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A simple tool hits a snag

The unintended consequences of barbed wire during a century of terror

It came from the American heartland. In 1874, mindful that farmers invading the Great Plains west of the Mississippi needed some cheap means to fence in the prairie, J.F. Glidden, himself a farmer, invented and began mass-producing barbed wire in De Kalb, Ill. It was, as they say, a perfect fit. In a land without much wood, water, or stone, Glidden's iron wire, with its sharpened barbs, proved efficient, lightweight, and inexpensive at $4.50 a pound.

In his thoughtful "Barbed Wire," which has the feel of a long essay, French writer Olivier Razac ranges from the American West to the trenches of World War I to the death camps of the Third Reich to show how barbed wire has played a crucial role in three disastrous moments of modern history.

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"The devil's rope," cowboy hero Dempsey Rae (played by Kirk Douglas) calls barbed wire in the Hollywood western "Man Without a Star." As Razac explains, barbed wire eventually put most cattle-driving cowboys out of work. Its effect on native Americans was far more dire. Used to communal life encompassing vast expanses of prairie, the Indians found themselves trapped amid the fenced lands of hostile white settlers. By the late 19th century, the few remaining Indian lands were barbed-wired in. Like endangered species that have lost migratory corridors, the native Americans could no longer wander and hunt. Barbed wire hastened the end of their culture.

Perhaps the most telling of the black-and-white photos in Razac's book shows the corpse of a German soldier entangled in wire on a World War I battlefield. Such grim scenes were commonplace, demoralizing soldiers on both sides. Men foolhardy enough to unhook dead comrades often lost their own lives. Once again, barbed wire showed its advantages: It did away with the need for high, thick, and heavy defenses, and it could be run for hundreds of feet along trenches. Dead soldiers caught in it "hung there in grotesque postures," one observer wrote.

In the days before tanks, there was little to be done to cut barbed wire. Using shears worked, if you were brave enough to get that close. Land torpedoes were launched to crawl under the wire and blow it up. And the British devised the Barbed Wire Traversor, a blanket that was thrown over the wire so soldiers could advance on the enemy.

Glidden's wire found its most nightmarish use in Nazi concentration camps. "The fence was usually the first structure built when the camp was set up," writes Razac. It became the means by which prisoners, as one writer noted, "were penned up like cattle in an enormous field." Gas chambers and crematoriums had their own barbed wire fences. Often, the wire was laced with branches to hide the machinery of death.

Ever since, barbed wire has been deemed a tool of repression. "It is still associated with a brutal, authoritarian delimitation of space," writes the author. And it is still used extensively today – in Palestinian refugee camps, in the US Government's Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in every manner of holding camp. True, Razac says, the wire has essentially disappeared from the cities of liberal democracies. Social space there is now controlled with surveillance cameras, security checks, and electronic gates.

Razac writes with a cool precision that matches the sharp sting of his subject. His well-researched narrative offers a new perspective on an invention with consequences far more brutal and deadly than any Illinois farmer could have imagined. Indeed, the book must be read as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of science and invention. In a not-too-distant future, we may well be reading about the "political history" of robotics, neuroscience, or cloning. What's the potential for disaster there when compared to the uses of a simple piece of wire?

• Joseph Barbato is a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly.