Commentary: Border Protection and National Security: Will a Border Wall Be Useful or Useless?

Graphic of US President Donald Trump’s vision of a “physical barrier” for the Southern Border (above). Trump has requested additional funds for its overall approach to border security, to include $5.7 billion for a wall. The wall would serve as an impediment to people and vehicles moving north. Its steel bars, embedded deep in concrete, making it relatively impervious to demolition and hindering excavation. Pointed heads on its steel bars would allow it to function in much as an abbatis. To Congressional Democrats, a physical barrier across the entire border is expensive and ineffective, and insist they will never fund it. The result has been an awful muddle.

While greatcharlie has kept abreast of the debate in the US on building a wall along the US-Mexico border, the matter had not found its way on our radar until it was labelled a national security issue. The matter has been discussed so often and for so long in the US news media that the landscape is already familiar to most. US President Donald Trump, being thoroughly convinced of the need for a “border wall”  or “physical barrier”, is insisting on $5.7 billion for its completion. With his eyes wide open, he leaped into a  protracted struggle with Democratic Congressional leaders, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and  Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, to get that funding. To encourage them to take that step, as of this writing, Trump has allowed a segment of the government to shut down for over a month by refusing to sign any spending bill that would keep it open unless funding for the wall was included in it. Congressional Democrats have refused to provide that funding. As a result, over 800,000 federal employees have either furloughed or have continued working without their salaries. Congressional Democrats paint a picture that is very black on “Trump’s Wall.” They have abrasively called the idea of a physical barrier across the entire border expensive and ineffective, and insist that they will never fund it. They believe an authentic solution to problems on the Southern Border would involve more personnel, drones, and detection technology.

The result has been an awful muddle. Although both sides apportion blame, and responsibility for any ensuing consequences, to one another. One side will eventually need to face the music. On January 4, 2019, President Donald Trump first publicly mentioned using executive authority to build the border wall. That has become a real possibility. It is not an affectation to state that in discussing this matter, greatcharlie does not seek to admire or condemn one side or the other. What is here will hopefully provide, not in an immodest way, some brief, additional facts and ideas deprived from popular public arguments. If it contributes in some way to the policy debate on the border wall, greatcharlie would be satisfied.

During his January 8, 2019 speech from the Oval Office, Trump provided statistics in support of his belief that a worsening problem at the Southern Border was a humanitarian crisis that is now relevant to US national security. In his “Address to the Nation on the Crisis at the Border” on the evening of January 8, 2019, Trump explained that 2,000 inadmissible migrants arrive at our border every day and overwhelm our immigration system. Countries of the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America which include Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have shown a significant spike in illegal immigration to the US. Reportedly, many families from the Northern Triangle have rushed from countries with significant levels of violent crime. Data indicates that in 2016, El Salvador had the world’s highest murder rate (82.8 homicides per 10,000 people), followed by Honduras (at a rate of 56.5). Guatemala was 10th (at 27.3), according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Another motivating force for migration from Northern Triangle countries is poverty. Those countries are among the poorest in Latin America. Some reportedly have seen a reduction of extreme poverty in recent years, however, large numbers of their populations live on less than $2 a day (the international poverty line is $1.90).

Indeed terms of impact, Trump pointed out in his January 8, 2019 address that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has arrested 266,000 aliens with criminal records in the last two years. He indicated that statistic includes aliens charged or convicted of 100,000 assaults, nearly 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 violent killings. Reports from the Pew Research Center show that among ICE arrestees in 2017 with prior convictions, the most common criminal conviction category was driving under the influence of alcohol (59,985 convictions, or 16% of the total), followed by possessing or selling “dangerous drugs” such as opioids (57,438, or 15%). Immigration offenses, which include illegal entry or false claim to US citizenship, were the third-most common crime type (52,128 convictions, or 14%). Apparently, those arrested can have more than one type of conviction or pending charge so the total number of charges and convictions is greater than the total number of arrestees; ICE counts an immigrant with a prior criminal conviction and pending criminal charges only in the criminal conviction category. Regarding drug trafficking, Trump explained deadly drugs are flowing across our borders, taking far too many US citizens: 300 die every week from heroin, 90% of which comes across our Southern Border. According to the 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, the largest share of heroin and methamphetamine comes across the border in trucks and personal vehicles, using secret compartments or hiding the drugs amidst legitimate products.

Trump further explained in his address that the US does not have the resources needed to hold migrant entering the US illegally, and legal loopholes and activist court rulings prevent authorities from promptly returning them. He pointed to Immigration courts are overwhelmed, with a backlog of over 800,000 cases. With the goal of securing the Southern Border, to protect US communities, the Trump Administration has requested additional funds relative to the Department of Homeland Security funding bill that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee. Within that request for funds as part of an overall approach to border security, Trump stated: “Law enforcement professionals have requested $5.7 billion for a physical barrier. At the request of Democrats, it will be a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall. This barrier is absolutely critical to border security. It’s also what our professionals at the border want and need. This is just common sense.”

