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Geography Has Its Benefits and Liabilities

January 11, 2017  - By

Welcome to the geointelligence side of the Defense PNT and Geointelligence e-newsletter, a publication combining the staff, readership and subject matter of both its parents. We’ll alternate the two topic areas in this Insights column, while continuing to bring you news stories in every issue relevant to defense hardware, GPS/GNSS and PNT, and to the software and mapping side of the industry — geographic information systems (GIS) applied in defense, first responder and other government fields. That’s the geointelligence side, and I’m privileged this month to bring you the first column under that topic.

I’m Art Kalinski, GPS World’s and Geospatial Solutions’ contributing editor for Geointelligence.  A career U.S. Navy officer, I established the Navy’s first GIS in the mid-1980s. I pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina. I’ve worked for several companies in the imagery and mapping field.

Next month we’ll focus on a defense hardware GNSS topic.  Now here I go on mine: how geography and mapping can correct the misperceptions of history and current public knowledge, and how GIS can support can be used in many areas including government policy and planning.

One authoritative, properly documented map can expose and possibly correct widespread public misinformation about America, its culture and its role in history. For instance, most entering college students think America invented slavery and that the U.S. was a dominant center of slavery.

Slavery can be considered a stain on our country’s history, but I believe this nation’s role in stopping it should also be a source of pride.

I was shocked, although I probably should have known better, by numerous citizen-in-the-street interviews (Watters’ World, Jimmy Kimmel, etc.) showing remarkably detailed knowledge people have about popular culture such as “Dancing with the Stars” or singers and movie stars who will have absolutely no effect on the lives of those being interviewed. However, those same people seem oblivious to science, finance and politics that could have a significant impact on their lives. Some of this appalling lack of knowledge derives from a lack of familiarity with history and in particular with geography.

One study, by Professor Duke Pesta of the University of Wisconsin, left me shaking my head. He found in his 11-year study that “Most entering college students think America invented slavery and that the U.S. was a dominant center of slavery.” Of course, Moses, the victims of the Romans, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Vikings, not to mention Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. would differ. Even at its height, the U.S. had less than 4 percent of the world slave population.

Here is a graphic depiction showing the volume and geography of the slave trade, 1600-1900. This is from an article by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., host of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots” and author of numerous papers about slavery and ancestry. The map and the data driving it originated with The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, and both are the products of an international research and collaboration endeavor.

The project team worked with at least sixteen different data sets compiled by scholars working since the 1960s to  collect archival data on slave-trading voyages from unpublished sources and to code them into a machine-readable format. The team developed sophisticated search interfaces for three different kinds of data, as well as estimates of the size and direction of the trade. Its web site provides a range of ancillary material for educators, including lesson plans and maps, and provides an opportunity for researchers everywhere to continue to contribute their discoveries.

Refer again to the map. It is truly a powerful document.

My History

Lest you think that I’m a disconnected observer of slavery let me share a little family history. I learned about slavery first-hand at my grandmother’s and uncle’s knee. They were both slaves.

In the early twenties, my grandparents immigrated to the U.S. They worked hard, saved their money, had two boys born in Chicago and then moved back to Poland, buying a farm and sawmill with their life savings. In 1938, on his 18th birthday, my father chose to move back to the “New Country” so as not to lose his U.S. citizenship. That was a lucky move, since in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland from the West, Stalin seized the opportunity and invaded Poland from the East. Stalin, like Putin today, wanted the very fertile farmland that was a lacking in Russia.

(If you read my review of the geopolitical book The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan, although large, Russia lacks adequate prime farmland and always coveted the very fertile region which is now Ukraine.)

When Russian troops invaded, my grandfather was executed in his own front yard and my grandmother and uncle were given 15 minutes to pack their belongings and board cattle cars for Siberia. As part of Stalin’s massive land grab, 1.7 million Poles and Ukrainians were deported in sub-zero freezing weather to work as slave labor in concentration camps.

