The 21st century is a return to the Age of Walls. As historian and archeologist David Frye writes in his important new book, Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick, few have noticed that a new era of wall building is now upon us, driven by mass migration and Islamic terrorism. While the populations of the West weren’t looking, walls began rising, as they had for thousands of years since prehistoric times.
Frye notes that the current great wave of wall builders “embarked on wall-building projects that quickly surpassed the combined efforts of the [ancient] Romans, Persians, and Chinese.” Mass media consumers have heard little of this watershed development, and have thus been offered no explanation for its causes. They know nothing of how effective these new barriers have been, and little about the great walls that preceded them. David Frye’s book is a corrective to this situation.
During the last 15 years, the Middle East, home of the world’s earliest border walls, has become “a honeycomb of fences and walls,” Frye writes. Frye notes that “Saudi Arabia, in particular, has come as close as any nation since Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon to realizing the dream of a fully enclosed state.” Full enclosure was once dreamed of by the Han and Ming dynasties of China, a dream that eventually culminated in the legendary Great Wall, a defensive barrier built to protect the Middle Kingdom from the Huns and Mongols, two of the barbarian horsemen tribes of the steppes that in centuries past threatened civilizations from the Far East to Europe.
The Saudis, fending off illegal immigration and sectarian violence, have built barriers made of steel pipes filled with concrete, fences bristling with razor wire, and tunnels preventing infiltrators from building underground entries of their own. The Saudis have such a wall at its border with Yemen, and a barrier extending six hundred miles along their border with Iraq. This barrier has five layers of fencing with the spaces in between filled with a no-man’s-land of concertina wire. Sentinels in guard towers and underground sensors round out the defense perimeter. The Saudi border with Kuwait now also includes a steel wall that recently replaced an electrified fence. Not far from the Saudi defenses, the United Arab Emirates has fortified its own borders with Oman.
The Israelis have also practically enclosed their country behind walls and other defensive barriers. During the Palestinians’ Second Intifada of 2000 to 2005, the Israelis went to work building a barrier 450 miles long. It was so effective it motivated them to greatly expand their wall-building program. Israeli barriers are augmented by infrared night sensors, radar, seismic sensors, balloon-borne cameras, and driverless, remote-controlled vehicles equipped with video cameras and machine guns. The West Bank wall inspired the Israeli wall with Syria, then a barrier with Egypt. Israel’s walls have been so effective, they’ve virtually ended illegal immigration and cross-border terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, Egypt built a steel wall separating it from Gaza that extends sixty feet below ground. And Jordan constructed its border barriers using $2.5 billion in loan guarantees from the Obama administration, one of a number of instances of the U.S. government doing abroad what many of its leaders have denied is possible for their own country.
The new great walls of the Middle East are matched by those in South Asia and the Far East. The rise of Islamic terrorist organizations in Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, prompted India to build high-altitude border barriers along its mountainous border with Pakistan—some of the most spectacular and formidable terrain in the world. Indian engineers also built barriers comprised of two thousand miles of barbed wire and concrete to guard the rest of its border with Pakistan.
India’s success at reducing terrorism inspired Thailand to secure a deal with Malaysia to build border barriers to stave off attacks by Malaysia-based Islamic Jihadists.
In Africa, Kenya began work on a 440-mile barrier following a 2015 Islamic terrorist attack launched from Somalia. Morocco and Algeria have built barriers to stem illegal immigration and narcotics smuggling. And, in 2016, “the United States quietly provided funding for a 125-mile barrier along the Tunisian border with Libya” to prevent border crossings by Jihadists. Frye writes, “This was the second such wall funded by the United States under President Barack Obama, who, in April of 2016, had proclaimed that border walls were ‘wacky.’”
Summing up the current Age of Walls, Frye writes that “the rapid expansion of walls across Asia and Africa was historically unprecedented.” In a 15-year period at the beginning of the new millennium, Frye notes that the current day has eclipsed past periods of wall building “in nearly every metric.” Yet the borders of Western nations remained “conspicuously open,” until mass illegal immigration and Islamic terrorism finally stirred a response from wall builders. Meanwhile, America’s wealthy and powerful live behind fences and walls of their own gated communities, even as they opposed such protections for their country’s borders. They know that walls work.
The new Age of Walls follows the pattern of wall building in centuries past. Frye surveys the stories: from walls built through vast expanses of wasteland two thousand years before Christ; to Hadrian’s Wall and other Roman defensive barriers designed to block out Huns, Goths, Gauls, and other barbarian peoples; to China’s Great Wall; and the vast, magnificent walls of Constantinople built to fend off Turks and other steppe peoples. Frye also notes the fortified lines of Russia’s Peter the Great, which remained under threat by the Tatars, and Persia’s walls built to defend against attacks from the steppes, which became obsolete as they were built on the wrong borders to defend against mounting attacks by the desert Arabs.
All of history’s walls can trace their roots to a time when prehistoric peoples abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and began cultivating crops and building villages. These villagers built walls, as did the towns and cities that began springing up in the Fertile Crescent, and the kings and emperors of that distant past began dreaming of completely walling off their domains from the outside world. For “beyond the pale” were vast deserts and steppes, and deep, seemingly impenetrable forests inhabited by barbarians who had eschewed the monotonous labor of agriculture. These clans, tribes, and nomadic hordes who lived by hunting, herding, and raiding practiced war as a way of life, mocking those who lived behind defensive walls as weaklings, as less than men.
Those who chose to live by settled agriculture built walls so they would not have to experience the insecure, frightful existence of the warrior barbarians who lived by the sword. Behind those walls, defended from the barbarians who would rob, rape, and massacre them with merciless, joyous fury, the wall builders composed poems, developed language, writing, mathematics, science, and complex forms of music, art, and theology. Behind those walls, civilization was made.
Frye describes how essential walls were to civilization:
Few civilized people have ever lived outside them…. Everywhere farmers settled, they fortified their villages. They chose elevated sites and dug ditches to enclose their homes…Subsequently, those ditches were lined with stone and bolstered by palisades. If a community survived long enough, it might add flanking towers. These were the first steps toward walls.
The walls that began with enclosing a home, then a village and fields, eventually were attempted on the vast scale of border walls. Walls were the norm everywhere that civilization developed.
America has its own chapter in the story of wall builders against barbarians, in the Indian wars. My family’s history includes oral tales of frontier ancestors living in constant danger of Indian raids. They would “fort up” when the Comanche and Kiowa were raiding. In the same mold as the warrior-barbarians of the past, it was the only trade they knew or accepted as worthy of the “Real People” (as the Kiowa called themselves). Yet the frontier wall builders persevered with the help of better weaponry, superior organization and numbers, and dogged determination—as well as diseases the Indians had no resistance to. The wall builders of America eventually won the day just as their Old World counterparts had. But it was often a touch-and-go affair, with the barbarians winning many temporary victories.
Civilization has a price. Frye points out that the barbarians were not wrong about the tendency of civilized people protected behind their walls to eventually become soft, even losing their will to defend themselves. The Romans are an apt example. As Rome expanded and border walls were built and defended, the empire began outsourcing its defense to many of the very barbarians it had previously fought. Imperial overstretch meant the treasury was strained to maintain the defenses and pay off the barbarian soldiers. As the Romans became more comfortable, a life of ease eroded their determination, even their sense of self-preservation.
The Romans eventually preferred to “let others fight their battles,” Frye writes.
They had become the definitive bearers of civilization and as such were the target of a familiar complaint: that they had lost their edge. Comfortable behind their city walls and foreign guards, they had grown soft. They were politicians and philosophers, bread makers and blacksmiths, anything but fighters.
