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A Very Strange Machine’

In November 1917, at Cambrai, three hundred British tanks broke through the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg trench system on a front of seven miles and, for a loss of four thousand men, captured eight thousand terrified German prisoners. It was a penetration equal to that which had taken three months and countless deaths to achieve at the Third Battle of Ypres. When the victory bells rang in England at the end of November, tank supporters were sure that they were tolling out an old style of war and sounding in a new one, which would be characterized by deep thrusts and encirclements rather than the bloody paralysis of the trenches.

These prophets were eventually proved correct, but it took a long time. It is true that the tank had an important part in the last year of the Great War—in General Ferdinand Foch’s counterattack in the Battle of Soissons on July 18, 1918, for example, and in Sir Henry Rawlinson’s rapid advance on the first day of the Battle of Amiens on August 18, 1918, which caused the chaos and panic of what General Erich Ludendorff called the “black day” of the German army. But the predicted tactical revolution was delayed for another twenty years, largely because of the entrenched conservatism of military establishments.

This conservatism took different forms in different countries. As far as Britain is concerned, the reader of Patrick Wright’s insightful new book may be inclined to believe that it was chiefly owing to the continued mystique of the cavalry, which seemed to most soldiers to be a truer form of war than anything that could be accomplished by machines. The cavalry, as one soldier explained ruefully, was “the social difficulty,” for it had always been “the high class thing to be in.” It seems likely also that the zeal of the tank’s advocates helped to discredit their arguments.

The most distinguished of these, J.F.C. Fuller, a theorist of rare imagination who was one of the architects of Cambrai, made no secret of his contempt for the uninspired strategy of Field Marshal Haig and for what he called the craven acquiescence of the civilian government in his failure of vision. But Fuller’s shrillness and his propensity for political extremism (he was a member of Sir Oswald Mosley’s Fascist Party, an early admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, and an ardent anti-Semite) helped to discredit his views and bring his military career to an early end. What postwar tank exercises there were in Britain were badly handled and tended to discourage the cause of mechanization.

This was also true of France, where the voices of the rare supporters of the tank like Charles de Gaulle were drowned out in the postwar years by the Pétainist advocates of defensive war, and also of the United States, where isolationist feeling was so strong that the promising Tank Corps of the war years was dismantled and all tanks were placed under the command of the infantry and trained in traditional infantry tactics. In Italy, the prestige of the Fascist movement made tanks indispensable, if only for their symbolic uses, as platforms for speeches by Il Duce. But the Italians never developed effective tactics for the light Fiat tanks they possessed; they used them in Ethiopia to support infantry in offensive operations even when the terrain was inappropriate, and in the Spanish civil war the Italian tanks, while attracting much press attention, were roundly defeated at the Battle of Guadalajara in April 1937.

It was only in Germany and the Soviet Union that real progress was made toward articulating a new style of war in the interwar period. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, of course, made it impossible for the Germans to possess tanks, but, as Wright tells us, they soon discovered that much could be learned about them from exercises with motorcycles, sports planes, and armored cars borrowed from the police. As early as 1924 officers like Heinz Guderian were studying Fuller’s theories and testing them in such maneuvers. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Vladimir Triandafillov, both of whom owed more to Fuller than they liked to admit, developed a theory of “deep war” in which tanks would have a major part. Preliminary steps to build up the mechanized Red Army of the future were taken at the Kazan Tank School in the late Twenties, and in the 1936 maneuvers one thousand tanks passed in review.

This progress was dramatically curtailed after the Great Purge of 1937, in which Stalin satisfied an old grudge against Tukhachevsky by eliminating him and his chief followers. The Soviet dictator did not possess the imagination to understand tanks, which he dismissed as products of bourgeois capitalism, and his commissar for defense, Voroshilov, put an end to independent armored operations, although—fortunately for the Soviet Union in the light of what lay ahead—he continued with the production of the prototype of the T-34 tank that was to turn the tide at Stalingrad.