Remedium irae est mora. (The cure for anger is delay.) Despite their polemic, Trump does not necessarily see Congressional Democrats as misguided or worse, amoral. He feels that they are engaged in the unfortunate game of political brinkmanship, they, too, are allowing the portions of the government to remain closed. He senses that they are presenting an artificial side of themselves by rebuffing his plans for a border wall, and presenting what is simply a preferred position on the matter. As of this writing, Trump hopes Congressional Democrats will eventually face up to how injudicious their choice is and come to his way of thinking given that the national security, even more the sovereignty of the country is at stake. He believes political expediency and private emotion will obey reason and public duty. Still, though his preference is negotiation, Trump may eventually find cause the use his authority as president to declare the situation at the border a national emergency and seek funding for the wall through that process. Trump’s patience has its limits.

Given that they are well-seasoned political figures, it is very difficult to discern whether their arguments against the border wall proffered by Congressional Democratic leaders are allowed to be misleading through an act of omission, whether they simply do not understanding how the wall fits in to the broader picture of border security and purely believe in the rectitude of their argument. One might ascribe greater possibility to the later given how they handled their own efforts to create a wall on the Southern Border through the Secure Fence Act of 2006. As a result of considerable deal making among Congressional Democrats and Republicans, $1.2 million was authorized to construct 700 miles of “border fencing” along the Southern Border. It was the only option at the time, but certainly not the best approach. As a result of the authorization, the US has 649 miles of various types of walls and fences along the border. Some of it to keep pedestrians from crossing, with others meant to stop vehicles. To protect the habitat of the last North American jaguars, an endangered species, barriers are absent on a portion of the border. A good portion of the border is delineated by the Rio Grande with its canyons and bluffs and also lacks barriers. However, the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico is nearly 2000 miles long. Much of the border, where barriers could serve the purpose of thwarting penetration, was left unprotected.

On walls and fixed fortifications, the renowned US commander in World War II, US General George Patton, explained in his memoir published posthumously in 1947, War As I Knew It: “Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity. If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, anything made by man can overcome.” In Appendix D of the memoir, he added: “. . . Study the Siegfried and Maginot Line, remembering that these defenses were forced; that Troy fell; that the wall of Hadrian succumbed; that the Great Wall of China was futile . . . .” The gaping holes in the 649 mile wall that Congressional Democrats were willing to sponsor certainly left the door wide open to penetration by opponents. The limited “border fencing” concept failed miserably. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report concluded that despite 649 miles of completed fencing, the “the southwest border continues to be vulnerable to cross-border illegal activity, including the smuggling of humans and illegal narcotics.” Perhaps their understanding of the utility of a wall is greatly informed by their own unsatisfactory efforts. Yet, engaging in the symbolic act of simply raising a wall, as they did, is not the equivalent of using a wall as an obstacle and part of a larger plan for an active defense against an opponent’s continued effort to penetrate US territory. Ideally, a wall of sufficient, properly placed, should create physically and as well symbolically, a nonpermissive environment for opponents. Nam qui peccare se nescit, corrigi non vult. (If one doesn’t know his mistakes, he won’t want to correct them.)

Looking from another angle, unacknowledged and undiscussed by Congressional Democrats is the actuality that their approach to securing the Southern Border is a limited approach to managing difficulties there. Implementation of a limited approach to combating problems at the border may very likely lead to limited results. Surely, some truly comprehensive approach to coping with problems at the border would be an considerable challenge. Such an effort might include working effectually with governments of the Northern Triangle to stem the tide of migrants and illegal activities of organized crime from migrant smuggling to human trafficking, much as they cooperate on counter narcotics operations in the Drug War, would be an important element of a plan.  It would means attacking in depth at the root of the problems, such as poverty, crime, and disillusionment at home. One might even consider the starry-eyed notion of Initiating a Marshall Plan type of investment in Central America. The goal would be to economically revitalize countries and to mitigate much of the economic hardship people in them face. Steps might include eliminate financial and other resource deficiencies that have beset national, state, and local governments, hindering their capability and capacity to satisfactorily provide services to their people. There might be efforts to invest in rebuilding infrastructure, available industries, and trade, to tackle housing needs, to improve health and sanitary conditions, and to assure clean water and other natural resources serve the needs of the people. The social justice systems of those countries in the region would be revamped, and civil rights and human rights discrepancies would be addressed. These steps, indeed, only touch the surface of what would need to be done. However, with their plates already piled high with issues, selling the idea of remaking Central America will not be the agenda of any political party in the US any time soon. If securing authorization for the funding of a border wall has been difficult, one can only imagine what trying to secure funds for such a comprehensive development plan would look like. The alternative is combat the problem in a way that makes activities from illegal entry and the establishment of sequitous routes of border penetration.

