One of my favourite stories features a major fortress built on the edge of a poorly surveyed wasteland. In that context, the Butte makes sense, as a safety measure against the unknown. Once the wastes are proved safe the garrison stayed in the existing infrastructure not as guards but because it was already there; which makes some sense as well on a frontier world with only a small military and limited funds and manufacturing capacities to build new accommodations.

My question is what would make actively guarding a wasteland that is believed to be empty of any threat worthwhile?

Basic Assumptions:

  • the location is physically harsh with supplies having to be brought in from more civilised lands.

  • the wasteland is devoid of large predators and humans alike.

  • there is no known source of threat on the other side of the wastes, nor do most consider them crossable in any case.

  • garrisoning the location is expensive of time, effort and personnel which could be employed elsewhere.

  • the garrison is maintained over generations but sees little or no action.

Good answers should take into account the various other duties such a garrison might be involved in and/or reasons to guard a frontier that is observably empty of antagonists.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 12 '18 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ Does it matter if there's anything beyond "the wasteland"? For example, North and South Korea have military forces defending the DMZ. The DMZ itself is basically a wasteland where no one lives, the guards are to make sure no one crosses it, not to defend the land itself but to make sure that it isn't used against them and to make sure people don't cross (whether it be "traitors" or spies). $\endgroup$ – Doc Jul 13 '18 at 17:00

26 Answers 26


There are many possible options; here are some:

  1. Religion, culture, tradition. You can make people do all sorts of sub-optimal stuff if they think there is value in them, from the favor of the gods to being a virtuous person in general. Perhaps in your society, there is a need for you to serve the barren wastelands to be considered a real warrior.

  2. Education. If there is never any action, what better place to train young recruits? You can even set up military camp for even younger children, depending on how developed your society is.

  3. You can see things there. This depends on your development. Perhaps you can just see what the enemy is up to elsewhere from wherever your garrison is; perhaps in a more contemporary setting, you can monitor many things, e.g. if they are testing powerful weapons.

  4. As an escape. People have build ways to escape all the time all throughout history. Perhaps this garrison is in place just in case there is an uprising, build in the most useless place so that people don't bother taking it with force.

  5. To monitor the border the other way around. If you have a wasteland, then you have a place without law. You need to guard it so that nobody gets any ideas and engages in indecencies where nobody is looking. This goes from criminals hiding to criminal acts themselves.

  6. As punishment. So you don't like a general but you can't fire them and don't want to slaughter people? Put them and their loyal soldiers where they can't harm you, in the wasteland.

  7. As a reward. So you have many veterans that have served their time and don't really have a purpose? Any good society cares for their veterans. So, perhaps if they so choose, they can live out the rest of their days on the frontier, playing soldier, pretending they have a purpose, and just in case you need them, you can call them back.

And keep in mind, many things don't have a single purpose; you can combine any of them. I'm sure I can think of more, but 7 is a magical number.

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    $\begingroup$ 7 is in fact a magical number and this 7 is a very good 7 indeed. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 9 '18 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ 6 is pretty much the best in my opinion. $\endgroup$ – user45032 Jul 9 '18 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ #6 sounds like a great way to start a coupe. send a bunch of people with military training that dont like you to a remote place that isnt really monitored where they can band together and come back and fight you. then when you go to fight them, they retreat back into the wasteland that only they are familiar with. good luck rooting them out $\endgroup$ – Dragonrage Jul 9 '18 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ #5 reminds me of a joke.. A guy was driving through a small village. Suddenly without any warning he drove into a turn so harsh he fell of the road. Luckily he survived the crash with just some bruises, so he asks the people that started gathering: "Why is there no warning sign about the harsh turn?". One of the locals replied: "There was one but there were no accidents here for over two years so we took it down..." $\endgroup$ – Ister Jul 10 '18 at 7:10
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    $\begingroup$ Additional options: To act as a rest/resupply point for travelling between better located garrisons. To guard a prison located there because the wasteland is barren and inhospitable. To maintain a claim on how far the "edge of the empire" stretches for political reasons. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Jul 10 '18 at 9:25

You are describing all the field training areas I have seen

The army always gets the cheapest land around. Which is the land no one else wants. Which is also a benefit when training soldiers to survive - as the saying goes "train hard, fight easy".

Once you have the infrastructure in place, it makes it easier for politicians whose vision only lasts the few years to the next election to say "Oh yes, we'll just keep it going for a few more years" instead of building something new. Which is how you get "temporary" huts built during WWII still in use in the 1990s...

There are also legitimate uses for a military garrison a long way from any civilian population or probable threat:

  1. Strategic ammunition storage
  2. Mothballed military item storage

  3. Radioactive waste dumping ground (where else would you want it?)

  4. Strategic over the horizon radar or satellite control installation
  5. Live fire weapons testing range (of really destructive weapons)
  6. Weather monitoring

  7. Rehearsal location for operations in a similar environment

  8. Sensitive prisoner storage

Depending just how unpleasant the facilities are it may be a punishment posting, but that will not be a reason to maintain it long term.

The Vor Game describes a base such as this - most staff get rotated in and out on training cycles but there is a core "base staff" that have it as a full cycle posting.

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    $\begingroup$ The issue with "field training areas because land is cheap" is that the cost of keeping the camp supplied must be taken into account. Of course, that cost will go down the better the technology is. Also, now several services (artillery, tanks, aviation) need way more space (specially for training) than medieval armies did, so for a medieval culture it would not make sense. +1 for the other points anyway. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Jul 9 '18 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ 8, the other magic number. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 9 '18 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 what you say makes sense, but government budgeting is often far more arcane and not focused on net outcomes. It's quite plausible for the person running the "build/maintain training facility" budget to be ruthlessly unmoved by the pain of the person responsible for the "supplying places" budget. This would change under different government / finance / technology assumptions, but the OP did not explicitly state these so I went with what I know / experienced. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Jul 11 '18 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ But... training isn't "actively guarding", so I don't see how you answered the question. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Jul 12 '18 at 1:26
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn let me give an example - Rifle Company Butterworth (RCB). As part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, Australia maintains forces at RMAF Butterworth, including RCB as a garrison. However, in practice RCB is considered a training posting because there is no one waiting to storm the air base. In the more general case - if a garrison has nothing to really guard against then either you keep them busy training or they will get up to mischief. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Jul 12 '18 at 5:05

I have two answers that could explain that for me:

To make enemies believe it's important

If you want someone to not see something, you make them watch where you want them to see. Guarding a wasteland can make believe the country is either guarding a powerful/precious resource, or defending itself from a bigger enemy. It can thus let the country prepare itself to surprise attack enemies.

To make sure the population has something to do

If you want to keep your population in your hands, you want to be sure they're not bored. So, even if there's nothing to do, you make them work. They don't have time to prepare revolutions.

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    $\begingroup$ I've upvoted you on the strength of your first point, which I think is clever if odd but there are far easier forms of make-work, like building pyramids, than garrisoning the back of beyond. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 9 '18 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ Building a pyramid can be seen as useful, if it's for the king or pharaoh. Guarding a wasteland can be seen as a punishment, so it could be for the soldiers that commited crimes? Now that you both showed me the weaknesses of my second point, I start to have difficulties to argue ^^ $\endgroup$ – Lyzvaleska Jul 9 '18 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jul 9 '18 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ "To make sure the population has something to do." It's a wasteland now, but it doesn't have to be wasteland in the future. Just look at some Gulf countries and Siberia, almost completely useless for centuries and then we found internal combustion engine and oil in those places... But that is not the point I am really making. Your king/dictator/ruler had a prophetic dream: that wasteland will become a lush forest again! As such, he is conducting active reforesting effort... Or whatever. He dreamed it will be the biggest city in the world. The biggest swamp from desert. Etc. $\endgroup$ – jo1storm Jul 9 '18 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ Your first point was what I thought of instantly. Scrolled down to see whether to post an answer, but I can see you've got it covered. "The whole art of war lies in deception" - Sun Tzu. $\endgroup$ – BittermanAndy Jul 12 '18 at 13:58

If you don't control it, someone else will

There's absolutely sod all in the Sinai desert, well sod all except militants. This is periodically rather a problem for Egypt, so they keep the area heavily guarded.

