Review: Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick
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I read a fair number of books. Under the old system of posting ~3500 word essays (Posts? Diatribes? Jeremiads?) once a week, very few books made the cut for a discussion of that length. But now that my writing/posting is looser I’m thinking I’ll do more reviews. In fact I think I’m going to try to review all the books I read in this space. It will still be somewhat rare for a single book to get a post all to itself, I’m planning to toss most of them into an end of the month round-up. Also, I should mention that many years ago I came up with a book review format, which I quite liked, so I’ll be dusting it off and using it in this space. And while I just said that most books will not warrant an entry all to themselves, this one does:
By: David Frye 304 pages Format: Audiobook with physical copy for reference
Who should read this book?
If you like history, particularly sweeping thematic examinations of history which cover thousands of years all at once, you should definitely read this book.
You should also read this book if you want the entire backstory of the current debate over walls and border security. It may not change your mind, but you will end up with the deepest context possible for the issue.
As Rome went, so went the provinces. For nearly three hundred years, Roman cities had given little thought to protecting their citizens, relying, just as Aristides said, on faraway troops and eventually border walls to hold the frontier against the warlike peoples massed outside. Some cities, mostly the older ones, had outgrown their ancient walls. Others had never had any walls at all.
In the whole of world history there had never been an experiment as grand as that of an empire composed mostly of unwalled cities. By leaving so many towns undefended, the Romans had adopted a comprehensive approach to local security—hundreds of miles of border walls and other barriers designed to create a massive impenetrable shield over all Western civilization. In the aftermath of the third-century invasions, that all changed: the emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) implemented a program to fortify the suddenly insecure cities of the western provinces. It was the last great construction boom of a city-building empire, and it was an act that repudiated every Roman belief in what a city should be.
With due deliberation, the wall builders dismantled those splendid, open cities that their fathers had created in earlier more confident days. Buildings in the paths of the new walls were razed. Some were torn down simply to provide stone. In the rush to fortify the cities, the relentless chisels of the laborers broke apart tombs, temples, columns, baths, theaters, and amphitheaters. They tore friezes, relief sculptures, and capitals from their settings, using the bigger blocks for masonry and crushing the rest for rubble. Many an inscription, once intended to ensure immortal glory, was wrenched from its proper place to rest ingloriously among the bricks, masonry, and concrete of a rampart.
Everywhere I look I see examples of people who have essentially no historical knowledge, and what little they do “know” is worse than the ignorance, because it’s a complete misinterpretation of actual history. The chief value of Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick is that it takes one specific subject where deep historical misinterpretation and ignorance exists and shows conclusively how it was misinterpreted and what the facts actually are. As you might guess from the title that subject is the building of walls.
One of the most common ways for history to be misinterpreted is to give far too much weight to recent history, and far too little to more ancient history. I’m sure that on some level this sort of ignorance has always existed, but I suspect that it’s much worse now than it’s ever been, particularly on the subject of walls. As you might imagine from a history book “Walls” starts with the very oldest wall (built around 2000 BC in Syria; no one knows much about it;) and moves forward to the present day. I’m going to take something of the opposite approach and start out by covering the modern views and misconceptions of walls, before going back to a (brief) discussion of historical walls.
It probably goes without saying that if you bring up the idea of a wall today, people’s minds immediately jump to Trump’s “big beautiful wall”, and given that association, people either hate the idea or love it. And it’s unfortunate that this is as far as most people get when considering the idea of a wall. But for those that do go farther they don’t go much farther. Mostly they journey to 1991 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I think it’s safe to say that the Berlin Wall has a horrible reputation. And for most of the people who do make it this far back in history, that’s enough. The Berlin Wall was bad and therefore all walls are bad. The point that there’s a world of difference between a country building a wall to keep people in and building a wall to keep people out gets brought up again and again, with, as far as I can tell, no discernible impact. Here’s what Frye had to say:
For the time being, however, the Wall...has firmly attached itself to our historical memory. In modern debates on walls, the Berlin Wall figures in almost every utterance. It is the universal example, perpetually at hand, perpetually tossed into discussions of barriers with which it had absolutely nothing in common.
The Wall shed its former role as a symbol of communist oppression and acquired an entirely new image in a foggy-minded popular imagination that remembered the Wall but couldn’t quite recall who’d built it or why.
The Berlin Wall had always had impeccable timing—making its grand appearance at the height of the Cold War and bowing out in spectacular fashion to bring the Cold War to its conclusion. It would now embark on its second career with similar timeliness, returning to the stage as a symbol of all border walls, just as they were about to make a reappearance around the world.
(Emphasis in the original)
As I’ve said the misinterpretation of the Berlin Wall is unfortunate, but if it had never existed, I’m not sure the current (low) opinion of walls would be very much different, because only a few decades before the Berlin Wall there was the Maginot Line. For those who might be unfamiliar with the Line. It was a series of fortified bunkers and gun emplacements (the French called them ouvrages) guarding the border between France and Germany. The Line was finished in 1939. Which would have been excellent timing if the Germans had not merely gone around it. Unfortunately, the French considered the Ardennes Forest to be “impassable” and they didn’t fortify their border with the Low Countries either. The Germans proved that the forest was eminently “passable” and beyond that they’ve never much cared about the sovereignty of the Low Countries.
