Who’s afraid of the big bad tank?


Donald Trump has brought tanks into Washington DC for the 4th of July celebrations and people are going nuts. None nuttier than a Harvard academic and a former Clinton man, Lawrence Tribe:

I’m trying to imagine how broken and delusional you have to be from the Trump Derangement Syndrome to find resemblances to be chilled by, but words, for once, fail me. Tribe’s not the only one, of course; “The military is telling Washington, D.C., residents not to panic if they see an armored personnel carrier rolling through their neighborhood.” Granted, tanks and armoured vehicles are not an usual sight on our city streets (for all the right reasons), whether you live in the US, Australia or Great Britain, but there has to be something very fragile and troubling about you if coming face-to-turret with an Abrams driven by your own army controlled by the democratically elected government of your own country has that effect on you. In fact, it’s quite likely that you are disconcerted or terrified precisely because you believe that your own democratically elected government is going to any minute declare a martial law and institute a dictatorship. Like Hitler did in 1933. Which really means that you are delusional.

This reminds me somewhat of my own childhood – as many things do nowadays as I get older. I was nine and a half when the martial law was declared by General Jaruzelski in December 1981 in order to crush the Solidarity movement. The biggest tourist hostel in Krakow (“Dom Turysty”), which I would pass every day on my ten-minute walk to and from school, was requisitioned by the Polish Army, which the communist junta dragooned to suppress their own people in lieu of the otherwise keen Red Army and other brotherly assistance from the Warsaw Pact armies, and for a period of a few months from winter to summer it housed young draftees together with “motorised” police (i.e. the riot police). Units got shuffled around the country from their usual bases so that soldiers would not face the possible dilemma of having to fire at their own family and friends, and so our new winter tourists too were very much out-of-towners from other parts of Poland. Even with such precautions, the Party and the army hierarchy were never quite sure if they could count on soldiers following orders had things gone really belly up. Certainly one of the arguments that Jaruzelski had used with the Soviets in favour of Poland taking care of its own troublesome opposition was that in the event of Red Army activity (a lot of units were already permanently stationed in Poland as they were in other satellites, with more to follow in cases of emergency) it was likely the Polish army would openly side with its people against the foreign aggressors. But even taking the Russkies out of the equation, Jaruzelski was hoping for a relatively “peaceful” clampdown, uncertain as he was the Polish army would shoot their own people, even if strangers from different parts of the country.

So I’ve seen my share of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, which for a few months rather surreally replaced tourist buses at the carparks and on the streets around the hostel. It was a rather grim and depressing sight, made even more so by the usual Polish weather that time of the year, and not even the fact that somebody has managed to evade the guards and draw a penis on the dirt-caked back of one of the armoured vehicles made my school walk any more cheerful.

The point of the story being that there is an abyss of difference between tanks commanded by a totalitarian government and those belonging in a liberal and democratic society. If you are scared of your own tanks, if seeing one in the centre of Washington DC makes you think of Tianenmen Square, if you suspect that in the middle of the “Salute to America” parade Donald Trump will step onto the road and redirect the armoured column to surround the Congress so he can declare Day 1 of his fascist AmeriKKKan dictatorship, you are not only a sad human being (which is, by the way, your right) but you are also showing a completely undeserved disdain for your own constitutional system of government, for the firm foundation of the military-civilian relationships in a democratic society, and last but not least for the millions of your fellow citizens who proudly serve or have served in all branches of the armed forces.

A military parade on the 4th of July might or might not be a good idea – I, for one, would rather spend all the money on veterans’ health – but it’s a matter of policy priorities rather than any existential threat to the Republic. If tanks scare you then read history books, travel around the world, talk to old and young people who have experienced different lives, take a deep breath, grow up. For everyone else – happy 4th of July.  And tanks for the memories!