Of course this is a modern problem, but your local trouble makers will accumulate in the uncontrolled spaces and if you don't clear them out then they'll cause trouble for those close to the edge of the territory you do control.

You always have to guard further out into the wilds than you strictly want to, just to stop the problems that will come from there if you don't.

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    $\begingroup$ In counter-insurgency it is referred to as "mowing the grass" $\endgroup$ – Eric Jul 10 '18 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ A Canadian friend told me that they have a military base or two on some of their Arctic islands because the Americans were worried about the Soviets getting their instead. IIRC some principles of international law leave open the possibility of grabbing pieces of land that have been unused for an extended period of time. Or some such... $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Jul 11 '18 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen Well, in the same subject, Canada even settled the province of Saskatchewan and Alberta to avoid the US to take these lands even if back then, there was nothing there (Nowadays they found oil and minerals) $\endgroup$ – Carlos2W Jul 16 '18 at 2:41

You are forgetting the obvious one.

Someone makes money when the wasteland is defended.

In other words, you have a military industrial complex. Some people are making a good living off transporting supplies, building and repairing fortifications, building infrastructure, or supplying mercenaries to support the regular troops. Those people also have the power or persuasive ability to make sure it keeps happening despite the apparent illogicality.

We have to remember that this is a fantasy world, and any resemblance to ours is entirely coincidental.

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    $\begingroup$ Cynical, I like it. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 9 '18 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ Similarly it could also be a matter of bureaucratic inertia. There was once a reason for defending it, which no longer applies, but those in charge have never reviewed the circumstances and those employed in the defence have no reason to question their paycheck. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Jul 9 '18 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Perkins I love it. Wasteland used to provide lemons for the navy until that one war when all the lemon trees were cut down and burned and wasteland became wasteland. Or your Navy got defeated in the war, under peace treaty you are not allowed to rebuild it and lemon orchards have gone into disuse. From tactical advantage you should protect for the strength of your kingdom to worth bugger all, but no one informed the bureaucrats that we are now getting lemons from different place or not need them at all. $\endgroup$ – jo1storm Jul 11 '18 at 8:51
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    $\begingroup$ @jo1storm Similar to how the USA still subsidizes domestic wool production for the purpose of always having enough domestic stock to make military uniforms, even though military uniforms haven't been made of wool in decades. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Jul 12 '18 at 21:48

Trying not to repeat the excellent suggestions in other answers:


The location of the base may provide other enemies with a suitable "forward" base from which to assault the kingdom.

Additionally should a use be found for the wastes in the future you already have a "claim" on it.

Last resort refuge

Should the main kingdom become at risk of falling the remote base could provide a secure, defensible location to retreat to. The wasteland makes it "secure" from one direction at least and if you can make it defensible from the "Kingdom" side then you have a Helm's Deep-esque bolthole to take refuge in.

Secret activities

Every nation invariably has things it wants to keep hidden from prying eyes - weapons research, training facilities for spies and elite troops etc etc. Where better to do this than a seemingly unimportant base in the middle of nowhere? In fact the more isolated the better! Anyone who shows up has clearly made a real effort to get to that specific location and makes infiltration or spying much harder.

  • $\begingroup$ Others referred to the theme as well, but you named it most aptly 'denial'. $\endgroup$ – bukwyrm Jul 10 '18 at 13:46

It's a prison for particularly dangerous criminals awaiting trial, or high-value prisoners of war or politics. Isolated by vast distance and treacherous terrain, fortified and manned to military standards: a facility as effective at preventing escape as it is at warding off rescue or assassination of prisoners too valuable to execute.

It wasn't always a wasteland. Once very valuable, time or catastrophe has rendered the land unlivable. Under the conditions of some treaty, or out of concern over the return of the cause of that catastrophe, the nation owning that land must continue to maintain a strong military presence.

