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Walls and Lines - Introduction

By the latter part of the twentieth century the utility of walls, fortresses, and other barriers was generally deprecated. Yet by the early 21st Century a broad range of states, from Abkhazia to Zimbabwe, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States, have built such barriers, which are increasingly seen as making an effective to controlling cross-border traffic. Significantly, these security barriers are intended to defend against illegal immigration, potentially of terrorists, rather than against conventional military aggression.

“The Middle East and North Africa is now the most walled region in the world,” said Said Saddiki, a professor of International Relations and International Law at Al-Ain University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi. They range from “fences inside cities to anti-migrant walls and separation barriers to counter-insurgency” barricades, he said. Construction comes at a price. Saudi Arabia’s “Great Wall” separating its north from Iraq includes observation towers with cameras and motion detectors, part of a $US3.4 billion ($4.6 billion) security system. Tunisia expects to pay at least $US81 million ($110 million) for the first phase of its fence. Barriers have to be maintained and patrolled.

Martin Van Creveld observes that "history shows that walls, provided people are prepared to do what is necessary to defend them and prevent other people from crossing them, by using lethal force if necessary, work. If not for technical reasons - there never has been, nor can be, such a thing as an impregnable wall - then for psychological ones; and if not forever and perfectly, then for long periods and to a very large extent."

Many terms are used to characterize man-made security obstacles, including barriers, defenses, fences, fortifications, lines, and walls. Historian John Keegan suggests that fortifications fall into three categories depending on their purpose: refuge - temporary shelter from attack, which tend to be hastily and shabbily built; stronghold - individual positions for sustained, active defense; and strategic defense - continuous or mutually supporting works denying the enemy avenues of advance across a front. It is this last category that is most interesting. Temporary refuges are frequently little more than improvised trench works, while strongholds encompass innumerable castles and walled cities. Strategic defenses are comparatively few in number [dozens or hundreds, not thousands], and encompass the works that are of greatest contemporary interest.

Boundaries are always significant and frequently contested. States are defined by boundaries. Many volumes have been written on the state, and a great difference of opinion has developed as to what the conception of a state is, which controversy entirely overlooks the circumstance that a state is an existing object. By one definition, " ... for all purposes of International Law, a State . . . may be deemed to be, a people permanently occupying a fixed territory ... exercising, through the medium of an organized Government, independent sovereignty and control over all persons and things within its boundaries... " 1 Phillimore, Int. L., 3 ed. (1879-1888) 81. Another authority contends that "A State may be defined as the union of a determinable territory with a determinable people combined politically, that people enjoying independence from habitual external human control;" Walker, Man. Int. L., (1895) 1. "A state is a community of persons living within certain limits of territory, under a permanent organization, which aims to secure the prevalence of justice by self-imposed law;" Woolsey, Int. L., 6ed. (1897) 34.

The boundary of the territory of a state is the imaginary line on the surface of the earth which defines the limits of the jurisdiction of the state. The boundary of a state is a purely imaginary line, and is marked on the surface of the earth sometimes by natural objects, as mountains and rivers; sometimes by artificial objects, as monuments, posts, etc. The boundary is the same in each case, but in one case is marked by artificial means, in the other by natural.

There were in the history of the world a number of instances of conquests and invasions where one set of people invades the territory of another, conquers, subdues and settles upon the land. The invasions, prior to the middle ages, of western Europe were too rude and barbaric to furnish any instances of orderly conduct. The question of international law began with the conquest and occupation of America, and at this time the various states of Europe were reaching out for fresh territory, and the occupation of various lands in the new world of North and South America were the occasions of many bloody wars, and the only rule deducible from the proceedings of the time is that occupation was only good when maintained by force, that is, that every state actually had jurisdiction over the land which it occupied, and which jurisdiction it could maintain with force of arms.

