Walls and the return of tradition

Is war changing fundamentally?

The case for revolution in war, or a change in its basic nature, is often made in a linear way. With new tools (cyberwar, the information domain, unmanned aerial vehicles) and new markets for them, visionaries of change often portray war as spiralling into something new and unprecedented. We might not know the future. We are confident that it will startle us with its strange novelty.

But what about reversion? The return of the old, the forgotten, or even the primordial?

One symptom of a return of tradition is the re-embrace of walls. As Victor Hanson recognises,

We assume that in our age of sophisticated communications and aerial munitions, old-fashioned fortifications are relics of a military past, if not always of questionable military utility. But increasingly we see their reappearance – though often augmented with electronic enhancements – in the Middle East, in Iraq, and along the US-Mexican border. Recent walls and forts have often enhanced interior defence, in instances where seemingly more sophisticated tactics have often failed…Statesmen, policies, and technology all change; fortifications of some sort seem to be a constant feature in the age-old cycle of offensive and defensive challenge and response.

The presence of walls also suggests a deeper persistence – of the political imperative to control and regulate territory. It can be exclusionary, or it can be designed more subtly to slow and delay incursions. War remains a highly territorial activity, despite the coming of technology and virtual identities that leap over soil. The ‘winning of the people’ in the surge involved the forcible walling off of whole communities in Baghdad – signaling a return of a classical practice in counterinsurgency, the separation and walling of antagonistic peoples.

Barrier strategies, as Stephen Rosen argues, are not absolute, but offer an economy of force:

Defenses in depth meant that breaches of the perimeter were not catastrophic, since the enemy would be weakened the further he penetrated into the defensive zone, within which there would be strong points from which counterattacks could be launched. Since any heavy fighting would be done by the Legions when they arrived, perimeter defenses could be, and often were, manned by locally-recruited mercenaries who accepted their status as imperial clients. V/hen the system worked, the result was not only reduced defensive burdens on the Roman Legions, but the enhancement of their deterrent offensive power.

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