DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Mapping a world of outright war
By Tom Engelhardt
Recently, going through some old files, I stumbled across an artifact from the ruins of that era. A map I had made on a single piece of white paper hidden inside that very history book, open-faced on my desk while I fiddled away my time, bored out of my gourd, barely listening to our teacher drone on. That document is as much an artifact of a lost world as the poem, but far more complex and confusing.
It was a map of the Chinese conquest of the world, which I drew in perhaps 1959 on that piece of paper onto which I had carefully traced the outlines of all the continents. While my teacher discussed the Constitution, I took the cartographical look of the US military's Pacific island-hopping campaign of World War II, globalized it, and set it in an unimaginable future nine years
distant. The map is labeled - yes, I actually labeled it - "War Ends Oct. 6, 1968," and by then, in case you're wondering, the Chinese have it all, the whole kit and caboodle, the complete planet, from Australia to the Soviet Union, where in my handwriting it says, "Russia surrenders, Sept. 1968, including Moscow, Stalingrad & other areas."
It's an elaborate document, including an inset key that tells you how to read the various markings I used ("original territory of China & her armies," "routes of invading armies," "counterattacks," "conquered territory"). This was serious stuff!
In order to indulge my fantasy history of a future world, however, I had to deal with one obvious problem of that moment: the possibility that any war could become a nuclear holocaust. Remember, I was part of a generation of kids who grew up ducking under our desks while air raid sirens howled outside as, with our teachers, we practiced for Armageddon - for what to do if the Russians nuked New York City.
To fight a global war of conquest, the Chinese of my imaginary universe, who then had no nuclear weapons, would have had to face a massive American nuclear arsenal. Hence, in an otherwise blank mid-Pacific, I drew a crude mushroom cloud captioned, "Atom blast destroys Pacific Isles & US missile supply" (ie the ability to get nuclear weapons aloft). I evidently wasn't thinking about the Strategic Air Command or the already existing Russian arsenal, but, hey, give me a break: I was 15 years old and my teacher was droning on.
That mid-Pacific blast was a small reminder of how difficult it was, even in my fantasies, to imagine World War II-style battle scenarios in a nuclear age. ... Like so many other adolescent acts in those years, that map was an affirmation of its moment, but also a corrosive gesture toward it. With every arrow, a bit of another country fell not to an American version of what I once termed "victory culture," but to a darker culture of defeat. It was an act of faith, but also of mockery. Representing horror and yearning, that map said: this is what it would be like if your vision proved true - and wouldn't that be something! More ...
Tom Engelhardt is editor of Tomdispatch. His novel, The Last
Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.
(Copyright 2014 Tomdispatch. Used with permission.)