Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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1474 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Housing Missiles Better Than Humans: Defensive Conundrums

by Skip Eisiminger

Know there’s a spear that can pierce any shield
no matter how blue its temper is steeled.
The Wordspinner
If the right of way is legally mine,
I’d rather stop than be realigned,
for the larger charge has the shorter fuse,
so I yield to them with the least to lose.
The Wordspinner

During the Cold War, my buddies and I used to throw packs of Marlboros through gaps in the Iron Curtain at East German Vopos just to see if they’d smile. In 1989, my wife’s brother Rolf was among those thousands of Germans who took a hammer to the Berlin Wall, a chunk of which is now enshrined in a shadow box in the den. In the same box is a blood-stained (?) piece of paneling torn from a bus that burned trying to cross the border in a panic before it closed in 1948. Sharing the box is a piece of the East German fence that my wife and I filched after the Wall came down. Manufactured in the West, the fencing was designed in the East, so no one could get a toehold. But if the West truly wanted the East to “tear that wall down,” why was it building an unclimbable fence?


Almost thirty years ago, our neighbor across the street erected a fifty-foot-long, six-foot-tall Wolmanized fence to keep the neighbor’s magnolia leaves out of his yard. Since then, the tidy house and its treeless yard has changed hands three times, but now the neighbor with the leaf-filled yard has apparently assumed ownership of the fence. Though its ugly side is facing the magnolias, the “owner” recently hired someone to cut the privet that had grown up beside it and pressure-wash it on both sides! Either he’d forgotten that he didn’t build the fence, or he’s just a Good Samaritan, but either way, the pruning and washing are a minor mystery.

Defensive barriers often strike people that way. Just think of cemetery fences: is the concern with those breaking in or breaking out?

In 1980, when my wife and I moved into the house we still occupy, the neighbor to our east erected a similar fence with the ugly side toward us. One day while I was raking leaves, he stuck his head over the fence, introduced himself, and explained he didn’t want his grandchildren running across our yard. I thanked him, of course, but I never saw his grandchildren in twenty years playing in his yard, so my wife and I have concluded it was a spite fence. Spitefully built or not, we grew so used to those pale-green boards that when the fence builder died and before the new owners moved in, I secretly repaired the fence with a few nails and boards of my own.

The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy has argued that anything that makes a culture defensive is actually useful because it keeps individuals on their collective toes. I imagine it also aids the sale of tranquilizers. Alerted by CNN to the latest “Breaking News,” my wife and I resemble a meerkat community craning our necks to see the television, scanning the horizon, asking, “What’s broken now?” But as General Patton used to tell his troops, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you’ll bleed in war.”

A baseball team that invests most of its resources in its pitching staff and neglects the hitters is not going to win many pennants. Now imagine a bird investing 60% of its metabolic resources instead of the usual 12% in the shell of its unborn young. The mother surely will be weakened by this expenditure, and the young may fail to hatch. In 1588, the British Navy defeated the Spanish Armada defending itself primarily with thin-shelled boats. I could be wrong, but I’d bet the sixteenth-century English defense budget was closer to 12% of GDP than 60%. Today, Somali terrorists have adapted the ancient defensive strategy and made it “offensive.” Once poor fishermen, terrorists now invest in thin-shelled boats which swarm “unsinkable” tankers and hold them for ransom.

Indeed, history is stocked with stories of nations and individuals who placed so many locks on their doors that fire fighters could not reach them when a fire broke out. However, when a measles epidemic led Mark Twain’s mother to lock her young son in his room, the boy “outsmarted” her by leaving through the window to play in the bed of a sick friend. Though he almost died of the illness, Twain defended himself saying he feared boredom and isolation more than the measles.

Indeed, humans are often assailed on multiple fronts, but there’s just so much any defense can defend. The Great Wall of China, for example, is truly great, stretching like a ragged web some thirteen thousand miles from the Gobi Desert to the Korean Gulf. End to end, that’s half way around the globe. Nevertheless, for centuries, China’s enemies have simply gone through, around, or over the wall as the Japanese and Mongols did numerous times. Today, the acknowledged failure is undermined in several places to allow shepherds and their sheep to pass.

After WWI, the French built the “unsinkable” Maginot Line and thought themselves forever saved from their “cabbage-headed” neighbors. The underground fortifications that required fifteen years to complete and cost $500 million was outfitted with wine cellars, chapels, and prophetically, a morgue. Burials were convenient and frequent after the Germans flanked it in three days. In losing WWI, the Germans had learned a lesson themselves after investing millions in seventy-five-ton cannons which had to be transported by rail in five parts and then set in concrete before they could be fired. One might call this lesson “multi-speed mobility”; the Germans called it “Blitzkrieg.”

Untold billions have been spent on this nation’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Death Star,” despite the caveats of fifty Nobel laureates. To date, SDI has been about as successful stopping terrorist attacks as the Easter Island statues have been staring down a hurricane.

Nature, of course, gives every species some means of defending itself from the bitter taste of many plants to the flocking habits of many animals. In the plant kingdom, the foxglove has evolved a taste that induces animals to go into convulsions or die. Yet in the right doses, digitalis, made from the foxglove, is often what the weakened human heart needs to defend itself. In the animal kingdom, a Malaysian ant species has evolved which is capable of contracting its muscles so tightly that it explodes in a burst of poison when its fellows are threatened. Now assuming this ant understands what it’s doing, it is the poster child of unselfishness.

Pacifists like Gandhi often draw a comparison to judo, a sport in which an opponent’s aggression is countered by rolling and bending like a tree absorbing the wind. But it’s also instructive to remember what Gandhi told the Indian people: if the Nazis ever reach our borders, let them in; they will eventually tire of killing. Residents along the border surely had a different opinion.

I love the fact that Monaco’s army is smaller than its national orchestra and that Austria spends more on the Vienna Opera than it does on its military, but as much as I hate to admit it, our Mutually Assured Destruction strategy has been a deterrent to world war since 1945. Two oceans and relatively weak neighbors have helped “the world’s policeman” to keep the peace.

NRA zealots often say, “Don’t take a knife to a gun fight,” especially, I would add, if the shooting has already begun. If it hasn’t, and all parties are standing in a figurative puddle of gasoline, anything which might create a spark is foolhardy. And while the right to defend oneself is a given, if no one has your back, as I’ve told our children, back off.

For every password there’s an artful hacker, and for every bike lock there’s a larger set of bolt cutters. I know this because for thirty years I rode my bike to work and was happy to see it waiting for me at the end of the day. It was stolen three times over ten years before I realized that a cheaper bike was the best deterrent; indeed, as many have concluded, foresight and reason are the best defenses yet devised by any civilization. But our first concern should be the nurturing of a culture that is worth defending. Yet at the same time, humans have never been as noble as when defending the undefended.


In 2013, I was amused to read that some Germans were defending a remnant of the Berlin Wall in belated recognition of its tourist potential. Ironically, it seems that every fortification not destined for a landfill is headed to a shadow box or a museum.


“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury