The Return of Cartography

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Editor’s Note: This is a preview of Midafternoon Map, War on the Rocks’ latest members-only newsletter. Midafternoon Map provides a cartographic perspective on current events, geopolitics, and history. In each installment we’ll explore the role of maps in reflecting, distorting, and ultimately creating reality. At best, cartography can play a unique role in simplifying matters that appear complex and complicating matters that appear simple. Ranging over the world from the Caucasus to the Carolinas, Midafternoon Map aspires to do both. Members can look forward to a new map delivered to their inbox every two weeks: good maps and bad maps, beautiful maps and ugly ones — and bizarre maps whenever possible. 



For better or worse, the map is back. 

Repeatedly over the past century, the end of history appeared poised to render maps obsolete. Conflict, it turns out, is eminently mappable. Peace and prosperity, less so. Just consider one of the more fanciful attempts, The Mercator Map of the World United: A Pictorial History of Transport and Communications and Paths to Permanent Peace.

Drawn by American illustrator Ernest Dudley Chase at the end of World War II, it captures the heady optimism surrounding the defeat of fascism and the foundation of the United Nations. Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, along with smaller figures in a fez, sombrero, and turban, jointly turn a capstan in the center of Eurasia. A series of insets show mankind advancing from the caveman family through the state to world government. Elsewhere on the map, the “Robot Plane of the future” delivers a message of world peace while Chinese and even Australians learn American customs by watching movies. The “ship of isolationism” sinks in the Pacific, while another ship takes tariff barriers to the trash heap. Somewhere in Namibia’s deserts, the ostrich of nationalism buries its head in the sand.

If Chase’s optimism proved premature, so did the pessimism of the map-loving protagonist in the 1913 short story “The Cupboard Of The Yesterdays.” Written by British satirist H. H. Munro during the Balkan Wars, the story features a young man lamenting that “good governance” and “the intrusion of civilised monotony” will strip the Balkans of their picturesqueness and charm. “When I was a child,” he explains, “I remember a sunburnt, soldierly man putting little pin-flags in a war-map, red flags for the Turkish forces and yellow flags for the Russians. And there was a battle called Plevna that went on and on with varying fortunes for what seemed like a great part of a lifetime; I remember the day of wrath and mourning when the little red flag had to be taken away from Plevna.”

When the Balkan Wars end, he worries, “the dust of formality and bureaucratic neatness will slowly settle” over the region. In place of map pins, wolves, and bandits, the next generation will be left to read headlines like: “Socialist Congress at Uskub, election riot at Monastir, great dock strike at Salonika, visit of the Y.M.C.A. to Varna.” One day, he warned, ladies will go for tea on the shores of the Black Sea “and write home about it as the Bexhill of the East.”

Not surprisingly, after the end of the Cold War, maps emerged as a preferred metaphor for those who were once again skeptical about the triumph of liberal internationalism. In books like The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate or Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World, the map itself serves as a rebuke to those who imagined humanity would overcome its atavistic divisions. The thick black lines that separate us on paper, these books suggested, were not in fact fated to disappear, and the rival colors that categorized people by nationality reflected a deeper reality.

And yet those who expected their maps to offer ironclad insights into geopolitics have often come up short as well. In the next installment of Midafternoon Map, we’ll consider some of the misleading cartography that accompanied the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the early days of the conflict, explainers appeared that used topography to highlight Putin’s defensive war aims or skewed color schemes to exaggerate Ukraine’s internal divisions. No less than with Dudley’s vision of world unity, understanding what these maps missed proved crucial to predicting the future. 



Nicholas Danforth is an editor at War on the Rocks. He is also a senior visiting fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and the author of The Remaking of Republican Turkey: Memory and Modernity since the Fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Image: David Rumsey Map Collection