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Vauban, The War on Terror, and the Aesthetic Strategic Imperative

Vauban, The War on Terror, and the Aesthetic Strategic Imperative Vauban, The War on Terror, and the Aesthetic Strategic Imperative
Camp Bastion. Photo: Cpl Daniel Wiepen/MOD, OGL v1.0OGL v1.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
To cite this article: To cite this article: Betz, David, “Vauban, The War on Terror, and the Aesthetic Strategic Imperative,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 3, Special Issue, ‘What Would the Greats Say About War in the 21st Century’, spring 2024, page 39 - 46.

In late 2020, Popular Mechanics magazine carried a short story about the building of two new forts near the towns of Meneka and Labbezanga by French forces involved in the now defunct Operation Barkhane in Mali.[i] Normally, the addition to the world of a couple more military forward operating bases someplace hot, dusty, and far away would not capture the attention of the mainstream press. In this case, however, the 17th Parachute Engineers Regiment had constructed them in a star shape reminiscent of the polygonal bastion fortresses of the 17th century. ‘Mediaeval star forts are alive and well’, the article declared.

A pedant would differ with that assertion. For a start, bastion forts are quintessentially of the early modern period not the mediaeval; their very existence is due to the inability of lofty mediaeval castles to stand against mobile gunpowder artillery.[ii] For another, bastion forts were not simply geometrically complex, their defining quality was the immensely thick glacis (for illustration see Figure 3) which enabled them to endure pummelling by the most powerful weapons available—and the equally immense cost which that entailed. By contrast, what we see at Meneka and Labbezanga is a curtain wall comprised of a single layer of HESCO gabions, plus a ditch—a cheap construction, secure against the lightning raids of enemies armed with weapons no heavier than can be mounted on a pickup truck.[iii]

The star shape is essentially a fashion statement of not much tactical consequence. Anyway, perhaps it was a fit of whimsy, or maybe it was a deliberate nod to their illustrious forebear, the French military engineer Marshal Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, at any rate, the forts at Meneka and Labbezanga were more eye-catching than usual, at least from above. Imagine, though, that we might ask Vauban directly what he made of these forts and the War on Terror more generally.

Would he pour scorn on them? I think not.

He would, I shall argue, find them technically ingenious and be quite astonished by the speed, economy, and scale with which fortifications can and are being constructed by many state and non-state actors today. At the same time, he would be dubious of the strategic logic with which they are often employed. Specifically, he would argue that they fail to perform what I call an aesthetic strategic imperative.

Aesthetics is the concern with or appreciation of beauty. To be imperative is to be crucial, vital, or necessary. Beauty seems incidental to our current strategic culture because it is fundamentally utilitarian in outlook. If it’s ugly and it works then it’s not ugly, or at any rate it’s good enough, is a fair encapsulation of the prevailing attitude. To believe otherwise is alien to the broader culture of the Western world, which in art and design has been increasingly anti-beauty for over a century.[iv]

Neither was true, though, in Vauban’s time—the epoque of the Baroque, a cultural period defined by grandeur and complex ornamentation governed by simple underlying symmetries in architecture, as well as music, painting and other arts—which is why I have a strong hunch that he would have a great deal that is interesting to say about our current strategic efforts in respect of fortification, his particular area of military fame.[v]

To speak in the voice of another, particularly one long since dead is intrinsically presumptuous. To do it at all requires great caution on the part of the author, and some willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. The argument which follows proceeds from as best as possible an understanding of the man, his works, and the strategic context of the time in which he lived. Ultimately, though, it is my humble interpretation of things which is on display here and I would not wish to pretend otherwise.

Before continuing, it is perhaps useful to provide a brief biographical sketch. Vauban was a French Marshal during the long reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715). He is known largely for having constructed a great ring of marvellous fortresses to defend and demarcate French national frontiers at a time when it was the preeminent European military power. Such was the scale and quality of his contribution to military engineering that European artillery forts of the 16th and 17th centuries, which strictly speaking are Italian in origin, hence the term ‘trace italienne’, are as often as not referred to as being in Vauban-style.

For all that he is associated with the design and construction of fixed defences, he in fact rarely commanded one in battle; he was, rather, an undisputed master of siege warfare, nearly always in the offence operationally, i.e., he was as much a fortification-breaker as fortification-maker. In battle he was highly courageous and wounded severely eight times in his career, but he was cautious with the lives of his soldiers and most of his tactical innovations served the end of reducing casualties in perhaps the most miasmically concentrated and complicated sort of combat. No pacifist, he was, though, sceptical of the utility of force. ‘The father of war is greed, its mother is ambition, and its relatives are all passions that lead us to evil’, he once wrote.[vi]

These aspects of his personality and military leadership style are admirably current and worthy of continued emulation.

