Four Walls

Originally posted by Unitary Moonbat on 06/24/07

Well, the navel-gazing is over, and the Rescue Rangers have gone back to their unsung work for another year. Your resident historiorantologist spent the better part of the week picking beer cups off the furniture and sunflower seeds out of the carpet – many thanks to those of you who dropped by and offered the Rangers a little love, btw – but this week, things are looking a little different (and a little more back to normal) around these parts.

Lots of mortar, bricks, and masonry have been spotted moving along the roads in the valley below the Cave of the Moonbat (where the Whos live, if you need specifics).  This can only mean one thing: somewhere, somebody is building themselves a Wall – and since countries only build those things when they want to keep their people in or others out, it might behoove us to get to know a bit more about the designs and purposes of past wall-builders.  Join me, if you will, for a round-the-world-in-10-single-spaced-pages look at some of the great walls (and Great Walls) in history – and if you fall behind, just remember to meet up with us at the one currently being constructed in the American southwest.

“You have not built a wall unless you have rounded a corner.” – Irish proverb

Nations that build walls usually have rounded recently some sort of metaphorical corner, one that result in realizations like, “Damn, those guys over the hill sure have a real big army…,” or, “Damn, a lot of our people are fleeing our oppressiveness to the country next door.”  The walls they build might be offensive or defensive, meant to pen in or meant to keep out, largely symbolic or symbolically large – but inevitably those walls will affect the course of history in ways unexpected to both the builder and to those on whatever the “wrong” side of the wall happens to be.

The Long Walls of Athens – When A Good Idea Works Against You

Because we all saw 300 this past spring, I’m confident that we as a society are pretty grounded in the history of the Persian Wars (490 & 480 BCE), since the movie showed it exactly the way it happened, rhinoceros cavalry and all.  Still, it was a film about Sparta (sort of), and didn’t show much of what was going on a few hundred miles south of Thermopylae, in Athens.  There, a panicked citizenry was casting its lot with the “walls of wood” that the Delphic Oracle had prophesied would be the only means of defeating the overwhelming Persian numbers – after an initial interpretation that would have had them denuding southern Greece to build palisades, they decided that they would make their stand on the seas, their “wooden walls” the hulls of their triremes.  Though the city itself was burned by the Persians, the Athenian admiral Themistocles led a fleet of about 366 ships to victory over a much larger (650-800 ship) Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis, and this, coupled with a Spartan-led land victory at the Battle of Plataea, ended the Persian threat in Greece.

Sparta and Athens had cooperated in the face of a mutual threat, but it had been a matchup of the Stalin/Churchill variety – the two never did learn to like, nor to trust, one another very much.  That’s not the only Cold War analogy that can be tortured out of 4th c. BCE Greece, either: After the wars, the two fell into leading rival Leagues of allied and client city-states.  Sparta dominated the southern peninsula of Greece, the Peloponnesus, and enforced oligarchic discipline upon those under its sway; Athens controlled the Aegean and much of northern Greece, and favored democracies, so long as they were of a sufficiently-Athenian stamp.  The treasury of this Athenian-controlled alliance was on the island of Delos, hence, the central agency (and piggybank) for Athens’ imperialistic expansion became known as the Delian League.

As tensions steadily rose between the two rivals, each was obligated to make plans for how to combat the other.  Sparta’s planning was relatively straightforward, and was based nearly entirely on infantry.  Knowing its democracy-minded citizens would never stand for the autocratic measures that would be necessary to try even to match the Spartan army, Athens cast its lot with the sea, and banked on naval supremacy as a long-term strategy.  A strong navy would allow them to attack anywhere on the Peloponnesian coast, but even more importantly, it could keep the city resupplied even in the event of a siege by land.  Since catapults were still about 100 years in the future, walled cities were virtually un-stormable – which meant that the only sieges that worked were the ones that completely cut off a supplies. 