Expensive Roman defenses were neglected, and decrepit defenses eventually failed. More barbarians entered the empire unopposed, while those already within were of dubious loyalty. It was a story, as Frye relates, that played out at other times in other places. The fall of Rome in the West brought on the Dark Ages. Centuries passed as a new civilization, Christendom, developed and grew stronger. Christendom would build its own walls and fight its own battles against Hun, Viking, and Turk. Behind the gates of walled citadels, civilization was renewed.
The danger we face today is not that of a people grown soft behind walls, but one comfortably enmeshed in a consumerist cocoon. It has cushioned us against the trials and tribulations of the natural world and obscured the collective memory of our own past. Meaning and purpose have faded as this cocoon has both protected and weakened us.
This industrial-technological cocoon, born of partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, has made hubris and despair the enemies of our survival. The Genesis account of the Fall contains a story-within-a-story of Man seeking knowledge and losing his Eden, a lesson we could interpret as an allegory for the wall builders leaving behind the nomadic life of steppe and savanna, seeking security and a degree of control over their own lives. They left behind the nomadic freedom of the hunter-gatherer and took on the burdens of civilization, including a high degree of regimentation. Frye points out that what began as the history of ancient citizen-soldiers building and defending walled cities often became a story of conscript or serf labor in the service of a despot building his imperial walls. When a civilization’s burdens grow to outweigh its benefits, it will eventually be overcome by the diseases of decadence.
Yet the Eden of the hunter-gatherers was, as Frye points out, not a world of peaceful “noble savages,” as the romantic primitivists would have it, but one of endless warfare, savagery, and sudden, violent death. There was truth in the criticisms of “bourgeois decadence” made by the avatars of the revolutionary right in the interwar period of the 20th century, and there is truth in the lamentations of the right today as we survey the end result of too much affluence and too much self-indulgence. The sickening “snowflakes,” who, with their “safe spaces” and soft totalitarian suppression of all that is virile, brave, and life affirming, have arrived.
But like the Spartans who decided that to build walls was to become soft and unmanly, the primitivists on the right have often become barbarians themselves. At our best, the peoples of the West developed the ideal of the Christian knight, which struck a balance between the humanizing aspects of civility and the necessity of cultivating a healthy masculinity to defend it.
Advances in military technology eventually showed the world that defensive walls were becoming obsolete in a military context, and this was dramatically demonstrated in the 15th century when the Turks’ great cannon, the “Horrible Bombard,” knocked down the walls of Constantinople. The modern battlefield of tanks, artillery, and aerial bombardment rendered the defenses of the wall builders as outdated as the crossbow.
As Frye points out, practically the only wall of history that today’s opponents of border defense mention is the Berlin Wall. Those references represent a historically ignorant attempt to toss the Berlin Wall “into discussions of barriers with which it had absolutely nothing in common,” Frye writes. Though many people may not even remember the Berlin Wall, who erected it, or why they did so, the enemies of national borders use it as a symbol of why walls are bad or “immoral,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently put it. “In its afterlife, [the Berlin Wall] has assumed an importance out of proportion to its reality,” Frye writes.
We would do well to recall the history of walls and their association with civilization, and David Frye’s highly readable, very informative, and entertaining book is quite timely. The great migration of burgeoning populations in the global South is ongoing. The invasion of the more prosperous and developed global North and its offshoots around the world is underway. It is perhaps the greatest mass migration in human history. The threat to our civilization today is not of Hun horsemen pillagers, nor even an invading foreign army of tanks and artillery, but of our own country and the global North in general being overrun, our population replaced by the sea of “migrants” who are often resentful and hostile, not to mention drug traffickers and terrorists who can also exploit porous borders.
With shrinking native populations and wave after wave of fecund migrants entering our borders, what remains of our civilization—and the prospects for its renewal in the future—is in danger of being inundated, overwhelmed, and eventually snuffed out. The battle over border security is one we must fight and win. Walls work.
[Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick, by David Frye (New York: Scribner) 304 pp., $28.00]