The Walls Tumbled By Time

While the Great Wall of China was designed to keep people out, the Berlin Wall was built to keep people inside; ultimately, neither structure lasted.
While the Great Wall of China was designed to keep people out, the Berlin Wall was built to keep people inside; ultimately, neither structure lasted. (By Greg Baker -- Associated Press)

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By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," wrote Robert Frost in "Mending Wall." The poem is in part about being driven nuts by a neighbor who ceaselessly repeats "Good fences make good neighbors."

As part of his own version of a good neighbor policy, President Bush signed into law yesterday the "Secure Fence Act of 2006." It authorizes construction of 700 miles of new walls along parts of the 1,951-mile-long border from San Ysidro, Calif., to Brownsville, Tex. The Secure Fence Act does not include funding for the project, the cost of which is estimated to be at least $6 billion.

Yet humans quite clearly do love walls.

Starting 2,200 years ago, Chinese dynasties built walls to keep the Mongols at bay. The most famous of these is the Great Wall, which is twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border. It did not prevent the Manchu from conquering China in 1644.

The Romans built Hadrian's Wall across 74 miles of what is now northern England to keep the tribes from Scotland in their place. This did not prevent the Romans from eventually abandoning this outpost of empire.

The Berlin Wall was a shock because it was intended to keep people in . To this day, hefting chunks of it can feel spooky. Maybe it's all in the imagination, but those shards of pebble and concrete still seem to give off a palpable chill of evil.

However, history tells us that walls usually work the other way.

After World War I, the French built the Maginot Line to slow down the Germans. The Germans invested in high mobility. When they moved, they drove and flew around and over this wall. They were well into France in five days.

During World War II, to defeat an Allied invasion, the Nazis built the Atlantic Wall along the west coast of Europe from the French-Spanish border to Norway. It included 6 million mines in northern France, concrete pillboxes, machine guns, antitank guns, light artillery and underwater obstacles. Devotees of "Saving Private Ryan" know how that movie ends.

One of the founding premises of cities -- from the beginning of fixed settlements 8,000 years ago -- was that you were safer inside their walls than out.

"The archetypal chieftain in Sumerian legend is Gilgamesh: the heroic hunter, the strong protector, not least significantly, the builder of the wall around Uruk," writes Lewis Mumford in "The City in History."

That wall evolved into the medieval walls of Vienna, raised against the Turks, along with walls around cities from Avignon to Fez. The expression "beyond the pale," now meaning beyond acceptable behavior, once referred to things outside walls made of palings, forming a palisade of poles.

Walled cities with gates that closed at night existed in China in the 20th century. In America, the walled city was represented by frontier stockades like Fort Laramie in Wyoming. Artillery and airplanes decreased the strategic effectiveness of city walls. Many of them were torn down. The small Tuscan city of Lucca, however, neglected to modernize, and now is the richer for it, with tourists coming to see its walls.

The conceptual artist Christo even loved a Roman wall enough to wrap it in cloth in 1974.

As this recitation suggests, not only can walls be beautiful and quaint, they are reassuring. They unquestionably show that the leaders are doing something.

It will be interesting to see what effect our latest wall has. With some 350 million legal crossings per year, the U.S.-Mexico boundary is the most frequently crossed international border in the world, according to the American embassy in Mexico City.

Once walls existed to keep one culture from taking over another culture, but in this case, that battle has long since been lost by both sides. There is a broad swath of North America from the Pacific to the Gulf, and from Denver to very deep into Northern Mexico -- as far as Cabo San Lucas and San Luis Potosi -- where it is increasingly difficult to know where abstractions like the United States and Mexico begin and end.

According to the book of Joshua in the Bible, Jericho was a city of walls. When determined enough people challenged them, they came tumbling down.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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