Problem was, Athens wasn’t exactly on the sea – it was about 7 miles inland (prominent rocks were much more important in Greek city siting than good beaches).  So it was that Athens decided to protect the artery to its main port at Piraeus by building a wall (actually, part of it was a re-building of stuff torn down by the Persians).  Later, another wall would be extended southward, to guard the link to the older port of Phalerum – and with these fortifications in place and a strong navy to guard the cargo ships, Athens began to think the unthinkable: that it could ride out a Spartan siege.  Of course, this engaging in a hasty, stealthy, military construction project by a rising power did not sit well with Sparta; if you’ll forgive a Wikipedia citation, the article does do a decent job of describing a situation that might sound familiar to anyone who’s been keeping up on recent US/Russian relations:

Spartan envoys urged the Athenians not to go through with the construction, arguing that a walled Athens would be a useful base for an invading army, and that the defenses of the isthmus of Corinth would provide a sufficient shield against invaders. The Athenians disregarded these arguments, fully aware that leaving their city unwalled would place them utterly at the mercy of the Peloponnesians; Thucydides, in his account of these events, describes a series of complex machinations by Themistocles by which he distracted and delayed the Spartans until the walls had been built up to such a height as to be defensible.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe walls became a pillar of Athenian foreign policy, and held against various Spartan sieges when the Peloponnesians reacted to an aggressive new Athenian leader by taking to the field in 460 BCE and launching the First Peloponnesian War, which lasted until 445 BCE.  The grandiose “30-Year Peace” was a somewhat equitable arrangement (so long as you were either Athens or Sparta), and in the future capital of all Greece, citizens knew a period of peace and prosperity we now name for that earlier aggressive leader, Pericles.  He oversaw the rebuilding of the city into a gleaming marble wonder, where citizens could see first-run performances of plays by Euripides and argue with Socrates until blue in the face, with its capstone the fabulous Parthenon and the 38-foot tall bronze statue of Athena within its sacred columns.

He’s also the guy who persuaded Athenians to explore their inner Ws by supporting imperialistic policies in the Aegean, by cutting treaties with enemies (peace deal with Persia), and, most offensive of all, by moving the Treasury of Delos to Athens, where the city helped itself to a 1/60 cut of all revenue as protection money – even though the tributes were ostensibly being paid toward a group effort in the now-non-extant struggle against Persia.  Sure made for a purty city, though.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

In 431 BCE, the proxy wars, revolts, and general fed-upedness turned into an all-out Bronze Age clash of superpowers.  Sparta, as before, marched into Attica, the province of fields, farms, and orchards surrounding Athens, and began ravaging crops; the Athenians, as before, let the Spartans run roughshod over their property, relying on their Long Walls to feed a city now brimming over with refugees.  Athens did score some early victories by sailing around the Peloponnesus and raiding coastal towns, but both the naval campaigns and the imported grain were costly, and the treasury started running low.

The Athens Plague – which the linked article diagnoses as typhus, as opposed to the more conventional view that it was Bubonic; yet another modern source says it was ebola – struck in 430-29 BCE.  Possibly brought by a plague ship from Egypt or the Middle East, the plague was the almost inevitable result of the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions – the space between the Long Walls was only about 600 feet, meaning that for all that masonry, the city really didn’t gain much in the way of protected square acreage, certainly not enough to provide for tens of thousands of refugees from the Attican countryside.  As the unburied bodies piled up, social order broke down.  The revered historioranter Thucydides, himself a plague survivor, wrote this description in his History of the Peloponnesian War:

Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague. Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honour was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honourable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The Long Walls held through the siege – finally lifted when the Athenian navy captured a group of upper-class Spartan hoplites and threatened to kill them – but Athens was sapped of strength that was not easily replaced.  Thousands were dead from the Plague, including Pericles, and its elder leadership was decimated and in turmoil.  Into this power vacuum stepped a guy who’s really worth reading up on, one Alcibiades (link is to a classic diary by Alexander G Rubio), who presented a crazed plan to attack and capture Sicily as a means of restoring Athenian pride while at the same time ensuring everlasting grain. 

Fortune may indeed favor the bold, but it didn’t favor Alcibiades; the offensive failed, Sparta took advantage of Athens’ self-generated distraction by building a fleet and learning how to use it, and by 404 BCE, the great democratic experiment was surrendering to the oligarchs.  Though the city did regain prominence for a few years during the 4th century BCE, by the time of Alexander the Great, there wasn’t much left of the spirit of defiant faith that had built the Long Walls.  Athens went on to spend a few centuries as a provincial capitol under the Antigonid Macedonians (294-168 BCE) and as a free city dedicated to pagan learning and philosophy under the Romans (168 BCE-529 CE), its Long Walls never again much of a factor in foreign policy or medical matters.

