Tear Down The Walls

In honor of the 71st anniversary of the Normandy landings (June 6, 1944), here is a brief on the inutility of Walls. May we never build them, rely upon them, or have to breach them again.

Upon the conquest of Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium and France, Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich owned the European coast from the Arctic Ocean in the North to the Bay of Biscay at Nationalist Spain’s border in the West. Hitler, in a boastful speech about this success, declared “It is my unshakable decision to make this front impregnable against every enemy.” He immediately set Fritz Todt’s military public work’s agency, Organization Todt, to work on the project of building fortifications along an over 3000 mile frontier.  During the next four years enormous resources were devoted to the construction of what became known as The Atlantic Wall.  Built by 250,000 slaves, low-paid laborers, and over-age military men, the 15,000 bunkers, block houses, lookout posts, and gun emplacements were protected by enough barbed wire to stretch around the world multiple times, enough landmines to completely cover the surface of Belgium (call out to fellow fans of Mike Pesca!), and so many field obstacles, flooded fields, and other obstructions to invasion that from the outside it did look to be an impregnable barrier to invasion.  Manned by over 300,000 men, The Atlantic Wall was a formidable obstacle that drained massive resources from the German war effort, especially much needed soldiers from the meat-grinder of the Eastern Front.

In the end, this enormous investment in time, money, material resources, and manpower was overcome with a well-designed, planned, and executed onslaught by the Allies. Even without the amphibious invasion from the Western Allies, the Soviets were working their way into the heart of the Third Reich, sealing its fate.  With the Normandy invasion, the eventual defeat of Germany was brought forth far sooner. The Atlantic Wall was an obstacle, but it was also the way.  Through its construction, Germany weakened itself.  Behind it the Soviets advanced at unprecedented rates. Through breaches made in it, the Western Allies returned to the fields of France, made their way to the Rhine River, and eventually the Elbe River, where they met the Soviets in May 1945. 

The history of walls is replete with failures: Internet Firewalls, The Maginot Line, Hadrian’s Wall, The Great Wall of China, and Athens Sea Wall all offer prime examples.  Walls just do not work as intended.  They are a huge sunk cost of immobile architecture utterly inadaptable to the changing nature of the environment that require constant manning and maintenance. Opponents find ways around, under, over, or through them. Relying upon walls is staking everything on chance, locking yourself into a fixed position, and expecting your opponent to limit their actions to only the items you can imagine.  This is a sure recipe for disaster, as can be proven with research on the walls mentioned above. In all cases, walls fail to achieve the objective set for them.

Rather than spend time diving into each of those failures, it would be more interesting to look at what compels the construction of walls, and if there are better alternatives out there.  This lesson is not just for those attempting to defend territory against an enemy, but also for those wanting to have any social relations with anyone else in the world.  Walls, whether of concrete or emotion, are detrimental to achieving positive outcomes, whatever the goal. 

Walls are built because someone wants to protect something of value from an outsider. The thinking behind construction of walls is that they make the acquisition of that valuable item more difficult; therefore the outsider will not be able, or will be deterred, from attempting acquisition.  Though somewhat true, walls do create obstacles, every obstacle can be overcome.  With a little ingenuity, planning, and implementation, one can begin operations from behind a wall, over a wall, under it, or simply breach it to get through.  Walls themselves are not the answer to protecting what you hold most dear.

Instead, considering things from a strategic vantage point, one must ask “Is this item, whatever it is, really important?”  Often the things around which we build walls are not as valuable as the resources we put into the walls.  Think about the walls in your life, whether between you and your spouse, coworkers, friends, or strangers.  What are you trying to protect?  Is it worth protecting? Chances are, in most cases, it’s not.  When put into context, the things we often define as valuable have little real value.  An example of this is the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which knocked down almost every wall in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.  Initially after the earthquake people realized that all of these downed walls did not leave them open to any kind of security breach.  Instead, communities were brought together, neighbors met neighbors, and shared actions led to greater outcomes for all involved.  Walls were not needed.  It took at earthquake for people to realize that that.  Over time, though, people reverted back to their original thinking about walls, all of which and more have since returned to the San Fernando Valley, one of the most walled communities in the United States.

Taking an objective look at the value of any item will determine if it’s worth trying to protect. If, in the end, you determine that the item is worth putting resources toward securing, that is fine.  There are actions you can take to protect it. Begin by asking yourself “How can I secure this item?” Chances are there are many ways to attempt security.  A wall is simply one, as mentioned bad, option. Others are: reaching out to others to create a community of security, engaging the opponent to reduce their desire for the item you are trying to protect, and relocating the item to a less vulnerable place, just to name a few. Do not limit yourself to the obvious methods of security.  Humans have an incredible capacity to imagine and create.  Come up with something that addresses the objective you are attempting to achieve.  Odds are, walls are not the answer.

Bringing this back to The Atlantic Wall for a demonstrable example, what could the Germans have done differently? To start with, on a grand strategic level, they could have avoided war with most of the known world.  Once you start such a conflict, you set yourself up with diminishing odds of success.  The Germans bit off far more than they could chew by conquering so much territory.  Their political leadership led them to take on too much too soon, even against the advice of their military leaders.  Therefore, the first lesson is to be objective in your goals, matching your desired outcomes to your resources, reducing the possibility that chance will derail your initiatives.

Once the Germans realized they could not make Britain sue for peace, The Atlantic Wall became a product of the unexpectedly longer war than German political leadership was prepared to fight.  It was a holding action while other goals were sought (conquest of the U.S.S.R.).  They knew that it would not stop a determined attack, but it could deter one long enough for Germany to refocus on Britain again in the future.  Both German Field Marshalls most responsible for The Atlantic Wall knew it alone would not stop an Allied invasion. Field Marshall Rommel, the man eventually appointed as inspector of coastal defenses in the West, even called it “a figment of Hitler’s cloud cuckoo land.”  These Field Marshalls began creating alternatives to the wall, augmenting where they could, creating a nascent ability to respond with mobility to any attempted breach of the wall on the part of the allies.  They began to integrate the wall into a much broader vision of a mobile defense that simply included the wall as an additional obstacle to an Allied invasion, rather than the end-all defensive line to such an attack. They could not get the resources used to build the wall back, so they used the wall in the most effective way they could to try to achieve the goals set for them. At best, The Atlantic Wall was an extremely expensive addition to an ill-focused defensive strategy built off of poor leadership decision making. Fortunately for the Allies, the German military’s mobility plans were wasted because Hitler refused to release the mobile units in time to make any meaningful impact against the Allied amphibious assault. The wall was left to stand alone.  It, of course, failed.

If the resources spent on the wall were instead put toward the construction of tanks, the manning of new mobile units, and the production of other war materials like fighter aircraft and submarines, the Germans would have performed far better on the Eastern Front, in the air-war, and at sea, which were the true centers of gravity for the war.  Instead, the Germans put up this wall, without providing the resources necessary to plug a breach, while leaving the entire Eastern flank, airspace, and sea-lanes exposed to a revitalized and retribution-driven enemy.  Bad decisions compounded bad decisions, limiting the German chance of successfully preventing, detecting, and mitigating an Allied seaborne invasion.

Walls simply do not work as advertised.  They may add a small element of deterrence to a potential foe’s planning, but such obstacles are relatively easily overcome.  Walls suck away vital resources from actions that will make a difference.  They provide a false sense of security, exposing decision makers to opportunities to take on greater risks (invading the Soviet Union!) than should be contemplated.  Walls are detrimental to security.

When you get the urge to build a wall against any foe, take time to think about your objectives, contemplate your resources, and create a strategy that achieves your desired outcome with the lowest reliance on chance. Do not fall into the deceptively easy decision to build a wall, expecting it to hold your enemy at bay.  Walls fail to do that because wrong objectives, wrong strategy and wasted resource reduce your ability to take necessary actions to achieve your goals.

Think about the walls in your life, career, and relationships.  Where are those walls?  Can you tear them down, possibly achieving your desired outcomes in a more engaged, imaginative, and less resource-intensive way?  Chances are, the answer to that question is a resounding YES!



Jeremy Strozer is a Strategic Leadership Advisor and military historian.  You can find additional creations and more information about Jeremy at www.jeremystrozer.com