Tankishness

Peter Wollen

  • Tank: The Progress of a Monstrous War Machine by Patrick Wright
    Faber, 499 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 571 19259 9

The tank, I was surprised to learn, was a British invention. It provided a much-needed response to the recent development of barbed wire, fortified trenches and rapid-fire machine-guns. Armoured against both wire and gunfire, the tank could lurch across trenches and traverse roadless battlefields pitted with shell craters. I was even more surprised to learn that the tank was developed in the first instance not by the Army but by the Navy, which had already armoured its gunships and was open-minded about new inventions, prepared to back them even if they had no naval relevance. Patrick Wright’s fascinating book is a cultural rather than a military history, dwelling on images and impressions of the tank, its impact on the general public, the responses of artists and writers, rather than its evolving strategic role and its transformation of the concept of the battlefield. Nonetheless, the tank was and is primarily a military object and military history remains the foundation on which the more fanciful constructions of the cultural historian can be built. The story of the tank is inseparable from the development of highly mechanised and mobile armies, equipped with the new technologies that enabled troops to combine the means of defence with the means of attack, armour with artillery.

Ernest Swinton gave his indispensable book of memoirs, Eyewitness, the subtitle ‘Being Personal Reminiscences of Certain Phases of the Great War, Including the Genesis of the Tank’. The book begins with eight photographs of British tanks from the First World War: fallen into a ditch, resisting a flame-thrower attack, lined up in rows at the Central Workshop and ready for issue, surmounting a parapet before crunching down into a redoubt. The most telling is captioned: ‘Method of releasing a carrier pigeon from a porthole in a Tank’. A human hand, poking out through a hole in a tank sponson, grasps a fluffy pigeon by its tail, like Noah with his dove. It reminds us that tanks still lacked any form of radio contact, that the technology of mechanisation was running far ahead of the technology of communication. The story of the tank is one of uneven development, fantastic visions of the future coming to terms with technological lags, sudden leaps forward resulting from some unexpected new invention or surprising turn of fate. Yet throughout its history, the tank retained one constant set of qualities: it was perceived either as terrifying (theirs), inspiring (ours) or ludicrous (in itself).

Swinton believed that he could pinpoint the exact moment which would lead to the creation of the tank. It was in South Africa, in the early morning of 14 June 1900, when he first saw a machine-gun manned in an emplacement, to be used against a commando troop of Boers. In the event, it malfunctioned, but Swinton was confident that it would become the determining weapon of the future. He followed its use in the Russo-Japanese War, which clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of both the machine-gun and the howitzer as defensive weapons. Then, in July 1914, he received an interesting letter from an old Boer War acquaintance, a mining engineer who had recently acquired a Holt Caterpillar Tractor with surprising powers of travelling across country. As Swinton says, ‘this knowledge lay dormant in my mind until ten weeks after the War had broken out. When it did recur to me it was as if a ray of light had struck a sensitised plate.’ In September 1914, very soon after the outbreak of war, Swinton was instructed by Kitchener, whom he had known in South Africa, to travel immediately to France as an official Eyewitness and write a series of reports to be sent directly to Kitchener as Secretary of State for War: having forbidden normal press coverage of the war, Kitchener would decide whether to authorise publication or not, as he saw fit. In any case, he would have read them all himself.

Once in France, Swinton was alarmed by German superiority in artillery:

If our resourceful, industrious and well-equipped opponents were able to accomplish so much in haste and with improvised means, what might they not do, given time, even with field defences? During the first week of October my mind continually returned to this. And, vaguely, I pictured to myself some form of armoured vehicle immune against bullets, which should be capable of destroying machine guns and of ploughing a way through wire. This picture, though not yet in focus and ill-defined, was the germ of our future Tank.

During the next two weeks, Swinton’s vague idea ‘crystallised in the form of a power-driven, bullet-proof, armed engine, capable of destroying machine guns, of crossing country and trenches, of breaking through entanglements, and of climbing earthworks’. On 19 October, he suddenly remembered the Holt Caterpillar Tractor: ‘Why should it not be modified and adapted to suit our present requirements for war? The key to the problem lay in the caterpillar track!’

Kitchener was quite unimpressed by Swinton’s idea, which now seemed doomed to sink from sight. However, the persistence of his friend Colonel Hankey eventually led to Swinton’s proposal coming to the attention of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. Which is how, in January 1915, the future tank became a naval project. Swinton did not learn of this development until late in May, but Churchill had made considerable progress in the meantime. A new Landships Committee was to be chaired by Tennyson d’Eyncourt, a submarine expert. Its secretary was Albert Stern, a banker in civilian life. By the end of summer there was general agreement that without caterpillar tracks there would be no tank. The Holt proved unsuitable, but – by a great stroke of good luck – Commander Briggs, a Navy man, happened to go into ‘one of those foreign bookshops off Leicester Square’ from which, so A.J. Smithers tells us in A New Excalibur (1986), he came out with a copy of the Scientific American for 18 February 1911, ‘which contained details of a much longer machine designed for moving heavy loads of an agricultural kind over bad surfaces’. An emissary was sent to Chicago and came back with an enthusiastic report on the Bullock Creeping Grip. Two giant tractors were ordered and shipped to Britain on the SS Lapland. When they arrived they were tested on a field rented by one of the Committee, Walter Gordon Wilson, a specialist in gearboxes and a brilliant mechanical engineer. Swinton had the initial vision: Wilson made it into reality.

In June 1915 Swinton, still unaware of the existence of the Landships Committee, wrote a lengthy memorandum entitled ‘Armoured Machine Gun Destroyers (General Description)’ which was promptly rejected as fanciful by everyone he showed it to. While Stern and two other members of the Committee visited France on an investigatory mission, narrowly failed to meet Swinton and were eventually expelled as interlopers by the Army, Swinton fruitlessly pursued his own efforts until, on 18 July, his term of duty as Eyewitness came to an end. He returned to his office at around seven o’clock and found that the Chief of the General Staff had called for him three times. It emerged that Mr Asquith now required his services: he was to report to Downing Street as soon as possible.

It turned out that he had been appointed Secretary to the Dardanelles Committee of the Cabinet, an official position which, in Swinton’s words, proved to be ‘an “Open Sesame” – a key to every door’. He now learned that there was indeed an Admiralty Landships Committee looking into caterpillars and tanks and that its chairman, Tennyson d’Eyncourt, was interested in talking to him. Even better, on 30 June the War Office had finally communicated its own specification for a ‘machine-gun destroyer’ to the Landships Committee. That same day, a demonstration of a tracked Killen-Strait tractor crossing various obstacles was held at Wembley Park for the benefit of Churchill and Lloyd George. It led to a decision to shift responsibility for the Landships Committee from the Admiralty to Lloyd George’s Ministry of Munitions as soon as sufficient progress had been made. Just a few days later Swinton finally met Stern. Smithers reports their conversation.

‘Lieutenant Stern,’ Swinton said, ‘this is the most extraordinary thing that I have ever seen. The Director of Naval Construction appears to be making land battleships for the Army who have never asked for them and are doing nothing to help. You have nothing but naval ratings doing all your work. What on earth are you? Are you a mechanic or a chauffeur?’

‘A banker,’ Stern replied. ‘This,’ Swinton said, ‘makes it still more mysterious.’ The two men got on well together.

At the end of July the Committee finally asked Wilson to design a machine incorporating the Bullock Creeping Grip, a Daimler 105 hp tractor engine and an armoured body, weighing 18 tons, and able to cross a trench 4 feet wide. Swinton persuaded Lloyd George to call an Interdepartmental Conference on 28 August and the following day d’Eyncourt wrote to Stern that the meeting had ‘distinctly cleared the air and put the whole thing on a sounder footing. I’m glad you had a good talk with Swinton.’ At last Swinton, the originator of the concept of the tank, was in touch with the project’s managers and engineers. The design team established themselves in Lincoln at the White Hart and set to work with Foster & Co, Engineers and Boilermakers. After a series of revisions were made by Wilson, the first armoured box (known affectionately as ‘Little Willie’) finally waddled round the factory on 6 September. Unfortunately, it failed to meet all of its test conditions and Wilson was sent back to design a new, much larger model, with adjustments to almost every aspect of the machine – shape, size, track, sprocket wheels, transmission.

On 29 September the new tank (HMS Centipede in its early stages, ‘Mother’ later) was ready for demonstration, once again at Wembley. The new model was lozenge-shaped, with tracks running outside the box. Once a problem with the gun emplacement had been solved, it went into production. In 1903, in a short story published in the Strand magazine, H.G. Wells had conjured up the idea of gigantic machines which he called ‘Land Ironclads’: they were now on the verge of becoming a reality. On 28 December a further conference was convened, this time with the happy task of finding an official name for the new creation. ‘We rejected in turn – “container” – “receptacle” – “reservoir” – “cistern”,’ Swinton wrote in his memoirs. ‘The monosyllabic “tank” appealed to us as being likely to catch on and be remembered. That night, in the draft report of the conference, the word “tank” was employed in the new sense for the first time.’ He was apparently the coiner of the new name.

Towards the end of January, the tank was given its first serious test, on Lord Salisbury’s golf course in Hatfield Park, used to simulate, after a fashion, the battlefield at Loos. Despite a number of deficiencies, it passed. Tennyson d’Eyncourt wrote to Kitchener, along with a number of other grandees, inviting them to observe a second trial. Lloyd George was delighted with ‘the ungainly monster’: Kitchener remained sceptical; according to Liddell Hart, the Chief of Staff ‘dubbed it a pretty mechanical toy which would be quickly knocked out by the enemy’s artillery’. Swinton reports that he himself heard Kitchener say this. Others regarded that brusque dismissal as just a clever ruse to deflect the interest of enemy powers. In any case, the War Office ordered 100 machines. It has to be said, however, that ‘Mother’ still had a great number of faults. It took time and battlefield experience to create a truly successful tank, and it wasn’t until the battle of Amiens, at the very end of the war, that the tank finally came into its own. The Mark IV and Mark V models were vastly improved in comfort, mobility, armour and firepower. Ahead lay a host of developments in many other countries, as the tank became the classic 20th-century land weapon. But for it to succeed a spate of quite new strategic concepts was needed.

For J.F.C. Fuller, ‘the War of 1914-18 was a blind evolution from mass to machine fighting, for whereas mass by multiplying numbers begets defensive power, machines by enhancing mobility beget offensive power.’ Fuller had joined the Tank Corps in France, at Bermicourt, on Boxing Day 1916, to take up the post of General Staff Officer. He had first encountered the tank, as Wright recounts, in August 1915, at a demonstration at Yvrench. He was reminded of

Epsom Downs on a Derby morning. There were scores and scores of cars there and hundreds and hundreds of spectators both English and French. Everyone was talking and chatting, when slowly came into sight the first tank I ever saw. Not a monster, but a very graceful machine, with beautiful lines, lozenge-shaped, but with two clumsy-looking wheels behind it.

(These wheels were to be phased out in subsequent models.) Fuller went on to become Britain’s most influential tank strategist, a ceaseless advocate of mechanised and mobile warfare. As he once put it, ‘war is becoming more a struggle between inventors than between soldiers.’ He clarified this dictum by defining two categories of inventor: those who invent new weapons, whose ‘category of inventiveness is related to the imagination’, and those who devise new fighting organisations, whose inventiveness ‘is related to ratiocination’. Fuller presented himself as a ratiocinator. At heart, however he was more of a fantasist. He liked to play the role of prophet and iconoclast.

