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The History Of Tunnel Warfare09:18

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This past week, much of the of the Israeli mission in Gaza has focused on targeting the tunnels used by Hamas to transport weapons and supplies, as well as launching attacks and moving troops.

Tunnel warfare is not a new phenomenon. Since as early as the 9th century BC, when Assyrian forces would attempt to dig under enemy fortifications and destroy their walls, tunnel warfare has been a constant strategy in siege warfare worldwide.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Wayne Lee, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of the book “Barbarians and Brothers,” about the history of tunneling, from ancient Rome to Vietnam to today.

Interview Highlights: Wayne Lee

On tunnel warfare in Rome in 256 A.D.

"There's a famous example of a Persian-Sassanian siege of the Roman fortress at Dura-Europos in what's now Syria. And the Sassanians dug what was then called a mine — it's only recently called a tunnel. We think of them as mines and countermines prior to the modern era. They dug a mine underneath the Roman walls, and the Romans dug a countermine out to meet them. The Sassanians could tell they were coming, so they prepared a surprise for the Romans. Recent excavations suggest they actually set off a mixture of sulfur and pitch that created a sulfur dioxide gas. So when the Romans broke through into their tunnel, they were all immediately asphyxiated."

On the challenges of creating military tunnels

"World War I is an interesting example of the way in which it sounds simple in concept, but is difficult to execute in practice. One of the reasons that you don't see it more often, is that it takes skill to dig a tunnel underground that won't kill the tunnelers. In fact, in World War I, most of the tunneling was done by the British and it was done by Cornish and Northern British miners. People who were professional miners in their civilian trade."

On finding tunnels being dug during wartime

"In the Middle Ages, a castle under siege might put out bowls of water and literally look for ripples in the bowls, as an indicator that people were picking away at the ground underneath them. Sort of like that scene in 'Jurassic Park' where the dinosaur is walking towards the park and you see the ripples in the puddle. The trick is finding the tunnel. Even if you know its going on, where exactly is it? In the pre-modern era finding that out then digging a tunnel to meet that tunnel was a tricky business. Very often they succeeded and there would be fights underground."

Guest

  • Wayne Lee, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare, 1500-1865.”
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