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Summer 2004  
Vol. 32, No. 4

BARRIERS: The Lessons of History

by Dewey Browder

Ever since the beginning of civilization, men have built barriers to keep their enemies out. The first towns relied on walls for protection, and as civilization expanded, the walls grew longer, higher, and stronger.

The sheer persistence of walls throughout the ages attests to a certain degree of their effectiveness as protection. Yet, over time, each has been rendered obsolete in the face of persistent adversaries and technological advances. In spite of past failures, however, governments continue to erect walls and fences because they appeal to people in search of safety.

Defensive barriers were common in Mesopotamian civilization, and the Greek city-states had their walls, but ancient walls are perhaps best exemplified by the Great Wall of China. Built during the Qin Dynasty in the third century BCE to keep out the Huns, this barrier stretched in a broken line some 1,500 miles along China's northern border. It seemed to work for long periods of time, but had to be augmented with troops--a costly venture. In 166 BCE, raiding parties of Huns burst through weak points and drove to within miles of the Chinese capital. Many centuries later, the Mongols (thirteenth century) and the Manchurians (seventeenth century) got through the Great Wall. Chinggis Khan had united the tribes of Mongolia and turned all their might to the conquest of China. By pure force and brutality, the Mongols dominated the Chinese, and installed their own dynasty.

In those days of yore, technology progressed slowly, and the size of China and the masses of people acted as deterrents in their own right. The testing of the Great Wall was a ponderous undertaking, requiring considerable force and planning. It was repaired periodically and linked together, most notably during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). But even with extensive construction efforts, which gave the Great Wall its modern shape, the barrier was ineffective against internal political and economic chaos and external military force. The Manchus took territory on the fringe of northern China, and then, with the help of internal rebel Chinese forces, they seized the rest of China in 1644.

The Romans, too, built walls around their cities and throughout their empire. In the late first century CE, they formed a 300-mile barrier called the Limes along the frontier through the heart of Europe (from the northern Rhine to the Danube) to keep barbarians at bay. It provided spotty security until the late fourth century. Migrating Germanic tribes, as well as the Asiatic Huns, got through or around the fortifications, sometimes by military force (the Goths in 378 and the Huns in 376) and other times by making alliances or intermarrying Romans. From the late fourth century on, the Limes fortifications were useless; they fell into disrepair and disappeared. Rome also constructed walls across Britain's narrowest east-west point from Wallsend-on-Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway to bar the natives from Roman-controlled areas. Built at the direction of Emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius during the second century CE, these twelve- to fifteen-foot-high walls kept the Romans safe for almost two centuries because they were punctuated with manned forts, patrolled regularly, maintained, and fronted by deep ditches, but they became obsolete when Rome withdrew from Britain in the late fourth century to tend to matters closer to home--the barbarian migrations. Subsequently, Hadrian's Wall became a source of building materials for stone houses along the route of the wall; significant portions of it remain today as a tourist attraction.

During the European Middle Ages, a great many towns erected walls with moats for protection from marauders, such as rival lords, the Vikings, and the Magyars. Invaders could choose between storming the battlements or lengthy sieges, during which they waited for the townspeople to run out of food and water. These walls, nevertheless, served another important function: setting apart the citizens or burghers (who were free men and thus exempt from paying taxes in the market) from the people of the surrounding manors. Citizenship conferred both economic and political advantage. Yet, following the French and Industrial Revolutions, which broke down political and economic barriers, the stone walls became little more than charming adornments to the landscape.

In the twentieth century, during the years between World Wars I and II, France built a vaunted defense system known as the Maginot Line along its border with Germany. The fortifications, which extended from Switzerland to Belgium and featured elaborate underground complexes connected to concrete gun emplacements above the ground, proved pointless. In 1940, the invading German armies simply flanked the Maginot Line, defeated the French forces, and, in a matter of weeks, captured Paris along with much of France. On the other side of the French-German border, also during the lull between the wars, the Germans built their own defensive wall, the West Wall (otherwise known as the Siegfried Line), to guard Germany from attacks launched from French soil. This wall was, in reality, a long series of bunkers, minefields, trenches, barbed wire, and anti-tank barriers. It, too, proved to be insufficient; in early 1945 the Allied juggernaut hurtled into Germany and breached the wall with overwhelming force; the German defensive line collapsed completely. It was never as strong as propounded by Nazi propaganda; indeed, it had never been completed and had never been manned or outfitted with the planned armaments.

More recently, in 1961, the ten-foot-high Berlin Wall was built, ostensibly to keep spies and other enemies out of communist East Berlin, and the same rationale was given for the fortified border separating East Germany and West Germany. However, the real intent of both barriers--augmented by landmines, strips of plowed ground which exposed fleeing people, and armed guards who shot to kill--was to keep East Germans inside the communist state. Despite these impediments, some individuals managed to tunnel under the Berlin Wall; others found ways over the wall; and a few escaped to the West through weak spots, braving the hail of bullets and explosive devices. The "iron curtain" was finally torn down in 1989, when the fatally flawed political system it served collapsed.

In the light of history, it is fair to say that barriers built to keep people in or out can be effective, but only for limited periods. The duration of effectiveness is relative to the determination of both the defenders and the aggressors, and to the rate of technological advancement. In antiquity, barriers could be effective for centuries because of the static nature of technology and society. In the modern world, dedicated aggressors will find ways to get through, across, around, over, or under barriers; and effective barriers require considerable expense in manning and maintenance support. Exaggerating the efficacy of security barriers can lead to a false sense of security, resulting in a careless relaxation of defenses. And while some barriers may be enhanced by technology, they also are subject to defeat by technology, especially in a world of rapid innovation.

Barriers have long been a key part of conventional defenses, and they can be of service--albeit limited service--against determined enemies. Judging from history, while they may offer a measure of security, any benefit will be temporary at best.

Dr. Dewey A. Browder is a professor of European history and the chairman of the Department of History and Philosophy at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, he formerly served as assistant political adviser to the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army in Europe.


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