Wright enjoys describing the weirdness of Fuller’s first published book – The Star in the West (1907), a study of the sexual and philosophical ideas of Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist – and notes its sinister relationship to Fuller’s later transfer of allegiance from the ‘Great Beast’ to Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. Anti-semitic, anti-homosexual, a devotee of the Tannhauser legend and a believer in ‘survival of the fittest’, Fuller was obsessed with ideas of decadence and national decline, with the ‘intellectual and moral rottenness’ he saw wherever he looked. Crowley, Fuller’s hero and partner, had ‘seized the social harlot and hurled her from her throne … forced open her jaws, and administered a sharp emetic, a mental purgative, a rouser! Let us hope it will clean her out, and do her good.’ The ‘social harlot’ – contemporary England – was to be purified by a religion of free love, pure and uncalculating, which would triumph over the teachings of that ‘unfortunate fakir’, Christ. Fuller and Crowley fought on two fronts, for just ‘as the gigantic edifice of the Christian Church was the child of the neuropathic mystagogues of the dark ages of religion, so now the colossal fabric of Scientific Utilitarianism, offspring of a distorted and epileptic steam-mania, has bemerded us with its panting slime, and wound us tight in the arachnoid meshes of its kakodemoniacal web’.

‘Mammon,’ Fuller proclaimed, ‘is the God of today, and Modern Christianity is absolute and unadulterated materialism.’ To replace Christianity, he dug into esoteric occultism, Eastern religions and idealist philosophy in order to create the weird amalgam he proudly dubbed ‘Crowleyanity’. With Crowley as his supreme guide, Fuller sought to overthrow the decadent materialism of the day and replace it with ‘true patriotism’. It would be easy to dismiss this overblown farrago as unfortunate juvenilia, but Fuller’s interest in esoterica persisted and even his military writings are marked by it. In his provocative book, Fascist and Liberal Visions of War (1998), Azar Gat points out that the same mix of elitism and/or anti-semitism with an interest in the occult can be found in many of Fuller’s contemporaries, Yeats and Eliot among them. In Fuller’s case, occultism merged with the influence of Gustave Le Bon’s Psychologie des foules, which described how the generic ‘crowd’ could be tamed and controlled by a superior elite – just as military training could turn a mob of raw recruits into a disciplined combat force. After the Great War had ended, Fuller was still dividing everything up into mystical triads, as in his new book, The Foundations of the Science of War, in order to create ‘the Threefold Order’ of strategic thought. In 1925, as Wright notes, he published a new book on Yoga and as late as 1937 returned again to an occultist theme with The Secret Wisdom of the Qabala.

The First World War, Fuller argued, had been fought as a war of self-destructive attrition, which brought no benefit to the victors, any more than it did to the losers: it had been a war stuck in the outdated Age of Steam, which must now give way to the incoming Age of Oil, the new epoch of motorisation, the time of the tank. Tank war, described by Fuller in terms very reminiscent of Italian Futurism, would be highly mobile, highly technological, a matter for elite forces who would seek the most rapid route to victory, aiming to demoralise the enemy leadership through surprise, manoeuvre and shock. The watchwords would be ‘penetration’, ‘outflanking’, ‘envelopment’ and then, deep in the rear, the final ‘decisive attack’. Democracy, a product of the Age of Steam, was based on the ‘frontal’ idea of quantity, now an outmoded basis for power: the successful modern army, a kind of techno-feudal aristocracy, would be based on quality. It would exemplify elite values – typically Fascist in tone – such as courage, honour, self-sacrifice and close comradeship. This military elite would ultimately be a spiritual rather than a material force, united by a shared mystical ideal. The tank war that Fuller championed was the appropriate form of war for an idealised neo-feudal elite of latter-day armoured knights.

