We are raising a generation of map-avoiding illiterates

in Contributors/Scott Graber/Voices by

It is Sunday, and I’m in Massachusetts. Yesterday my wife and I hiked a short, relatively level trail featuring edible, trailside blueberries and the rusting wreckage of a crashed airplane. 

I carried two maps, some bottled water but no poncho for the possibility of rain. One of these maps was badly drawn — at least it confused me — and we ended up walking an extra three miles in the rain. 

I was humiliated. 

I was humiliated because I have taken the Land Navigation Course at the U.S. Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning. Humiliated because I often brag about my understanding of maps. Humiliated because henceforth my wife will never, ever believe I passed the course or have intuitive insight with regard to direction or distance or knowing one’s location in the world. 

One exercise at the Infantry School involved a compass and three fellow lieutenants, one of whom could reliably translate his walking stride into feet. Then we were given a compass bearing and a distance to be walked in that direction. Then, assuming we had gotten to the first point successfully (a tree), there was a second compass bearing and a second distance. Then another. And another. Eventually we were given a grade based upon the time it took to complete the course. 

And then there was a second, night-time exercise which meant walking a straight line — and computing the distance — regardless of obstacles. Of course the US Army made sure there were bogs, streams and flesh-scraping thorns in the line of march. These obstacles slowed us down, scratched our faces, and threw-off our pace man. This night-time walk in the woods proved to be difficult and painful. But our pain wasn’t anything like the pain experienced by the 2nd Battalion, First Marine Division on Guadalcanal in 1942. 

The initial amphibious assault was successful with the Marines capturing the almost-completed Japanese airstrip. But immediately the Japanese Navy began making plans to retake the island and to destroy the 11,000 Marines now in residence there. 

The Japanese counter-attack involved 900 Japanese soldiers at Ilu River, mistakenly labeled the Tenaru on the maps then available to the 2nd Battalion commanded by Lt. Col. Edwin Pollock. Pollock, a 1921 graduate of The Citadel, would later acquire four stars and eventually retire in Beaufort. 

The Japanese attack was a frontal assault against the dug-in Marines, who were armed with 30 and 50 caliber machine guns, along with a few 37 mm anti-tank guns. The Japanese force was essentially annihilated. 

Although the Battle at Tenaru ended in victory, the Marines lacked reliable maps, accurate tide charts and many of their radios did not work. Voice radios were not functioning because of the moisture that affected the circuits and the metal contacts. “Walkie Talkies” powered by batteries had a range of one or two miles but were ineffective in the jungle. 

In desperation the Marines turned to ground wires. But they got stepped-on and broken and had to be strung-up in trees. 

For the most part the Marines relied on patrols to give them some notion of where the Japanese were located and their strength. But after the battle it was determined that the locations of the enemy were often wrong. The information was erroneous because the Marines were misled by the difficulty walking through the jungle. Walking through the dark, heavy foliage, the patrols overestimated the distance they had traveled. The Japanese turned out to be a lot closer. 

In 1970, the term “drone” wasn’t in the Marine Corps vocabulary. These days Marine Corps rifle platoons are organized around drones and drone operators. The Marine Corps is determined not to repeat the confusion it experienced on Guadalcanal and has incorporated reconnaissance drones into its infantry. 

But, of course, the Chinese are developing this same image-gathering technology and both countries are developing drone-seeking missiles. So one assumes the Marines have a man who operates the friendly drones and another man who shoots down the unfriendly drones. 

All of which leads me to believe that there is still some utility in having the ability to look at contour lines and identify landmarks on the ground. But our reliance on satellite-assisted electronics — and that seductive female voice that tells where and which way to turn — means we are raising a generation of map-avoiding illiterates. Recruits who may not know what a map does, or is, other than provide antique wall decor.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.