Alesia – When Walls Attack

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketJulius Caesar began his conquest of Gaul in 58 BCE, and for the next few years made strong gains against the disunited Celtic tribes.  By 52 BCE, however, an Averni chieftain named Vercingetorix had begun fighting back, and was attracting followers to his banner even as he urged the tribes of central France (or rather, what would eventually become known as central France) to adopt a scorched-earth policy and burn their own crops so as to deny food to the pillaging legions.  In September, at Gergovia, Vercingetorix scored a victory when the overeager Romans charged a fortified position in defiance of orders.  Caesar feinted as though he was moving off (a Roman general would never allow himself to be seen as retreating in the face of barbarians), and Vercingetorix took the bait.  The Celts lost many nobles and warriors, and were forced to retreat to Alesia, a hilltop fortress that served as the capitol of the Mandubii.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe city already had a population of 100,000 or so, and the army of Vercingetorix added another 80,000 mouths to feed, so Caesar opted for siege rather than storm.  In an incredible feat of engineering, his army of 60,000 constructed an 11-mile ring of fortifications around Alesia – complete with spikes, moats, trenches, and iron-hook-and-wooden-block contraptions that might be considered the great-grandaddy of the land mine.  Still, the Romans were worried that several cavalrymen had escaped before the wall had been completed and were even now raising a relief army, so Caesar ordered a second wall, pretty much identical to the first, constructed facing out toward approaching reinforcements.  This second wall, called a contravallation, was about 15 miles long, and provided enough space to shelter the whole Roman army.  Dig this modern mock-up of the Roman fortifications, from

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket 

It takes a while to build stuff like that – though the first wall did go up in an incredibly short three weeks – but it takes a while to summon up 100,000 cavalrymen, too (Caesar puts the number at 250,000, but he’s probably exaggerating).  It does not, however, take 180,000 people very long at all to go through every morsel of food in a Celtic town in the Jura, and conditions in besieged Alesia quickly grew dire.  To give some indication of just how bad things got, consider the solution suggested by Critognatus, one of the Mandubian chieftains:

“What counsel, then, have I to offer?  I think we should do what our ancestors did in a war that was much less serious than this one.  When they were forced into their strongholds by the Cimbri and Teutoni, and overcome like us by famine, instead of surrendering they kept themselves alive by eating the flesh of those who were too old or too young to fight.  Even if we had no precedent for such action, I think that when our liberty is at stake it would be a noble example to set to our descendents.  For this is a life and death struggle, quite unlike the war with the Cimbri, who, though they devastated Gaul and grievously afflicted her, did eventually evacuate our country and migrate elsewhere, and left us free men, to live on our own land under our own laws and in possession of our rights.  The Romans, we know, have a very different purpose.  Envy is the motive that inspires them.  They know that we have won renown by our military strength, and so they mean to install themselves in our lands and our towns and fasten the yoke of slavery on us for ever.  That is how they have always treated conquered enemies.  You do not know much, perhaps, of the condition of distant peoples; but you need only look at that part of Gaul on your own borders that has been made into a Roman province, with new laws and institutions imposed upon it, ground beneath the conqueror’s iron heel in perpetual servitude.”

Better dead than red indeed.  In Conquest of Gaul, Caesar records what the Celts decided to do, and how he reacted to it:

At the conclusion of the debate it was decided (by the Gauls) to send out of the town those who age or infirmity incapacitated for fighting.  Critognatus’ proposal was to be adopted only as a last resort – if the reinforcements still failed to arrive and things got so bad that it was a choice between that and surrendering, or accepting dictated peace terms.  So the Mandubian population, who had received the other Gauls in their town, were compelled to leave it with their wives and children.  They came up to the Roman fortifications and with tears besought the soldiers to take them as slaves and relieve their hunger; but Caesar posted guards on the ramparts with orders to refuse them admission.