It was therefore the German blitzkrieg, in the fulminating campaigns in Poland, the Low Countries, and France in 1939 and 1940, that changed the face of warfare. The first of these bred the stubborn myth that the Polish war was “an undignified rout with a few deluded lancers charging at tanks,” a story spread equally by the German commander Heinz Guderian and the British military historian Basil Liddell Hart. Wright will have none of this. Citing the Polish historian Tadeusz Jurga’s decades of work on the campaign, he points out that the Poles actually resisted longer in 1939 than the French did in 1940, and that they mobilized 200,000 troops which, in an operation comparable to the Germans’ Ardennes offensive of 1944, forced Hitler’s Eighth Army into a tactical retreat. The Poles were defeated not by innocence about the capacities of tanks but by German superiority in numbers, airpower, and armor, and by the devastating speed with which they deployed them. And Germany’s other antagonists in the first years of the war had the same experience.

These quick victories, however, had ruinous aftereffects when Hitler’s arrogant ambition led him to launch his assault on Russia in June 1941. In the first campaigns in the east, Nazi armor was no less successful than it had been in France, but, as Geoffrey Megargee has pointed out, both Hitler and his generals vastly underestimated the resources at their enemy’s disposal and pinned their hopes on a short campaign. * This was a fatal error that should have become obvious after the halt before Moscow in December 1941 and became painfully so with the Soviet counterattack at Stalingrad a year later. This so-called Operation Uranus exemplified in certain respects Tukhachevsky’s concept of “deep war.” Under the command of Colonel General N.F. Vatutin, Soviet armor smashed through the weakened flanks of the German Sixth Army to the north and south of Stalingrad and then came together to encircle that army and parts of the 4th Panzer Army as well. Before the resultant “Operation Ring” was completed in January 1943, German casualties amounted to 209,000 dead and 91,000 captured.

Hitler still made one final attack before the long retreat began. Launched in July 1943, and designed to devastate Soviet forces in Central Russia, the Battle of Kursk has often been called “the biggest tank battle in history,” and as it is usually described as pitting fifty German divisions with 3,155 tanks against a Soviet force of over a million men and 3,275 tanks. Wright believes that this description is misleading, and that in reality Kursk was a sequence of four separate battles, climaxing at the railway junction of Prokhorovka, where five hundred German tanks, including some new heavy- model Panthers and sixty-ton Tigers, fought against 793 Soviet machines, mostly T-34s, but including some British Churchills. There are other estimates of the numbers involved, but general agreement that this engagement was an “enormous armoured brawl” which turned Prokhorovka into a graveyard for burned-out Soviet and German machines, as well as the soldiers that manned them. Taken all in all, Kursk marked the end of Germany’s strategic control of the war, and, in the words of Soviet Marshal Konev, was “the swan-song of the German armoured force.”

What Wright has called the “progress” of the tank did not stop when peace was restored at the end of World War II, for the founding of Israel in 1948 inaugurated a period of warfare with Egypt, Syria, and other Arab states that continued for more than fifty years and involved battles that were at times as large and as violent as those that had occurred on the Soviet–German front. In the Six-Day War of 1967, and again in the October War of 1973, it has been estimated that at least five thousand tanks and perhaps more than six thousand were engaged. Nor were they employed with any less sophistication than in World War II. Israeli commanders like Major Generals Israel Tal, Avraham Adan, and Ariel Sharon were professors of the blitzkrieg, and Tal, at least, was well read in the works of Fuller, Liddell Hart, and Guderian. After Tal’s triumphant breakthrough at Rafah in the Six-Day War, Wright tells us that he began, altogether in the spirit of Fuller, to argue that Israel needed “an army that would operate by fast breakthroughs carried out by ‘all-tank’ brigades, supported by air but not hindered by armoured infantry…, which should be relegated to ‘mopping-up’ operations.”

Israeli tanks had an important part in ending the feeling of victimization that was caused by the Holocaust, and the brilliance of the Six-Day campaign completed what Wright calls “the transformation of the Jew from the cowering ghetto victim to the victorious armed citizen.” But, as in the case of the Nazis, military success also bred overconfidence, in this case, a tendency to believe that “the miserable Arabs” were incapable of mounting or sustaining a serious war effort. For this Israel had to pay a price in October 1973 when, handicapped by late mobilization, it was subjected to combined assaults by Egyptian and Syrian forces, well supplied with Soviet T-54s, T-55s, and brand new T-62s, which came close to driving their outnumbered units from the Golan Heights while simultaneously crossing the Suez Canal and attacking the Bar Lev line.