Beyond battle and fortification design, however, he was also a talented economist, an author on matters ranging from agriculture to religion, and an astute commentator on political affairs. Throughout his adult life, he was a loyal, industrious, and humble servant of the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV; but he started his military career as a rebellious Frondeur in 1651. When he died in 1707 in the middle of the War of Spanish Succession he was again in political disgrace, watched and suspected of disloyalty by the Royal Police, for having written of all things a critical volume on French tax policy.[vii]

His acute perception of the relationship between economics and war, and of civil-military relations generally, in the current context feels to me very relevant to strategic thinkers today. Vauban is hardly a forgotten figure; in fact, he is probably the only great military engineer of history which most people, even many uniformed products of professional military education, would be able to name in a pinch. My point is twofold: fortification is not a redundant military science relevant mainly to history enthusiasts but is, rather, a very current aspect of military operations; and Vauban’s relevance to military problems of the day extends beyond tactics and techniques to broader matters of strategy.[viii]

What is a fortification? At first, the answer to this question would seem simple, but a moment of reflection ought to provoke some hesitancy. It is fruitless to define them by form because of their sheer variety. Large or small, organic, or regularly angled, perched on the highest ground or buried underground, lofty or squat, linear or in depth, singular or part of a larger fortified complex—examples of all and more might easily be given. Walls can be very complex and varied.[ix]

Function provides a more useful distinction. A fortification is a built object that compels an opponent to do something they would otherwise not: slow down, go around, expend greater force, or if effectively deterred not attack at all. A simplification which I find useful is to consider a fortification as a kind of strategic message, of which two are very important.

The first is aimed internally at the people who live regularly around a given fortified strategic complex and it says, ‘you are ruled from here’, in other words it is a tool of pacification, a protected installation from which governance emanates. The second is aimed externally at other sovereigns and it says, ‘past here you do not rule’, in other words it is a tool of conquest, an armoured belt signifying a territorial claim by one sovereign against the real or perceived wishes of another.

As examples of the former, think of once fortified Russian towns such as Vladivostok and Vladikavkaz, meaning respectively ‘Rule-over-the-East’ and ‘Rule-over-the-Caucasus’. The clue is in the name, as they say. A great example of the latter may be seen in the characters emblazoned on roof tiles found on the northern frontier of China’s Great Wall which declare ‘all aliens must submit’.[x] It would be hard to state sovereign supremacy of a place any more directly.

Another useful distinction is that between field and other fortifications. The former is generally a decidedly slap-dash affair, constructed expediently (usually by combat troops) from the best available materials in what form and place that tactical exigency and weapons characteristics dictate; the latter are typically more deliberate constructions, built by specialists with some degree of consideration of factors beyond the immediate needs of combat—be that the comfort of the occupants or broader symbolism.

The quintessential example of the field fortification is the Roman marching fort—again, the clue is in the name—constructed by legionnaires as they moved about and sometimes beyond the Empire so prolifically that even today traces of them are to be found from North Africa to the north of Scotland.[xi] More modern examples would include the vast entrenchments of the First World War and, for that matter, the fortifications that dominate the conduct of the ongoing Russo-Ukraine War.

Obviously, there is overlap between the categories which I have laid out, which might reasonably be seen as representing gradations on a scale rather than as being fundamentally distinct. Clearly, the need for pacification is usually driven by a preceding conquest. Likewise, field fortifications may acquire a degree of permanency and undergo redesign and embellishment over time. Most castles in England, for instance, started out as simple mottes (mounds of earth) surrounded by a wood-palisaded bailey. Built by the conquering Normans as bases for pacifying the Anglo-Saxons they had conquered, those which have survived acquired their stone cladding and other embellishments many years later—sometimes very much later.[xii]

The matter here, though, is not historical; it is, rather, that the distinctions equip us with a conceptual frame—grounded in the history of war and warfare—that can illuminate the present. Undoubtedly, rather than pacification or conquest, those statesmen and commanders today who are practicing such strategies would probably describe them in other terms such as ‘stabilisation’ or ‘sovereign border demarcation’, though that changes nothing of substance.

Put a pin anywhere on a map anywhere in the region of the world once described by the Pentagon as the ‘Non-Integrating Gap’ and you will be very near one of thousands of pacification forts the same as those at Meneka and Labbezanga.[xiii] Until recently, NATO operated some truly gigantic ones in Afghanistan—Camp Bastion, Kandahar Airbase, Bagram, amongst others—now mostly abandoned and being swallowed back by the desert. The shape of them—star, square, circle, or more likely completely irregular—is incidental. Moreover, they are not all strictly military. After the United States Army, the single largest buyer of HESCO bastion—a modern gabion, i.e. a basic fortification building block—is the United Nations, which uses them to add security to refugee camps and humanitarian compounds in conflict areas.[xiv]

Pause for a moment now to compare Vauban’s Citadel of Lille in Figure 1 with the Meneka fort in Figure 2. Both are pentagonal and have redans—arrow shaped embankments at their points—and there is a rudimentary outwork which might charitably be described as a ravelin in front of the gate of the latter. After that, the similarities are effectively none.

That would not have offended Vauban at all because he was no dogmatist when it came to design. He built forts in whatever shape the tactical conditions necessitated, not simply as an exercise in geometric elaboration, with the best materials available within the budget allotted to him. In mountainous terrain where artillery was not a threat, he even built them in a high-walled mediaeval style that remained effective under those conditions.[xv]

For that matter, French colonial engineers constructed hundreds of wooden ‘Vauban-style’ forts all over the world which were truly more akin to Roman marching forts, lacking in practically every way the engineering elements required for the high intensity warfare of the time in Europe itself. They too were perfectly well-adapted to local conditions because the native tribes whom they were intended to subdue had no artillery and were, therefore, not capable of warfare at such high intensity.[xvi]

In short, Vauban as a practical soldier would not have deplored the expediency of Meneka’s construction because they worked—tactically. He would also probably greatly appreciate the simple genius of things like the stackable, flat-packable HESCO bastion system. There are many other fortification products to be found in the catalogues of the global ‘perimeter security’ business, which including electronic surveillance systems, was valued at $59 billion in 2021.[xvii] These also would fascinate him. Vauban could take his pick of lucrative directorships in any one of a dozen military engineering firms within minutes of exiting our hypothetical time machine.

What, then, is the problem? The crux of the matter, reader, if now I may presume to speak directly in the words of our veteran commander and fortification expert:

‘Ils ressemblent à de la merde.’

The problem is not incidental—it is highly strategically consequential. To explain why requires unpacking a logical syllogism, two elements of which we have already encountered. First, a fortification may be seen functionally as a component of a strategic messaging system; and second, in a pacification campaign that message concerns governance above all—the combat potential of the fort is but one of several considerations, and probably secondary in importance to some of them. The third is that governance requires some degree of grandeur.

The word grandeur has a rather anachronistic feel to it now because it seems to jar with contemporary sensibilities about equality. It can come across as haughtiness, or arrogant superiority, displays of which are off-putting. In essence, though, grandeur is a signal of social significance or authority that all governments—even the most egalitarian—must display to some degree. It is a concrete embodiment of legitimacy and that is why courthouses, government ministries, embassies, even universities and hospitals sometimes, pay attention to design, often drawing on architectural elements going back to classical times.[xviii]

Now picture in your mind’s eye a place like Camp Bastion in Helmand, Afghanistan, as an example. About the size of the city of Reading, Camp Bastion was ‘home’ to up to 30,000 people by 2012. One of its most important facilities was a large field hospital, one of whose doctors described the character of the place as follows:

In a faraway land where the rains are dry and the trees blue and the air bittersweet, and where ants are like dogs and birdsong is not, there life goes for a song – everyone dies young. Safeguarding its sandy southern perimeter was, until recently, a coalition of The Free sandbagged in a ghetto the size of a small city. Camp Bastion was the hub in an operation designed to secure for others the freedoms they would have wished for themselves had they been less primitive.[xix]

The tone is grimly sardonic throughout but the use of the term ‘sandbagged ghetto’ to describe what was overtly strategically intended to be a mammoth stability-generating machine is what is pertinent here. Quite obviously it lacked grandeur—more to the point it distinctively lacked the power to convey that sense of legitimacy, the building of which everyone who went to Afghanistan was told repeatedly was the central aim of the campaign.

How might the proverbial average man on the street have interpreted the ‘body language’ of the West in the War on Terror as evinced in the structures which it has built in every single place on the planet that the conflict has touched down? They are undoubtedly powerful military instruments, generally sufficient defence if not perfectly impregnable against the threats against them. The primary message, however:

‘Please don’t hurt me.’

A bit of contemplation of the starkly utilitarian ditch, razor-wire topped HESCO barriers, occasional watchtower, and the dismal tent city inside, would reveal another significant message. If there is nothing that you care to embellish on your fortress, if its default condition is half-ruined & half-built, and there is nothing inside it which could not easily be left behind or stuffed in the back of a heavy transport plane, then what it says is,

‘There is nothing I care about here.’

