About this book
Why, as a former Polish general once asked me, would someone who normally writes about culture ever become interested in the tank?
I first started to think about this military machine while writing The Village that Died for England. There, it featured as the despoiler of a much valued landscape on the Dorset coast, taken over to form Britain’s first tank gunnery range in 1916, and retained ever since despite several generations of clamour and objection.
For the people who opposed it, the tank was a hideous and wholly destructive thing. To begin with I was inclined to share that assumption, but then I realised that this was not how this new machine appeared to the locals who defended its presence, and not just out of economic pragmatism. Indeed, the tank exercised considerable powers of compulsion as a symbol of popular patriotism, modernity, and sacrifice.
I saw further evidence of the symbolic life of this machine in the late eighties, when tanks featured in much of the imagery signalling the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. A key moment took place immediately after the massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, 1989: a column of tanks proceeding down Cangan Boulevard was faced down and stopped in its tracks by a single protestor. I wrote the book in that quite optimistic period, when people talked of beating swords into ploughshares, of converting tank factories to civil engineering projects, and when artists imagined returning the tank to the cultural domain from which its idea had first emerged.
The book opens with the Tiananmen Square episode – an image that had quickly become established as a defining picture of the new ‘people power’ across the West. I remember phoning the military historian John Keegan to ask what he made of that stand-off between man and machine. I was surprised when he dismissed it, as being of no military significance whatsoever. In a sense this was easily grasped: tanks, after all, were not designed to be used this way. And yet this was evidently a momentous image. To me, at least, it suggested that the symbolic dimensions of the tank were indeed an essential part of its story, and not just part of its largely irrelevant afterlife as an image.
The tank first emerged in 1916 to meet the requirements of the immobilised western front. But this motorized metal box also had recognizably cultural origins. H.G. Wells’s story ‘The Land Ironclads’ (1903) was in the background, as were the poetics of the notoriously occultist and sex beast, Aleister Crowley. The first tanks were likened to prehistorical monsters and to various creatures of literary fantasy. They were gendered – categorised as male or female according to their weaponry – and accompanied, in their first faltering attempts to manoeuvre, by gales of laughter provided both by onlooking infantrymen and also by the officers and dignitaries who assembled to watch them perform at mechanical ballets. One of their most successful operations in the Great War was carried out on the home front: a selection of these feted contrivances were shipped back from the western front and used as compelling fund-raising devices, touring British cities as ‘tank banks’ for the National War Savings Committee.
It might well be thought that the ‘cultural’ aspect of the tank would fade into prehistory once the machine was effectively engineered and no longer just a primitive metal box, dubbed a ‘land ship’ and reliant, as some of the first models where, on carrier pigeons for communications. Yet, as I try to show while traversing the later history of the tank, this was emphatically not the case. The symbolic impact of the tank – it was called ‘the moral effect’ in the early days – remains essential to its operation, and not just in peace-keeping operations.