Some of the best architecture theory is not specifically about architecture, which gives it the flexibility to illuminate a much wider range of topics. Many of the writers I cite most frequently fall into this category, and probably none as much as Reyner Banham, whose legacy is that of a great architecture critic, but who could also be described as a technologist viewing the world through an architectural lens.
I was surprised, though, when Adam Tooze published a piece in May that used Banham’s 1965 essay “The Great Gizmo” to frame the war in Ukraine and, more specifically, the Javelin anti-tank missile system—which has come to epitomize that conflict’s David-vs-Goliath narrative by enabling small groups of infantry to challenge the Russian military’s armored vehicles.
Tooze’s essay begins with a brief summary of modern warfare’s technological evolution, which is largely a story of infantry (and cavalry) becoming obsolete as firepower grew more advanced, a trajectory that culminated with the tank itself during World War I. From that point onward, tanks would be the focus of ground warfare (“the question was, how to stop the tank?”), a focus that frequently assumed the form of tank-on-tank combat and aerial attacks. But because tanks are cumbersome—and expensive—they are also “extremely vulnerable to fast-moving, improvised attack by light infantry forces,” laying the foundation for the eventual emergence of anti-tank weaponry that an individual could carry on their person. The anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) would require its own technological refinements, which the subsequent decades supplied. “From the 1970s onward,” Tooze writes, “military experts have never stopped discussing: Does the ATGM spell the end of the tank? Might infantry have regained the upper hand?”
Concluding his historical summary at the present moment—with the Javelin’s role in Ukraine—Tooze sets up his essay’s central point: Infantry’s renewed potency against the tank is an illusion of man triumphing over machine. “With the anti-tank guided missile, the superficially inferior physical equipment of the human body is more than compensated for by the miraculous power of the technology in the human’s hands.” In the confrontation between Javelin-armed soldier and tank, in other words, it is not the soldier who stands to triumph, but the technology they wield.