Positioning the Middle of Nowhere: GPS Technology and the Desert
The majority of units had been issued [...] an electronic device much like a pocket calculator which, using signals from satellites, could tell you your exact coordinates. However, we did not have such a system, and our luck began to run out [...] The Iraqi desert is like the ocean.
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph P. Gallagher, 1991
One wondered from where the surrendering enemy had come. They carried no equipment, water, or food. Yet, they walked south in the barren, featureless desert with no enemy positions in sight.
Captain H. R. McMaster, 1991
Soldiers operate a small lightweight global positioning tracker, or SLGR, during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Photo: United States Department of Defence*
Global Positioning System (GPS) enables us to determine a precise geographic location anywhere in the world. It was first used on a large scale by the US military during the Gulf War from 1990-91. It therein proved decisive in its ability to navigate the desert landscapes of Kuwait and eastern Iraq, giving American and coalition forces a tactical advantage over the defending Iraqi military. After the war, the use of GPS in the civilian domain rapidly expanded. Nowadays, the omnipresence of mobile devices has made satellite-based navigation a standard component of everyday life. Moving through urban and rural environments is increasingly done with Google Maps, while numerous other digital services make use of satellite positioning with users hardly noticing. This development has also led to a broader shift in awareness of space in everyday life. The possibility to determine your precise geographical coordinates at any time affects spatial awareness regardless of whether you are actively using the GPS function on your phone or not. Consequently, being in a space that is beyond precise localization or the feeling of being ‘in the middle of nowhere’ is increasingly rare.
In the West, the absence of an accurate sense of geographical location, or ‘placelessness’, is often associated with the ocean and the desert. In Christian traditions, the combination of perceived placelessness and inhospitality to human life turned these environments into ambiguous, symbolic tropes. The ocean is the domain of apocalyptic violence, as well as an expression of the unruly, unbounded character of Divine nature, whereas the desert is the environment of torment and trial, but also the place where one encounters God (McGinn, 1994).
In Hollywood cinema, the desert has often acted as a trope for Middle Easterners’ supposed unreliability. In movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the ‘exposed, barren land and the blazing sands’ operate as a motive for the supposed ‘hot’ passion and uncensored emotions of Arabs. In other words, the desert is a ‘world out-of-control’ (Shohat, 1997, p. 32). As a symbolic site of projection, the desert has played a substantial role in the propagation within popular culture of ‘orientalism’ as discussed by literary critic Edward Said (1978). This application of clichéd generalizations of culture in the Middle East constructs the orient as a universal exotic place inhabited by archetypical subjects. Said argues that in this way, orientalism operates as a political instrument that ultimately serves to justify Western colonial domination.
The desert is perceived as an unruly site in terms of its inhospitality and as a challenge to sensory perception. After all, appearances are unstable, mirages disorient your sense of distance, and—as art historian John Van Dyke reported after a journey through the North American deserts in the early twentieth century—you may perceive ‘a pink air, a blue shadow, or a field of yellow grass’ (Van Dyke, p. 110). Likewise, H. R. McMaster, a US Army officer during the Gulf War, describes surrendering enemy soldiers appearing out of nowhere (McMaster, 1991). The desert certainly offers a challenge the Western, enlightened confidence in one’s ability to deduct single truths by observing one’s environment. It is a place where the senses cannot be trusted as a source of definite, unchanging information.
What might initially have seemed merely a pragmatic technological innovation, now gains broader significance in the context of the US military’s use of GPS in the Gulf War. It is a ‘pocket calculator’ of sorts that compensates for the disorientation of the senses in a ‘barren, featureless’ landscape. Finding your way in the desert is no longer a matter of 'luck' with satellite navigation as an officer responsible for POW transport during Desert Storm seems to suggest (Gallagher, 1991). GPS re-asserts lost confidence in the empirical assessment of the environment, albeit with a technological tool, while simultaneously subduing the orientalist Hollywood fantasy of the desert as an unpredictable ‘world out-of-control’. While Captain McMaster’s eyes still confused him about the enemy's origin, his battalion's GPS-facilitated surprise attack neutralized their threatening nature, leading to their surrender.
There is an additional point of connection between satellite navigation and the orientalist dimension of the desert's popular cultural imaginations. The supposedly objective perception of space, enabled by GPS-coordinates, embodies a particular way of looking at the world rooted in colonial history and has inherently militaristic characteristics. Navigation based on a bird’s-eye-view perspective has been a predominantly European practice, closely tied to cartography in colonial conquest, which remains secondary in many parts of the world, especially in the Global South. Furthermore, orientation based on target points, irrespective of their surroundings, is an approach with close ties to military strategy (Kaplan, 2006). In this way, GPS technology seems to fit in with some of the colonial implications of orientalist tropes in Hollywood cinema mentioned above.
