Through the course of time, the construction of boundary walls has taken place all over the world. Each wall, or each set of walls, has fascinating stories that accompany it.
I have found through researching the famous walls of history that they all have one thing in common: Their intended purpose and usefulness are uniformly temporary.
Think of the boundary walls that are most prominent in Americans’ minds. The Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China likely top that list. Both of these walls occupy special places in infamy. And both failed, in almost mythological proportion.
The Berlin Wall was installed in August 1961 in the form of a series of fences, fortified with concrete thereafter. It fell in November 1989, which is largely seen through today’s eyes as the symbolic end of the Cold War. The wall’s 28-year life cycle is a short run in historical terms. The more than 100 deaths of those trying to cross it and the more than 5,000 successful escapes either under or over it are both historically small. There is no debate, however, about its symbolic relevance.
Small or large, it did ultimately fail.
The Great Wall of China, in contrast, has been referred to as “the world’s longest cemetery.” It is said that as many as 400,000 people died during its construction. Many of these people are said to be buried within the wall itself. While its purpose was to protect China’s northern border and its construction started and stopped numerous times from 221 A.D. to 1644 A.D., its function failed when the Manchus finally broke through in 1644, marking the end of the Ming dynasty.
It is an architectural feat. It has served as a symbol of Chinese strength, though, again, its usefulness is questionable at best as it didn’t protect China from the Manchus or from the Mongols before them, both groups having bypassed it in route to conquering the land.
Today, President Trump has made reference to the Israeli border barrier as a modern and successful analogy to his proposed Mexican wall. The two don’t really have much in common.
The Israeli barrier was initiated in 2002 specifically to reduce the Palestinian terrorist attacks that had been plaguing the country. A series of events coincided with the barrier’s statistical success at meeting this goal, namely the 2004 self-imposed moratorium of suicide bombings by the militants controlling Gaza. Three wars have also occurred since its construction, and tens of thousands of Palestinians pass through it illegally each day to labor on the Israeli side of it. The barrier didn’t make Israel great at all.
This is not what Trump’s supporters had in mind during the campaign.
In short, walls have a well-documented history of failing to succeed at their intended purpose. The big and elaborate—like China’s and those in Turkey—do ultimately serve as shrines and statues, even tributes to the leaders who erroneously thought their creation actually mattered.
Even theoretically speaking, it is difficult to predict any sustainable economic or public-safety value that a Mexican wall might bring to those on either side of it. It doesn’t take much innovation to figure out how to outsmart a wall, either.
The true victories for those who built walls in the past don’t really exist. The failings often mark the end of a culture, namely the culture responsible for building the wall.•
Leppert is a public and governmental affairs consultant in Indianapolis. He writes at Contrariana.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.