Of course, the military elites of other countries – including both the Germans and the Russians – were quick to recognise the relevance of Fuller’s creed, which combined Futurism with elitism in such a fascinating way. Attracted by the combination of modern techno-warfare with a mystical elitism, de Gaulle, Guderian, Tukhachevsky all instilled respect for his strategic concept in their armies. Sometimes the influence came directly from Fuller, sometimes from Liddell Hart, Fuller’s ‘friend, junior partner and rival’, as Gat puts it, who was able to present Fuller’s thought in ‘a simplified and marketable form – largely free from its Fascist overtones – and thus take much of the credit in the process’. The generals who formulated military strategies of ‘deep operations’ for the coming Second World War had their own elitist and, often enough, mystical ideas. Tukhachevsky’s doctrine, laid out in The Future War (1928), owed much to the fraternal military exchanges which took place between elites of the Red Army and the Reichswehr during the 1920s. The forthcoming war in the East was won by the strategy of a defensive ‘deep battle’, masterminded by Zhukov, with reserves far to the rear poised to counterattack, and by the Red Army’s superiority in mobile tank warfare, the result of extraordinary sacrifice and a labour-capital balance which shifted from labour to capital, from manpower to machine power, rather than the reverse. The mechanisation was made possible by the labour of the soldiers’ own mothers and wives, who understood what was at stake.

Fuller, who is still read today, was criticised recently by Manuel De Landa, in his extraordinary book, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), because he failed to recognise that ‘what mattered now was the assembling of armour and air power into an integrated system joined by radio.’ In De Landa’s terms, Fuller ‘remained in the age of the motor, of unsynchronised motorised armies. As in the case of the transition from clockwork’ – drill-based – ‘to motorised armies, warriors trying to cross the new threshold ran into institutional barriers. The main obstacle was that the new distributed-network model involved co-operation between the different branches of the military, and this was, as it always had been historically, difficult to achieve.’ It was only in Nazi Germany that ‘planes were designed from scratch to provide ground forces with air support’ and tanks were ‘joined together by a wireless nervous system’, which made the strategy of Blitzkrieg possible. Later, as De Landa stresses, the radio network would be supplemented with a cybernetic technology and potentially decentralised computer systems (‘pandemonium robots’). Wright’s chapter on ‘Digitisation in Fort Knox: Cybertanks and the Army after Next’ corroborates De Landa’s vision of the future of warfare – a vision of which we got our first real-world glimpse during the Gulf War.

Wright describes the new concept of strategy in a chapter entitled ‘Jewish Blitzkrieg?’ which describes Israel’s wars of 1967 and 1973 largely through a face to face interview in Tel Aviv with Israel Tal, one of Wright’s favourite kind of soldier, the philosophical commander. Tal talks to him about the Israeli reconceptualisation of the tank in the Merkava, a ‘compromise between firepower and mobility’ which, if you get the mix right in every detail (engine, tracks, gunnery), will give you the third desideratum, protection, both for the people inside the tank and for the tank itself. At the same time, the Merkava has a modular construction, so that it can easily be changed and, in effect, redesigned. In Tal’s own words, the machine ‘is always young, like Dorian Gray’. In the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars Israeli air power and tank power were combined strategically with shattering effect on the Egyptian Forces, and tank officers were able to act with a surprising degree of local initiative. The Israeli victory in 1973, however, led to an escalation of the military stakes. As Saad el Shazly writes, it brought sam missiles into Egypt to counter Israeli air superiority and thereby lifted conflict to a new level. The next victory ‘would go to whoever happened to have the more sophisticated electronic detection, jamming and counter-jamming devices’. Tanks now took second place.

As warfare moves on into the Ageof Intelligent Machines, Wright’s tactic is to concentrate on individuals, preferably artists or writers or eccentrics of various kinds whose path through life has somehow led them into close contact with the tank. Among them we find not only Fuller, the Crowleyite and Mosleyite, but also Clough Williams-Ellis, one of the group at Bermicourt, now best known for the village of Portmeirion, which he designed and assembled – a bizarre bricolage of architectural styles and elements. Another was Wilfred Bion, whose War Memoirs are filled with sketch-maps and drawings, such as the series of fascines, huge, tightly-packed bundles of brushwood, each a ton and a half, which could be dropped down into trenches or craters to provide a surface for tank tracks. Chinese labourers imported from Hong Kong and the British protectorate of Weihaiwei were employed to manufacture and position the fascines. Bion’s wartime experiences seem to have propelled him towards psychoanalysis after the war, when he developed a concept of the ego as ‘container’, later refined by Didier Anzieu into a description of the ‘skin ego’ as a potential ‘carapace’. (Wright spends some time discussing Wilhelm Reich’s notion of ‘character armour’, which must be stripped away to permit the right type of orgasm, but this seems more of a stretch to me.)