Armies and fortresses constitute the military powef of a nation. The relation between-these two elements varies according to circumstances, but fortresses must be regarded as always subsidiary to armies. A study of military history shows the role played by fortresses in the great wars fought from the time of the French Revolution to the present day. Fortifications, together with mobile forces immediately available, are necessary for the protection of frontiers. By fortifications are meant, not continuous lines of works after the pattern of the Great Wall of China, but works protecting important rail and roadways, centers of communication, river crossings, defiles, etc. Frontier fortifications have their most important uses first, in furnishing protection during mobilization and concentration and second, in keeping open a gateway for the penetration of enemy territory. It is beyond discussion that under certain circumstances fortifications exercise a decisive influence in military operations. There is no contradiction between a system of frontier fortifications, well studied and well adapted, and the spirit of the offensive.

Fortifications should not induce, or condemn, armies to fight in trenches or behind parapets, but should permit the best utilization of the ground, mobility, and the capacity to maneuver with a view to taking the offensive. Frederick the Great liberated the art from the pedantry and schematism into which, to its discredit, it had fallen. The principles of the Great Monarch were exemplified in the vast entrenched camps of Europe during the Great War. Przemysl which, completely isolated, resisted the massed attacks of the Russians for more than four months, is an illustration of the modern concept of fortification as are also the lines in front of Verdun, where the most wonderful struggle in history is now being sustained. There is no intention of deprecating the difficult and manifold tasks of the engineers, but it should never be forgotten that these must not interfere with but serve tactical ends; the practical and theoretical education of engineer officers must inculcate this principle.

Both attacker and defender must know fortification, the one successfully to attack the other successfully to defend. The engineers must place their technical knowledge at the disposition of the other arms to end that victory may be gained. The true role of the engineer officer is not to put himself in the place of the commander or of the general staff officer, but as an engineer to be a most competent assistant and adviser to the commander-in-chief.

In the organization of the inland frontier fortifications of a state, the points to be principally regarded are the principal avenues of access to it, and their topographical features as they lend themselves more or less to strengthen the artificial defences. In conducting an invasion across an inland frontier, the march of the enemy must necessarily be along the roads that intersect it, as these afford the only means for transporting the materiel, etc., of the army. The points, therefore, or places in their neighborhood where the principal roads or other avenues of communication cross the frontier, particularly those which lead to the great centres of population and wealth, are the ones which would necessarily call for permanent defences.

By the end of the 19th century no country could be regarded as secure from foreign military aggression, the accessible points of whose frontiers were not occupied by permanent fortifications of such strength as shall prevent an enemy from obtaining possession of them by a sudden assault, and thus procuring the means of penetrating into the interior. Guided by the experience of centuries of wars, and the daily increasing facilities which the improvement in the materiel of armies and their transportation afford for rapid and powerful offensive operations, the ruling states of Continental Europe have, within the last half of the 19th century, not only made every effort to place their frontiers in an unassailable condition, but also their great centres of population and wealth in the interior, beyond the chances of a sudden attack from an enemy who might force his way through the frontier defences and march rapidly upon them, thus making these positions the rallying points where a defeated army can find a safe resting-place until it can be reorganized and sufficiently strengthened to resume the offensive.

By the time of the Great War, fortifications, together with mobile forces immediately available, were necessary for the protection of frontiers. By fortifications were meant, not continuous lines of works after the pattern of the Great Wall of China, but works protecting important rail and roadways, centers of communication, river crossings, defiles, etc. Frontier fortifications had their most important uses first, in furnishing protection during mobilization and concentration and second, in keeping open a gateway for the penetration of enemy territory. There was no contradiction between a system of frontier fortifications, well studied and well adapted, and the spirit of the offensive. Fortifications would not induce, or condemn, armies to fight in trenches or behind parapets, but rather permit the best utilization of the ground, mobility, and the capacity to maneuver with a view to taking the offensive.

