The Folly of Fortifications in an Uncertain Future


When I was young, I loved forts. I built them out of everything; wood, Legos, cardboard appliance boxes, and snow. There was something deeply satisfying about safely cocooning myself within those walls, isolated from the outside world and all its myriad problems. I became so fascinated with the structure and history of fortifications that I started making trips to my local library (in the days prior to the internet) to read books and look at pictures of forts and castles of the past. One day, while reading through a book on World War II, I found what was indisputably the greatest fort I had ever come across; The Maginot Line.

As a youth, discovering this fort was like hitting the jackpot; it had it all! Built by the French following World War I, it stretched nearly the entire length of the Franco-German border. Carved into mountainsides and dug down three hundred feet underground, it contained a maze of passageways and levels with barracks for soldiers, power plants, air filtration systems, ammunition stores, food and water supplies, a hospital, and even a railroad station for travel to other fortresses. Wow… I read on, determined to learn about the epic battle that surely took place upon the outbreak of World War II. To my abject shock, I learned that France fell without the Maginot line firing a shot. I was stunned. What happened??


Cutaway of fortifications along the Maginot Line

Lessons of the Past:

Philosopher George Santayana famously stated: “Those who do not study the past are condemned to repeat it.” A clever cartoon on social media continued this thought: “those who do study the past are condemned to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” As a history major with an acute sense of our shared human history and a passion for moving the world forward, it can feel quite disheartening to witness the repeating cycles of past failures. Oftentimes these revivals take up the moniker of “change.” It’s a theme often invoked, yet perhaps without the deeper-level conceptualization of what the concept of change really means. Without a robust understanding of historical context, what some may cloak in the guise of change may in fact represent a return to the status quo. Such a prospect can hardly be considered true change; indeed it is the very antithesis.

As human beings, we are cognitively wired to resist change. Rather than face the uncertainty and hard work involved in addressing the complex web of interdependent challenges that swirl around us, it is tempting to retreat behind walls that offer a false sense of security and foster a sense of blissful ignorance. As the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of World War I, a conflict which saw over 38 million casualties, it would be wise for us to avoid emulating one of its most painful lessons. World War I is most vividly remembered for the abject horrors of trench warfare – young soldiers living for months on end in muddy holes in the ground, uniforms stained with blood and muck, rampant illness, lack of food, the sickening smell of decay and the dead wafting through the air, the ever-present threat of poison gas, and the sheer terror of waiting for death.

The Age of Anxiety:

The deep fears resulting from these experiences, compounded by the fact that the promises of political leaders of the time were not coming true, contributed to an interwar period in Europe dubbed the “Age of Anxiety.” This period saw a retreat from the growing artistry and enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as a diminished belief in European greatness. It also saw a drastic uptick in nationalism and anxiety concerning people’s existence, culture, and their destiny. Philosopher Paul Tillich, in his explanation on the rise of fascism posited, “in a time of total doubt, people escaped from freedom to an authority that promised meaning and imposed answers.”

In his 1919 essay The Crisis of the Mind, French poet, essayist, and philosopher Paul Valery lamented:

“the illusion of a European culture has been lost, and knowledge has been proved impotent to save anything whatsoever; science is mortally wounded in its moral ambitions and put to shame by the cruelty of its applications; idealism is barely surviving, deeply stricken, and called to account for its dreams; faiths are confused in their aim – cross against cross, crescent against crescent. Even the skeptics, confounded by the sudden, violent, and moving events that play with our minds as a cat with a mouse, lose their doubts, recover, and lose them again, no longer master of the motions of their thought.”

In an attempt to seek security from another tragedy such as the first World War, in 1930 France began construction on the Maginot Line. Designed as the solution to static, trench warfare, the line was constructed based on the presumption that the next war would be fought in the same manner as the last. In their hubris, French engineers, convinced the Ardennes forest was impassable to any army, ended construction of the line at its edge. Yet the rapid advances in mechanization and technology in the interwar period meant that when World War II finally broke out, the German army went right around the Maginot Line – through the heretofore impassable Ardennes Forest. France surrendered twelve days later. Despite all its formidability, the Maginot line proved incapable of standing up to the exponential pace of change. Tanks simply drove around it while aircraft flew right over it. Far from deterring another war, it helped stimulate an entirely new type of warfare.

Lessons for Today’s Leaders:

Generals are often accused of “fighting the last war.” Rather than looking deeply into history to see the evolution of strategy and technology in its full context, they look back only a short distance and are satisfied that they have all the information they need. Leaders today can fall victim to the same trap. Forts and walls were ineffective in far simpler times; they are exponentially more ineffective today. Rather than building barriers, we, as leaders, must roll up our sleeves and begin the hard work of reaching across boundaries and breaking through barriers.

Yesterday I got to play fort with my son for the first time in his young life. I loved seeing the joy in his eyes as he peered out at me from beneath the cushions on the sofa. As I watched him play, for a brief instant, I thought about how wonderful it would be to join him there; safe from the challenges and changes in the world around us. I quickly recognized that such solace, so joyous in youth, no longer offers security for me. Were I to wall myself off to my problems, far from going away, such interdependent challenges would evolve to find an easy way through my defenses. In a global world, within an information era, and a knowledge economy, staying put or returning to what worked in the past are no longer options. Should we elect such a course, the world will simply leave us behind. So I’ll take heart in watching my son enjoy his fort, secure in my knowledge that the best way to keep him safe is to strive flexible, adaptable, and resilient solutions to challenges. The static trench warfare of the past is gone. Whether we like it or not, we live in a global world, and we must each commit to the hard work necessary to ensure our mutual future remains bright. 

Dylan Mroszczyk-McDonald is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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