Volume 2, February 2005

                                                                    ISSN 1552-5112

an international and interdisciplinary journal

of postmodern cultural sound, text and image



A Coloring–book Theory of Modern War*


Michael H. Goldhaber


After all, in the post-modern world what nation is truly sovereign?



A child of a certain age and outlook fills in each color in a coloring book right to the edge of its area, then puts a different color in the adjacent area. Cartographers who draw so-called “political”  (as opposed to topographic) maps are just as anal and careful. One color per country. Cartographers are not the ones, however, who decide where countries’ boundaries will be, or at least not by themselves, so the fact that they produce maps that are entirely filled in with solid patches of pastel colors comes not from the cartographers’ own inventions but from the reactions of “statesmen” looking at maps, and like little children, insisting that they be entirely colored in. **


At least that is what statesmen of the modern era have invariably done. Examine a world map. There are no blank spots on land (except for frozen Antarctica); every sand-filled desert, every wind-swept mountain top, every desolate island, or muddy swamp or impenetrable rainforest is colored pink or green or brown or beige — one of the limited range of colors the map-makers tend to use. It is all colored in because at one time, someone looking at an earlier map noticed an area not sufficiently filled in with the color of his (very rarely, her) own nation and was offended, offended deeply enough to send expeditions to claim the territory or armed men to occupy and attack it. (One period of map-filling in was the so-called “race for the colonies” that filled in the maps of Africa, South–east Asia, Micronesia and Polynesia in the late nineteenth century.)


Having your own color already on the map doesn’t invariably work, but it often does, especially if that same color is shown in the same place on your neighbor’s map. It also helps if both these maps are colored much as a child’s coloring book picture would be. If many areas of different color are right next to one another, then yet one more colored area looks ok. But suppose an area is like a balloon, all by itself against the sky. On the child’s drawing, it should all be one color. Similarly, if the area in question is an island in the sea, the coloring-book habit demands that it too should all be one color. Thus, of all the thousands of islands of all sizes in the world, only one, Borneo, manages to have three colors (that is, parts of three nations — Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei). Those islands with two colors, usually divided with a straight line across the middle, can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Hispaniola, divided into the Dominican Republic and Haiti; New Guinea, shared between Indonesia and Papua-New Guinea; East Timor, (reluctantly) shared by Indonesia, again, and East Timor; and an island without any straight lines, known as Ireland, (again most reluctantly) divided between Eire and the United Kingdom. Every child knows a blob by itself should be only one color, so that little corner of Ireland just must belong to Eire; those who wear the green just see red when they look at the spot of orange on the otherwise uni-colored blob. They are oh-so willing to fight, or have been until they found themselves sharing membership in the post-modern European Union, that anti-empire that reluctantly takes admission applications and considers them for years, rather than invading to change map colors as in the good old days of modern warfare.


Likewise, if an area is filled in with one color except for a few spots, the spots must be filled with the same color as well. The exceptions —blobs in the midst of other solid colors — are also very scarce: two in Italy (San Marino and Vatican City); two in South Africa (Lesotho and Swaziland); and that’s it. Another map no-no is to have a country separated into two or more parts by another country (as East and West Pakistan were before the former separated off as Bangladesh). The only current exceptions are the present and former superpower countries: the US with Alaska, drivable to, only across Canada; and Russia, with the little territory of Kaliningrad, which got separated off when the Baltic nations marched out of the then Soviet Union in 1991.


My argument is that this distribution of colors on the map has a logic of its own, a logic that then, with great difficulty has to be carried out by soldiers and eventually diplomats on the ground. This logic makes no functional sense apart from map-reading. Modern nation states are presumed to have an ethnic unity, but they don’t, really. The island of New Guinea is not divided into two ethnic groups down the middle, but rather into hundreds that have developed in more or less the same spots for thousands of years. The line on the map probably cuts right through some of them. And ethnic territories in pre-modern society, such as pre-colonial Australia, quite generally overlap rather than being spread out like sharply separated Crayola colors on a neat child’s picture.


What about the thought that a modern society, at least, needs efficiently to control a distinct territory so that it can handle its police powers, its transportation system, its voting rights, and the like? A country like Lesotho is at the mercy of the country that surrounds it, so it might as well join that country, or so the argument would run. The argument simply fails to work; plenty of countries, including for instance Eire, Denmark, and Bhutan, are largely at the mercy of one single neighboring country (the UK, Germany, and India respectively) in terms of convenient access to transport and goods, etc. That doesn’t prevent them from being independent despite the inconvenience.  India could easily swallow Bhutan, but would face international opprobrium; if there were a similar-sized blob entirely surrounded by one color on the map, the opprobrium would be less. Otherwise there would many more such polka-dot countries around.