It's not the wasteland, but what lies beneath it, that needs protection. A rich deposit of some natural resource, a burial ground or lost civilization, a cave network that could be exploited to infiltrate the nation. Or some ancient evil once slain but never defeated, buried far from civilized lands, always at risk of returning for vengeance.

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    $\begingroup$ Ah, nice to see someone finally mentioning that they are guarding the wasteland itself. Note that a rich deposit is not necessary; it could actually be a nuclear waste deposit (which also explains the wasteland). Nobody wants activists making dirty bombs with nuclear wastes, so they need guarding. $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Jul 9 '18 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ I upvoted for the prison paragraph. "OK, you think you can climb the prison walls and escape. Then what? You want to die in the wasteland? We won't even bother to send out a search party until we see the vultures diving to feast off your carcass. We'll bring what they don't eat back and toss it on the pile here by the front gate." $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Jul 9 '18 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyHarder: Isn't it why Alcatraz was originally built where it is? $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Jul 10 '18 at 11:49

In addition to the reasons posted in other answers, one obvious one is because it's a vulnerability. Assume the opposite scenario: a large, well off kingdom that has a well defended border, except for the area bordering the wasteland. Where would an opposing army try to sneak in?

The wasteland is a large vulnerability because, unlike other border areas that are well traveled by people, there would be relatively little traffic through the wasteland (if any). This means next to no chance of warning that an enemy was coming, unless it was guarded against or watched for.

  • $\begingroup$ It makes me think of Hammurabi and his elephants army passing the mountains as well as Germany invading unprotected part of French border taking first Benelux countries that supposedly posed no threat to France (they did that twice!) $\endgroup$ – Ister Jul 10 '18 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Ister technically speaking, Belguim was supposed to defend the approaches to the Ardennes, However, yes, both examples are good. $\endgroup$ – Marshall Tigerus Jul 10 '18 at 12:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Ister You meant Hannibal not Hammurabi. $\endgroup$ – Maciej Piechotka Jul 12 '18 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ @maciejpiechotka yes indeed. Thanks for pointing it out. $\endgroup$ – Ister Jul 13 '18 at 23:11

One reason you might see something like this in such a seemingly-senseless location could be to simply maintain legal ownership and control of the area. Areas of land that appear abandoned and unmanaged are common targets for squatters (or in the international sense, targets for annexation by another nation). By establishing a significant-enough presence, you make it clear that this area is part of your nation and not up for grabs, and any attempts to take it would violate international law.

Another option is that while the wasteland is empty and poorly-surveyed at the moment, you have definite plans to do detailed exploratory, surveying, and mapping work in the future. The garrison was built as a staging point for future expeditions, and reinforced just in case something hostile was discovered. You built the garrison but lost funding for the initial survey work. It's cheaper to maintain the garrison and fight to regain the lost funding than to just abandon the whole idea and lose everything.

Your garrison's location on the wasteland may also be an unfortunate coincidence. You have two existing bases that need to be able to communicate, but are too far away from each other. You build several garrisons in between them as relay stations. The garrison locations were chosen based on the distance limitations of your communication technology, and this one just so happened to end up in the middle of nowhere.


Another option among many great answers already

Precious Resources

If the Wasteland Area is known to have something very precious inside it (Uranium, Gold, Oil etc) and the enemies of that state know that it is there. Then it makes perfect sense to protect it, to stop the enemy coming in and taking it.

It's well known that "prevention is better than cure", this goes for military campaigns as well. It's better to stop an enemy getting land than it is to take it back from them. If that land had value due to resources within it, even if they are not currently in use or being mined etc... it's a lot easier to hold onto it by, well holding it.

  • $\begingroup$ I would add a caveat that the resource is not useful to the country that owns it, but is useful to their neighbor/rival. Otherwise, is it really an empty wasteland? $\endgroup$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Jul 10 '18 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ Or potentially useful to the country guarding it, but they are unable to access it with the technology they have -- and are essentially denying access to a more advanced neighbor out of spite. Or the reverse situation, where the country is advanced and some war/disaster resulted in buried tech or other secrets that are not worth retrieving for them, but worth denying access to their neighbors. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Read Jul 12 '18 at 3:23

Search and Rescue

Simply put, they're there to go pull people out of the wasteland when things go wrong. There could be a number of reasons to go into said wasteland - Special resources, a sacred location, a spring that someone says will cure all your ailments, or my favorite: People just going into absurdly dangerous places simply because they can.

