History shows giant walls don’t really work

Trump’s wall has a lot in common with other historic barricades

Many supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump also vociferously support his plan to build a wall separating America from Mexico. As far as I can tell, the Mexican wall idea is proposed to reduce or stop illegal immigration from Mexico, a goal I support.

Immigration should be controlled through the rule of law; immigrants should, ideally, be people who make our country a better place to live. Giving away citizenship to anyone who shows up means citizenship, in effect, has no value, a statement I disagree with.

Anyhoo, this “wall” idea has been tried before, many times. As far as I can tell, it’s failed every time. Probably the most famous attempt was the Great Wall of China.

Walled fortifications had existed in parts of China for centuries, but there was one fellow, quite possibly one of the most important human beings who ever lived, who let his imagination get the best of him and probably overestimated what walls could do for him: Chin Shi Huang Di, the unifier of China.

In 221 BCE the emperor completed his efforts to conquer all other kingdoms, in essence making China one nation. However, rival states weren’t the only enemy China had. For long years China had been the target of “barbarian” raids from the north, from places like Mongolia and Manchuria. Many were the leaders who tried to stop these raids, in vain.

However, the emperor was convinced a great wall was the best way to keep invaders out. The building of the great wall, of various sizes and materials and which included forts of various types, sucked money and resources in ways few would have ever thought and the human cost was staggering as well. In the 2006 book Great Wall of China: Beijing & Northern China Thammy Evans wrote that the death toll for construction of the emperor’s great wall was at least in the hundreds of thousands and possibly up to a million.

Many myths are associated with the building of the emperor’s great wall, including that dead laborers were thrown into the building material and that press gangs roamed the Chinese countryside, arresting anyone they found and sending them north to an almost certain death: working on the wall. Other dynasties built their own walls and additions in the centuries to come.

How effective was the great wall? The debate rages, but critics make several good points, including that China was invaded several times from the north and the wall didn’t seem to make any difference. It’s said that in 582 CE a raider named Ishbara Qaghan simply rode around the wall, bringing almost half a million troops with him.

Another famous wall, though not nearly as impressive, was Hadrian’s, located in northern England, begun in 122 CE, followed by the Antonine Wall about 20 years later. These walls were much smaller and simpler barricades lined with forts and the Romans who built them apparently thought they’d stop Pictish raiders from coming south. It wasn’t long before the Romans abandoned the Antonine wall and went south.

In my opinion, walls, regardless of how impressive they are, can’t be effective unless they’re properly manned. An unmanned wall is no more an obstacle than a copse of trees or a shallow stream, and the emperor’s enemies were well aware of that.

I think the methods used by the American government to currently patrol their border with Mexico will be just as effective as any kind of wall that can, realistically, be built.

Plus, another factor that I think was more important than bricks, gates and soldiers: those walls were a visible frontier, one that said, for example, to the Mongolians, “You’re passing into the emperor’s realm now.”

Maybe that’s Trump goal after all.

Stu Salkeld is the editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.

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