The 1914-18 War saw the first specialist war artists, who ranged from Sargent to Nevinson. Others, like Solomon Solomon, a Royal Academician turned lieutenant colonel, were given ‘tons of paint and other materials’ and a permanent detachment of men to work under them in the task of camouflaging tanks, first an exercise in pink and green dazzle, changing to shades of mud as reality prevailed. Wright is particularly fond of Nevinson, who, although originally a protégé of Sargent, soon developed Futurist ambitions, becoming friendly in Paris with Boccioni and Severini and subsequently drifting into Vorticist circles in London, even suggesting the title Blast to Wyndham Lewis for his new avant-garde journal, before breaking with Lewis to follow the Italian Futurist, Marinetti. ‘True to his Futurist principles’, as Richard Ingleby puts it, he was quick to join in the war, as an ambulance driver, after completing a course in motor engineering. As might be expected, Nevinson’s painting stresses the mechanical dimension of the war, depicting bodies of troops as mechanical forces. Wright is full of praise for A Tank (1917), a work included in his Leicester Gallery exhibition of War Pictures, replacing the censored Paths of Glory, which had depicted dead soldiers sprawled in the same dismal mud from which the tank majestically heaves itself up.

Wright’s interest is also directed towards writers, Curzio Malaparte especially, who reported on the German-Russian front in The Volga Rises in Europe (1943) and Kaputt (1944), and subsequently the Allied conquest of Italy in The Skin (1949). There is no doubt that Malaparte was the most brilliant and most disturbing of all the writers who covered the Second World War. His books have a vividness of observation and a ghoulish irony which fascinate, bemuse, disturb and sicken the reader. His only rival is Ernst Jünger, although Jünger’s fascination with the mechanisation of war was largely with the infantry rather than the tank corps. The only tanks in The Storm of Steel are shell-shot English wrecks, ‘monsters’ which, ‘hoping to baffle the aim of our guns, took a tortuous course over the battlefield like gigantic helpless cockchafers’. Even so, it was Jünger who propounded the concept of mechanisation as the essence of modern war. War had produced a new breed of men, Fordist supermen, frenzied heroes suited to a machine environment, subject to ‘a marching beat which awakens the representation of vast industrial realms, masters of machines, battalions of workers and cool men of power’. In 1930, looking back on World War One, he wrote of Germany’s defeat as a failure to achieve ‘total mobilisation’, to produce ‘a new kind of troops, of commerce, of provisions, of the arms industry – the army of work in general’. Jünger’s ideas troubled and intrigued Heidegger, who gave seminars on ‘The Worker’ and ‘Total Mobilisation’, pastiching Jünger while trusting that Hitler would reverse the trend to machinisation that Jünger described.

In England, the most memorable tank novel was May Sinclair’s 1917 The Tree of Heaven, set partly in Futurist and Vorticist circles, in which one character actually designs the first tank – fictionalised, of course. Later, Keith Douglas’s Alamein to Zem Zem provided a vivid account of a tank officer’s life in the Desert War, alternating between phases of aggressive mobility and defensive stasis, during which Douglas would pass the time reading National Velvet, Alice in Wonderland, The Quest for Corvo, a short Survey of Surrealism and Also sprach Zarathustra – his copy filched from an enemy vehicle, ‘the owner of which had pencil-marked in it most of the quotations applicable to Nazi ideas’. It reminded me, paradoxically, of Sieg Heil! The War Letters of Tank Gunner Karl Fuchs, 1937-41 (published in America by his wife and son nearly fifty years later), especially the letters he sent home from the Russian Front. Driving onwards towards Moscow, then towards Leningrad, Fuchs wrote home that ‘nothing is more stimulating in this monotonous Russia than a good book.’ Among his reading was Walter von Plettenberg, a fictionalised story of the struggle of the Teutonic Knights against Ivan the Terrible, and a biography of Hermann Göring. Soon afterwards, battle-weary, he is complaining: ‘If we only had something to read . . . We’ve gone through all the magazines a dozen times. We’ve solved all the crossword puzzles and we’ve done it over and over again only to be entertained a little bit.’ A few days later, he is begging: ‘I need something to read. No works of literature, mind you, just junk, just anything. Something to pass the time.’ Not long afterwards he is killed by a marauding group of ‘monster’ Russian tanks – the German Army’s first encounter with the T-34, the most advanced tank in the war, although still at that time lacking a radio, a defect remedied through Lend-Lease, as agreed later that year.