This garrison is not strictly a military garrison - Although it may have started out that way - but is a good staging ground for SAR teams to go find people.

This would also make it worthwhile as a training ground for a lot of reasons, but most of those have been touched on by other answers.


I am with KerrAvon2055 here. Training. I am making a separate answer because I have different reasoning from the land being cheap.

The location has following benefits for training the recruits :

Remote from everywhere that matters.

Training accidents? Nobody cares. Accidental collateral damage? Nothing valuable here anyway. Recruits are wanted criminals from the death row (or supposedly already executed ones)? By the time they leave they will be an entirely different person. Your "garrison" is two hundred times as large as it should be and equipped with weapons that are not supposed to exist? Nobody here to notice it. Every recruit with 'e' in their name was sacrificed to elder gods in a blasphemous ritual? Nobody still cares or is looking. The nation is deeply pacifistic and everybody hates the very idea of an organized force of trained murderers? Everybody is not here and never will be. The operation you are training for is totally illegal and nobody will admit to having approved it? Still do not care.

I am sure, you already get the point and realize that having at least one location like this is very convenient. I expect major military powers have bases so conveniently remote that "civilian oversight" happens via satellite connection. Just in case

What the actual benefits are varies but military planners believe in being prepared for the worst, even when it is unlikely and should be avoided at all costs.

It is an extremely bad place to live in.

Speed and mobility of armies is limited by your ability to supply them. So having superior logistics can be a huge strategic advantage.

Or alternately you can just use troops experienced at patrolling a hostile wasteland and let them worry about it. They know how much food or water they need and will not forget to take care of it. They won't complain about any food you provide either. They understand the value of food.

And even if you forget to give them food, they will make sure to find some. They will know what is edible and where to find it. They will also know where and how to find water that is safe to drink. And they will never forget water or throw it away when "retreating" unless they know water is waiting ahead.

So troops that spent some time in your desert will have superior strategic mobility and are much less likely to collapse if forced to retreat away from their supply routes. Entire armies have been lost that way.

Patrolling the wasteland is totally and obviously useless.

Anybody can do useful things. But to keep doing something that everybody knows is totally useless and to keep doing it well, that takes discipline.

And discipline is the difference between an army and an armed mob. It is also the difference between an army that holds and the one that breaks.

These men will not refuse an order to charge an enemy just because it is stupid and might get them killed for nothing. Following orders to do something even more stupid that might get them killed for even less than nothing is how they were trained.

Nobody else is doing this stupid thing.

Yeah, we are special. Different from all the others. None of those sissies has gone thru this hell. Let them break or whine, we never will. We survive and we always will.

Basically this will work as a rite of passage and shared experience that will create a very strong esprit de corps and group identity. Such troops are less likely to break or desert. They might end up being more loyal to their commander than their country though, so numbers would be kept low. Which would further make them feel elite.


The reason cannot be understood.


In absurdist philosophy, the Absurd arises out of the fundamental disharmony between the individual's search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe. As beings looking for meaning in a meaningless world, humans have three ways of resolving the dilemma...

Suicide (or, "escaping existence")..

Religious, spiritual, or abstract belief in a transcendent realm, being, or idea...

Acceptance of the Absurd: a solution in which one accepts the Absurd and continues to live in spite of it. Camus endorsed this solution, believing that by accepting the Absurd, one can achieve the greatest extent of one's freedom, and that by recognizing no religious or other moral constraints and by revolting against the Absurd while simultaneously accepting it as unstoppable, one could possibly be content from the personal meaning constructed in the process.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Godot is an absurdist play. The characters wait for Godot, whose nature is unspecified. The necessity of waiting is not explained. There is no explanation of events that will transpire if Godot arrives. It is a trip to be sure. It is a great frustration to concrete thinkers because why?