Now, far be it from me to say that Julius Caesar wasn’t a heartless bastard, but in this case, there was some pragmatic justification for his unwillingness to let the noncombatants leave.  Had he played the humanitarian, he would have relieved Vercingetorix of a considerable problem; whatever was left in the city’s larders would last that much longer if it didn’t have to get divvied up so many ways.  Additionally, Caesar’s army, occupying a fixed position deep in enemy territory, was essentially besieged itself; the Romans could no more afford to take on the refugees than Vercingetorix could to keep them.  In the end, the Celtic leader didn’t keep them, either – rather than let them back into their own city, he barred the gates and forced the women and children to wither away in No Man’s Land.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Morale was flagging (you might say) in the city when the long-awaited relief army finally galloped onto the horizon, and at the end of September, the Gauls launched simultaneous attacks against the inside and outside of Caesar’s walls.  The Celts pressed hard, but the Romans held both walls at the end of the day.  The Celts attacked again on the night of October 1, forcing Caesar to leave several sections of wall unmanned, but those trenches turned out to be a really good idea: part of what allowed the Romans to concentrate on repelling the attack against the contravallating wall was the time it took for the infantry from Alesia to fill in the obstacles on their way to the inner one.

The climax came on October 2, when a relief force of about 60,000 attacked an area where topography meant the defenses were only one wall thick.  This was accompanied by a similarly-focused sally from the fortress, as Vercingetorix led an all-or-nothing charge for Celtic liberty.  Caesar personally led the counterattack which drove him back, but then was obligated to turn to aid his general Labienus, whose men were about to buckle under the pressure of a 60,000-man surge.  Taking 13 cohorts of cavalry (around 6000 horse) with him, Caesar rode around to the rear of the relief army and attacked with complete surprise.  Inspired by the singular display of juevos by their commander, Labienus’ men found a second wind, and the classic pattern of Roman discipline versus the nobly-inspired-but-tactically-dubious Celtic charge took over.

The Gauls were routed on both sides of the Roman walls; Caesar later wrote that only utter exhaustion on the part of his troops kept them from annihilating their enemy as he fled the field.  The following day, central Gaul was placed in Caesar’s grasp once and for all when Vercingetorix surrendered.  The chieftain was placed in irons and displayed in a cage during Caesar’s victory celebrations in Rome, then spent five years in a dungeon before being publicly strangled as part of a feast honoring Caesar.

???? – A Metaphor Visible from Space?

Though it’s been more unified for a longer time than most political entities out there, China’s history is replete with long centuries of Chinese-on-Chinese violence.  During the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BCE) and the Warring States Period (480-221 BCE), various smaller kingdoms solidified into a dwindling number of larger empires.  Although incredibly violent – armies numbering a half million or more soldiers were not uncommon – this particular half-millennium was every bit as philosophically productive in China as it was in Greece: Lao “The Tao” Tzu, Confucius, his disciple Mencius, and Sun “Art of War” Tzu all lived and thought during this era.  Also making its first appearance on the historical stage was the idea of the police state:

Legalism derived from the teachings of another one of Confucius’ disciples, a man named Xun-zi. Xun-zi believed that, for the most part, man would look out for himself first and was therefore basically evil (remember, this is more than two thousand years before Adam Smith argued that self-interest is what makes markets work and is therefore good). Consequently, the Legalists designed a series of draconian laws that would make a nation easier to control. The fundamental aim of both Confucianism and Legalism was the re-unification of a then divided China, but they took difference approaches. Confucianism depended on virtue and natural order; Legalism used a iron fist. Legalism has been called “super-Machiavellian;” this is not unwarranted, as it called for the suppression of dissent by the burning of books and burying dissidents alive (maltreatment of the opposition is nothing new in China; because the system starts with the idea that the Emperor is the Son of Heaven and has the Mandate of Heaven to rule, there is no such thing as legitimate dissent and thus no concept of “loyal opposition”). Legalism advocated techniques such as maintaining an active secret police, encouraging neighbors to inform on each other, and the creation of a general atmosphere of fear. In fact, many of the same tactics that the Legalists approved of were later employed by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe state which warred its way to dominance over all the others was the western land of Qin, the pronunciation of which would eventually become the name of the entire, now-unified country.  At the head of the vast Qin armies was Shi Huangdi, one of history’s Great Brutal Badasses, and in a reign of terror that lasted only marginally longer than George W. Bush’s term in office, he accomplished more nation-building than all of history’s Bismarcks and Cavours (and Bremers, and Condis) put together.  Before his death in 210 BCE, Qin Shi Huangdi had:

  • destroyed the earlier feudal arrangements and divided China into 36 military prefectures
  • standardized the written language, but purposefully kept the peasantry uneducated and wholly dependent upon the Emperor for the fruits of technology
  • standardized weights, measures, axle lengths, and a code of laws (one much heavier on the Xun-zi than the Confucius)
  • ordered the construction of the most elaborate tomb in all of antiquity, along with an army of thousands of terra cotta soldiers to eternally guard the approaches to its inner sanctum (see Weird Historical Sidenote)
  • buried scholars alive, burned entire libraries, and suppressed freedom of thought
  • invaded Vietnam and expanded the empire westward by pushing out the Huns, thus initiating a migration that would culminate six centuries later with a Pope asking Attila not to destroy Rome.
  • conscripted millions for the construction of labor-intensive projects like the aforementioned tomb, canals, roads, and, of course, the Great Wall.  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of his own subjects were worked to death in the Emperor’s name.

Weird Historical Sidenote:  Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb, which has not yet been opened, was described by historioranter Sima Qian about 80 years after his death as containing “models of palaces, pavilions, and offices with fine vessels, precious stones, and rarities. Artisans were ordered to install mechanically triggered crossbows set to shoot any intruder. With quicksilver the various waterways of the empire, the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, and even the great ocean itself were created and made to flow and circulate mechanically. With shining pearls the heavenly constellations were depicted above, and with figures of birds in gold and silver and of pine trees carved of jade the earth was laid out below.”

Shi Huandi’s wall was not the one we generally think of as the Great Wall of China.  Basically, what he did was order the various northern former kingdoms to dismantle the south-running walls they’d constructed between their own borders, and move the material to link up the northern sections of those same walls.  Much of this first Great Wall was made up of earth and rubble packed between wooden casings, and did not stand the test of time – most of it has now eroded away – but the idea of a wall along China’s northern border (one that was as effective at keeping the citizens of China in as it was the horsemen of Mongolia out) was one that wouldn’t die.

The Han Dynasty, which was approximately contemporaneous with Rome (if you don’t mind traipsing down the Archive Tunnel here in the Cave of the Moonbat, take a look at some of the Weird Historical Sidenotes in this diary of mine for hints of Han-Roman contact – u.m.), certainly didn’t let the Wall-dream perish, but when the last Han emperor was told in no uncertain terms that he had lost Heaven’s Mandate, central authority collapsed and regional warlords began asserting their own authority. 

The Qin Wall was as ancient to the citizens of the Late Han as the Punic Wars were to Marcus Aurelieus, and in time, the internal threat was seen by most northern leaders as a danger as great as the external one.  The rulers of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE) were a little preoccupied with rivalries, but still worried about northern invaders, and under the Eastern and Western Jin Dynasties (265-420 CE) the old empire fractured to the point that in the north, 16 different kingdoms were jockeying for power, so large-scale wall work was expensive, dangerous, and neglected only at one’s peril.  Ditto for the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 CE), since they were generally more suspicious of one another than of outsiders – indeed, when unification finally came again, it was because the leader of the Northern kingdom built up a huge navy, attacked, and compelled the South’s surrender.

Weird Historical Sidenote:  Interestingly, this period of factionalized disunity, like the one a few centuries before, produced a flowering of intellectual achievement: the stirrup was developed by the Western Jin, people’s minds were opened to the message of the Buddha via traders from Kushan Afghanistan, and mathematicians like Zu Chongzhi were doing some of their best work.  Zu, for example, calculated the precise length of a year at 365.24281481 days (the number we use today is 365.24219878), and got further into pi than would anyone else in the next 900 years.

