I read maps the way most people read books. It’s a geography thing, a thing I can’t help. The invention of Google Earth—or the day it was made available to the public—was my sixteenth and twenty-first birthdays combined. Google Earth to me is like a nun to a TSA agent; I can examine it for hours when I should be doing something constructive. From the moment I learned how to navigate the big blue marble on my computer screen, the world started getting smaller; I began studying every navel and armpit of every body of land from East Timor to West Virginia. From Area 51 in Nevada to the Nazca Lines in Peru to the crop circles of the Salisbury Plain, I’ve found all the goodies. Google Earth has expanded my horizons and shrunk my world indeed. But the globe isn’t the only thing that’s shrunk—Google Earth, at least for me, has also shrunk history.
The Earth program is fascinating on its own, but the photos that users install on it are a game-changer. To know the lay of the land where Turkey, Iraq, and Iran touch noses at a common geographical point may be a satisfying leap into Future World, but when you click on a picture icon at that junction to see an armed PKK camp tucked away in the mountains, you’re in another dimension. Geography and history have come together in the same lesson. It doesn’t matter which picture you open up out of the hundreds in South Korea, you’re going to see images of a modern, industrious, and clean country. In North Korea, however, you can count the photos. The few you will see are either obvious government propaganda (they come with the same website info attached) showing beachfront resorts and golden temples, or you’ll see those depicting the subsistence lives of the population—the rice paddies and oxen transports and such—most likely taken at great risk to the shutterbug. To make things interesting, someone has slipped in a set of pictures of a very phallic-looking missile being launched on the peninsula’s east coast. And you won’t have to look too hard to see larger-than-life-size pictures of a little Kim something-or-other glaring down with all-seeing eyes on a cowering populace.
Like North Korea, Myanmar is closed off to the outside world. I don’t know who, but at least one brave soul has got away with something there in the northern state of Kachin that could mean arrest or worse if that person was caught. You and I are not supposed to know what goes on in that hellish collective they once called Burma, but a candid camera has pulled back the rain forest canopy. This is where green jade comes from. All green jade. Mining operations have torn up the pristine jungle to such effect that you can see the destruction—unlike the Great Wall of China, contrary to popular myth—from over 2000 miles up according to the altitude feature at the bottom of the screen, or practically from outer space. The villages that spring up around these mines to house the workers are literal shit-holes, where elephants are contracted to pull vehicles from the mud. Here, the human laborers are as close to zombie-hood as it gets in real life. Chinese mining concerns operate their own heroin production and distribution facilities in the area, and every morning, addicted workers line up in mine drug camps for their day’s dose. Down into the pits they then descend. You won’t see the drug camps on Google Earth, but you’ll see the rest of that mess, including the mud-bound elephants. Incidentally, the official communist government line is that there is no drug problem in Myanmar. That’s okay. There’s no jade problem in Beijing. And what’s this? Just across the border in the other People’s Republic, we descry massive stockpiles of lumber. The Chinese seem to be busier than cockroaches in a strobe-light extracting the resources of Myanmar. But there’s a chink in the system: as the photos show, you can’t move merchandise in a crummy economy. Too bad for the Chicoms.