Malaparte had returned from Russia to Italy at the end of September 1941, shortly before Karl Fuchs was killed. He carried the manuscript of the early chapters of Kaputt sewn into his sheepskin coat. His next four months were spent under house arrest, because the Germans found his despatches from the front ‘inopportune’. Eventually he finished his book, distributed chapters among friends, survived a Gestapo search at Tempelhof Airfield and finally reassembled the complete manuscript. He was in Finland in 1943 but flew back to Italy as soon as he heard the news of Mussolini’s fall, writing The Skin on his return, as he accompanied the American Army from Naples up to Rome. In 1938 he had begun building work on his extraordinary house in Capri, the Villa Malaparte, best-known as the site of Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Le Mépris, where Fritz Lang, in a film within a film, is directing a version of Homer’s Odyssey. Wright retells the story of the day in 1942 when Rommel visited the house, uninvited, and asked Malaparte whether he had designed it or bought it ‘as is’, to which Malaparte replied, falsely, that he had bought it, adding, as he gestured towards the Faraglione rocks, the isles of the Sirens and the golden sands of Paestum, that what he had designed was the scenery.

Wright wonders whether this story was true. He is aware, of course, that later in the same book Malaparte tells the story of fellow guests at a grand luncheon party accusing him of making stories up wholesale throughout Kaputt, an accusation which he indignantly denied, insisting that the truth is often stranger than the strangest fiction and recounting, to prove his point, how during that very meal he had consumed a human hand, blown off one of the Moroccan servants by an exploding mine that had disturbed the occasion. The unfortunate goumier’s hand had flown into a great pot of couscous and then, amid all the confusion, it had accidentally been served up on Malaparte’s plate. Politely, he had eaten it. As evidence, he points to the knuckle-bones and finger-nails which lie neatly arranged around his plate. The guests are shocked. ‘That’ll teach them to question the truth of what you wrote in Kaputt,’ crows his friend Jack as they leave to join the Sherman tanks on the road to Rome, where one of them crushes a man to death.

We might, indeed, doubt whether Rommel actually visited Malaparte’s villa – whether he was not another goumier’s hand, so to speak – since, at the supposed time, in mid-May 1942, Rommel was with the tanks of the Afrika Korps. He had been in Rome on 16 February, where he stayed overnight before flying on to meet Hitler, and he returned in September, when Malaparte was in Finland. One of Rommel’s biographers confidently maintains that, while visiting Rome, he had entered the Duce’s enormous room in the Palazzo Venezia and spotted the insignia of an Italian order for valour lying on the immense desk. He assumed, of course, that it was meant for him. However, as the discussion grew heated and Rommel rashly disparaged the Italian Navy, Mussolini glared angrily, opened a drawer, swept the decoration into it and locked it up. ‘It was a beautiful thing,’ said Rommel ruefully. ‘Why couldn’t I have kept my mouth shut for another ten minutes? He couldn’t very well have asked me to hand it back.’ Be that as it may, one thing certainly is true: Malaparte’s villa has the classic rhomboidal shape of a tank. The line of the theatrical stairway, then that of the terrace roof, the descent down from its prow to the base of the cistern and then the line obliquely downwards back to the base of the stairs, clearly inscribe for us the form of a somewhat blunted lozenge.