So too your fortress. The reason that it is compelling is that it is unexplained. It might be unexplainable.


Territory is valuable. There is no territory which is so worthless that it isn't worthless enough so you wouldn't fight for it, fullstop.

Even if your entire wastelands are, literally, waste lands (radioactive waste) and uninhabitable for the next 5,000 years, you will not give them up. But if you do not guard it, someone else might, or rather will, claim it.

You can see examples of this in the real world. China is, if it comes to it, willing to start a war over some petty, unimportant shitholes (my excuses to anyone living on one of these isles by coincidence and reading this) somewhere in the Chinese sea. Which have no real, or strategic, or imagined value at all.
Some other nation in that corner fo the world (I forgot which, was it Vietnam?) sold some billion tons of sand to Dubai for building half a decade back, and then found out that the remaining sand just collapses back to fill the hole. It happened that subsequently, some "isle" which was a mere uninhabited sand bank was gone, and by consequence their sea territory got a couple of dozen miles or so smaller. You might say "who cares! this isn't even land!" but this was a huge uproar.
Italy gets nothing but trouble from e.g. Lampedusa, it would be the easiest and most reasonable thing for them to simply give it up. But this will never happen.
Go back to the 80s (Falkland war), same thing. What's a barren rock at the end of the world which is frozen half of the year good for? Harsh wind, and no sun? But oh hell, you don't give up territory, ever.

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    $\begingroup$ Islands give fishing rights around, which is of considerable economic value. $\endgroup$ – Nicolas Raoul Jul 12 '18 at 3:14

"International law requires a country that claims territory to actively occupy and defend such territory." That alone is pretty much enough for you. But there is more:

To watch for incoming bombers.

That actually happened.

Distant Early Warning Line was a series of radar stations ("actively guarding") in the farthest, arctic north of Canada and Alaska ("wasteland").

Here's a cool detail: In the 50's-60's, they invented some absolutely unreal vehicles that make "monster trucks" pale in comparison - just to reach and resupply those bases in winter. Unfortunately, large helicopters were perfected about same time and that instantly killed the need of wheeled behemoths.


Depending on your setting and level of technology...


Radiation is a completely invisible but very long-lasting hazard - having guards stationed to protect people from entering such an area would not only work to encourage vigilant guards (who would want a death like that on their hands?) but also greatly discourage trespassing as well!

All you'd need to do to allow people access is to give them a hazmat suit, along with proper authorization to enter the wasteland as a 'research specialist'.

You'd of course have to control who's allowed in there too - but that's reasonable in areas with high levels of radiation.

Also, whether or not there actually is radiation in that area is entirely up to you.

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    $\begingroup$ shoot, I was going to write in something like this, I wasn't sure it completely fits the question though since they specify that there is no threat of any kind in the waste and I would consider radiation a threat $\endgroup$ – BKlassen Jul 9 '18 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ @BKlassen Only if the field is actually irradiated - the nice thing about that is that most civilians don't carry around a Geiger counter. And, as implied in my answer, you can always add some radioactive material near the perimeter to sell the story. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Jul 10 '18 at 12:59


You know, because there is no threat and no hostile humans or predators it is a very good route for smuggling things into your land which the native government does not want to have.

The idea "Hey, waste land prevents smuggling" is refuted: Any desert can be defeated by expeditions leaving hidden caches behind. It may take some time, but finally any distance can be handled.

So, this outpost is in kind of competition with the smugglers: The smugglers try to get in, the soldiers tries to prevent that. The reality is that the smugglers normally win: They can choose time and location of their attempts and with the money they can get the best gear available. Those outposts only curb the smuggling to a certain level so that not whole convoys of smuggling goods get past the barrier.

  • $\begingroup$ Those outposts only curb the smuggling to a certain level when not being bribed to look the other way... $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Jul 16 '18 at 4:09

The Wasteland is effectively a border. Borders are worth guarding always all the time, no exception.

believed to be empty of any threat worthwhile

If you only believe that then I assume you don't have satellites or planes to tell you, that no expedition came back and that it is uncharted territory at your level of technology.

