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The Chieftain's Hatch: 100-Year Icon

We’re now celebrating the second century of the tank, 100 years since the debut of tank combat in Flers-Courcelette (though the monument that marks the introduction of tank combat is in the nearby town of Pozières).

It's no secret I’m kind of fond of tanks, and that I consider it quite fortunate that an object of my interest has also been my job, both in military and civilian service. But what has the tank actually become, and why is it so appealing, 100 years later?

Many moons ago, I picked up the book Tank by Patrick Wright, who took a slightly different tack than most folks in that he focused not so much on the technical or operational side of tanks, but instead more on the cultural and psychological aspects. The book received mediocre reviews because of this, but it's worth reflecting upon its premise.

The tank is the symbol of land power. it's usually the first image in one’s mind when thinking of modern battles. But it’s not the most important component of land power; that’s still the “poor bloody infantryman” (PBI) and his rifle. So, of all the various pieces that make up a modern army, why has the tank come out on top?

I would submit that there are several reasons. First because of its genesis, when it was considered to be the master of killing PBIs. It was a savior in that regard, but they tended to be rather disappointing in practice – breaking down a lot and being rather easy to eliminate after someone had the bright idea of pointing artillery pieces at them. Things like that are conveniently forgotten in the grand narrative, so the tank, the wonder weapon of the Allied Powers, became the symbol of victory over the Central Powers, which had none.

Then, for a while, the tank virtually vanished from the public consciousness. The world became entranced by magnificent men in flying machines; the daredevils who used technology to defy gravity and traverse land and sea at over 100 miles an hour or more. Militarily speaking, a country's might was still represented by its battleships – mobile floating fortresses bristling with the largest guns around, and massive expenditures of money and man hours, besides.

This, of course, all changed with the arrival of the Blitzkrieg. The Germans were sure to place Panzer divisions in front of the newsreel cameras: The rapid-moving forces that sliced through the French front lines and drove out the British struck the imagination of all who saw them, and all of a sudden, tanks (and not the half-track or lorry-borne infantry) became the symbol of what it took for a national power to have.

Still, these vehicles were touted as perhaps more than they were. They were either slow, unreliable, or poorly armored, if not all three. But in no other field of military development (except maybe fighter aircraft) was there such a visible and rapid race of advancement. Compare the BTs, Pz IIIs and M2 Mediums of the beginning of the war with the IS-2s, King Tigers and Pershings on offer at the end. And this was only over six years. The B-52 is 60 years old and still going. The Abrams is approaching the end of its third decade of service. Thirty years before Centurion, there were no tanks. 

The tank provided the ideal: The ability to kill one's enemies from a position of protection. Thus, the side with the best tanks would win, and in the event a side had no tanks, the one with any tanks would win. That was the ideal, though; reality was quite different.

Furthermore, tanks are downright imposing. They vibrate the ground as they go past. They’re much taller than a man, and seemingly nothing will stop them as they move on. They’re seemingly invulnerable to anything a typical person is likely to be carrying. The sight of a tank's roadwheels undulating over the tracks on rough terrain is hypnotic. And unlike aircraft, which come and go -- or artillery, which fires unseen, a tank is a visible statement. It can sit there for as long as it wants, claiming the piece of ground it’s on, and if anyone wants to dispute it, they had better be prepared to deal with it. In Iraq, we discovered that tanks made great peacekeeping vehicles. When a tank showed up, things got peaceful. Quickly. Given this, the tank has become the "object to be destroyed." The destruction of a tank is a propaganda victory in excess of its military worth, especially in the current operating environment. 

Thus, great effort and treasure is put in making a tank as capable as possible. Per unit, they suck up huge amounts of resources. They incorporate what should be cutting-edge technology. Similarly, great effort and treasure is placed upon counter-tank capabilities, and the "tank duel" has become, in the public’s image, the most important part of modern warfare.

A nation's history can shape the importance of the tank in common culture. In Russia, tanks are everywhere. They are monuments in every city, and all but revered as the symbol of what saved the country from the Fascist Invaders. Tanks are quite literally put on pedestals:

However, in the UK, you will see more love for the Spitfire and Hurricane, saviors from the Battle of Britain (again, perception, not reality) than you will for the Cromwell or the Flower Class Corvette. Meanwhile, in the US, the object that reaped vengeance for the attack that brought Americans into the war was the aircraft carrier, today still an unmatched American symbol of military might.

What does the future hold? Might we be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the tank? Maybe the answer depends on where you stand on the concept of accelerating change. It’s possible that in 2116, terrestrial combat could be obsolete. But there's no sign of that happening – the M1 is expected to stay in service until at least 2050, which gets us some way there (and would make it 70 years old), so it stands to reason that second-rate powers can be expected to retain tanks longer. The death of the tank has been repeatedly declared, yet it’s always countered and returned as strong as ever. It seems unlikely to see a vanishing of the need for a persistent, tough vehicle capable of engaging almost anything on the modern battlefield. Tracks may be replaced by wheels or hoverfans, the cannon by a hellbore or missiles, and tons of metal by active defenses, but the role will remain. As long as we have such vehicles, we will have tanks and those who call themselves "tankers."

I wonder if they’ll keep the boots?