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Bridges of war
On Washington crossing the Delaware, the liberation of Ukraine, and the history of bridges in warfare
Amid its continued effort to expel the invasion from Russia, Ukraine undertaken efforts that would look crazy in peacetime, but which make complete sense in wartime. One example is the bombing of bridges. Nobody would ever voluntarily destroy critical infrastructure in a time of peace, but photos and videos are circulating on social media showing the obliteration of bridges to cities being targeted for liberation. In destroying the bridges, the Ukrainian forces are seeking to isolate and trap their Russian enemies.
■ A truly fascinating broad-based history of warfare could be told through the story of bridges. From the distant past through the present, bridges have often been as important as arms.
■ We marvel in the modern day at the aqueducts of the Roman Empire, but their bridges depended upon much of the same technology -- and those bridges were in some cases central to the projection of power far from the seat of government itself.
■ In the 20th Century, the capacity to destroy and selectively replace bridges was often a decisive factor in the battles of the land war in Europe during World War II. The US Army Corps of Engineers proved to be a substantial force multiplier through its ability to speedily install bridges in France, Italy, and Germany.
■ Even in domestic American history, the attentive student of history would note that George Washington crossed the Delaware River in a boat, and that his forces were badly hampered by trying to cross an icy river using boats. Bridges would have made the attack far easier.
■ Bridges present us with a fascinating case of embedded knowledge. If one knows where the bridges are, one knows where the obstacles are. But bridges also tell us where to find things of value. We ordinarily take them for granted, but bridges represent a huge share of what humans "know" about our places without really thinking.
■ Pittsburgh may have an almost unreasonable number of bridges, but it's no small matter that the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Chicago Skyway have meaningful places in their respective local lores. Americans are fortunate that we have remained at domestic peace for so long that the destruction of any of those bridges would be unthinkable, but it's no mere coincidence that the US Army has trained its Corps of Engineers on bridge-building since the nation was new.
■ Many things evade our attention during periods of normalcy, and the indispensable role of bridges in warfare is one of them. But that role is being put in the spotlight in Ukraine right now, and it is a historical story worth telling.