The Southern Border will unlikely be completely sanitized of illegal activities, but those fighting the problem may be able to make such activities by making them unprofitable with a suite of undefeatable measures and insurmountable obstacles. The identification and neutralization of the varied illegal activities doubtlessly will require the development of tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods against the known capabilities and capacities of opponents and those forecast for future. The approach to the opponents should evolve as they invariably will shift their tactics. Use of sophisticated technologies to detect opponents’ efforts will provide border security units with greater abilities to complete their defined, enumerated tasks. Still, while technology may create greater opportunities for success, what is new will work most likely better when it is married to what is tried and true.

Congressional Democrats might argue that the border wall as envisioned by Trump would simply be a supersized obstacle. One must agree that on its face, the border wall is an obstacle. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an obstacle as a thing that blocks ones way or prevents or hinders progress. As a physical barrier, obstacles are typically used by military forces and law enforcement to impede the movement of an opponent on foot or by vehicles to prevent the achievement of their objectives or goals. Among the types of obstacles, those most relevant to discussion of the border wall are constructed obstacles and natural obstacles. The greater part of the wall would be a constructed obstacle, and much as those prepared by the military, it would serve as an impediment to people moving north on foot or in vehicles. The steel bars, embedded deep in concrete, would make the wall relatively impervious to demolition and prevent or at least greatly hinder excavation. The pointed heads of its steel bars would allow the wall to function in a way similar to an abbatis. Natural obstacles such as the Rio Grande, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico, are terrain features that severely limit the movement of people on foot and halt the movement of vehicles transporting people and contraband.

Sciant quae optima sunt esse communia. (The best ideas are common property.) A more substantial discussion on the effective use of obstacles in a military fashion is provided by the US Army. For its purposes, obstacles are part of a commander’s larger plan for offensive or defensive operations. Obstacles do far more than just blocking an opponent’s movement on its axis pf advance. Stated as plainly as possible, obstacles serve to disrupt an opponent, turning the opponent into other areas where effective ways and means can be used attack it. The obstacles used for this variety of purposes are integrated into the course of action for an operation as determined by the commander. Field Manual 3-0, Operations (FM 3-0), provides doctrine on how US Army forces, as part of a joint team, conduct sustained, large-scale combat operations with current force structure and capabilities against a regional peer. In terms of opponents, the doctrine focuses on the current Russian threat against which large-scale ground combat operations are possible. To that extent, the manual explains that the Russians integrate the use of obstacles in their operational plans, too! FM 3-0 states, “The enemy typically attempts to slow and disrupt friendly forces with a combination of obstacles, prepared positions, and favorable terrain so that they can be destroyed with massed fires [to include direct and indirect artillery and rockets].”

To simply build a border wall believing the structure itself will perfectly serve to thwart an opponent’s entry onto US territory would be both misguided and foolhardy. Surely, it would be quickly overcome by the opponent’s often unexpected ingenuity, although the border wall is an obstacle, its raison d’être is not serve solely as a static defense against opponents’ efforts. There is a broader picture of a dynamic defense of the Southern Border of which the new wall, the most visible symbol of that defense, would be a part. Indeed, the wall would integrated into the defense in a way that would perfectly support the considerable ongoing operations of law enforcement and military elements protecting the Southern Border. Indeed, the border wall will have a multiplier effect upon those operations.With regard to better supporting those operations, the Trump administration has requested: $211 million to hire 750 additional Border Patrol agents for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP); $571 million for 2,000 additional ICE personnel; $4.2 billion for 52,000 detention beds, personnel, transportation, and detention alternatives; and, $563 million for 75 additional immigration judges and support staff. Law enforcement and military elements at the Southern Border will be enabled to focus on new ways to defeat opponents’ from new angles and do more things to defeat their efforts.

Rather than suggest anyone rely solely on a few offstage meditations and considerations, historical support for some of the ideas posited here can be found from the great military commanders of the past. The world renowned military commander, Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte had a point of view on approaching a struggle with a mindset of limiting ones’ efforts: “If you wage war, do it energetically and with severity. This is the only way to make it shorter and consequently less inhuman.” While the border wall might be characterized as a huge expenditure, that will make little improvement in the struggle at the border, Congressional Democrats might discover that such small things make a big difference as the situation. As the situation on the border evolves, as the criminal elements and other opponent move the goal post for defending the border, the border wall will continue to limit and eliminate their options for movement, action.

