Week Seven Reading Blog: ‘Historicizing’ Geography is Long Overdue

Perhaps no other visualization technique in the realm of digital history excites me more than the ability to link an event to the place where it happened — in both a geographic and a geo-digital sense. My previous blogs have allowed me to articulate the importance I place on history as a highly visual academic endeavor. History happened to real people living or traversing real places, and I think the static representations in hard-copy books (maps, still photographs, etc.) have finally gone the way of the Dodo bird thanks to digital mapping and modeling resources such as Google maps and ORBIS. Showing where history happened in a spatial sense — and linking large corpuses of data to specific geographical locations as described by Tim Hitchcock and Stephen Robertson — will not only lead to expanded historical knowledge but will also allow the average person to interact with data represented on a map, to recognize spatial patterns from that interaction, and to replay events digitally (at varying levels of fidelity) in order to take away useful lessons that may influence the present and future.
Needless to say, much of what I am discussing is in the context of maps used in military history. War and its attendant battles all happened in both time and space. The principal object of war, according to Clausewitz and almost anyone who has experienced war, is to destroy an enemy army at a specific geographical location at some point in time. Thus, the only way to communicate the importance of a particular battle is to show how it unfolded on the very terrain where it occurred. The readings opened up mapping possibilities for military history that exceeded my wildest expectations. The ability to use programs like GIS to link a textual analysis or narrative of an event directly to the place where it happened, as suggested by Hitchcock, is incredible.
Not surprisingly, and since my other blogs have testified to D-Day as my current subject of historical inquiry, the first thought that came to mind was a digital representation of the Allied landing on Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944. Historians are still debating today how the American forces managed to get off the beach under such strong German opposition and chaotic conditions. I can’t help but imagine a mapping approach that mimics Hitchcock’s and Robertson’s use of GIS and Google maps as a way to portray geographically the individual squad and platoon actions that carried the day on Omaha Beach. While Robertson was able to conflate both data and location to reconstruct a Harlem street corner’s inherent social make-up and frictions, the same could occur with a battle map of Omaha Beach. An interested user could click on any part of the beach at any point in the landings to identify the landing unit, its casualties, and its actions on the beach. In this way, the user could scroll through the entire map, select what he or she considers key terrain, and match the Allied advance on the beach to specific units, perhaps developing a fresh perspective on how and why the Allies prevailed that day. Did individual small-unit actions really carry the day? Did the planning and rehearsals for the invasion really coalesce on the beach as intended to allow for a tactical success by day’s end? Digital mapping can add a new perspective to address those questions. I think this interplay of digital mapping and data gets to core of what Edward L. Ayers and Scott Nesbit see as “deep contingency,” which for them is “inherently spatial” (Ayers and Nesbit, 9-10). In other words, true agency is most evident when engaging not just space but scale. For example, small-unit actions on Omaha Beach, when considered in the context of the soldiers’ collective or individual agency, did not occur in separate “silos” but potentially complemented the actions of others along that mile-long beach, resulting in a known outcome but not necessarily a clear understanding of how that outcome came to be. Just imagining how I could have applied these tools to the maps from my own two books intrigues me to no end.
I am less taken with modeling programs like Elijah Meeks’s and Karl Grossner’s ORBIS, which, according to reviewer Stuart Dunn, aimed “to model the costs and times of travel between different points within the Roman Empire, over land or by sea or river.” Even though ORBIS, according to Meeks, is wildly popular and well grounded in historically accurate data, it seems like an exercise in counterfactual history. For example, someone could use it to test the cost and travel times from a randomly selected Point A to a randomly selected Point B within the Roman Empire just to see what the program might spit out. Granted, the results may inform our understanding of travel limitations in the Roman Empire in a broader sense. But the problem for me is that that particular journey may never have happened. Thus, it becomes less history and more a simulation of what might have been. I agree with Dunn that programs like ORBIS, when placed in the context of history, push historians into “perilous territory.” Does something like ORBIS make us historians or prognosticators? Or, worse, do we become revisionists based on what might have been and not what really happened? I readily acknowledge that simulation modeling can be very effective. The U.S. Army has been using it for decades, specifically with programs configured with known weapons capabilities, predictive doctrinal behaviors of potential enemies, and so on. These programs help to create what might happen, not what happened; and, most importantly, they are great training tools. In any case, I am happy to know that ORBIS is popular, because any interest in history is a great thing to me. But Dunn is equally on target when he states his concern that future works of history, as articulated through the prism of a program like ORBIS, might play principally to a “populist rather than academic” audience. I think what Dunn really means is that history might become nothing more than a game to be reworked and revised in hindsight, subject to the influence of ahistorical, man-made algorithms that appeal mostly to the “gamers” of society.
In the main, I am very impressed with the potential that geospatial mapping offers to our understanding of historical events. The examples provided by Hitchcock and Robertson are incredibly tantalizing, but we have to keep in mind that just because the results are generated digitally, our analysis of those results may not keep pace with the outputs. Robertson admitted to spending six years studying Harlem through the prism of these geospatial tools in order to recover the everyday lives of black people living there in the early 20th Century. In my mind, the most worthwhile things are seldom ever easy to produce, and I would strongly consider investing six years in a data-linked, geospatial representation of Omaha Beach, particularly if that representation could teach our junior leaders in the Army today the critical importance of their individual decisions and actions on the wider battlefield. That level of “deep contingency” in the context of a spatially defined battlefield matters most to me — because I’ve experienced it personally.

Steve Rusiecki

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