The fall of France came swiftly, and it was with equal rapidity that the Maginot Line joined the Great Wall in that growing list of symbols that compose our mental shorthand when thinking about walls. For the next fifty years, at least, writers could speak of a “Maginot Line psychology” when dismissing some misplaced faith in the power of sanctuary. Historians applied the term retroactively. The great Persianist Richard Frye spoke of Sasanid Persia’s “Maginot Line mentality” when describing its system of walls. Arthur Waldron compared the Great Wall of China to the Maginot Line.
Perhaps, if the French had been wise enough to extend the Line (it’s possible they would have done just that had they been given more time) it’s story and place in history would be entirely different. As it turns out, when the Germans did decide destroy the Maginot Line, that despite being able to attack it from both sides, and using aerial bombardment and artillery, they were unable to destroy or capture a single ouvrage. The defenders eventually surrendered only when their food started getting low and when ordered to by the French commander in chief. A World War II where the Germans never made it across the borders of France would have been a very different war from the one we ended up with.
But, as you may have gathered from the quote, no discussion of walls would be complete without considering that zenith of historical wall-building, the Great Wall of China. It’s very fashionable these days to dismiss the Great Wall as a staggeringly expensive and deadly failure. And from there to go on to dismiss all walls, ever, but this may be the greatest misinterpretation of all.
To be clear there were a lot of negatives to the Great Wall of China and historical walls in general. They were deadly for the workers. They were horribly expensive. Unless they stretched the entire length of the border you could go around them. Also they were only as good as the men who guarded them. If a general could be bribed, (as one was in an oft-repeated story about the Great Wall) then it didn’t matter how secure they were. And yet in every region of the world (New and Old) and in every historical era walls kept getting built, despite all of these costs.
I don’t have the space to get into all of the numerous historical examples. To discuss the difference between the wall-less Spartans and the wall-building Athenians. To review all of the many Chinese walls which predate the Great Wall, stretching all the way back to 800 BC. For that you have to read the book. I will only offer up the falling observation. You have a choice between only two conclusions. One, that despite all of their weaknesses, and despite the enormous cost in blood and treasure, that walls provided a significant net benefit to the kingdoms and nations which constructed them. Or, two, that nearly all civilizations, throughout all of history were seized with the same irrational wall-building madness. Pursuing damaging and misguided policies again and again despite the evidence.
This takes us to the current misinterpretations plaguing the debate over walls. Apparently, there are a significant number of people who believe in conclusion two. In fact in the link I gave earlier about how the Great Wall was a staggeringly expensive and deadly failure, the author includes a quote from Arthur Waldron (the person who also compared the Great Wall to the Maginot Line) who suggested, “There was a cheaper solution, as it turns out, which was to simply do some trade with the Mongols.” I’m not sure the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the Sack of Baghdad would agree. In any event, whether they’ve actually adopted conclusion two, or if their historical thinking extends back no further than the Berlin Wall, in the West all the current talk is about building bridges not walls. (This is only in the West by the way, everywhere else a Second Age of Walls has begun. Lead by Saudi Arabia which has already built a wall longer than the one proposed by Trump.)
Frye had this to say on the subject of bridges:
“Good fences make good neighbors” experienced early retirement. In its place came the untested phrase “Build bridges not walls.” If nothing else, the new slogan seemed designed to give military historian fits. Throughout history, bridge building had been recognized as an act of aggression. Since at least the time of Xerxes bridging the Hellespont, Caesar the Rhine, or Trajan the Danube, bridge building had preceded invasions, enabling troop movements across natural barriers, and as late as the twentieth century, military uses had figured prominently in the thinking behind the bridges of Germany’s autobahn and the American interstate highway system. None of this was enough to slow the rise of a hot catchphrase. The slogan showed up on T-shirts, wristbands, and banners. It became a popular hashtag on Twitter. Protestors chanted it. Politicians invoked it. Even Pope Francis paraphrased the sentiment.
The arguments are fierce, and I think all sides could use the benefit of a historical perspective. “Walls” definitely provides it.
As I just mentioned Frye buttresses his argument that walls are still important by talking about all the walls which have recently been built. He points out, that in terms of length, there are more border walls than they have ever been. But what he doesn’t really talk about is how these walls have a significantly different purpose than past walls. They are not designed to keep out invading armies, they are designed to keep out immigrants. This is a big enough difference to have deserved more commentary than he gave it. While I basically agree with the points he made, the possibility certainly exists that modernity has changed things in a way that makes walls less useful. Of course the opposite is also possible, that technology has made them more useful, and while he does spend some time on that side of things, as a whole, the discussion of how modern walls might be different from ancient walls is lacking.
Beyond that my only other criticism is that he has this whole argument that one of the reasons people dislike walls is become of primitivism. That they have an idealized vision of a freer, more primitive state where there are no walls. As he points out this vision is entirely incorrect, but I’m not sure that it plays a very big role in current anti-wall sentiment, and although he didn’t spend that much time on it, the time he did spend could have better been spent elsewhere.
If you were going to take only one thing from the book:
How important have walls been in the history of civilization? Few civilized peoples have ever lived outside them.
If you enjoyed this review you know what would help me do more of them? More books. Can you guess how I get more books? More donations… And I really do promise I’ll spend it on books.