The transformation of the desert from a biblical place of torment and potential encounters with God into a satellite-navigated grid of coordinates also forms a decisive step in another development. Philosopher Edward Casey describes a ‘site’ as the ‘emptied out residuum of place and space’ where ‘place [is] dismantled into punctiform positions' (Casey, 1997, p. 186). Looking at cultural imaginaries and practices related to the desert in the United States, literature scholar John Beck (2001) argues that the perception of the desert as a ‘site’, in this sense, has enabled its incorporation in the capitalist frame of a waste landscape, close to a non-place. As such, the desert is deemed appropriate for any activity that is not desirable in areas considered cultivated, be it industrial development, military endeavours, or extraction of raw materials. In this way, GPS navigation unifies the US military’s localized experience ‘on the ground’ of the Iraqi and Kuwaiti landscape with the long-standing American foreign policy approach to the area. Ultimately, US interests in the Middle Eastern deserts are based on its conceptualization as a wasteland, speckled with profitable punctiform areas: oil wells.
The proliferation of GPS-based navigation in the civilian domain since the 1990s can be seen as a legacy of its prominence during the Gulf War and the media attention generated around it. In this context, the convenience in navigation it has brought to everyday life gains an additional, less comfortable, dimension. As American Studies scholar Caren Kaplan (2006) has suggested, GPS promotes a militarized vision of public space, which can be traced back to its origins as a warfare technology. When we navigate the streets with Google Maps, our focus on the moving blue dot on the screen fixates our attention on the ‘target’ of our movements, at the expense of observing and engaging with the features of the environment we are in. The peculiar difficulty to recognize street names on most digital maps (the more you zoom in, the more they disappear, it often seems) further promotes this tendency; rather than looking for and reading street signs in your surroundings, you are encouraged to keep staring at the map continuously.
The landscape is transformed into a ‘site’ with ‘punctiform positions’ of interest, very much in the sense of Casey’s analysis, and similar to Beck’s perspective on contemporary approaches to desert landscapes. In effect, everyday reliance on GPS navigation promotes experiential desertification of the environment. In this new desert, the points of resource extraction that formed the essence of the Kuwaiti desert as ‘site’—the oil wells—have been substituted for points of consumption and capital exchange: shops, businesses, and mass-culture entertainment (e.g., attraction parks) are marked most prominently on Google Maps. What might once have been experienced as a common space, accessible to and serving the interests of the entire community, is now represented on the map as an area that primarily exists to accommodate the interests of capital accumulation.
Thus, everyday satellite-based navigation can be seen as a gateway to a next-level version of what architect Rem Koolhaas (2002) coined as ‘junkspace’. For Koolhaas, junkspace concerns a physical urban environment, the properties of which are shaped to entirely serve consumer culture. While GPS navigation doesn’t transform physical space, it draws you into a virtual overlay of space that affects its experience towards a consumerist non-place in a way that intensifies the implications of Koolhaas’ architectural critique. Maybe GPS does not mean the end for experiencing ‘the middle of nowhere’, but rather its substitution for a technological successor. In the new middle of nowhere, you always know exactly where you are on the map, but every site is increasingly experienced like any other area of extraction and accumulation.
Dani Ploeger, 2020
Beck, J. 2001. Without Form and Void: The American Desert as Trope and Terrain. Nepantla: Views from South 2(1), 63-83.
Casey, Edward S. 1997. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gallagher, Joseph P., 1991. What Took You So Long? In: Association of the United States Army, 1993, Personal perspectives on the Gulf War, pp. 60-62
Kaplan, C., 2006. Precision Targets: GPS and the Militarization of U.S. Consumer Identity. American Quarterly, 58(3), pp.693-714.
Koolhaas, R., 2002. Junkspace. October, 100, pp.175-190.
Lawrence of Arabia. 1962. [film] Directed by D. Lean. Hollywood: Columbia Pictures.
McGinn, B., 1994. Ocean and Desert as Symbols of Mystical Absorption in the Christian Tradition. The Journal of Religion, 74(2), pp.155-181.
McMaster, H.R., 1991. The Battle of 73 Easting. Online: http://www.trbas.com/media/media/acrobat/2017-02/70120418498220-25070839.pdf [accessed 10/3/2020].
Said, E., 1978. Orientalism. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Shohat, E., 1997. Gender and Culture of Empire: Toward a Feminist Ethnography of the Cinema. In: Berstein, M. and Studlar, G., 1997. Visions Of The East: Orientalism in Film. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Raiders of the Lost Ark. 1981. [film] Directed by S. Spielberg. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures.
