Tourist snap here on Flickr of a lightly restored backpacker section of the Great Wall of China. This is near but not at Badaling, where the package tours go, the heavily-restored section nearest to Beijing. Here, and everywhere else I’ve seen photos of, the Wall follows the crests of mountain ridges, with steep slopes not only either side but along its length – the only way the soldiers could use to move along it. It’s of course hugely impressive, but I couldn’t help thinking of the Maginot Line. The Great Wall had no military value against a determined enemy with a real army like Genghis Khan.
Compare Hadrian’s Wall, a barrier of similar function built by the Romans across northern England. It’s less impressive at half the height, and also because the Romans built it on the flattest traverse they could find, not the highest ground. There is a flat valley only a few kilometres further north of my section of Great Wall, spurned by the Chinese builders. Why the difference?
The crucial element of the Roman defence system wasn’t the wall, essentially a tripwire, but the road behind it. A band of Pictish braves could easily scale the wall, kill the few isolated sentries, and head off into the farmlands behind in search of prey. But they have set off the alarm. Making their way back, hampered by their captured cattle, women, jewellery and cauldrons, they would meet a century or two of Roman soldiers, who have moved quickly along the road from one of the cohort forts – and be inevitably wiped out with cold efficiency. The wall wasn’t expected to deal with a full-scale invasion by a tribal confederacy; that was the job of the three legions stationed much further south.
The Romans were sober, callous military pragmatists. They were not tempted by the glamorous toys of war: chariots, elephants, single combat, double-handed swords, mass cavalry charges, caparisons, battleships, air superiority fighters … they stuck with short swords, interlocking shields, javelins, light field artillery (ballistas), and spades. Winning the fight wasn’t the main thing, it was the only thing; and for half a millennium, they almost always did. Victorious generals and their troops were allowed their intoxicating triumph through the streets of Rome – for a single day.
The weakness of Roman deterrence was its assumption of rationality among their enemies and restive subjects. They would reason that defeat was inevitable and wouldn’t try. This was fair enough for tribal chiefs, who have to have common sense to survive, but not always for warriors fuelled with juvenile testosterone, or a Cause like the Zealots. The deal offered to Roman Britons and other subjects on the frontier was similarly sober: in exchange for measured loyalty, they were offered reasonable protection. The trouble for Jews and Christians was that the “pledge of allegiance” took the form of a token sacrifice to the deified Emperor, a ritual which only they took seriously.
The Chinese have at least since Sun Tzu given greater weight to psychological factors in their military thinking. The Great Wall in particular has to be understood as a political statement, as much to those inside as those outside, of the power and determination of the state to keep the barbarians out – and those inside in line. It was created as part of the totalitarian project of the first Ch’in Emperor, the great and odious Qin Shi Huang, to unify China under his iron rule. The slave labour that built the first version of the Wall was supplied by those unwise enough to persist in using non-standard weights and measures, or write in unsanctioned characters – and people complain about harmonisation-crazy Brussels.
George W. Bush is Shi Huang’s inferior in cruelty as in talent, but there’s an analogy to John Yoo’s apologies for the imperial presidency in Li Si‘s doctrine of Legalism, combining draconian laws with subtly arbitrary enforcement. Another parallel lies, I suggest, in the implied contract for homeland security: total protection in exchange for unquestioning obedience. In both cases, a Big Lie.
PS 29 May:
My argument’s been criticized here as an unfair recycling of the great Terry Pratchett. The Wall was, says stoutfellow, linked to garrison forts in depth, and succeeded in keeping out most nomad invasions for long periods. But since the garrisons did the heavy lifting, surely the Wall itself was over-designed and wrongly sited – if its purpose was strictly military? Since the Ch’in weren’t stupid, I prefer to think the major purpose wasn’t military but political. BTW, the Maginot Line, to which I compared the Wall, wasn’t ineffective, and its main forts held out till the armistice; but it was all the same a grave misallocation of resources driven by a false strategic doctrine.