In strategic communications much tends to be made of the ‘see-do gap’, which refers to the difference between rhetoric and action and the aphorism that actions speak louder than words.[xx] I do not wish here to discuss the matter of strategic narrative in the War on Terror in detail; suffice to say, though, I think the two messages above are precisely the opposite of those which our words were intended to convey.

It would be a very stupid Afghan who failed to notice the difference and an even stupider one to heed words more loudly than deeds. As it happens, there proved to be too few stupid Afghans to rescue the West from the strategic debacle that ultimately transpired. Likewise, it would seem Malians could see that they were in effect being talked down to by people to whom they could stand up if they wished.

The Meneka and Labbezanga forts, as examples of their type, were in many ways ingenious and strictly tactically strong enough. Strategically, however, they were a complete failure—as indeed the War on Terror, or however we are to call the continuing campaigns to defeat violent Islamic fundamentalism wherever it takes root, has been a failure. I am not saying that the War on Terror has been lost because we build bad forts. The reasons are too many and complex to be reduced in such a way. I believe, rather, that we build forts that are bad in strategic messaging terms because ours is a starkly utilitarian culture, a problem multiplied in a military context which is starkly utilitarian to start with.

Our forts are ugly and visually obviously disposable because they are built by a culture that has little time for aesthetic embellishment generally and which is highly prone to disposability which means that they lack strategic utility. The War on Terror has been described so many times as a ‘war of ideas’ that it does not seem a controversial suggestion.[xxi] A war of ideas is a sort of beauty contest in which it is asked, in essence, here is one interconnected system of beliefs and things and here is another: which is better?

A culture which lacks regard for beauty, which indeed is sceptical of the existence of such a thing as an absolute, will struggle to win any beauty contests.

I anticipate some objections to the argument I have presented here. For one, Vauban’s whole military career was confined practically to the territory of one state which he crisscrossed many, many times and all his battles were fought against other state agents. France, moreover, at that time was at the height of political despotism. What might he say, therefore, about a globe-spanning conflict between the supposed free West and what the historian Michael Howard described as a state of mind of ‘generalised resentment’ in the Islamic world?[xxii]

In anticipation of such critiques, I would conclude with a two-part response. First, like all the West’s generals today, Vauban was a loser. Remarkable, yes, he won all his battles. However, though he himself was in disgrace at the time of his death, and France itself was still at a cultural and strategic high eighty years away from the Revolution, the wars of the Sun King had been ill-conceived, and France was worse off at the end of his career than at its beginning. ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, it is said. On his deathbed, Louis XIV advised his heir not to imitate his example, ‘try to keep the peace with your neighbours’.[xxiii]

Second, I would urge readers to look at the many surviving Renaissance fortifications not simply as not just military objects but also as works of art. True, they were conceived and built as fighting machines, first and foremost; they were not meant to last per se, their durability against the advance of time is an incidental result of being designed to be able to endure artillery battering. It is clear, though, that they were also designed with at least half an eye to posterity—as a political statement written in stone and brickwork.

There is a lesson there that is most obvious when looking at the gates of 16th and 17th century fortified places which are nearly always embellished, often quite extravagantly like an arc of triumph, and not infrequently at the cost of some loss of defensive function. A more subtle, but to my mind also telling example, may be found in the echaugettes that jut out on corbels from the salient of bastions and outer works of Vauban’s forts. Their function: a humble sentry box. Their form: usually unique to a given fort, with an elegant silhouette blending into a gracious cordon and tablette which in the opinion of most experts existed purely for decoration.

For illustration see the drawing in Figure 4 of an echaugette from the Vauban fort at Port-Louis in Bretagne. They could have been made uglily, but they were made beautifully—presumably at extra expense. Why?

Vauban did not have endless resources; indeed, quite the opposite was the case. As Commissioner General of Fortifications his job was to defend the country against many powerful threats, which it must be said were largely caused by Louis XIV’s religious intolerance and aggressive policies that caused resentments and grudges all over Europe. The forts he built were undeniably militarily remarkable. The Citadel of Lille in Figure 2 was declared by a Spanish fortification expert, Don Francisco D’Arguto, to be impregnable ‘so long as French women bear children.’[xxiv] They were also convincing expressions of cultural power with great aesthetic merit.

No good commander wastes resources. Vauban was a good commander. I surmise, therefore, that he judged the added cost of making his fortresses beautiful to be worthwhile strategically.

