Sir Isaac Newton seems to be credited, based on all the different images I found when looking for an image for this post, with the pithy admonition, “build bridges not walls.” I searched the term walls and bridges and most of the memes quoted Newton. Since Newton was a very smart scientist, but certainly not a historian, I presume he was talking about interpersonal relationships. However, his saying became “received wisdom” by all manner of politicians and celebrities, neither of which are historians either.
A real historian, David Frye, wrote an eye-opening history of 4,000 years of barrier-building, from the Fertile Crescent to the Malibu Colony, Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick. He writes, “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 historians 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….“
The review of the book that introduced it to me said, “In Walls, bridges are emblems of aggression. For instance, during the siege of Constantinople in 1453: The city’s seaside defenders watched with horror as Turkish sailors lashed together their boats to form a pontoon bridge spanning the Golden Horn. For the defenders of Constantinople, as for countless people before them, there was nothing more comforting than a wall, or more terrifying than a bridge.”
“One famous people that chose to live without walls were the Spartans, who felt that physical security made men decadent. ’They opted for a forced, artificial barbarism over high culture.’ Frye repeatedly observes that a lack of walls means a lack of diversity within society. In Sparta, as in most barbarian tribes beyond the walls, virtually each male citizen must have no profession other than war. In contrast, the Athenians built long walls to protect their access to their port, behind which their men diverged into a dazzling variety of jobs, such as philosopher, playwright, sculptor, architect, and historian. As Frye repeatedly documents, walls mean economic diversity and cultural progress. In contrast, a lack of secure borders means merely the war of all against all.
“When Frye’s attention turns to the New World, he finds the same patterns. In the wall-building civilizations of the Mayans and Incas: specialization and advance. Among the unwalled Indian braves of North America: warlike homogeneity. They were as different from one another as the ancient German was from the Gaul, Hun, Mongol, or Turk—which is to say, they were hardly different at all. They were all warriors, just like their unwalled counterparts in Eurasia, and utterly unlike the wall builders of South and Central America.”
I chose the Siege of Constantinople for my post, for a number of reasons: The conquest of Constantinople dealt a massive blow to the defense of mainland Europe, as the Muslim Ottoman armies thereafter were left unchecked to advance into Europe without an adversary to their rear. It was also a watershed moment in military history. Since ancient times, cities had used ramparts and city walls to protect themselves from invaders, and Constantinople’s substantial fortifications had been a model followed by cities throughout the Mediterranean region and Europe. The Ottomans ultimately prevailed due to the use of gunpowder (which powered formidable cannons). The fall of Constantinople marked the end of the Roman Empire, because by that time the Byzantine empire WAS all that was left of the Roman Empire. Up until the fall of that city, walls worked. Once cannons and explosives showed the vulnerability of walls, war became much bloodier and more mobile.
This is hardly an argument against walls and fences as lines of territory demarcation, as borders. There’s something emotionally basic about the security of boundaries. If you were to build a playground bordered by busy streets, and the playground had no fence, the kids would use much less of that territory than if it was fenced all around. The kids would play right up to the fence, secure in knowing the border. Without a border, the kids would be unsure of how far to go. If you were shopping for a home, and found two that were almost identical in the same neighborhood, but one had fenced yards back and front, and the other had no fence at all, which one would give you a more secure feeling?
Is a wall the best way to create border security? Not necessarily, but it belongs in the discussion. Let’s not mindlessly parrot but bridges not walls. History shows the former, not the latter, were the constructions of the aggressors.