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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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,
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