Van Dyke, John C., 1901. The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances. London: Sampson Low, Marston.
* The appearance of US Department of Defence (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
Smart Bombs, Bulldozers and the Technology of Hidden Destruction
A D-7 armored bulldozer of the US Army's 8th Engineers rides on a flatbed trailer as part of a convoy heading north during Operation Desert Storm. Photo: Staff Sgt. J.R. Ruark, 1991
In Western media, reports on the Gulf War have been dominated by high-tech weapons and equipment. Video footage from cameras in the nose cones of 'smart bombs' showed how satellite and laser-enabled navigation enabled hitting targets with high precision, thus supposedly preventing any collateral damage. Ground troops were seen using night vision cameras and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to navigate their way through a seemingly featureless desert environment, enabling them to outwit the opposing army and minimize casualties among their own ranks. The Gulf War was the first major military conflict in which satellite data played a prominent role. Hence, the war has frequently been called 'The First Space War' (Anson and Cummings, 1991). Nevertheless, the conflict also had decidedly low-tech aspects. Armoured bulldozers and mine ploughs mounted on Abrams tanks were used to break through the so-called 'Saddam Line', a complex of trenches and mine field along the southern border of Kuwait with Saudi Arabia. In addition to clearing landmines, the dozers and plougs were used to cover Iraqi trenches with defending troops under vast amounts of sand (Sloyan, 1991).
The latter tactic only became publicly known after the conflict had ended. While the ground offensive took place, there were no media reports about it, most probably because both journalists' movements and the material they were distributing were strictly controlled by military command (Deseret News, 1991). When the details of the practice emerged half a year later, controversy arose over the legality of burying enemy combatants with sand. The 1925 Geneva Convention, which the United States have ratified, specifies that the use of 'asphyxiating devices [or] analogous liquids, materials or devices’ (Hampson, 1993, p. 93) are prohibited. This may well apply to the use of sand to cover trenches with living soldiers in it. In addition, the 1949 Geneva Convention requires 'that the parties to the conflict shall ensure that burial is preceded by a careful examination with a view to confirming death.' This is not possible when combatants are buried alive. Furthermore, the convention prescribes that weapons that cause 'unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury' (ibid., p. 92) are unlawful. In this, it must be determined whether the military necessity of the action outweighs the suffering that is inflicted on the enemy. Notably, media statements by commanders of the brigades involved in the attack suggest that the primary reason for using the burial tactic was to minimize U.S. casualties. Legal scholar Françoise J.Hampson points out that 'it is far from clear that the desire to avoid military casualties amongst one’s own forces is sufficient to determine military necessity.' (ibid., p. 93)
It might appear that this rather crude and legally questionable tactic is diametrically opposed to the high-tech bombs that were proudly featured during press conferences in video presentations moderated by U.S. General Schwarzkopf (rstahl, 2013). However, when considered from the perspective of the idea of 'clean warfare' and its representation, smart bomb and bulldozer have an important common characteristic. The camera footage from the nose cones of smart bombs, which became among the most iconic news media imagery associated with the Gulf War, showed how the weapons found their way to their targets efficiently and effectively. However, the footage always stopped at the moment of impact. Obviously so, because at this moment the camera was destroyed as well, but as a result the destructive impact of the weapon remained largely absent from its representation. In addition, as media scholar Roger Stahl (2018) argues, the 'weaponized gaze,' from the perspective of the bomb, stimulates viewers to identify with the weapon, rather than the environment and people that are affected by its destructive power.
This erasure of the representation of physical violence is also a relevant aspect of the bulldozing tactic. When war correspondent Leon Daniel, who was part of the press pool embedded with the U.S. forces during the invasion, asked an officer responsible for public affairs where the bodies of the thousands of disappeared Iraqi soldiers on the Saddam Line were, the latter responded: 'What bodies?' (Sloyan, 1991). Burying the soldiers in their trenches made their bodies near invisible from the journalists who were led through the battlefield after the hostilities had ended. 'The stench of urine, faeces, blood and bits of flesh,' (Sloyan 2003) which journalists had encountered and reported in earlier wars, were now absent. Similar to how the smart bomb's nose cone camera disconnects the perception of aerial bombardment from views of destruction, the burying of enemy combatants with bulldozers cleanses the battlefield from the perception of bodily harm.
