Desert Dessert


The US Army seems to be magnetically attracted to ghastly places like this.

I discovered this on my hard drive recently. Apparently, I penned it on some forgotten military deployment many decades ago.

I’d been a professional soldier for six years. The excitement, the sense of purpose and mission, and the basic energy of the profession were addictive. I had seen deployments and contingency operations and field training exercises and wars. I was ever awed by the scope.

This particular day I was in the desert staging for a massive field exercise. The principal character was a heavy brigade, a Mechanized Infantry unit of the First Infantry Division—the Big Red One. The Big Red One liberated Europe fifty years ago. Now, the grandchildren of those awesome old guys were ably wielding the standard.

As I walked past the interminable line of main battle tanks, I had the realization that I had never actually crawled inside an M-1. I came into the Army while the earlier M-60 was all the rage. I set my present task of coordinating an air assault three days hence aside, determined to expand my horizons.

I stopped at the first tank with an exposed crewman. A tank up close is simply overwhelming. The imposing mass and latent power are emotionally tangible at close range. I identified myself as Captain Dabbs, the helicopter guy, and asked if the young Private First Class would mind showing me around his mount. The greasy teenager smiled as though Christmas had come early. Young soldiers take unbelievable pride in what they do.

The soldier jumped out of his oversized carapace and was standing beside me in an instant. He pointedly demonstrated the proper way to mount the vehicle and led me over and through the impressive amalgam of tools and gear that littered the machine. A boom box strapped against the cupola ground out Metallica. Following the trooper through the hatch in the turret, I banged my elbow sliding through the tiny hole. The young PFC most obviously did not.

An M1 tank up close is the very embodiment of raw power.

My initial impression of the cramped fighting compartment was that it would be a horrible place to die. Modern anti-armor weapons use shaped explosive charges or hyper-velocity darts to punch through the layered steel and ceramic shell of a modern tank. The resulting molten dart or jet of superheated plasma expended within the confined space kills in a way the Norse Berserkers, professional life-takers that they were, could not even begin to fathom. To the young soldier showing me around, however, the compartment was home–cozy, comfortable, and familiar.

This soldier was an American teenager. He wore his weapon in an expensive Bianchi shoulder rig and had Hustler magazines stuffed in the nooks and crannies. He spoke of his tank as though it were his hopped-up Chevy. He explained how most M-1’s, though they tipped the scales at sixty-three tons, failed to top sixty miles per hour flat out only because those idiot engineers at General Dynamics had installed a governor on the powerplant.

The 120mm smooth-bore gun was more-than-adequately represented by its ample breach. The boy parroted school-house statistics about the gun’s capability to defeat armor plate and the discarding-sabot round’s velocity of over a mile per second. Soviet-built tanks had automatic loaders and a three-man crew. That armor plate so easily defeated shielded three living, breathing people.

He spoke of engaging targets and smoking ragheads. His capacity for martial euphemism was indeed prodigious. Soldiers frequently utilize such stuff to cushion the fact that their raison d’etre is to forcibly rip the life from other human beings.

Little cuts through the chaos like a good ice cream cone.

It was during his demonstration of the seat elevation device that I caught the first strains of the music. Above the sundry tank engines, the epithets of neighboring crews, and the enthusiastic soldier’s fascinating tour; through the two-foot armor of the tank’s angled turret and finally over the penetrating base chords of Metallica, flowed a pathetic electronic rendition of Scott Joplin’s 1920’s classic The Entertainer. The catchy ragtime tune, made grating by its tired delivery system, registered with us subconsciously. By unspoken Pavlovian stimulus the tour terminated, and we hoisted ourselves through our respective hatches. Though not nearly up to tanker standards I birthed myself out of the commander’s cupola without incurring further contusion. The young soldier clearly approved.

Amidst the bristling forest of gun tubes bounced our quarry. The tanker and I vaulted over the armored skirts and jogged to the open driver’s door of the battered van. In the roiling heat of the desert midday I fished under my battledress and retrieved a little cash for the former-Israeli-soldier emigre who operated the truck.

In the shade of the steaming hulk of the tank, the young Private and I shared a brief respite. The Private said that the next time the ice cream truck returned, he would likely select a popsicle over his present fudge bar. The chocolate seemed a bit sticky in the heat.

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