"Nobody would come from there" is perfect for the Famous last words trope (I'll spare you the tvtropes link, you know there's one). Great generals throughout history have demonstrated an ability to make the best of areas deemed impracticable, it would behove any military worth its salt to maintain a presence in such an area as part of an advanced warning system.

The fact is you don't know what lies beyond. Could be nothing. Could be there's another kingdom watching at the wasteland wondering what's on the other side. Could be there's a great evil centimetering closer unbeknownst to you. You don't know. So you build series of towers for two men to keep an eye on the horizon and make sure the wasteland is indeed void and empty.

The heart of that system is a big fortress. It's a big fortress and not some crummy old cabin for a variety of reasons:

  • Maybe you have something to prove. Maybe you have something to compensate for. Never underestimate hubris as a motor for human ingenuity.

  • Maybe it's an old fortress built there for some reason, maybe as a starting point for expeditions through the wasteland (the ones that never returned). Or maybe your built fortresses to mark the land and this one just said "I own the place" and now you're stuck with it.

  • Maybe it is intended to host an army. If you have to send your men to defend the borders, that would be your command post. It probably beats a field camp, and your predecessors probably had a good reason to prefer that.

  • Maybe it does host an army. As the command centre of your alert system, this is your first response force. There probably isn't enough of a force to kerb any invasion, but even if they get ganked they will delay the enemy just enough. Of course, you don't tell them that.

Whatever reason, the fortress is there, and you keep it because you can only impose your law as far as you can reach, and this is proof you can reach this far.

Double employ

Others have pointed in various answers the training grounds aspect of such a location, and I can only agree. It's harsh, which will weed out the weak. It's remote, so it won't interfere with the operations of your dominion. And it if does get ganked as aforementioned, you only lost the most inexperienced part of your army. But again, you don't tell them that.

It is also, as others have pointed, a place where you can do whatever you feel like. Dump dead bodies, test nukes, keep alien artefacts, field test new equipment in extreme weather, conduct experiments on live subjects and as always you don't tell them that. The possibilities are endless for less-than-moral activities you can conceal in the middle of nowhere.

You might consider it as a prison for your rivals, but just do yourself a favour and throw them in a river instead. You know they will escape and plot against you by assuming the identity of some dashing lad or ugly bum or something. You're only allowed to be that genre-blind if you are the villain of the story.

In any case, your veterans might view the post as some easy assignment, where nothing happens and they can toy with the new kids, and they get paid for it. Younger soldiers dread it as the end of their career, away from any action, excitement or adventure.

In the future, people will find their way through the wasteland and back. We'll know what lies beyond. But the fortress will be long decrepit by then. Maybe your successor will bulldoze it and build a wall instead.

But as far as you are concerned right now, it's a point on the map that completes the circle around your territory.

  • $\begingroup$ While I'm grateful you didn't I'm still tempted to put the TVTropes link in anyway. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 10 '18 at 13:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Ash I can already feel it, a million hours of productivity crying out in terror and suddenly silenced. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Jul 10 '18 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ That is why I'm glad you didn't and while tempted to do it am refraining from it, I have other things to do this week. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jul 10 '18 at 13:37

It stops rebels

There is a very simple thing that gathers in Wastelands: Outcasts. If a society generates many outcasts that are driven out of the urban areas (you call these urban wastelands "social hotspots" at times), they look for new areas. Urban fringes can become such a gathering place, but in the past, the really shunned people fled to the wastelands: the Australian Outback had been a place where bandits fled to when towns got too hot for them, just like Che had retreated to the mountains and Ho Chi Min to the jungle. People were not around, as was the law, and that allowed these to gather strength in groups, and some to start a rebellion.

Wich in turn is a good reason to guard the wasteland: If it is not guarded from the outside, rebels and criminals will gather there. If it is not guarded agaisnt whoever is there, those people already in there will come upon the fortress. For THIS fortress, there is no fully 'friendly' area: just the Hostile wasteland on the one side, and the country, from which any passage into the wasteland is to be prevented.