A number of barrier and fortification systems were built by a variety of countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most systems built in peacetime for the purposes of deterring invasion or stopping an initial attack during the beginning of a war. There are many examples of well-known barriers, defensive lines, and fortresses being constructed for and tested in the world's numerous 19th- and 20th-century conflicts. These include such famous names from the European portion of World War II as the Maginot Line (French) and the Siegfried Line (German). They also include lesser known barriers like that designed by the Sere de Rivieres (French), the Gothic and Gustav Lines and the Atlantic Wall (German), and the Bar-Lev Line (Israeli). Finally, certain "fortresses" such as Verdun, Gibraltar, and Singapore also provide lessons, as do fortifications in the Low Countries (Eben Emael in Belgium, the water barriers in the Netherlands), Finland (the Mannerheim Line).

Peacetime barriers deter attacks but do not defeat them. Once a peacetime barrier has been attacked, it hasprobably already failed strategically. Peacetime barriers quickly decay and become obsolete. More than most other military systems, peacetimebarriers are unlikely to be in proper conditionand up-to-date on the outbreak of war. Peacetime barriers were poorly understood. Political and military decision makers at the strategic level understand the capabilities of peacetime barriers less than they do most other components of military strength.

The nature and effectiveness of a defensive system is influenced by conditions of terrain, climate, and the balance of opposing forces. The most important factor in determining a barrier system's performance, however, is the relationship between the length of time an attacker hashad to prepare to breach or circumvent it, and the length of time since thedefender has critically reviewed the adequacy of his barrier system for anyneeded redesign or updating. This latter factor also has a direct bearing onthe defender's degree of complacency and understanding concerning his barrier system.

History has shown a variety of means by which a supposedly unassailable fortress or unbreachable barrier can be overcome in war. These include treachery, starvation, and the finding of some hidden vulnerability or "chink in the armor." In most instances, in the 20th Century the defenses which were attacked were quickly overcome by the offensive forces which exploited some weakness or technological change ignored or unperceived by the defenders.

Doubtless most barriers gave their possessors a certain degree of deterrence against attack, which delayed the assaults by months, years, or decades, and which forced the attackers to devise new and effective strategies for dealing with the barriers in some fashion. Similarly, the presence of defensive barriers must have prevented many potential attacks from ever being carried out because the existence of those barriers rendered the potential costs of an attack too expensive to risk.

Aside from those attacks and wars which were successfully deterred, however, the existence of barriers appears simply to bring forth sufficient creative abilities on the part of the attackers to overcome the barriers, of whatever type. A pre-built peacetime barrier should be expected to hinder an attacker and cause him some additional casualties and effort, thereby providing tactical advantages to the defender. However, it is dangerous for the defender to rely on the barrier to determine the outcome of the conflict.

Once they were attacked, most 20th Century barriers did in fact, provide tactical advantages to the defenders usingthem, but, except for the Mannerheim Line, none of them were as successful as the defenders had hoped or anticipated. All of them were quickly penetrated or bypassed in some fashion, to the great detriment of those countries which relied upon them to some degree for their security. This frequency of failure in wartime performance is caused by the life cycle of a static barrier system. Often in place for years, it is subject to the best efforts of an aggressor's war planners for as long as it takes them to develop countervailing strategies. Thus, when the attacker commits to the offensive, which is at his discretion and initiative, it is usually because he has rationally calculated a way of overcomingthe known obstacles, including the pre-built opposing barrier system.

By its very nature, therefore, a peacetime barrier is unlikely to be fully successful in an actual war, and most national leaders, inadequately informed on the true capabilities and limitations of their barriers, have held unrealistic expectations for them. Thus, once a peacetime barrier has been attacked, it has probably already failed strategically.

Peacetime barriers quickly decay and become obsolete. The period of the 19th and 20th centuries has been one of rapid technological change. This change has had particularly profound impacts on military conflicts. Nations armed with obsolete weapons and strategies have suffered severely. A fixed barrier represents a certain type of major weapons system, one in which there is usually a major financial investment. Unlike more mobile weapons systems such as ships and aircraft, neither the decay nor the obsolescence of a fixed barrier may become very visible. It is, of course, also possible to delude oneself as to the strength of one's active air force, army, or navy, but such mobile units are more readily evaluated than the conventional barrier system.