Map from

Map from

The speed of the invasion and deportations was so fast and unexpected that it was very disorienting. With dead bodies everywhere and only 15 minutes to gather possessions, many residents were in shock and not thinking clearly. One example: A woman who packed opera gloves and glasses. My grandmother understood the geography she would face and had the good sense to pack warm clothing and a large down comforter, a decision that saved her and my uncle.


Of the 1.7 million deported to the gulags, 100,000 died on the unheated train trips alone. Countless others died in the slave camps of Siberia, with less than 500,000 ultimately surviving. When the Russians, Brits and Americans became allies in 1942, my uncle was able to join the British Army and ultimately fought at Monte Casino and the Italian Campaigns. This photo shows the surviving members of his 60-man unit — my uncle, center front row.
I wish I had been old enough to learn and understand all the details of their ordeal, but much of it wasn’t fit for young ears. I did gain a visceral appreciation of the horrors of war, and slavery in particular.

The U.S. Civil War

Northeast Alabama, Huntsville and Lake Guntersville in particular, is where my wife and I chose to retire. Perfect balance of weather, scenery, quality of life and, most important, the people. We’ve made many good friends here, and a few can still tie themselves to direct descendants of the Civil War. Many, including my wife, still feel pride in the bravery their family members exhibited, just as I feel pride for the World War II military service of my U.S. Navy dad and three uncles.

According to historians, the South almost won the war had it not been for geography and the superior industrial base of the North. Additionally, those of you that have been in combat know that loyalty and personal bravery are seen at the unit level, and both American sides fought fiercely and bravely. Nationalism, philosophy and major political decisions are made at pay grades well above the unit level and are not in the forefront of a soldier’s mind during battle.

Map from

Map from

There are some that claim that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery. Ask John Brown and other abolitionists. Let’s be honest — the elephant in the states’ rights room was slavery. It pitted brother against brother. Even Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were both classmates at West Point. Although on different sides, it took both sides to have the war, the bloodiest in our history. However, what both Union and Confederate troops created was an undeniable truth of American history and American exceptionalism.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the only country in the history of the world that fought a war with itself to free its own slaves.

Other countries have been conquered and slaves freed; in some, slaves revolted and freed themselves while other countries freed their slaves after seeing what the U.S. went through. But no other example matches the U.S. Civil War.

One benefit of having served as a career naval officer is that it exposed me to many parts of the world — Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean — and not just tourist destinations. The United States still isn’t perfect, but in all my travels around the world, one observation is dominant about life on this geoid.

Whether you or your ancestors came here across the Bering Land Bridge, on the Mayflower, in the hold of a slave ship, through Ellis Island or on a 747, chances are pretty good that your life here is much much better than it would have been had your ancestors stayed where they were.

So, “Johnny,” America didn’t invent slavery, it wasn’t even the major slavery player. But we sure did put a stake in the ground to stop it, and we’ve been freeing people around the world ever since. Instead of pointing to our slave history with shame, we should instead point to the 500,000 casualties that started the path toward freedom. Are life and attitudes in the U.S. perfect? Absolutely not, but look at what we stopped, and look at what we are perfecting.

This article is tagged with and posted in GeoIntelligence Insider, Opinions

About the Author: Art Kalinski

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.

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  1. Nancy Smith says:

    Phenomenal article! If only the rest of the county would read it. I look forward to reading your next one.

  2. Adrianne Hetherington says:

    Arthur, very enlightening article.
    I vaguely remember the story/historical account about your grandparents, father and uncle. Thank you for bringing their horrible experience with slavery to light. I always felt so bad for your grandmother and how she continued to suffer long after returning to the USA postwar.
    Love best wishes……Adrianne


    Excellent article Art, and how i read your article is about the gratitude that everyone who lives in the country should have for being here and that everyone has to pay some price. Taking it for granted is what has been taking place because these past few generations have not had to pay a price and are not taught the value of the price paid by those who came before.
    Thank you.