Aboard the M1 Abrams, Maserati of Tanks

To an observer on one of Fort Hood’s flattened prominences, the Abrams M1 tank would seem a dark mote below a high plume of dust, a glint of periscopes, a small furor lost in the vastness and pastels of central Texas. Not even the grandest of tanks can intimidate a landscape. By day and night the armor rumbles across this land, seen only by tankers. Armor is a private trade.

From low in the turret in the gunner’s seat, the tank (depending on what it is doing at the moment) is a terrific clatter of tracks, a howl of big turbine, a shriek of hydraulics, or a welter of strange oscillating noises of no obvious origin. Everything vibrates. Talking is absolutely impossible except on the intercom, where it is relatively impossible. There were, in the tank with me, the tank commander, a driver, and a loader. You still feel alone

The effect was almost nautical. Stuffy air, smelling of paint and oil, and heavy machinery filled every available space. There were turret controls, the primary sight, an auxiliary sight, switches, hydraulic lines, cables, the machine gun, and most notably the breech of the main gun inches to my left. Intermittently, we lurched sharply sideways. A tank steers by the simple-minded process of slowing down one of its two tracks, with the subtle result one would expect. There is a certain directness about a tank, a lack of understatement. One knows intuitively that Proust would not have wanted one. In the strange isolation born of dimness and cacophony, I braced my forehead against the brow pad and peered through the round eye of the gunner’s main sight. A glowing pink reticle floated slowly, deliberately across the land; pale green Texas drifted by in the eerie clarity of good optics. The stabilization system held the turret rock-steady despite the bucking of the tank. I laid the empty gun on a distant steer-Fort Hood open range-not from any hostility toward cattle but because some limbic instinct wants to aim at living things. Beneath a huge sky we careened on, with me, two gyroscopes, a laser range finder, a remarkably precise turret drive, a fire-control computer, and a 105mm high-velocity gun fixedly watching a cow.

The public attributes a great many qualities to tanks that they do not have. It is easy to think of a tank as a sort of terrestrial torpedo boat, dashing rapidly and invincibly about and blowing things up. Unfortunately, some who harbor this notion are armor officers, who tend to be frustrated cavalry officers and believe a tank to be an intractable but noble form of horse-which is one reason why in war, tanks are so often seen in flames.

In fact, tanks are big, hard, solid, fragile, unreliable, temperamental, and vulnerable. When possible, they are carried to battle on enormous trucks called tank transporters in the hope that they will function when they arrive. They break easily, bog down at the slightest provocation, and cannot go very far without something going wrong. The fall into holes and can’t get out. They are a superlative pain in the neck.

Tanks ought to be obsolete, but they are not. Civilians said tanks were obsolete when I was in armor school with the Marines in the late 1960s, and later as I followed them through three Middle Eastern wars as a correspondent for various publications. Yet they were always there, always dangerous, and always decisive. I watch them today and see no change.

The voice of Sergeant San Miguel, the tank commander in the turret with me, roared from the headphones of my CVC helmet (the initials stand for something like Combat Vehicle Crewman). The army could never bring itself to call a headset a headset. “You gotta TC an M1 different from an A3.” TC, Tank Commander, is both a noun and a verb, and an M60A3 is an older tank than the M1. “In A3s you stay high out of the hatch, but an in M1s you deep low. You gotta be careful about your face.” He demonstrated, lowering his seat until only the top of his head cleared the steel coaming of the hatch. “You gotta think about your teeth,” he said. “You can smash them.”

Tanks are dangerous to their crews, and much effort goes into avoiding injuries. They are also brutally uncomfortable. After a few hours in the hatches, you ache, unless you are nineteen and too dumb to know when you are uncomfortable. Fort Hood is uneven, pitted, ravined country. Tanks, except for the M1, which has a limousine’s suspension, do not race across rough country. They pick and baby their way, like an automobile on a badly rutted road. The driver slows as he reaches a declivity, and the tank-whoops!-pitches downward, checks sharply at the bottom, accelerates, rocks back to the horizontal. Each step throws you against the hatch coaming unless you brace against it. At high speed, you have to resist with muscular tension, bend your knees, sit back hard, press your arms against the side. The world rocks u-p-p-p-p, tips sharply over, down, thump, roar of engine, bump of upslope, surge, hour after hour.