Bonus points: should any aliens land in the desert... well, then we have "illegal" alien "rebels" of extraterrestrial origin facing with a borderguard that will not allow any trespassing.

It guards a Preserve

Even if it looks like wastelands on the first look, it is a natural beauty on the second. It grows rare plants and has some unique small animals and insects. And the people, after exploring it fully (or even before!) have decided, that this ecosystem needs to be preserved for the future. And not just with rangers, it needs to be preserved THAT much against any intrusion, that it is in the duty of the Army to keep it untouched. They are allowed to train at the outer edge of the dedicated area as a little payback.


Greenfield development delayed by bureaucracy

The government is trying to sell the land but there has been endless delays and legal challenges, perhaps raised by the people who supposedly don't live there.

As a complication, settlement of the land is a popular national issue and no politician would be seen dead suggesting that it can't be settled.


To protect yourself from what is/might be beyond the wasteland. If something is to come across the wasteland it is preferable to fight in the wasteland than in your more valueable territory.

  • The wasteland provided no resources to the attacker, in your non-wasteland, the invader can live from the land
  • The wasteland allows you to defend in depth, "We lost 50 miles of wasteland? Who cares."

That world's version of the Silk Road passes through the wasteland, and even though you say that it's "devoid of large predators and humans alike", bandits would love to hijack caravans.


I'll add one more reason to alreayd existing great answers.

Historical reasons.

India and Pakistan guard a massive border running through the midst of the Thar Desert (The Great Indian Desert). Why? Because that's how the British Raj divided India and Pakistan, and two countries has been at odds ever since. Because of the enmity, if any country were to lose an square inch of the desert, they would lose face.

Thar Desert is not exactly a complete wasteland, but due to the harsh conditions India and Pakistan do have to spend enormous amounts of money to protect these borders.


They're not "guarding" the wasteland.

The guards are an internal threat

There is a fear of a military coup from these units. They need to be kept away from the economic heartland of the country at all costs. There are powerful political interests that would use them if they were nearer the capital, and there are even more powerful interests that need to keep them away.

The nation still needs these soldiers, or at least polticially can't get rid of them, but the people in power do not trust them. Guarding some ghost border is a perfect task for them. This is a survival calculation, so cost is nearly irrelevant.

This, of course, may or may not be the "official line". There are a lot of other great answers here, and any would do as an official excuse.

This is the reason that the Romans did not want generals in the provinces leading armies into Italy. When it happened it ended badly for those in power in Rome.

There is a (I think fallacious) story that the reason that the Kings German Legion were stationed on the Isle of Wight was the stationing foreign mercenary troops on the British mainland was either illegal or just not a very good idea. It may also be part of the reasoning why, historically, the French Foreign legion were created to fight outside of mainland France and stationed in Algeria.



There are of a few of us in power who know of peoples on the other side of that wasteland. Though they pose no physical threat, and the number of people who survive crossing the wasteland is extremely low (near zero), we simply do not want any potential survivors here. Their mere presence would contradict millennia of dogma and pose a crisis to our power.

Note: this question reminds me of current proposals to build a wall along the entire southern United States border with Mexico. Having lived in some and visited others of the hot and dry wastelands in the southern US, I can confirm that there are large swaths of land that come close to satisfying your criteria.


Argentina has kept a continuous human presence on Antarctica since 1904.

Argentina does not exploit anything there, it does not extract minerals nor farm penguins. I believe the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty actually forbids any such activity. It could be said that some revenue are retrieved from tourism, but most people there are paid by the government and I am sure the revenue from tourism does not come close to the cost of keeping a presence there.

So, why has Argentina kept a presence for more than a century?

Most people say it is to ground their territorial claims there.
Chile and the UK also have territorial claims on the same territories, but they have a lower standpoint precisely because they have not kept a continuous presence there.

Conclusion: Some countries do not need any rational reason for keeping a presence on a piece of land, and consider that adding a few digits to their country area statistics is a valid reason by itself.

enter image description here Argentine Antarctic settlement "Esperanza" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ArgentineAntarcticEsperanza.JPG Travellers & Tinkers


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