Here in Iraq the M1 Abrams tank is the apex predator, even at rest its sleek lines convey a sense of lethal menace. The M1 isn’t so much a vehicle as a rolling battleship, it’s massive belts of armor were designed to absorb or deflect direct hits from the main guns of enemy tanks. There must be some parallel between the ballistic laws governing deflection and the laws of aerodynamics, because the M1’s low profile mirrors the shapely lines of an exotic sports car.
Being an light infantry officer doesn’t afford you many opportunities to work in conjunction with these mountains of steel, so when I had the opportunity to jump onboard an M1 heading out on patrol I seized the opportunity. As the driver spools up the engine there is a low whistling whine and then a soft growling hum that seems to course through the tank. You don’t really hear it as much as feel it, when the turbine is running you can literally feel the tank shiver with horsepower. That is the first thing that surprises you about an M1, when the engine is running the Abrams practically bleeds power. That sense of coiled intensity is no illusion, when the driver lurched the vehicle forward I was thrown against the rear of the hatch by the hard wave of acceleration.
There are two hatches on the top of an M1, one for the TC (tank commander) and one for the loader. Since we would be patrolling with hatches open that meant we would spend the mission standing on our respective seats.. When you stand in that position your chest is about level with the thick armor roof of the Abrams, and your upper body is free to use the machine guns that festoon the turret. As we loaded the weapons I felt like we were loading toy guns. The machine guns weren’t any different from the weapons that adorn our HMMWVs, but next to the menacing profile of the main gun they looked like little more then an afterthought.
As the Abrams slipped into traffic the engine was finally free to unload its staggering might and the tank accelerated forward like a shot. In a few seconds I could feel a stiff breeze cooling my face, and a few seconds later I noticed the Abrams was catching up to the civilian traffic. The driver eased off the throttle and we continued forward at a steady trot, the vehicles ahead of us gunning their engines to avoid the ominous figure in their rear view mirror. The second thing that surprises you about riding in an M1 is the butter smooth suspension. When our HMMWVs drive down the roads the journey is usually a jarring, kidney rattling affair. But in the Abrams all you feel is the steady throb of the engine curl up through your feet, the suspension just absorbs the uneven roads as if you were riding a polished piece of ice.
We spent most of the morning patrolling one of most fearsome roads in sector without hearing a single shot. For a few hours that contested piece of road was as quiet and still as a mountain lake, the insurgents knew that tangling with the Abrams was a sure path to the next life. Standing there in the turret, surrounded by tons of thick armor I could understand why so many tankers are loathe to dismount their vehicles. Inside those overpowered fortresses you don’t protect terrain – you dominate it. The M1 leaves the insurgents utterly impotent; all they can do is crawl into a corner and wait for you to leave. And that is the essence of power – defeating the enemy without ever firing a shot.