The M1 is a feline tank, quick, agile, with a smooth, honeyed ride-for a tank. This means that the crews hot-rod M1s over rough ground-being, after all, American kids-so you still get thrown around. Somewhere the army is said to have s photograph of an M1 firing in mid-air. The stabilization is good enough.

We pulled into the firing range. The range-control people were on a low hill behind us, working from an armored personnel carrier fitted with radios. A dozen dirty M1s clattered about, squeak-squeaking, rattling, turbines howling like mournful lost vacuum cleaners. Tanks are exciting for about an hour, after which they are obtuse tractors that need fixing,. The are also incredibly ugly and throw up a lot of dust. For the next several hours we did endless minor maintenance. The M1 seems to need a lot of it. Like yachts, tanks never work perfectly all at once.

The sun was hot. A constant wind from the hills desiccated without cooling. I leaned against the turret and waited. From somewhere down the line came the sharp crack of firing tanks, the putt-putt of their machine guns. I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for. In the army, waiting is intransitive, without an object.

I watched the crews, aware of the yawning gap of twenty years. These days they are smart, competent, and cheerful, which is astonishing to one who remembers the dregs of the late 1970s. And they can use their tanks. Yet there is a terrible innocence about them. It is a curious paradox that reporters go to more wars than soldiers do. I wondered whether the junior officers, who are conscientious, or their men really understand the business they are in. They have never looked inside a gutted tank. They were children during the Vietnam War.

From The Sharp End, an excellent book about soldiers in World War II:

“A tank that is mortally hit belches forth long searing tongues of orange flame from every hatch. As ammunition explodes in the interior, the hull is racked by violent convulsions and sparks erupt from the spout of the barrel like the fireballs of a Roman candle. Silver rivulets of molten aluminum pour from the engine like tears…When the inferno subsides, gallons of lubricating oil in the power train and hundreds of pounds of rubber in the tracks and bogey wheels continue to burn, spewing dense clouds of black smoke over the funeral pyre.”

Not the stuff of recruiting posters. These men do not know of it, not really. Armies don’t read. Even the officers have never seen the horror of a burning tank. Fire is the hideous, unspeakable nightmare of armor. So many things burn in a tank: ammunition, fuel, hydraulic fluid vaporized by 1,500 pounds of pressure. The crews don’t always get out. Hatches jam, the wounded can’t move, sheer panic and agony prevent escape.

The M1 uses fire-retardant hydraulic fluid and a Halon gas fire-extinguisher, which are said to greatly reduce the likelihood of fire. One hopes they work.

The gun is the soul of a tank. The M1 is computerized, electronic, and designed for accuracy at long ranges and for firing on the move. The wisdom of this design can be argued on complex grounds, yet the Israelis, presumed to know something of tanks, have remarkably similar equipment on their own Merkava. So do the Germans.

Firing is easy, although there is an ampleness of buttons. Before battle the gunner should enter into the keyboard on the turret wall to his right the bore wear, the barometric pressure, and the temperature of the air and of the ammunition, all of which influence the strike of the round at long range. There is a gadget to offset the droop of the gun as it softens slightly in the sun. Sensors automatically account for cross-wind and for the cant of the turret in case the tank is parked on a bump. Some of this works, some doesn’t. At normal ranges, it doesn’t matter.

Next, depending on what he is firing at and whether it is day or night, the gunner sets various switches mounted in boxes of industrial appearance and labeled in abrupt, technical Gotterdammerungian language: NORMAL MODE DRIFT, AMMUNITION SELECT/SABOT/HEP/HEAT. FIRE CONTROL MODE. EMERGENCY/NORMAL/MANUAL. POLARITY BLACK HOT/WHITE HOT. The words reek of Wagnerian drama and insulation. I found myself with wild visions of Beowulf standing in dented armor, high in the cold hills of Denmark, holding a calculator from Hewlett-Packard and figuring azimuths.

There is a peculiar appeal, perhaps original to the late twentieth century, in being low in the cramped bowels of a tank, secure behind the armor and surrounded by all manner of fierce, cryptic controls. Major weapons always seem to me to be as much civilizational Rorschach blots as reasonable solutions to problems. Beneath a superficial rationality, all of them-tanks, fighter planes, submarines-are too obviously the toys I wanted when I was eleven. They call powerfully to the male’s love of controllable complexity, and they are too much fun for coincidence. They too readily offer to a romantic the grey adrenal satisfactions of doom. And soldiers, god knows, are romantics. Few of us have room to psychoanalyze others. Still, I suspect that if tanks were in decorator colors, pink and baby blue with satin trim and leopard skin, and the switches said BIG BOOMY GUN and LITTLE PUTT-PUTT GUN, war might stop.

Anyway, you set AMMUNITION SELECT to SABOT. This prepares the computer to fire a thing like a heavy metal arrow at terrific velocity. In the sight, the ominous circular pink reticle hangs in space. A pair of handgrips, universally called Cadillacs by the troops, raise the circle or move it sideways. Squeezing the grips turns on the turret stabilization so that the bucking of the tank does not affect the gun.

You put the reticle on the target, press the laser button to feed the range to the computer, and squeeze the trigger. There is a jolt, as if a giant boot had kicked the tank. Outside the noise is terrific, but inside it isn’t loud. The shell case ejects onto the floor with a clang. Modern tanks can hit each other a mile away.

Earlier in the dust and heat of Fort Hood, I had watched as Sergeant San Miguel tried to start the tank. The turbine cranked around with a rising howl and sighed to a stop. An abort. He tried again. No go. She wasn’t going to start.

He called another tank over and jump-started ours successfully. Yep, batteries. Many of the ailments of tanks are depressingly similar to those of the family car. We pulled the armored cover from the back deck and discovered that two batteries had been rebuilt badly. There was nothing to do but wait for new ones.

I chatted briefly with a couple of soldiers about Killeen, the town just outside Fort Hood. Tankers see an awful lot of Killeen, and an awful lot of Germany. Killeen is the usual nasty little strip of burger joints, beer halls, motorcycle stores, and loan sharkeries, all engaged in the patriotic business of separating a GI from his paycheck. Signs blare NEED MONEY? SEE HONEST JOHN THE CASH SPIGOT. Denny’s, Roy Rogers, McDonald’s, Arby’s-all the way stations on the road to coronary occlusion are there..

I was told that Killeen has improved in recent years. For example, the prostitutes have been chased away to Austin. I said I was glad to hear this, being sure that several thousand single men would respond with gratitude. “Ain’t but one hooker left,” a tanker told me. “She’s so ugly I wouldn’t take her to a dog fight if I thought she’d win.”

The principles of tank gunnery find perfect expression in the age-old military prescription, “Do unto others, but do it first.” The armor may help, but no one depends on it. The tank that doesn’t fire first is likely to have a finned arrow of depleted uranium, moving at a mile a second, come through the turret in a burst of metallurgically complex finality. When a tank fights in what the military euphemistically calls a target-rich environment, the result is a terrifying controlled ballet as the loader slams 40-pound rounds into the breech, while the gunner desperately floats the pink circle onto an enemy tank that is trying to do the same thing to him: boom, load, load, goddamit….

The Soviets have experimented with an autoloader which unfortunately displayed democratic tendencies, promiscuously loading crewmen into the gun along with ammunition. (“Once more unto the breech, dear friends….”) This is said to have been corrected.

Once, while in the jumbled rock country of the Golan Heights covering the aftermath of a war, I drove along a winding road cut into a hill. The curves were so sharp that it was impossible to see more than a short distance around the hill. Suddenly, a Soviet-made tank loomed into view; there was a neat hole at the base of its turret. Farther around the turn was another dead tank and, farther still, yet another. As nearly as I could tell, Israeli and Syrian tank columns had met unexpectedly, and the Israeli lead tank had fired first and loaded fast. The Syrians apparently had not realized that they were in a fight.

Earlier, I had passed a small plain, green against the high crags and rocky hills. A Syrian tank army seemed to stream across it, almost pretty, pennants flying from aerials. They had been dead for a week. Where tanks had paused to take on ammunition, great piles of cardboard canisters and splintered crates lay in sodden piles. Nobody thinks of war in terms of trash. There is a lot of it.

In peace, the tanker’s life is the curious combination of boredom and resignation to lunacy that has always characterized militaries. The army is ridiculous in ways beyond civilian comprehension, and tanks are ridiculous even by army standards. Attending a military exercise in Korea, I witnessed the guarding of a bridge by a tank. The exercise was hopelessly unrealistic, as most are, being intended to show our highly questionable resolve to come to the aid of Korea if need be.

It was mid-afternoon. Mountains sloped sharply to paddies frozen to steel and a frigid wind raced up the valley. We guarded the bridge by parking beside it, pointing the gun in the presumed direction of the imaginary enemy, and pawing through C-rations for the edible parts.

