April 26, 2002
Sieges Ancient And Modern

Steven den Beste at U.S.S. Clueless has an excellent post on sieges and how to end them, with special reference to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I have one historical quibble, one tangential point, and one relevant point:

1. First the tangent. In conquering Gaul, Julius Caesar was once besieger and besieged simultaneously. He surrounded a large Gallic army in Alesia, building a wall to keep them in. Other Gauls gathered an army to lift the siege, so Caesar built a second wall to keep them out. For a while the Romans were occupying only a doughnut-shaped area outside Alesia and inside the second Gallic army, which built yet another wall to keep Caesar's army penned into its doughnut. Counting the walls of the town, that makes four walls in all. It was important to keep the two Gallic armies from joining, since Caesar's army was big enough to defeat either of them separately, but could not easily take on both at once, except with a defensive wall or two. Caesar tells the story at length in Book VII of his Gallic Wars.

2. Second, the quibble. There is one other way to end a siege: betrayal from inside. One of the ancient Greeks -- a successor of Alexander the Great, I think -- liked to say that there was no wall so high that a donkey loaded with gold couldn't climb it. My books are all in storage, so I can't prove it, but many ancient sieges ended when someone on the inside opened a postern gate in the middle of the night to let the besiegers in, either for money, or out of political sympathy, or because he thought it was the only way he would survive.

Of course, this has little to do with the Church of the Nativity. I do have one relatively original point on that:

3. Some people have suggested pumping gas into the church, either tear gas to flush out the Palestinians, or anesthetic gas to put them and their hostages to sleep. It seems unlikely that either of these would work. Given the size and complex shape of the building, it would surely be impossible to calculate the dosage correctly and deliver just the right concentration of any gas to every part of every room.

Anesthetic gas would almost certainly kill some of the weaker and more vulnerable hostages, if they happened to be in rooms with higher concentrations, while leaving some of the gunmen awake and alert enough to do a lot of damage to Israeli soldiers coming in the doors or windows. That sort of thing always works on Star Trek, but has it ever been done in real life? Professional anesthesiologists have enough trouble getting the dosage just right even in ideal conditions, i.e. well-equipped operating rooms, and lose quite a few patients.

As for tear gas, it would no doubt be effective in causing a stampede, but could easily kill those who were trapped behind locked doors. No problem if they're all gunmen, but having hostages choke to death in windowless rooms or hallways would not be a good way to end the siege. It didn't exactly help Janet Reno's reputation.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at April 26, 2002 12:02 PM