There is a short old book by a notable professor of Italian and expert on the Renaissance the title of which takes the form of a very good question, ‘Renaissance fortification: art or engineering?’[xxv] It is fair to say that the author was trying to make a point about conservation not about strategy and definitely not about contemporary war. I think there is a strategic point, however, which is that the answer is both. Vauban’s fortresses were both art and engineering. The art was part of their strategic power. The lack of art in our fortresses today is one of the reasons that they lack strategic power. There is an aesthetic imperative in strategy that relates to its being a form of communication.

If, reader, you accept that the outcome of the wars of our ‘information age’ are somehow especially influenced by communications power, then the fact that strategic studies is so suspicious of the indeterminacies of culture and basically is uninterested in aesthetics is a problem. Looking at the strategic problems of our time through the eyes of one of the most remarkable officers of the Baroque period brings that to light.

Figure 1 Meneka fort, Mali


Figure 2 Citadel of Lille designed by Vauban in 1667.



Figure 3: Simplified cross section of a bastion fort showing 1. Glacis, 2. Counterscarp, 3. Ditch, and 4. the main fortress comprising Rampart, Parapet, and so on. The key point here is the immense depth.

Figure 4: A typical bastion salient showing 1. the corbelled Echaugette and 2. the decorative Cordons and Tablette of the wall.


[i] Kyle Mizokami, ‘Medieval Star Forts are Surprisingly Alive and Well in North Africa’, Popular Mechanics (31 December 2020),
[ii] See Christopher Duffy, Siege Warfare: The Fortress in the Early Modern World 1494-1660 (London: Routledge, 1979); Christopher Duffy, Fire and Stone: The Science of Fortress Warfare 1660-1860 (London: Greenhill, 1975); and Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
[iii] For more on this see David Betz, ‘Fortified Strategic Complexes’, Military Strategy, Vol. 7, No. 4 (2022).
[iv] See Richard Bledsoe, Remodern America (London: Outskirts Press, 2019); and also Marina Mackay, Modernism, War, and Violence (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
[v] For more about Baroque symmetry and fortification see David Betz, The Guarded Age (Cambridge: Polity, 2024), p. 82.
[vi] Quoted in Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage, Vauban and the French Military Under Louis XIV (London: McFarland and co., 2010), p. 29.
[vii] Lepage, chap. 6.
[viii] See for instance Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), who writes passingly on Vauban but perceptively noting his broader strategic importance, notably on naval strategy, p. 210.
[ix] On this subject Betz, The Guarded Age, is most useful.
[x] Julia Lovell, The Great Wall: China Against the World 1000 BC – AD 2000 (London: Atlantic, 2006), p. 22.
[xi] Duncan Campbell, Roman Legionary Fortresses 27 BC – AD 378 (Oxford: Osprey, 2006).
[xii] See J. Forde-Johnston, Castles and Fortifications of Britain and Ireland (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1977), chap. 3.
[xiii] Thomas Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: war and Peace in the 21st Century (London: Penguin, 2005).
[xiv] On HESCO see Betz, The Guarded Age, pp. 56-64; also Mark Duffield, ‘The Fortified Aid Compound: Everyday Life in Post-Interventionary Society’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2010).
[xv] See Lepage, chap. 5.
[xvi] For examples, see Rene Chartrand, The Forts of New France in Northeast America 1600-1763 (Oxford: Osprey, 2008).
[xvii] Perimeter Security Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report by System 2022–2030, Grandview Research GVR-2-68038-042-2 (2021),
[xviii] Note how frequently legitimacy is cited in counterinsurgency doctrine. For example, in Britain’s Army Field Manual Countering Insurgency, Vol. 1, Part 10 (2010), p. 1-5. And the American FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency (2006), p. pp. 1-21.
[xix] Mark de Rond, Doctors at War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), p. xii.
[xx] For further Jente Althuis, ‘How US Government Fell into and Out of Love With Strategic Communications’, Defence Strategic Communications, Vol. 10 (Spring-Autumn 2010), pp. 71-110.
[xxi] Walid Phares, War of Ideas: Jihadism Against Democracy (London: St. Martin’s, 2007), and also G.J David and T.R. McKeldin (eds.), Ideas as Weapons (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2009).
[xxii] Michael Howard, ‘A Long War?’, Survival, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Winter 2006-2007), p. 12.
[xxiii] Quoted in Lepage, p. 12.
[xxiv] Quoted in Lepage, p. 158.
[xxv] See J.R. Hale, Renaissance Fortification: Art or Engineering? (Norwich: Thames and Hudson, 1977).

Image attributions and credit

Figure 1: Source:
Figure 2: Source:
Figure 3: Source: Drawing by author.
Figure 4: Source: Drawing by author.