Most Americans can’t find Syria on a map. So what?

September 3, 2013

I lived in Irvine, Calif., for 18 years. I know the ways in and out of the city. I know which streets are residential and which are office parks. I know where the old air force base is, where the best tacos are hidden, and where the university is. I know the quickest ways to Newport Beach and Santa Ana, and the times when the streets are thickest with cars. I know where the dry hills are, and where the big lake sits.

All of which is to say that if you were planning a bombing raid on Irvine, I'd be a reasonably good guy to talk to. But in the extremely unlikely scenario in which I would help with a bombing raid on Irvine, (everyone has already been evacuated and Irvine is now the epicenter of a fast-spreading zombie infestation, maybe?) I wouldn't be of much use if you rolled out an unmarked map of the world and asked my to put a pin in my hometown.

I could get close, of course. But I might end up directing the planes to Long Beach, or Escondido.


That's where Syria is. Feel informed now? (Creative Commons map)

I bring this up because we're in another round of "Americans can't even find [X] on a map." In this case, "X" is Syria. And the fact that many Americans couldn't pass a Middle East geography quiz is supposed to prove...something.

"Half of Americans can’t even find Syria on a map," wrote Blake Hounshell in Politico.

"Now members of Congress will have to consult maps and figure out where Syria is," tweeted New York Times columnist Nick Kristof.

The Web site UsVsTh3m even created a game out of it. "Where's Damascus?" lets users drop a pin on a unmarked map to see if they know the location of Syria's capitol. Then they can compare their results with other players. The game went viral and UsVsTh3m found itself sitting on top of 65 guesses from inside the Pentagon.


UsvsTh3m's "Where's Damascus" heat map.

"You’d expect folks in the U.S. Department of Defense to know the location of the place they’re probably about to bomb," write the authors. But "only 57 percent of the answers we got from inside the DoD were right."

Luckily, the maps at the Department of Defense are labeled.

There are good arguments against attacking Syria. (Indeed, as of yet, I haven't heard many good arguments for attacking Syria!) But none of them have anything to do with whether a random American could find the place on a map. Where Syria sits on a globe has basically nothing to do with the wisdom of a punitive strike meant to uphold international norms against the use of chemical weapons.

From 2009 to 2011, Anne-Marie Slaughter served as director of policy planning for the State Department. "I could point out Syria on an unlabeled map, but am only 30 percent confident of my ability to locate Damascus," she admits.

But so what? "In every crisis, whether from natural disaster or human agency, places we had either never heard of or knew only vaguely about suddenly focus our attention," she continues. "How many people could have told you where Pearl Harbor was when it was attacked? Or Poland when it was invaded by the Nazis?"

Foreign policy maven Steve Clemons is pretty sure he could find Syria on a map. "But don't test me on Sub-Saharan Africa," he says. He argues that insofar as we're going to test people's geography skills, we're getting the question wrong. "Knowing what players surround Syria and are in it's neighborhood matters. Syria's neighborhood includes Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey so knowing this geographic aspect of the picture is vital to understanding much of the dynamic inside Syria."

But as that suggests, even being able to rattle off every country in the Middle East wouldn't help you much. After all, knowing Iran is near Syria doesn't tell you whether Iran is supporting Assad (yep) or the rebels (nope). Knowing Turkey is right around the corner doesn't tell you whether Turkey supports Assad (nope) or the rebels (tacitly).

All of which is to say that the map doesn't tell you much about Syria. In this era of labeled maps, Google Earth, and, well, Google, the question isn't whether you can find Syria on a map. It's whether you can find useful information about Syria in your browser. I'd start with Dylan Matthews' "Syria: The very, very basics" or Max Fisher's "9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask." I'd stay away from maps, at least until you've learned enough to make them mean something.

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Washington Post · September 3, 2013