Another Weird Historical Sidenote:  The navy assembled by Wendi, the Northern emperor referenced above, was a fresh-water one, designed for combat on the Yangtze River.  Some of the boats were five decks tall, had crews of 800, and were armed (literally) with six 50-foot swinging booms that could be used to batter enemy ships, or to pin them while marines stormed aboard.  But now I’m really digressing…

The short-lived Sui Dynasty (581-619 CE) reunified China in the time-tested manner of old Shi Huangdi.  Many of the same coinage and governmental regulations were re-instituted, as were the policies of brutal repression, mass conscription, and truly epic public works projects.  The Grand Canal, a 1000-mile waterway linking the northern Huang He River with the southern Yangtze, was completed, launching an entirely new age in China’s economic and cultural unification; and in the north, tens of thousands were again perishing in the name of rebuilding the great defensive works.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), which supplanted the hated Sui, seemed more concerned with continuing Sui-started imperial ventures in Korea, and later turned its attention westward, toward Sogdiana and the Turkic kingdoms of Central Asia.  In 751 CE, the Tang encountered the Abbasid Muslims at the Battle of Talas and got the worst of it: their westward expansion was halted, Islam would become the dominant religion along the western Silk Road, and back in China, the show of weakness led to rebellion, paralysis, and eventually assassinations and coups.  Another significant result of the Battle of Talas was the capture by the Muslims of paper-making technology and several men to operate it.  Paper went on to become the primary engine of the great explosion of learning that transformed the Arab world around 800 CE, since it was far cheaper than the animal skins on which the Europeans were still illuminating their manuscripts.

When the fall of the Tang left the Mandate of Heaven up for grabs, there were many contenders, and China lapsed into a half-century of upheaval in which 5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms followed one another in rapid, violent succession.  The Song Dynasty (907-1279 CE) that emerged did some impressive things – it was a period of cultural flowering that also the first issuance of paper money to the people and gunpowder-based weapons to the soldiers – it wasn’t enough to keep them from losing control of the northern half of the kingdom to the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 CE). 

Of Manchurian origin themselves, and far more concerned with the threat from the Southern Song than from the steppe, the Jin did not make Wall maintenance a priority.  This, coupled with a lack of intelligence as to what was being whispered in the yurts of Mongolia, led to hordes of horsemen first ravaging the civilization of the Western Xia, then pouring through and over the Great Wall into the lands of the Jin.  By 1234, the Jin were no more, and the period of Mongol/Yuan Dynasty rulership that lasted until 1368 saw predictably scant effort to shore up the Wall.  (here’s a kinda funny/kinda scary article I found while researching this: Management Lessons from Ghengis Khan – u.m.)

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) didn’t begin work on rebuilding the Great Wall as soon as they came to power – it took a military defeat (the 1449 Battle of Tumu, at which horrible deployment by the Ming led to the capture of their Emperor) but after that, continued nearly without cease until they were ousted by the Manchus.  The Ming are the ones who built the Wall we know and Nixon loved, that fine brick-work one that everybody who visits Beijing takes a photo of.  Here’s some gratuitous beauty shots:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket  Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The re-routed the Wall and standardized construction along much of its length, using bricks instead of the earlier rammed-earth methods.  In the end, the Wall grew to over 4000 miles long (that’s New York to L.A., then back again to Denver), with crenellated battlements, barracks and administrative centers, and watchtowers nearly the entire way.  A Lord of the Rings-like system of signal fires allowed for early warning of approaching enemies, and when enemies did finally enter China from the north, it was only because they had bribed a corrupt border official.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Weird Historical Sidenote:  One of the best stories of the construction of the Great Wall comes from the fortress of Jiayuguan, in the desert at the extreme western terminus of the Wall.  The story goes that the engineer who designed the structure presented the government official in charge with an exact figure regarding the number of bricks he would need to build the planned structure (the tradition says it was 99,9999, but it was probably more than that).  Dubious at the engineer’s cockiness, the official demanded that he develop a contingency plan – so the engineer, laughing, amended his order to add one more brick.  Turns out they never did need it, and it sits alone and unmortared on the walls of the fort today.

Though they started out as a world-exploring power (see 1421: The Year China Discovered the World for some recent theories on how far they may have gotten), by the mid-15th century, the Ming had gone insular.  Their Wall defended their northern approaches, but as mentioned before, was opened in 1644 when the Manchus bribed a civil servant (another story says the man was seeking vengeance for the mistreatment of a concubine at the hands of anti-Ming rebels in Beijing) and swept into the soft underbelly of Ming lands.  Since they’d come from the north, and since gunpowder meant the Mongol horsemen weren’t quite the threat they used to be, the Manchus (later known as the Qing Dynasty) didn’t spend much time on the Wall.  After they incorporated the Mongols into the Qing military and began trying to stave off the European threat, the Wall became in many instances little more than a local quarry of building materials for nearby villagers.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Given its more than 2000 year history, the Great Wall has meant a lot of things to China: it has been a first and best defense, a constant reminder of brutal repression, an expensive behemoth crumbling into disrepair, an object of pride at the accomplishments of earlier generations of Chinese, and, of course, a tourist trap par excellance.  Nowadays, the flow of information is more of a concern to the Chinese government than a flood of Mongol horsemen; to combat any potential computer-based threats, Beijing has built what some are now calling the Great Firewall of China.

