input.

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