Barriers, by contrast, can consist of fortresses guarded by passive shielding, of permanently mounted artillery which may be seldom if ever fired prior to the opening of hostilities, of minefields with explosives buried underground and untested (and virtually untestable) for years or decades, and of other relatively static devices which may never be checked for performability until needed in the heat of combat. The decay which afflicts all human creations can generally proceed unseen much easier in barriers than is the case with other weapon systems.

Both the French barriers - the 40-year-old Sere de Rivieres Line and the much shorter-lived Maginot Line - suffered from such decay. Strikingly, even the 8-year-old Siegfried Line, and the still younger Bar-Lev Line had also been allowed to atrophy significantly by the time they were needed, in 1944 and 1973, respectively. The reasons for such decay lie not only in ignorance and lack of attention to maintenance needs, but also in changing concepts of operations which seem to render the existing barrier systems less relevant to current plans. Because of their offensive orientation prior to World War I, the French, for example, effectively discarded many of the major tactical advantages which they could have preserved if they had kept the defenses of the Sere de Rivieres Line in proper condition. As a result, they suffered significant losses in territory and human casualties which couldhave been prevented with a more balanced attention to the very real benefits of well-prepared defensive positions, even in a war of movement.

The effects of the understandable and scarcely avoidable neglect -- which allows unused systems to decay -- are accentuated by changes in external conditions which render the plans of previous years or decades relatively worthless. The mobility provided by tanks and planes completely overrode the World War I concepts of defense which were employed in the design of the Maginot Line. The same mobility and striking power provided by modern weapons allowed the Japanese to conduct an effective and speedy campaigndown the Malayan Peninsula to assault Singapore unexpectedly from the landwardside. Other major weapons systems can also be overtaken by the pace of technological change. In the 20th century, examples abound, from horse cavalry totrench warfare. All armies and their weapons suffer from a lack of meaningful feedback during peacetime.

Fixed barriers, however, are especially subject to obsolescence because they are not readily tested, their rather significant financial investment turns them into projects which may take decades to move from conception to completion, and their technology is perhaps the least likely to receive emphasis and the least likely to be changed significantly over time. More than most other military systems, peacetime barriers are unlikely to be in proper condition and up-to-date on the outbreak of war.

Peacetime barriers are poorly understood. By their very nature, fixed barrier systems tend to be located at the peripheries of a nation's power and influence, far from the areas likely to be frequented by top political, or even military leaders. The barriers themselves are most often underground or built into the landscape, and can usually do little more than remain motionless during inspection. Thus, there is little occasion for most decision makers to learn much about the operating details of a necessarily passive peacetime barrier. Beyond this, the very physical size of a barrier, which often alters the appearance of the landscape and may be extremely high, deep, wide, or solid in appearance (or all at the same time) can easily impart a false sense of security in its durability when viewed in the absence of hostile offensive capabilities, and thus contribute to strategic misconceptions.

Top decision makers utilizing barriers fail to understand the true military value of their respective barriers (with the possible exception of Hitler and his masterful psychological use of the Siegfried Line). The French leaders of both world wars considered fortresses, like Verdun and those of the Maginot Line, to provide fully sufficient strategic protection and reaction time against German invasions. During World War II, even as experienced and knowledgeable a leader as Churchill was shocked by the vulnerability of the two outlying British "fortresses" of Gibraltar and Singapore. Similarly, as recently as 1973, none of the Israeli leaders seemed to have a clear idea of the purpose or capabilities of the Bar-Lev Line prior to the Egyptian attack. This ignorance of the true state of their defenses must have contributed to the unusual Israeli failure to be fully ready at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

The fortifications engineers and military planners who designed and built barrier systems did so with an eye to the tactical advantages their work could provide their defending forces. In most cases, they did their work well and the defenses did provide tactical benefits to the defenders. Unfortunately, the national leaders who treated those defenses as strategic assets failed to comprehend the limitations of their barrier systems. Strategic political and military decision makers understand the capabilities of peacetime barriers less than they do most other components of military strength.

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Page last modified: 18-02-2017 18:10:10 ZULU