‘Prisoners’ in America
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall
Scribner $26.00, 291 pages
Review by Anthony J. Tarquinto
The world is not ending. It’s just changing. Nobody knows this better than Tim Marshall, a British journalist who has covered more than thirty countries in his twenty-five years of reporting. Books such as this take not months, not years, but decades to write. His personal accounts start in the Balkans in the early 1990’s. While the internet, global telecommunications, high-speed rail and air travel seem to make our world smaller, the cold hard fact is that the earth is still big, and physical geography is still the major factor in geopolitics. We often take for granted how mountains, oceans, lakes and deserts affect foreign policy. Originally published in the U.K., ‘Prisoners’ was released in the United States in October.
Every American should read Prisoners of Geography. It’s a serious, academic analysis, considering how advantages, disadvantages, impediments, and even the weather affect each nation’s political designs and strategy. The jacket of the book is rugged, something you might put on the shelf with your almanacs and encyclopedia. At the start of each chapter is a map of the nation or region covered, with not only international boundaries, but where appropriate, a dotted line depicting a disputed border. Additional maps are scattered throughout to exhibit areas of special interest or regional hotspots. One cannot help but hold an index finger to the pages that contain a map in order to quickly reference the text. On the North China Plain, for instance: “A large, low-lying tract of nearly 160,000 square miles, is situated below Inner Mongolia, south of Manchuria, in and around the Yellow River and down past the Yangtze River, which both run east to west.” Most Chinese would need a map for that!
The first three chapters are all about size. Chapter one is Russia, which is largest by landmass (eleven time-zones). Chapter two is China, which has the largest population (1.4 billion people). Chapter three is the United States, which has the largest economy (and largest prison population). Then comes Western Europe, followed by Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and finally, the Arctic.
Marshall makes a point in Chapter 3, “America,” with which some Americans may disagree. He asserts that America’s “neighbors are great. No trouble at all.” Here he is partially correct. To the north is Canada, a clean, majestic, phenomenal modern-day Westphalian nation-state that is one of the finest on earth. Mexico on the other hand is regarded by many as a “narco-state” and considered by most to be part of the Third World. A quarter of California’s prison inmates are Mexican nationals, costing the state over $1 billion per year. Eighty to ninety percent of drugs smuggled into the United States come from one country: Mexico. To be sure, a few pages later he dutifully acknowledges that Mexico’s “proximity causes America problems, as it feeds its northern neighbor’s appetite for illegal labor and drugs.” Fair enough.
Marshall exhibits his wisdom on page 152 in writing about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict vis-à-vis ISIS. “The fixation with Israel/Palestine does sometimes return, but the magnitude of what is going on elsewhere has finally enabled at least some observers to understand that the problems of the region do not come down to the existence of Israel. That was a lie peddled by the Arab dictators as they sought to deflect attention from their own brutality, and it was bought by many people across the area and the dictators’ useful idiots in the West.” For that, Marshall deserves a Nobel Prize. The cartographers at Scribner did a masterful job with Israel, right down to the tiny triangular de-militarized zone where Gadot kibbutz sits on the banks of the Jordan River as it empties into the Sea of Galilee. A closer look at the Golan from Lebanon shows without a doubt that nine miles is all that separates Israel from extinction.
Prisoners of Geography gives a whole new appreciation for water. Moving things is hard, and water is the cheapest, most efficient way. Marshall notes that while waterfalls may be good for tourism, they are bad for transport. In the end, navigable rivers are what pay the bills, not spots in National Geographic. The seventeen-hundred mile Zambezi River in Africa “flows through six countries, dropping from 4,900 feet to sea level when it reaches the Indian Ocean at Mozambique.” Water is the main reason Russia annexed Crimea.
Many in the West take for granted their geographical blessings. Americans escape to the mountains to find peace. In the real world, mountains keep the peace. The only reason that China and India, two nations with over a billion people, have not obliterated each other is because “between them is the highest mountain range in the world, and it is practically impossible to advance large military columns through or over the Himalayas,” or “nature’s version of a Great Wall of China,” as Marshall sees it.
Certain people in the world actually are prisoners of their own geography, especially on islands and peninsulas. It is virtually impossible to escape Cuba or North Korea, and for all intents and purposes, Gaza is an island. Entire books have been written on the tyranny of geography. Speaking of North Korea, a highly unstable rogue nation run by an insane demagogue (with nukes), Marshall chronicles the conflict with South Korea upon the arrival of Chinese troops in 1950: “thirty-six months of fierce fighting ensued with mass casualties on all sides before they ground to a halt along the current border and agreed to a truce, but not a treaty.” So who won the Korean War? We won’t know until it’s over.
Prisoners of Geography is available on Amazon Kindle as well as Google Play.