Just for fun, let’s fly north and west to the former Soviet province that presently answers to the name of Kazakhstan. You can zoom in low and soar around for a long time before you’ll cross a population center here. This is the Central Asian steppe, the desolate stretch of land the Tartars, Huns, and Mongols roamed so many centuries ago. It was also home to eleven Soviet gulags, including facilities for “Wives of Traitors of the Motherland,” and that was not long ago at all. The few roads here are mostly gravel, mud, and dirt, as are the few hovels. If you look closely at the photos, you’ll see where the Soviets detonated nuclear bombs. You’ll even see a statue dedicated to a renowned Soviet nuclear scientist in the local atomic town where he worked. The scattered cities in Kazakhstan are drab and Soviet-looking, with those old, cookie-cutter concrete buildings that have the appearance of army barracks but are really civilian housing units. The semi-arid landscape is lousy with rusted out tanks and other defunct war machinery. Someone has been busy installing photos of dilapidated buildings and villages across the country, as if trying to prove something to the outside world. In the south of the nation, the former capital of Almaty, where Soviet police slaughtered 200 protesters in 1986, is an ancient and dense city with a stunning range of mountains shadowing it from one side. Like other formerly-Soviet cities, it is full of that shoulder-shuddering, communist-style architecture, stared at by statues of a serenely-omniscient Lenin. Even the casinos in the northern suburbs are boring cubes as featureless as the dominant Kazakh landscape, including the, yes, Flamingo. But there is something strange going on in the new capital. Zoom into Astana and let the 3-D feature kick in, or click on the photos. This is a new, post-Soviet city like something out of a dystopian best-seller. The greatest architectural minds of the modern free world have come together for this oil-funded project. The buildings that form the skyline here will blow your mind.
Speaking of blowing your mind, let’s buzz a little farther north and west to Grozny in Chechnya. The photos downloaded for this berg will make it clear how the Russians deal with troublemakers. Many of the high-rise buildings in the downtown area are thoroughly rocket-blasted. But you won’t blame Putin too much when you scroll over to Beslan in North Ossetia and look at the memorial garden and the grade school where Muslim rebels slaughtered nearly two-hundred children and almost as many adults back in ‘04. But let’s be done with this morbidly-evocative locale and move on.
Even farther north, deep into Siberia, we now fly. An observant Earth-pilot will perceive the environmental havoc that seventy years of Bolshevik rule have wreaked. If you can find the metal-mining town of Noril’sk, you will see in the photos that the trees are denuded in a wide area, a symbol of the Soviet finger to the world and Mother Earth. But Siberia goes on forever, and within her mass you can find lots of cities like Noril’sk, cities built by forced labor from the gulag system. This is an inspiring land of mountains, forests, tundra, taiga, lakes, and rivers, a land that learned up close and personal the government regard for natural beauty. Forget Chernobyl; Siberia is an environmental disaster of the first water. And this reminds me: don’t drink the water in Siberia should you travel there. Bring your own. Your constitution may be unequal to the local standards of water purity.
Start clicking on photos in Siberia and you will soon cringe. Scenic landscapes are the subject of half the pictures; nasty, polluted, military-industrial metro-plexes cover the other half. And over any major Siberian town, you can find downloaded photographs of memorials to Russian military might. Retired fighter jets, missiles, howitzers, or tanks often decorate a village square, as do sculptures of Marx, Lenin, and lesser-known communist stalwarts of dubious distinction. It makes perfect sense, though, that every Siberian town is home to some memorial wistfully idolizing Marx or Lenin. Because of the system the one created and the other realized, the Russian government had a bottomless free-labor pool, without which they could not have afforded building those towns.
Old Russian habits of honoring founding fathers apparently die hard. They die hard not only in Siberia, but in European Russia as well. All the cities there have eerily similar attributes, and particularly the housing units, which are tributes in themselves. It’s that look (and surely the feel) of state domination and state ingenuity. Stack some concrete blocks in the shape of apartments and only then may your wife visit you. The images drip with hidden history. Zoom into the Crimean coast near Sevastopol, now Ukrainian territory, and you will discover the hidden submarine repair facility that prison labor also built, or the bunker several stories deep constructed by the same captive work force. In Russia, as the Google Earth photos reveal, the cities all house monuments to the concept of victory. Victory in war is the predominant theme of Soviet sculpture. For post-Soviet sculpture, on the other hand, find Katyn, west of Smolensk, and behold the touching memorial to the 4,000 Polish officers and men Stalin ordered massacred after he invaded Poland.