The day dragged on. For a while we stood in the hatches and watched in awe as Korean kids played in freezing water. Next we made wretched C-ration coffee and lay on the ground with our heads against the tracks and talked. As a pillow, a tank is flawed. Then we watched some soldiers building a barbed-wire enclosure to fence in nonexistent prisoners.

From the driver’s compartment came a lugubrious wail from Hoover, the driver: “Heater’s broke.”

With night falling in a Korean winter, that was a knell. The tank commander responded with the natural leadership of a good NCO. “Hoover, fix that goddam thing or you’re on watch for a week!”

Hoover tried. The heater began to emit thick black smoke but no heat. The sun sank behind the mountains, and the temperature began to fall in earnest. Smoke poured from the hatches of our 58-ton smudge pot. We leaned overboard, caught in a coldly burning tank, coughing like consumptives, Korean kids staring in stark wonderment….

From war movies it is easy to imagine that fighting in a tank is something like Luke Skywalker’s exhilarating rush into the entrails of some death star. This sentiment killed many men in World War II and still kills, there being a profound tendency for tankers to regard themselves as diesel cavalrymen at Balaklava. Given the capacities of antitank weaponry, tankers who regard themselves as cavalry usually meet the same fate as those who charged with the Light Brigade.

In fact, the first element of ground combat, armored or not, is not elan but exhaustion-grim, aching weariness that actually hurts, that saps the will to resist, turns fingers to rubber, makes a standing man blank out for a second and catch himself falling. Eyes go gritty, armpits get raw from stale sweat, and the mind has trouble with simple things.

Then, in armor, there is the paranoia, the weird sensory deprivation that swathes a tanker in his own dim world of nerves. He can hear nothing above the racket of the tank, except through the intercom. An infantryman hears small arms fire, shouts, crackling of bushes, his own breathing. A tanker hears none of this, only the voices of the other crewmen hissing and roaring metallically from the headset and the voices of other tanks over the radio. But even these have an odd disembodied quality. They don’t come from anywhere in particular, for example. All voices seem to hang six inches behind your skull.

When the tank is buttoned up, with the hatches down for protection, it is almost blind. The driver, low to the ground (almost lying down in the hull of the M1) can see nothing at all in dense vegetation. The gunner has only the narrow field of his sight to connect him to outward existence, the loader sees nothing. The tank commander is slightly better off, but not much. Behind every bush there may be an antitank rocket that will explode through the side armor and make mush of all within.

And so tanks, the ones that survive anyway, are diffident, timid things. Except perhaps on flat desert, they advance fearfully, trailing the infantry that has to screen the hedges, kill the rocket men, root out mines. Tanks stay under cover whenever possible, dislike open ground, dash from shelter to shelter like frightened fawns. This is why the army chose the turbine engine for the M1, trading fuel economy for acceleration. A bold charge of massed armor, racing across open terrain with streamers flying, leads to many flaming tanks.

A preferred way to use tanks is to put them in holes with just the turret showing. Another is to stay on what the army calls the reverse slope of hills (meaning the other side), climb into sight to fire quickly, and reverse back down. It is almost embarrassingly ungallant.

The tank remains critical to war, yet one somehow feels that it shouldn’t. The mood of a tank, if you will, is not suited to the times. The thing belongs in an age of blast furnaces and raw national force, in an epoch of dreadnought navies when guns that a man could crawl into flung projectiles weighing a ton. The tank is a characteristically Soviet weapon-crude, brutal, but effective. You imagine tanks crawling like dark beetles from roaring factories deep behind the Urals.

Tanks are heavy machinery at its heaviest and simplest in a time when respectable weapons abound in microcircuitry, frequency-agile radar, focal-plane arrays, and near-sentient electronics. Modern tanks have many of these gewgaws and sometimes use them well, but they are essentially an encrustation of glitter. Remove the accretion of advanced whatnots, and the tank is still a hard object with a large gun. No matter how silly tanks may seem, no matter how archaic and unreliable, when one heaves out of the smoke and comes Do not think that because tanks are something of a blunt instrument, no thought goes into them. A tank is a cosh, but a highly engineered cosh. Open a book on tank design at random and you are likely to find a swarm of second-order partial differential equations. Lethal details are fussed over. For example, engineers give careful attention to the best ratio of length to diameter of long-rod penetrators-the “arrows” fired by the main gun. X-ray flash radiographs stop the penetration in mid-act for examination. The mechanics of plastic deformation are considered with great mathematical sophistication. The engineers are quite concerned about maximizing behind-armor effects, or BAE, a technical term that encompasses burning and mutilation of the crew. Pressure transducers measure the “overpressure” as the tank is hit to see whether the lungs of the enemy will be ruptured, a desirable effect if you can get it. The probability of flash burns and their likely severity is studied. The following paragraph is from a report on an anti-armor warhead tested at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, but could have come from the labs of any civilized nation:

“The pressure transducer was the Kistler type 6121 piezo-electric gauge. This gauge, having a frequency response of 6 kilohertz, was used to measure air-shock pressures generated in the compartment. The incapacitating effects of temperature were assessed using the burn criteria presented in figure 7.”

I once lay across from a pair of scorched tankers at the Naval Support Activity hospital in Danang. I couldn’t see them because my face was bandaged, but we talked. They had been hit with a rocket, they said. It didn’t penetrate, so the crew, having no idea where it came from, began to fire at random, this being the embodiment of American strategy in that war. Unfortunately, a hydraulic line had burst, and the fluid had ignited. Two tankers got out. The others stayed behind, screaming considerably. This is sometimes called secondary or delayed behind-armor effects.

The fear a tank inspires in infantrymen is hard to grasp. A tank is far faster than a man-the M1 is good for 45 miles an hour on good groun-and doesn’t get tired. The infantryman knows that it will run over him to save ammunition. Unless he is beside it and has exactly the right weapon, there is nothing he can do about it. He knows this. And if you haven’t heard a big gun fire close up, you cannot imagine what a shattering thing it is. Seasoned troops who know a tank’s limitations will stand up to one in reasonable terrain. Others will run in blind, squalling panic.

Once, late at night, I was out on the rolling dunes of Camp Pendleton with a platoon of infantry. The night was foggy, the moon a glow through dripping mist. We were in good spirits, listening to the soft swish of waves. Then we heard it: squeak-squeak-squeak.

Tanks. They weren’t supposed to be anywhere near infantry at night, but somebody has slipped. I could feel unease go through the platoon. The squeaking grew in volume over a deep rumble of diesels, growling and dying, growling and dying as the crews rocked them over the dunes. We couldn’t localize it; in the fog the sound seemed to come from everywhere.

We all thought the same thing: My God, they’re going to run over us. They wouldn’t even notice until they found the meat in the tracks. The roaring grew and grew, and with it came the seeds of panic, a panic that didn’t know where to run. The fog shuddered with belching exhaust and-whumph-they rose over the dunes and stood there, idling, growling, waiting….

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Three a.m., Fort Hood. Down the hill from me the tanks were firing into the blackness. Armies don’t stop at night. There was no moon. The wind still soughed through the brush. From other ranges around us came distant detonations, streaks of fire across the sky, the brilliant white light of magnesium mortar flares dangling under their parachutes. From the invisible tanks low on the slope erupted violent yellow blasts and the cherry streak of main-gun tracers slashing across the unseen land. Behind us a spotting tank called on the radio, “Target…target…target…” The troops can shoot these days.

I waited for a lull and asked whether I could look at the thermal sights that allow firing in the dark. People and tanks are hotter than other things. The thermals pick up the heat and turn it into video, allowing fighting at night. They are also complex, delicate, and, it seems, prone to break down. A lot of them were burning out.

We made sure that tanks weren’t going anywhere for a moment and walked down the hill with a flashlight. The night was pleasant, the company good-whatever one’s political delusions, GIs are likable. For men who enjoy being outside and are not driven by the devils of the ego, tanks are not a bad field of endeavor. We found the step and hauled ourselves up the slab side-armor and lowered ourselves through the hatches. The inside was dim with battle lights. A pile of hot shell casings lay on the floor.

The sergeant turned on the refrigeration and we waited for the noisy little unit to cool down the thermal sensors. After ten minutes I crawled into the gunner’s seat and peered through the lens. Nothing. The field was a meaningless jumble of flicker and snow. We slued the sensor head, and suddenly I was looking at clear, white silhouettes of troops. The effect was strange: The surrounding land didn’t exist because it wasn’t hot enough, so targets appeared to hang in fuzzy nothingness. But they were shootable.

I walked back up the hill and lay on the bleachers. The radio blared and chattered. A tank had slipped sideways into a hole and thrown a track. The men repaired it. The flickerings behind the neighboring hills continued. The red streaks flared from the dark tanks, hour after hour.

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