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A convoy of National Guard troops moves on Camp Swift, which is also hosting the Operation Jade Helm 15 military exercise, on Wednesday, July 15, 2015, in Bastrop, Texas.
U.S. Marine Corps
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the tank, an all-terrain military vehicle that would usher in a new era of warfare. First used in World War I, the tank, with its thick armor and mounted guns, was a weapon of both defensive and offensive capability. The modern tank, such as this M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank driven by Marines during a training exercise in this photo, is a far cry from the war machines that rolled out onto the trenches of Europe in World War I. Explore the history and evolution of the tank over the last century of its existence.Knife vs. Gun: What a Weapon Reveals
If there is any ancient equivalent to a tank, it has to be the horse-drawn chariot, the world's first war machine. Invented more than 5,000 years ago, this weapon of war offered mobility, some armored protection and a perch from which an archer could mount an attack. The chariot also had an added element of psychological warfare on the battlefield. Consider how a line of chariots, racing toward the enemy, kicking up dust and dirt, would have looked to a Bronze Age combatant on foot and likely weighed down by armor. The chariot had an immediate and almost insurmountable advantage in comparison.Hearts and Minds: History of Psychological Warfare
Leonardo da Vinci was a man ahead of his time. He drafted designs for a helicopter, a hang glider, scuba gear and water skis, none of which could be made using 15th and 16th century production methods. So it should come as no surprise that da Vinci, who was also attracted to war machines, also devised a tank in 1487, seen in this sketch. Inspired by a turtle shell and constructed of wood, the tank was made of a circular base, with guns evenly spaced all the way around, topped with a cone-shaped shell. Four wheels would be powered independently by the men inside, allowing the tank to be omnidirectional.Da Vinci's Inventions
"Little Willie" might seem in odd name for a war machine, but that was the monicker given for the the first prototype tank developed during World War I. The machine was intended to protect troops charging at an enemy fighting in the trenches. The first complete tank rolled off the assembly line on Sept. 6, 1915, and unfortunately for Little Willie, it proved to be a dud. When the tank wasn't crawling at a mere two miles per hour and overheating even at that speed, it got stuck in the trenches, failing at its most basic task. Originally called a "landship," the name "tank" was coined as a security measure to conceal the purpose of the war machine from enemy spies. "Tank" implied that the machine was used to carry water, rather than soldiers and weapons.What If World War I Never Happened?
Little Willie's failure gave way five months later to the invention of Big Willie, a tank better engineered to cross wide trenches. To call Big Willie a success would be a bit of an overstatement, but the prototype proved useful enough for the British military to deem the model, now called Mark I, combat-ready. One hundred tanks were ordered to serve in World War I by 1916. Though the tank showed potential on the battlefield, there were still a number of issues. The tanks were still too slow, had limited mobility and could only operate over a short range. The tanks were extremely uncomfortable for the crews inside, where temperatures could reach upwards of 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) and the air could be filled with fuel vapors that could lead soldiers to lose consciousness.A Century of World War I Tech: Photos
Even with tanks rolling onto the battlefield, the British military kept iterating to improve on the Mark I design. At the Battle of Cambrai, the British deployed 476 Mark IV tanks in a surprise attack that led to the capture of thousands of German troops. Although bad weather had hampered the tanks and led in part to a successful German counterattack, the battle marked a turning point in which the tank proved its worth on the field. The United Kingdom wasn't the only European nation producing tanks. France had separately created its own lines of armored vehicles, and by the end of the war, French war machines outnumbered their British counterparts by some 1,200 tanks. The Germans, who had been slow to recognize the tank's utility, began to see their value and in fact began to deploy tanks captured from the Allies, as seen here in this photo of German soldiers salvaging a tank from the Battle of Cambrai.WWI-Era Ships Enlisted as Climate Guideposts
The end of World War I did not stop tank development. At this point, British, French, Soviet, American and German, despite the Germans being restricted from doing so by the Treaty of Versailles, militaries began developing their own tank models. Thanks to the lessons of World War I, engineers were able to build tanks superior to early iterations. Broadly speaking, the newer tanks were faster than the ones used in the trenches, heavier as they had armor and deadlier with increased firepower and accuracy. They were also less susceptible mechanical breakdowns and more capable navigating over rough terrain.WWII-Era Bombs Hidden in Plain Sight
Tanks had been used haphazardly during World War I, with no clear strategy underlying their deployment. They supported infantry on the battlefield, and independent tank units didn't yet exist. Skirmishes between opposing tanks took place toward the end of World War I, but were limited in number. World War II, however, saw an entirely different landscape for tank warfare, with battles between Allied and Axis tanks being a much more regular occurrence. The largest tank battle in history occurred in 1943 at the Battle of Kursk. In addition to two million men and 5,000 aircraft between the German and Soviet sides, the fight also pitted some 6,000 tanks against each other. The Soviets emerged victories in the end, but at a heavy cost, with the Russians losing over 177,000 soldiers to the Germans 54,000.V-J Day: How WWII Came to an End: Photos
U.S. Department of Defense
Tanks faced an uncertain future at the end of World War II. The Japanese surrender was brought about not by tank warfare but the explosion of two atomic bombs, a new development that could devastate ground forces. Rather than fading into history, however, the tank became more important, as conventional weapons proved all the more essential for projecting military might in an era where nuclear deployment could seal the annihilation of both sides. Tank technology improved, with more advanced communications, armor, targeting and firepower included in successive models. The basic shape and design of tanks has remained more or less unchanged since its inception. Tanks would be deployed in conflict zones around the world in the 20th century, including Korea, as seen here, Vietnam, Panama and the Middle East.VIDEO: Are We on the Brink of a New Cold War
Tanks continue to support combat operations, but once again, their effectiveness is being challenged as conflicts evolve. Assymetric warfare, new anti-tank weaponry and the use of aerial drones, which offer an offensive capability without risking soldiers' lives, threaten the tank's place on the battlefield. In fact, as recently as last year,the Army said it no longer needs new tanks
as modern warfare evolves. The tank's place in the military may be under threat, but these machines have proven over the past 100 years that they are durable and can adapt when necessary.VIDEO: Cat Bombs and Other Terrible Weapon Ideas
The military exercise Jade Helm 15 concluded earlier this week without the much-discussed government takeover that conspiracy theorists had warned was imminent.
