Tanks for the Memory

14 Dec

Many years ago I saw a film called ‘Comrade X’ starring Clark Gable.

The climax of the film was a sequence where Clark Gable and his pals are escaping from Soviet Russia in a stolen tank. Unknown to them they’ve stolen the regimental commander’s tank and the rest of the regiment ends up following them across the Russian countryside.

It’s not a brilliant film, as I recall, and the sequence I’m referring to isn’t exactly a triumph of special effects. It was very obviously filmed using miniatures trundling across a model landscape.

Having said that, there’s something about the way these little tanks moved that I found quite fascinating.

I suppose this says something about me and it may not be terribly flattering.

So anyway, tanks are quite unlike other vehicles in the way they move.

In one sense they’re a bit more animated than say, a bus, because you often see the turret traverse or the gun elevate or depress and modern tanks with their gyroscopic gun control are even more impressive. I suppose we’ve all seen film of a modern tank turning through 360 degrees over uneven gun while the gun stays resolutely aimed at the same target.

So in one sense a tank looks almost like a living creature, but in another sense they also look quite dead. Unlike animals in motion, there’s no play of muscles and no motion of limbs or wings and there’s no recognisable face. Not even the cartoon face we see on most vehicles made up of the headlights and radiator grill so beloved of animators.

So tanks are kind of undead.  Animated but somehow not living.

For some people the comparison with prehistoric animals seems to be irresistible. After all, we expect dinosaurs to be big lumbering creatures, and most armoured fighting vehicles are also big and heavy, although these days they tend to be more agile than you might expect.

To me the more compelling comparison is with stag beetles. I know that stag beetles are actually quite small, but they’re huge in comparison to other insects and they have this way of trundling across their environment with apparent resolve and complete indifference to everything around them. They also give a surprising impression of  weight and power. Maybe you need to see them in the context of a Natural History programme to see what I mean.

So as a young boy, during a long gone window of opportunity when plastic model kits were freely available but before anyone had invented solvent abuse, I used to build models of tanks, amongst other things. They were quite small and, obviously they didn’t move about like the real thing, but I suppose it kept me out of trouble and we didn’t have computer games back in those days.

I should add that if you’ve never built a model, you probably won’t understand why it can be so compulsive. I might come back to that at another date, but for now, maybe we can just agree that it’s always difficult to understand the addictions we don’t share and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge these things.

One side effect of building these models was that I started to read a lot of military history, especially World War Two history. Initially this was all about improving the accuracy of my models, but in the course of all this reading I also came across rather more information than I really wanted about what tanks are used for, how they work and what kind of effect they have, not only on the people they’re used against, but also on the tanks crews themselves.

The end result of this is that for many years I’ve been about one short step away from being a complete pacifist.

What holds me that one short step away from pacifism is the knowledge that there really are some things worth fighting for and good many things worth fighting against. Nazi Germany obviously provides clear examples of many of the things that are worth fighting against.

What makes that one short step as short as it has come to be is the realisation that the Nazi regime could have been opposed much more effectively and with far less destructive consequences if people (I think I mean governments here) had been more concerned about human rights and less concerned with geopolitical strategies. ie the West seeing Nazism as a bastion against communism or Stalin seeing the Nazis as useful allies against the Western democracies. (He had some justification for being wary of Western Democracies. During the Russian civil war following the October Revolution the UK came within a hair’s breadth of bombing Moscow).

The irony is, of course, that these grand strategies all turned out to be completely absurd and no one really got what they wanted, or planned for, as a result of ignoring the blatant iniquities of Nazi Germany prior to the war.

Of course everyone talks these days as if they were also somewhere just short of pacifism. It often seems strange how often the peace-loving ideals of our political leaders just have to be set aside because there’s really no practical alternative to military force.

Perhaps the first step towards reducing the number of these totally unavoidable and, of course, deeply regrettable military interventions is to remember one simple fact.

Any resort to violence is an admission of failure.

Oh and there’s another point to remember. The people who end up paying the highest price for this failure are almost never the people who were responsible for that failure in the first place.


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