The tank, after all, is an image. As Wright points out, it is an image which can serve the purposes of publicity, instilling fear, or reminding us of David and Goliath as it seeks to intimidate a smaller, weaker foe with its huge bulk and fearsome armament. The classic example cited by Wright is the press photograph of the encounter of a Chinese tank with a single protester on the road into Tiananmen Square. It’s a photograph which has become emblematic of good resisting evil, a tiny figure apparently halting a whole column of tanks. On the other hand, tanks have often been used successfully to intimidate protesters. Wright reminds us of the use of tanks against strikers in Glasgow in 1919, although there were no casualties. Conversely, tanks have been used by those who wish to project power: Yeltsin, for example, riding on a tank to suppress parliamentary opposition (or, the inversion of this, Dukakis self-destructing in an attempt to establish military credentials by being photographed as if commanding a tank). At the other end of the scale, Wright cites Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Poliscar, a fabulous vehicle designed to invoke the Greek polis but which, not surprisingly, reminded others of a tank – ‘a robot with a tank-shaped body geared to survival in a police state’. For Wright, this discrepancy of views simply proves his point: the tank has always suffered from ‘symbolic excess’, an availability to interpretation as benign or cruel, awesome or ridiculous. Wodiczko told Wright that he had thought of constructing his mobile homeless shelter with caterpillar tracks, so that – symbolically at least – it could navigate New York’s pot-holed streets. He gave up the idea because tracks ‘would have made the Poliscar altogether too much like a tank, pinning it down to a single meaning and reducing the sense of visual ambiguity that he wanted to retain’ – the sense, I presume, of an indefinite tankishness rather than a clear tank identity.

Alongside the Poliscar, it is worth considering the radio-controlled tank designed by Matt Heckert and constructed by Survival Research Laboratories in San Francisco. The Matt-Machine, as its designer dubbed it, ‘would be full of anger and fury and would make awful, absolutely awful noises. And it would continually change its appearance.’ This tank is quite small, powered by two electric motors, with stainless steel treads that drive it backwards, forwards or in a circle. It also has a set of arms, each of which can reach out and grab something firmly, as well as a 26-inch spear ‘poised to pierce whatever it holds in its hands. The spear strikes with about 1800 lbs of force, powered by compressed air.’ Survival Research Labs have made a number of machines, armed with buzz-saws, flame-throwers etc, and programmed to careen out of control, fire projectiles, detonate bombs and assault the audience at the climax of gladiatorial performances of crazed fury and aggression. According to Mark Pauline, SRL’s guiding spirit, the shows are ‘parodies of war’ in which small machines have just as much chance as bigger ones; although they are much weaker, they are also much less complex and therefore less likely to break down.

Mark Pauline fears his creations – he already has one mutilated hand, victim of a rogue rocket blast. Yet, when asked whether we will reach the point where a machine will cease to do a human’s bidding and become self-willed, he replies: ‘You mean take on a life of their own? I think we’ve proved that at least in a theatrical presentation type of experience – yes, machines can take on a life of their own. They do have a mind of their own.’ His ultimate vision is of cybertanks running wild, out of control. It is hard to evade the apocalyptic crescendo which has marked the progress of the tank from the days of the Landships Committee, through the era of massed tank battles, up to the electronic warfare of tomorrow. This is how Wright’s book ends:

Stargazing military academics foresee a new kind of ‘fire ant warfare’ in which areas will be dominated not by high-tech Behemoths but by hosts of tiny, semi-autonomous insect-machines, and surveyed by ‘long-loiter high altitude drones’ and clouds of ‘surveillance dust’ made up of microscopic winged things carrying sensors. Powered by photosynthesis rather than diesel fuel, these ‘hybrid bio-mechanical devices’ will open a ‘microscopic theatre of combat’ and, in all likelihood, bring the human bloodstream into battle space.

As for the old-fashioned tank, it will be lost on a terrain ‘littered with sensors and emitters backed by hidden projectiles’ and tiny robots, ‘giving its position away, and then moving on to eat their way through the tank’s gaskets or fuse its movable parts’. Roll on, the nano-tank fleet! Tiny control-free robotanks destroy the human race!