The eight-week training exercise, organized by the Army’s Special Operations Command, was designed to give Green Berets and other special forces realistic war game experience. It was conducted in seven states though its presence was best known in Texas, where conspiracy theorists claimed it was part of an (apparently not-so-secret) government plot to, variously, impose martial law, establish an infrastructure for mass detentions and murders, take away America’s guns, or set the stage for some other unspecified but assuredly nefarious action.
Rumors spread that trains were being set up to transport political enemies of the Obama administration to detention camps, and that cold storage facilities were being commandeered as makeshift morgues to warehouse thousands of dead bodies that were expected to litter the countryside. WalMarts were said to have been suddenly and mysteriously closed, possibly in collaboration with the Pentagon for warehousing people or supplies. The myth debunking site Snopes.com handily debunked the rumors, noting for example that “This theory doesn’t account for why WalMart stores in states far outside the geographic range of the Jade Helm exercises (e.g., Florida, Oklahoma) should also be closed.”
The conspiracy was given national credibility when Texas governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor Jade Helm operations; according to “The New York Times” the governor wrote that the action was necessary because it was “important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.” Movie action hero Chuck Norris also weighed in, wondering about the motives of “those who are pulling the strings at the top of Jade Helm 15 back in Washington,” and Senator Ted Cruz stopped short of endorsing the conspiracy theories but said he understood the distrust of the Obama administration which has been “disrespecting the liberty of its citizens.”
Spawning Conspiracy Theories
One reason the conspiracy theories were plausible, at least initially, is that there was a grain of truth to the claims. The story was not made up of whole cloth. The existence of the Jade Helm 15 operation could not be denied — nor was it denied. The question was instead one of motivation, an assumption that the “official story” reason for the training exercise was false and that there must be a hidden agenda or real purpose behind the program.
Another reason why the operation spawned conspiracy theories is that Jade Helm 15 was done largely out of the public eye—primarily in remote areas of public and private land (with the cooperation of the landowners, of course). While the apparent secrecy seemed suspicious to many, keeping onlookers away was necessary to assure public safety since by nature war games and military exercises can be dangerous.
Texas in particular, with its gun-friendly laws and secessionist factions, has a history of high-profile and violent encounters between law enforcement and what some call freedom fighters, including in Waco, where a 1993 siege on a Branch Davidian religious compound left 80 people dead.
While many people roll their eyes and assume that these conspiracy theories aren’t taken seriously except by harmless tinfoil-hat wearing talk show listeners, they can have real consequences. Last month three men were arrested, accused of plotting to make pipe bombs to resist what they believed to be an imminent threat from the Jade Helm troops.
In a world in which tragedies such as the Aurora theater shooting, the Sandy Hook school massacre, and even the EPA-triggered toxic Animas river spill are fodder for conspiracy theorists, it’s not surprising that military training exercises conducted outside of established basic training camps might spawn conspiracies. It seems that any large planned government mobilization will inevitably be interpreted as a hostile act against Americans by some. The conspiracy worldview is one in which its adherents are told over and over that powerful agencies are working to establish an oppressive new world order. Conspiracy theorists see themselves as guardians of the public good and protector of civil liberties, ever vigilant for the first signs of a fascist takeover.
Though most of the Jade Helm 15 protestors are anti-Obama, people across the political spectrum endorse conspiracy theories. In their book “American Conspiracy Theories,” Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, both Associate Professors at the University of Miami, note that “conspiracy-driven violence seems to respond to shifts in power. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma during a Democratic administration, supposedly as a response to the Branch Davidian tragedy the year prior. Oddly, McVeigh could have easily taken action against the federal government prior to that, perhaps as a response to the government’s handling of the Ruby Ridge incident, which occurred in the middle of George H.W. Bush’s term, but did not.”
The fact that the much-hyped Jade Helm 15 military exercise ended uneventfully and without a single gun seizure or death will not, however, convince most conspiracy theorists that they were wrong. Instead, as psychologist Leon Festinger noted in his study of the psychology of failed doomsday cults, a common response is to rationalize away the failed prediction. A typical reaction is that the conspiracy theorists actually saved America and prevented the planned takeover by exposing and publicizing the government’s plans. This rationalization allows the conspiracy theorists to be seen as heroes and the underlying conspiracy theory to not be discredited — until the next time.