Contrary to the prevailing doctrine, the Israeli tanks were forced to resort to piecemeal counterattacks against superior forces (on the Golan, 177 Israeli tanks to 1,400 Syrian machines), and the situation became so desperate that ministers in Jerusalem were, according to Wright, discussing the possible use of nuclear weapons. Luckily, when the Israelis were down to their last reserve of seventeen tanks, the Syrians lost heart and began to retreat from the Golan, while simultaneously the Egyptian mistake in leaving the canal’s west bank unprotected led to Sharon’s counterattack and encirclement of their Third Army, which forced them to sue for peace.

The October War was followed by recriminations and outrage in Israel, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir and a shakeup of the army command and intelligence service. At the same time, because of the heavy armored losses that it suffered in the October campaign, the Israeli Defense Force speeded up the production of a new tank, the Merkava, or Chariot, which General Tal had designed and perfected over the previous ten years. In an interview with Wright that is reproduced in Tank, Tal explained that, whereas all tanks represent a triangular reconciliation of three partly contradictory capacities, namely, firepower, mobility, and protection, the Merkava is notable for giving priority to protection above all, with inbuilt safeguards against the danger of fire or exploding muni- tions, and more effective means of escape for the crew in case the tank is hit. Wright believes that the Merkava Mark III is “as safe as a monstrous killing machine can be: a tank for a small country of four million that, humanitarian considerations aside, must do everything it can to minimize losses among its trained tank forces.”

Meanwhile, the popularity of the tank in Israel at large and the sense of being dependent on it remains strong, although the tank evidently cannot protect civilians against suicide attacks. Wright cites a 1994 Claude Lanzmann film about the Israeli Defense Force in which a reservist who was the sole survivor of his tank crew in the October War gives a moving description of the fate of his comrades but then says:

I like tanks very much. I like to drive them. I like to shoot from them. A tank is a very beautiful machine. It is a very strange machine. It’s not human at all, but it’s very dynamic, very vital.

Less satisfactory than this brilliant discussion of armored warfare in Israel is Wright’s concluding chapter about his visit to the US Army Armor Center at Fort Knox and his discussions there with tank specialists. His account of these will not always be easy for the layman to understand, and it is a pity that he did not spend more time explaining the military conviction that a restructuring of the army “to make the most of digital technology …would finally disperse what Clausewitz called the fog of war.” As for the tank of the future, Wright writes mysteriously that it had been

engineered out of the cultural imagination in the second decade of the twentieth century; and it was apparent, eighty years later, that if it was to survive into the twenty-first century as anything other than an obsolete hunk of old steel, it must now be turned back into a “concept.”

Maybe it won’t even touch the ground,” said one of Wright’s interlocutors, “maybe it will ride on an electro-magnetic cushion;…maybe its gun will be a laser beam.” But there would always be “one platform providing direct and indirect force defense power.”

One senses that these ruminations have been overtaken by time, like the reference to Desert Storm having become “the model of future American wars,” a sentiment difficult to defend now that it is realized that that operation failed to achieve a satisfactory result and now that members of the current administration are agitating to have it refought. In any case, the tank has survived into the twenty-first century without being reduced to a concept; and another soldier at Fort Knox told Wright that he was perfectly happy with the civilian impression of tanks as “ponderous machines that will squash you…. And let me tell you, if you want to get somebody’s attention, just put a M1A1 tank on the ground.”

Wright’s book is an excellent military history of his subject, written in lively prose and with a wealth of unfamiliar detail. He is fascinated also by the mythic cult of the tank and the way in which it has affected the popular imagination, and his book is filled with references to the ways in which countries have come to be known by their tanks (the T-34, the Tiger, the Merkava), and politicians had their destinies affected by them (Boris Yeltsin and Michael Dukakis), and how the tank has symbolized tyranny (Prague in 1968) and been an object of popular defiance (the confrontation in Tiananmen Square between a single individual and a column of tanks in June 1989).

What he has to say on these topics is interesting but not always persuasive. Is the current booming market for SUVs in the United States really powered by the insecurity of drivers? (“It’s a jungle out there,” according to one writer. “It’s Mad Max. People want to kill me, rape me. Give me a big thing like a tank.”) Surely the social prestige of owning the biggest car on the block, as well as the ideal soccer mom’s vehicle, is a likelier motive.

  1. *

    See my article, “‘A Talented Amateur,’” in The New York Review, February 28, 2002, p. 26.

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