Conflict scholar Richard Bessel (2015) argues that - at least in most parts of the Global North - acceptance among the general public of violence and its representation has declined since the enlightenment, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. Whereas in previous eras the use of violence for ends that were perceived as good was often broadly accepted (e.g. the use of terror by both Reds and Whites during the Russian revolution) more recent times have seen a rise in sensitivity to violence and its representation. Especially after the Second World War and - in the case of the United States - the Vietnam War, public opinion seems to have become increasingly critical of the use of violence by state institutions to pursue their interests, as well as the loss of citizens' lives in relation to this. The U.S. government and military's apparent desire to represent the Gulf War as a clean affair, as well as resorting - behind the screens - to legally questionable methods of warfare to minimize risk of harm to their own troops, can thus be seen as an effort to appease public opinion at home and avoid loss of public support for the war effort as had happened over the course of the Vietnam War.
However, there is another aspect to this shared characteristic of smart bombs and bulldozers, which relates more directly to the experience of warfare by the combatants themselves. Unlike traditional 'dumb bombs', the violent impact of smart bombs is concentrated on a precisely defined location, which is shown on camera footage to that it might seem as if the observer is 'really there'. Yet, despite this, the operator of the weapon never comes in a face-to-face encounter with an enemy combatant. The soldier who sends off the smart bomb is ever physically present on the site of impact. The situation of the armoured bulldozer or tank with mine plougs is similar. Although in this case the driver of the vehicle is physically present on the battlefield, they remain inside their armoured shell, shielded not only from the enemy's gunfire, but also from any opportunity to meet their gaze.
This increased distantiation between combatants - a further step in a development that arguably started with the first methods of mechanized warfare in WW1 - has implications for the ethical dimensions of warfare. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (2013 ) suggests that the 'rapport de face à face,' the face-to-face encounter, forms the very the basis for human sociality. He argues that humans' sense of ethics has its source on a precognitive level, in an embodied sensibility that takes places when we encounter the face of the other. Their face speaks to us and implores or commands us to discover our responsibility towards them. For Levinas, rather than the commandment 'Thou shallt not kill,' the source of our ethical potential lies in the encounter with the face of the other, which tells us: 'Do not kill me,' in other words: 'Help me live, respect me for who I am, do not treat me as a thing' (Visker, 2014)
The account by a deserted German WW1 soldier of the development of friendly relations with enemy troops on the battlefield offers an example of the way in which a face-to-face encounter can unbalance the paradigm of violence between wartime adversaries. 'At night time [the] troops were always standing together. Germans and Frenchmen met, and the German soldiers had a liking for that duty. Neither side thought for a moment to shoot at the other one; everybody had just to be at his post. In time both sides had cast away suspicions; every night the "hereditary enemies" shook hands with each other' (anonymous, 1917, p. 144) While examples like these are rare and shouldn't be used in an attempt to romanticize a war that was on the whole a gruesome excess of violence, the point of interest here is that there was a possibility for encounters like these. For the distant smart bomb operators and bulldozer drivers hidden inside their armoured vehicles the face-to-face encounters that lie at the basis of this possibility had become even less likely on the battlefield.
As such, the smart bomb and the bulldozer can also be seen as parts of a technological complex that prevents combatants from being confronted with the humanity of their opponents. While these weapons do reduce the risk of bodily harm to troops, the smart bomb and the bulldozer also play a part in preventing a fearsome scenario for the powerful elites whose interests they are ultimately defending: the chance that foot soldiers from both sides recognize their shared role as cogs in a machinery of power in which they may ultimately have little stake. In other words, the possiblity that face-to-face encounters sow he seeds for a joint revolt of the disempowered. This happened on a few occassions during WW1, for example when Bulgarian frontline soldiers revolted and turned against the monarchy, stating that “Our enemy is not across the trenches [...] the real enemy is in Sofia.” (Tsoneva, 2019). The technological paradigm of the Gulf War - both high- and low-tech - makes any dreams of an imperialist battlefield collapsing into a solidary revolt of the militarized proletariat against their oppressors, regardless of nationality, seem more distant than ever.
Dani Ploeger, 2020
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Bessel, R., 2015. Violence: a modern obsession. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
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Sloyan, P. J., 2003. 'What I saw was a bunch of filled-in trenches with people's arms and legs sticking out of them. For all I know, we could have killed thousands'. The Guardian, [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/feb/14/iraq.features111> [Accessed 24 March 2020].
Stahl, R., 2018. Through The Crosshairs. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Tsoneva, J., 2019. The Revolt in the Trenches. Jacobin, [online] p.n.p. Available at: <https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/01/world-war-bulgaria-army-soldiers-revolt> [Accessed 24 March 2020].
Visker, R., 2014. The Inhuman Core of Human Dignity: Levinas and Beyond. Levinas Studies, 9, pp.1-21.