Tracks from Flanders to Tiananmen Square

<i>Tank: the progress of a monstrous war machine</i> by Patrick Wright (Faber &amp; Faber, &pound;25, 499pp)
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In one of Ian Hamilton Finlay's designs using the tank as a motif, the machine lurks in a rustic glade, captioned "'Of Famous Arcady Are We' - John Milton." Contradictory suggestions and ironic implications ripple from this image which is at once sinister, hilarious and heraldically beautiful. Is Pastoral England invaded, or does it stand ready to repel invasion? Patrick Wright has written very well about the ideology of Deep England. His range of interests across literature and the arts equips him to present a brilliant account of the semiotics of the Tank, technically well-informed and, perversely, very entertaining.

In one of Ian Hamilton Finlay's designs using the tank as a motif, the machine lurks in a rustic glade, captioned "'Of Famous Arcady Are We' - John Milton." Contradictory suggestions and ironic implications ripple from this image which is at once sinister, hilarious and heraldically beautiful. Is Pastoral England invaded, or does it stand ready to repel invasion? Patrick Wright has written very well about the ideology of Deep England. His range of interests across literature and the arts equips him to present a brilliant account of the semiotics of the Tank, technically well-informed and, perversely, very entertaining.

One Great War officer, present when the first British tanks went into action on the Somme in 1916, saw the body of a Scottish soldier on a concrete parapet over which one had passed - "just a splash of blood and clothing about two feet wide and perhaps an inch thick... Nothing stops these cars, trees break and bend, boulders are pressed into the earth." This was the Tank as Juggernaut or Behemoth - an awesome portent of a new era of armoured, swift aggression, destined to end the attrition of trench warfare forever.

"The Bible and other literary sources were mined for metaphors" as journalists vied to find words to evoke these monsters. Freely compared to dragons and prehistoric animals, they also struck many as essentially Modernistic. Picasso had hailed a camouflaged armoured car he had seen in Paris as an outcome of Cubism. The "Cubist" planes in the powerful war paintings of CWR Nevinson were directly related by at least one critic to the Tank.

Yet tanks in action, lumbering and unwieldy, aroused laughter in Tommies when they first saw them. And the pathos of the tank soon became apparent. A well-aimed grenade or petrol bomb would make a death-trap for its crew. A German who peered into a tank which copped it on the Eastern Front noted "A headless torso, bloody flesh and intestines were sticking to the walls".

Men in tanks are imprisoned by the armour designed to protect them. Once as state-of-the-art as a "smart" missile, they have often seemed as obsoletely doom-laden as the heavy French knights brought low at Agincourt by Englishmen on foot. In the Six Day War of 1967, tanks showed both aspects at once. Israeli attackers were swift and deadly like Mongol horsemen; Arab tanks the tombs for hapless victims.

Tanks were intended to create panic. Their usually successful role in cowing civilians was established when six rolled into Glasgow in 1919 to overawe strikers demanding a 40-hour week. Panzer onslaughts in France in 1940 generated mass panic. What else would be sent into Prague in 1968 to blight the Czechoslovak "spring?" What could better express eastern European re-emergence from Soviet thralldom than the painting pink, by a dissident artist, of a tank set up in Prague to commemorate "liberation" by Russians in 1945? And what image could more powerfully express the human spirit's defiance of totalitarianism than the lone man who halted a column of tanks moving into Tiananmen Square in 1989?

Wright begins by examining that moment, in which the tank was demystified and remystified, then ranges back over the 20th century, concluding with the wondrous gobbledegook of the US military who profess to be satisfied with the "victory" of their new armoured technology in the Gulf War.

In 1995, the Advanced Warfighting Working Group at Fort Knox was addressed by Pamela Jaye Smith of MYTHWORKS, a consultancy advising Hollywood scriptwriters on how to create myths. Her description of the "Warrior Path" drew heavily on notions such as karma, mission ("Protect the Weak and the Innocent"), chivalric love and warrior bonding. "Her examples of 'the Worthy Opponent' included Patton and Rommel, but also Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker".

Lest one might think that only Clinton's US could generate such tosh, Wright has explored the career and thinking of Major-General J F C Fuller, the first British theorist of tank warfare, later revered by German, Israeli and US tankmen.

This poetry-loving, clever, arrogant anti-Christian, who joined Mosley's Fascist Party, had been a beloved disciple of the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, whose "esoteric idea of history as a cross between a cosmic Wurlitzer and a vast spiralling seashell" closely informs his thinking. The Tank represented the triumph of the material over the spiritual, defeating sentimental tradition.

Yet the familiar cameo in which Polish lancers, ineffectually charging Panzers in 1939, represent the defeat of chivalry (good, maybe) and aristocracy (bad, because not modern) is undermined by the fact that the Wehrmacht in 1939-45 employed more horses than any army in history. The prime reason for this was logistic. Huge modern armies need to be fed, in this case from horse-drawn carts. And the vaunted mobility of the tank was always compromised by its thirst for petrol.

The small size of Israel, making defence in depth impossible, became a strength, with short supply-lines and opportunist, aggressive tactics. In Israeli hands, the tank re-entered the sphere of Old Testament prophecy, as the pre-eminent defender of Zion.

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