What purpose does a wall serve? Obviously if you are in a room right now, the walls around you serve to hold up the ceiling and keep out the elements. But every so often there arises big and thorny problems that require large, fortified walls- built with the purposes of keeping someone in or keeping others out. Does this work as a long-term strategy, or does it just imprison the people who build the wall?
Let's look at four iconic walls through history- why they were built and whether they were effective for the people who built them. Do we need more walls and stronger walls to protect ourselves, or does it make sense to knock some of them down?
The first wall that most people think of is the Great Wall of China, which is actually a network of 5,000 plus miles of walls that extend across Northern China. A thousand years ago, the prosperous and civilized people of China were subject raids from nomadic people to the North. The areas around Mongolia were and still are inhospitable to agriculture and human survival, so the nomadic tribes who called it home periodically invaded Chinese cities to get supplies.
Starting the in the 16th century, Chinese rulers under the Ming Dynasty had enough, and they began building and fortifying existing defenses to create the Great Wall as we know it today. Construction of the wall was one of the great engineering accomplishments of history, but it came at tremendous cost. Construction continued for nearly 200 years and claimed hundreds of thousands of workers who perished while building it.
Did the Great Wall work? For some time, it did, as Mongol raids were curtailed. Because of its size, it required a huge standing army to man the wall, and eventually nomads found ways around it, including making friends with the guards themselves. Eventually, in 1644, the wall failed and the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchus and their allies. The Ming dynasty, despite its strong and mighty wall, became weak and divided and was beset by peasant revolts and money problems. The last Ming emperor hanged himself as his empire crumbled.
In 1945, a defeated Germany was carved up into two separate countries, West Germany which enjoyed a more open, democratic system, and East Germany, which was dominated by the Soviet Union and communist principles. For the first decade, transit between the two Germanies was relatively unimpeded. A border fence wasn't erected until 1955, and then the two countries became truly separated.
The lone exception for the divided country became the city of Berlin, which lay entirely inside of East Germany, but was itself divided between an Eastern and Western city. Through Berlin, thousands and thousands of East Germans left for the West and more freedom and opportunity. So many left that East Germany lost some 20% of its population, including many of its best and brightest.
To prevent any further emigrations, East Germany erected a series of walls and barricades some 125 miles long that completely encircled West Berlin. The Berlin Wall cut off families, neighborhoods and commerce, but it accomplished its goal of stopping people from leaving the country. The wall went up without warning in August of 1961, and included armed checkpoints and barbed wire with guards ordered to shoot anyone trying to cross illegally.
The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years as a symbol of division and desperation, and though it temporarily accomplished its purpose, it was toppled in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern satellites such as Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. Berlin, and Germany were re-unified after the fall of the wall though segments still survive as historical reminders.
The Israeli West Bank barrier is one of the newer and more ambitious walls in existence today. In 1967 Israel captured the West Bank, also known as Palestine, which was once part of Jordan. Since then the large territory has been considered as Israeli occupied land, but not a part of Israel. Israel, a largely Jewish state, is surrounded by hostile countries on three sides, all of which are largely Arab states. Because of a number of wars with those enemies, Israel felt it had to protect itself and authorized a new wall between itself and its enemies.
The West Bank Barrier started going up around 2002 and at 440 miles is the longest such wall of its kind. It's also one of the most high-tech barriers ever in existence, consisting of multiple layers of fencing, intrusion detection equipment, and concrete walls up to 26 feet in height. The wall crosses almost entirely through Palestinian territory, but is meant to protect Israel from terrorists and bombings initiated by Palestinians.
Has the barrier been effective in protecting Israel? It may be too soon to tell, but Israeli's seem very happy with the results of fewer bombing attempts. Their happiness comes at the expense of the Palestinians, who hate the wall and see it as a huge inconvenience and a prelude to apartheid. Jewish settlements on the West Bank have been a sensitive subject the past few decades, with most of the world governments backing the Palestinians. The new wall crosses into Palestinian territory to cement those settlements into Israeli protection, and it remains to be seen how this will all end.
The West Bank wall has been held up as a shining example of what the US-Mexico border wall should look like. The two situations are vastly different, however. The US Border is many times longer than the Israel/Palestine border, and the US has nowhere near the history of terrorism on its borders as Israel has. For the past 70 years, Israel has faced annihilation at the hands of its enemies, and the new wall seems to be creating more enemies in an age when they could use more allies.
And finally, let us look at the city of New Orleans. The Louisiana city and home of Mardi Gras has a metro area population of 1.2 million people and is entirely surrounded by water on all four sides. Even worse, more than half of New Orleans is below sea level, sitting atop muddy river and marsh deposits that are sinking even further.
Ever since its founding over 300 years ago, New Orleans has been in a battle with water. A large system of flood walls and levies were put in place to protect the city, and they were mostly effective. Until Katrina. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina made a direct hit on New Orleans and the immense storm surge fractured the levy and wall system in dozens of places. The city was 80% flooded and had to be evacuated.
In recovering from Katrina, New Orleans has put its faith in a new $20 Billion, 350 mile wall of levies, flood walls, and gates. The great wall is supposed to protect the city from 100 year floods, aka floods that are likely to appear every 100 years. The problem with those estimates is that with climate change of the past century, sea levels have been rising and hurricanes have been getting stronger and more damaging. To predict what will happen in the next 100 years is next to impossible.
Wetlands south of New Orleans used to be a buffer against storm surges, but they are now disappearing, leaving the city even more vulnerable. The levies were made a little taller and an immense surge barrier was built from concrete to protect the city, but no one knows if this is enough to protect the city.
So what can we learn from these four unique walls of protection? Walls like these are designed either to keep something in, like East Germans, or keep something out, like Huns. They can be a necessary temporary fix for a desperate situation. In the short run they're effective. But any wall always has vulnerabilities- people can go over, dig under, or go around them. In the long run, nature and mankind usually find a way to wear them down.
In this day and age, people can fly over walls, and, if they have bad intentions, can do damage to enemies without ever setting foot behind the wall. This is why firewalls, the computer protections that keep hackers out, are more relevant for the 21st century than barricades. More damage can be done online than could ever have been done with a bombing or pillaging run.
The Great Wall of China came at great expense and had little impact on the fall of the Ming Dynasty. The Berlin Wall kept East Germany stable for a while, but it was a stability that ultimately couldn't hold and the wall fell quickly as an outdated symbol of the Iron Curtain. The West Bank barrier may have accomplished its immediate goal, but it has made more enemies for Israel in a land where they already have too many. Whether this stasis will hold is up to history to figure out. And the city of New Orleans may end up being the first big victim of climate change, as it battle with water continues.
Some think the Chinese could have saved themselves a lot of time and trouble by establishing trade partnerships with the Mongols, helping them out rather than keeping them out. Fear is the real reason most walls are built. And much of the time, that fear is justified. But you can't hide behind a wall forever. At some point you need to deal with your fears that are behind the walls. In the 21st century, many live in fear and build their own walls to keep out the bad guys. Billionaires are building fortresses in New Zealand for a coming breakdown of order and stability in a futile effort to save themselves. If things are to improve, we must do it ourselves. For if we don't no walls can save us.