I’m not one to sit still, so come along if you would as we soar beyond the stratosphere. From 20,000 miles up, we can make out all the countries of the Middle East. They are countries of bulk, too. There’s Morocco and Algeria…and there’s Libya just past Tunisia. Egypt is a spacious country; Turkey, Jordan, and Syria likewise eat up the square miles. Saudi Arabia stands out from up here. Iraq is big, but Iran is massive. Look at this: the Middle East goes all the way around the globe to the Pakistani border with India. I can make out just about every Middle Eastern nation from this height. Wait a minute. There’s something down there I can’t quite see. I’ll have to zoom in much closer. Yeah, there’s something there all right. It’s backed up against the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, like it’s ready to fall off or something. Hold on…I’m starting to see it now. The closer I get to it, the bigger the rest of the Middle Eastern countries grow. They’re spreading out around the curvature of the globe. Oh, okay…that’s Israel. I’m embarrassed I didn’t know that sooner. Wow, look how tightly Tel Aviv is squeezed into that corridor between the West Bank and the sea! I know I’m only looking at this on a computer screen, but I’m getting uneasy being here just the same. Time to blow this falafel stand.
Off we go to another hemisphere. Let’s check out the island of Cuba. There are sculptures here, too; but unlike in Russia, they’re not all of the same people. There’s one of Columbus, and one of the Virgin. In Havana, there’s one of John Lennon sitting on a park bench. Imagine that. Now here’s one of Che Guevara carrying a child in his arms. How realistic that looks. But Cuba’s not as frenetic regarding sculptures as it is about signage and murals. Che’s face and quotes pop up along every highway and in every town. Hasta la victoria siempre! And look at this sign on the side of a crumbling apartment building with no electricity: Nuestro pueblo combatiente defendiendo socialismo! Yes, I’m sure your combatant village does a fine job defending socialism, which must be kinda hard to do without running water. The community outhouse needs a coat of paint, by the way. And a roof. Here’s another good one: Libertad Ya! That’s rich. Like Siberia and North Korea, Cuba is a land of natural beauty and abject poverty. The living conditions depicted in these Earth photos are unreal and unforgiveable. The wheel/draft-animal combo is an invention Cubans could not get along without. They can and do get along without cell phones and cars, however. Those who have cars usually own nothing newer than a ‘56 Buick, as the pictures attest. And it is probably not the Cuban citizens putting up the signage, anyway, unless to curry favor. The ubiquitous murals on the island are reminiscent of those you’ll see when you Earth-cruise Londonderry in Northern Ireland, which stands to reason: Che Guevara was a student of the Irish Republican Army, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein was a student of Che Guevara. From Google Earth, I deduce that colorful, violent murals are an exponent of communist revolutionary principles. I don’t mean to get distracted, but look at the billboard in this picture: Revolucion es no mentir, jamas! Revolution ain’t never no lie. And here’s a word I see in bright bold letters everywhere in Cuba: Venceremos! There it is again—“We are victorious”—that monument to belligerent victory.
In the United States, and in Canada and the rest of the civilized West, we don’t really commemorate victory in war. Our Iwo Jima image is about the extent of it. War is not something to honor. We pay tribute to the fallen and honor the survivors. Think Gettysburg. Look at the photographs of sequestered, hidden-from-view countries on Google Earth, including all the one-time Soviet republics, and you’ll see any number of victory tributes. Monuments to victory are foreign and uncomfortable to free people. I’d never thought about that before, not until Google Earth. I learned other things, too. Don’t litter. Don’t pollute. In other words, respect your environment. Treat your neighbors as you would have them treat you. There is no perfect system of government, but some must require gulags and reeducation camps. Those will incorporate terms such as “enemy of the state” and “wives of traitors” in their legal codes if they are to survive at all. Such styles of government will always produce extreme national poverty, information blackouts, and monuments to victory. And a close study of Google Earth reveals one huge, unmistakable irony: the government system that is responsible for the worst, most irreparable ecological damage ever inflicted upon the planet is the one system that no prominent champion of the environment will speak of disparagingly. Ever. Thank you, Google Earth, for the lessons.