Napoleon also explained that when resources are available and they can make difference in the field, one must deprive themselves of them. One must mass upon the opponent in order to optimize chances for success, and victory. Napoleon stated: “When you have resolved to fight a battle, collect your whole force. Dispense with nothing. A single battalion sometimes decides the day.” Using a truncated approach to border security, driven perhaps by back room political horse trading along the way, that cavalierly subtracts available elements from ones operations will nearly ensure an equivalent or worse subtraction from potential success. The problem at the border may never be mitigated. As opponents there constantly shift their strategies and tactics, and many innovative approaches to penetrating the border are revealed, the struggle may prove to be a long hard slog. Continuing with an unsatisfying tack in the face of a proven imaginative opponent, will result in both wasted energy and effort and slow spiral downward toward defeat. There may be no light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, it is always possible that any momentum toward success could shift from the US Government in favor of border opponents who are absolutely determined to succeed, attempting to overwhelm via their efforts, never satisfied with achieving some stalemate with the US Government. They would like to find a sustainable way to make US Government efforts futile.

Given how the desire to thoroughly countering the activities of opponents across the Southern Border have shaped by the Trump administration for the border wall, interesting parallels in the concepts of the King of Prussia Frederick the Great for the use of such an obstacle. Regarding European warfare, Frederick the Great is recognized in the world of military science as the master of forming defenses. While the wordimg may sound somewhat strange to the modern ear, his comcepts were well-outlined in his work entitled: “The King of Prussia’s Military Instruction to His Generals.” Through a late 18th century translation by Lieutenant Colonel T. Foster, in “Article VIII. Of Camps”, Frederick the Great conveyed: “We entrenched a camp, when it is our intention . . . to defend a difficult pass, and supply the defects of the situation by throwing up works so as to be secure from every insult on the part of the enemy.” Expounding on using barriers and walls, Frederick explained: “In camps that are intended to cover a country, [in this case would refer to the positioning of CBP, ICE, law enforcement of border states, local law enforcement and the military on the border] the strength of the place itself is not the object of attention, but those points which are liable to attack, and by means of which the enemy may penetrate. These should all be surrounded by the camp. Not that it is necessary to occupy every opening by which the enemy may advance upon us, but that one only which would lead to his desired point, and that situation which affords us security, and from which we have it in our power to alarm him. In short, we should occupy that post, which will oblige the enemy to take circuitous routes, and enable us, by small movements, to disconcert his projects.”

With regard to discovering as much as possible about an opponent before determining how to effectively employ an obstacle such as the Southern Border wall, Frederick imparted: “The army of the enemy [which in the present case would include the drug cartels, organized crime groups, smugglers, foreign intelligence operatives, economic refugees, and others attempting illegal entry] should be the chief object of our attention, it’s designs must be discovered, and opposed as vigorously as possible.” Similar to the way US border protection elements want those crossing the border to travel to designated points of entry, Frederick stated: “Intelligent generals are well informed how to oblige the enemy to attack those points where the work is made strongest by the ditch being widened, deepened, and lined with pallisadoes, chevaux de frize placed at the entrances, the parapet made cannon-proof, and pits dug in the places that are most exposed.” With regard to the design of a barrier on the Southern Border, Frederick explained: “The rules which a general has to observe in the formation of all entrenchments are, to take advantage of every marsh, river, inundation, and abbatis which may serve to render the extent of his entrenchments more difficult.” Additionally, Frederick continued by making an important point relevant to the nature of any barrier built on the border;  “ . . . The progress of the enemy is not checked by the entrenchments themselves, but by the troops who defend them.”

Aut inveniam viam aut faciam. (I shall either find a way or make one.) In the present case concerning the border wall, figuratively,  generals of varied qualifications, insist on implementing their respective plans to win the battle on the Southern Border, when one general, with one set of ends and ways must suffice. Resources authorized will be dependent on who prevails in that struggle at headquarters. Congressional Democrats failed in their border security efforts in the past, and insist that Trump administration efforts will be futile. Still, the synergistic integration of the wall and new technologies, and strengthening the capabilities and capacity of those manning the border, as the Trump administration may actually be far better for the interests of the US. Fresh ideas, that have the potential to yield results are better than old, derivative ones. The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was quoted as saying: “Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.”

It is difficult to gauge how the US public likely views all of this. Some may believe they are observing the system of checks and balances in their government at work or  other may feel they are witnessing Washington as an erratic bipolar world in which their political leaders bicker incessantly. What is certain to all is that the border security of US matters. If anything, through this debate, or impasse, the Trump administration has sent that message worldwide.