I alluded above to the necessity that neighboring countries agree on the colored blotches, like two children sharing one coloring-book page. Generations of Argentinian schoolchildren were shown maps with the neighboring islands, which were labeled the Malvinas, colored as part of Argentina. For British schoolchildren, these same nearly worthless islands were the Falklands, inhabited by a couple of thousand sheepherders, and colored the color of the now mostly vanished British Empire. When the inept but brutal Argentinian junta of the 1980s was in need of a way to enlarge its popularity, nothing seemed easier than “rescuing” the Malvinas for the mother blob. The actual worth of this place to Britain was so little it had already turned over to Argentina the task of supplying the islanders with needed provisions. But when Argentina suddenly occupied that place on the map, Maggie Thatcher needed some popularity herself, and in the words of a New York Post headline writer, the “Empire Str[uck] Back.” The blob on British maps retained its pinkness, the Buenos Aires junta fell in disgrace, and everyone proceeded to forget about the sheepherders once again.


Another place where maps don’t coincide is in Israel and Palestine. Israelis are continually bothered that, on what they refer to as the West Bank, Palestinian schoolchildren learn from maps in which there is no Israel; meanwhile, Palestinians and others are scandalized that Israeli settler militants teach their children with maps that show Israel extending all the way from the Nile to the Euphrates.


Major wars in the past two centuries arose because of widely divergent views of what maps should be. World War I began because Serbs and Austrians disagreed on the correct place to divide the colors, as did French and Germans, Italians and Austrians, and so on. Before WWII, Hitler convinced himself that the world map would look better if the so-called heartland of the so-called world island (Europe, Asia and Africa) were all one solid German color. (On a smaller scale, he wanted to revert to maps in which the German color extended into what had become part of France, and similarly with Poland.)


If everyone would just read from the same map…..


What would happen? Maybe a wider peace would emerge, in which, as in today’s Europe, everyone could be citizens wherever they happened to be, and maps would suddenly cease to represent much of importance. After all, in the post-modern world what nation is truly sovereign? What ethnic group is confined to its own borders? Who isn’t partly in Diaspora? What country actually controls all the services its citizens need and demand?


Maps may be of diminishing importance. Just as published maps in color only became widespread in the 19th century, widespread videos and Internet messages showing people living their lives far away now can induce sympathy or at times perhaps the opposite without concern for boundaries. If pre-modern war tended to mean raiding parties for theft, tribute, slave or women, and much less often changing map or actual territorial boundaries, so post-modern war seems to take the new form of attention grabbing as often as land grabbing. Al Qaeda terrorists may be the foremost practitioners of this in a directly violent way; the point is to get the world’s attention as much as to achieve any other aim. Interestingly, once al Qaeda managed to capture so much attention with the gruesome World Trade Center attack, it has turned out that Osama bin Laden may now get almost the same attention just by issuing a short video of himself looking rather like Saruman in the movie of Lord of the Rings.


This point brings up an interesting question. Wars in the modern era were fought with real violence according to their effect on representations of land areas (that is, maps). If so, cannot mere representations of violence such as war-movies, action movies and video games — which potentially capture as much or more attention across the world than terrorist acts — be considered genuine warfare? (I am taking it for granted here that the point of post-modern war is chiefly to capture what is now most valuable —namely attention; this is an argument I have touched on elsewhere# and hope to explain more fully in a longer work in progress.) If violence, whether terrorist or otherwise is only one means to achieve the same effects, then non-violent forms of “war’ would presumably be far more “cost-effective” as a rule.


At various times during the modern-war regime it was announced that new technological inventions including the machine gun and the atomic bomb made war unthinkable and therefore un-fightable. Now it may turn out that special effects of various kinds are a far more potent technological development for this end.


                                                                                                                           Volume 2, February 2005

                                                                    ISSN 1552-5112

an international and interdisciplinary journal

of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

* I spent the year 1981 (the first year of the Reagan administration) hiding out in the bowels of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC,  researching a book on the causes of war (which I never wrote). One remnant is presented here.


** This habit of filling countries in solidly in distinct blobs led to the famous mathematical (topological) conjecture that a political map could show each country as different from its neighbors with just four colors.  (The problem was first posed in 1852, but the proof turned out be too complicated to complete without massive computer use, as finally achieved in 1976.) [See, e.g. http://math.youngzones.org/4color.html ] The whole approach leaves aside the question of why countries should be continuous blobs of that sort.


# see my “Weapons of Mass Hysteria” telepolis  May 25, 2003 http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/14/14874/1.html