Historiorant:  Is it visible from space?  Perhaps from orbit, if one knows exactly what to look for and where to be looking, but it’s not visible from the Moon.  After all, for most of its length, it’s only about 30 feet wide, which is an awful thin ribbon to be looking for from a distance of a quarter million miles.

Historiorant:  American Walls

The whole reason I started writing this was because I’d been thinking about the wall currently under construction along the U.S./Mexico border – the one that’s been causing so much consternation among our friends on the right.  Alas, this diary, if printed out and laid end-to-end, is already half the length of the Great Wall of China, so I’ll have to cut this part a bit short.

We’re not a traditionally wall-building culture, which is part of the problem America faces when discussing what to do about stemming the tide of trans-desert immigration – hundreds of miles of border wall doesn’t exactly square with that whole “Huddled masses yearning to be free” thing.  Still, it’s undeniable that something like 10 million people have crossed America’s southern border without checking in with the Border Patrol, and that that’s now placing a serious strain on the social and civic infrastructure in some parts of the country.  It’s got the other side of the aisle positively apoplectic, which is at least part of the reason their anti-Dem offensive has stalled a bit in recent months.  I mean, when Michelle Malkin is putting stuff like this:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

…up on her website, you know things aren’t all well and good in the formerly-solid Rethug phalanx.

Is a Sonoran Wall an answer?  Perhaps – Tom Tancredo (R-naturally) certainly thinks so – but as I hope I’ve shown in this historiorant, walls can cut both ways.  They’re expensive to build, expensive to maintain, they’re not 100% enemy-proof, and they trap bad stuff inside at least as effectively as they keep people out.  According to

A 2,000 mile state-of-the-art border fence has been estimated to cost between four and eight billion dollars. Costs for a wall that would run the entire length of the border might be as low as $851 million for a standard 10-foot prison chain link fence topped by razor wire. For another $362 million, the fence could be electrified. A larger 12-foot tall, two-foot-thick concrete wall painted on both sides would run about $2 billion. Initially it was estimated that the San Diego fence would cost $14 million — about $1 million a mile. The first 11 miles of the fence eventually cost $42 million — $3.8 million per mile, and the last 3.5 miles may cost even more since they cover more difficult terrain. An additional $35 million to complete the final 3.5 miles was approved in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security — $10 million per mile.

Still, walls can also be a highly visible deterrent, an imposing symbol of a nation’s power, and a damn fine way for engineers to show off their skills.  Democracies have built walls before – look at the Maginot Line in ‘tween-the-wars France – but the one that our Republican buddies are interested in would serve a far different purpose.  At present, the only-partly-built southern wall is a political hot potato, bedeviled by all the standard Bush-era stupidity:

As of 2005, just over 80 miles of federally enforced barriers and fencing were at strategic points on the border, mainly in Texas and California. Operation Gatekeeper, which sealed much of the San Diego border with 14 miles of fencing and stadium lighting. A 10-foot-tall primary fence made of welded steel was completed in 1993 along a 14-mile section of the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Otay border crossing. Construction of a 14-foot-tall secondary fence about 130 feet north of the existing barrier has been completed except for a section along the last few miles near the beach. A chain-link fence, running along a road, mirrors that secondary fence. The California Coastal Commission voted in February 2004 to deny the project because of erosion concerns.


As many of you Cave-dwellers know, your resident historiorantologist could probably babble on about walls until all the achievements of the Ming have worn away to dust, so I probably oughta end this here – in conclusion, I’ll just add one little (though highly predictable) question: Which side of the fence do you come down on?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket  Historically hip entrances to the Cave of the Moonbat can be found at Daily Kos, Progressive Historians, and Never In Our Names


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: