Fixed Fortifications Are Useless

Armies and states throughout history have sought to provide security by constructing fixed fortifications like fortresses, citadels, and walls.  These projects inevitably end as dismal failures.  Not only do they not provide security, but they do something even worse:  they provide an illusion of security that encourages a defender to be overconfident and careless.  And when this happens, disaster is only a matter of time.  Walls and forts do not provide security; at most they can help channel avenues of approach for advancing enemies.  For states are not protected by fortresses, but by the valor of their citizens.  When the latter is lacking, the former are of no use.

This point was well made by Machiavelli in his Discourses when he said the following (II.24):

It must be borne in mind, then, that fortresses are constructed as a defense either against enemies or against subjects.  In the first case they are unnecessary, and in the second case harmful…And if there ever was a time when [forts] were useless, it is now on account of artillery, for against its fire it is impossible to defend such small places where there are no embankments behind which men can retire…In no way, then, do fortresses help you, for you will lose them either through the treachery of their keepers, or by some violent attack, or by their being starved out.

The ruler, then, who can muster a good army, can do without fortresses, and the ruler who has not a good army had better not build them.  The best thing he can do is to fortify the city where he dwells, to keep it provisioned and its inhabitants well disposed, so as to hold off an enemy’s attack till he can either come to terms or get outside help to relieve him.

Fortresses provide a false sense of security and become nothing but obstacles that an attacking army desires to overcome.  This was true even in the days before artillery and air power.  The historian Sallust describes in his War of Jugurtha (Ch. XCIV) how the Roman commander Marius took a fortress held by Jugurtha’s Numidians that was supposed to be impregnable.  It was a citadel at the top of a high elevation in the middle of the countryside of what is now Tunisia.  The full story of this exciting event is related in my translation of Sallust (to be released in the summer of 2017).  But essentially what happened was something similar to the capture of Naples by Belisarius during the Gothic War.  One of Marius’s men, a Ligurian who one day ventured out of his camp to hunt for water, noticed snails on the sides of the fortress’s elevation.

As he collected these snails he discovered a route of ingress into the citadel, dangerous but accessible; returning to camp, he immediately informed Marius.  With a hand-picked group of men he later infiltrated into the fort, taking the Numidians by surprise from the rear.  The Roman “commando team” climbed the perilous sides of the plateau to reach the citadel, clambering over rocks and roots, and carrying shields made from animal skins that would not make noises when jostled.  The fortress was captured and Marius was able to snatch victory from defeat “with the assistance of fortune,” as Sallust tells us.

Another impressive example is provided by the fall of the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael to the German Army in 1940.  The Belgians had constructed, at great expense, a huge fortress to protect themselves from invasion coming from the east.  Their citadel at Eben Emael was intended to provide covering fire over a very wide area that, the Belgian command supposed, would block any invader from entering their territory.  But this proved not to be the case.  Hitler personally took an interest in the operation to take the objective; he himself apparently was the one to come up with the idea of using gliders to land troops on the roof of the fort and destroy the guns with “shaped charges,” an innovation at the time.  This brilliant operation may have been the most impressive of its kind in the entire war.  Just as Marius’s men used special equipment (shields made from animal skins) to maintain the element of surprise, the Germans opted to use silent gliders to land on the roof of the Belgian fort and take the defenders by complete surprise.

We will also recall that ancient Sparta did not have walls as did many other cities of its day.  They wanted their security to be based on the competence of their army and not on the passivity of walls or blockhouses.  As Machiavelli says, again in his Discourses:

[F]or if the Romans did not build fortresses, the Spartans not only abstained from doing this, but did not permit their cities to have walls, because they chose to rely for defense on the virtue of the individual, and wanted no other.  Hence, when a Spartan was asked by an Athenian whether the walls of Athens did not look fine, he answered:  “Quite!  Provided that it be ladies that live there.”

It is a lesson that many have forgotten today; we must aim to free ourselves from this kind of thinking in all areas of our endeavor, not just in military affairs.  Active engagement on the battlefield of life, and not passive inertia, must be our creed.  The “fortification mentality” pervades entire sectors of political and military thinking in the West.  The price of this folly will become apparent in due course. Security is not conferred on a society by inanimate objects like forts, machines, or walls, but only by the valor and readiness of its men.