The Jeep, The Humvee, and How War has Changed

Discussion in 'Military' started by Larkinn, Aug 11, 2007.

  1. Larkinn

    Larkinn Senior Member

    Jun 25, 2007
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    The Jeep, the Humvee, and How War Has Changed
    By Jon Grinspan

    Sixty-six years ago today, on August 1, 1941, the first mass-produced jeep rolled off an assembly line in Toledo, Ohio. The tough little vehicle went on to prove itself well in World War II and become widely popular at home after the war. More than six decades later, the humble jeep’s mammoth grandson, Humvee, is the most hotly debated weapon in a controversial war. The two automobiles tell something about the story of America’s place in the world.

    Time was, soldiers marched. And marched. And marched. Wellington’s men trudged 51 long, rainy miles in 48 hours just to take the field at Waterloo. In 1934 Mao’s Red Army hiked 3,700 miles in 370 days, its grueling journey remembered simply as the “Long March.” Well into the modern era, warfare involved masses of hungry, tired men slogging to and from battlefields in what the military historian John Keegan called “a war of shoe leather and horseflesh.”

    Industrialization and technology changed this, but trains and trucks designed for civilians could only take troops so far. Even after strategists realized the advantages of chauffeuring fresh men into battle, the vehicles used were often haphazard and unreliable. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, most Nazi troops bounced along in random automobiles captured from France and Belgium, while horses lugged much of Germany’s artillery. Hitler’s blitzkrieg often lacked the lightning it was named for.

    Although America manufactured three quarters of the world’s automobiles, the prewar U.S. Army was no better off. In 1939 it fielded 251 different types of vehicles, few of them able to operate on rough terrain. So the Army put out a call for a four-wheel-drive logistics car. It had to be small and agile but rugged and reliable. Willys-Overland Motors produced the final selection, an inexpensive workhorse that proved its versatility by driving up the steps of the Capitol building. The Army had such confidence in it that one general said early in the war, “When Hitler put his war on wheels, he ran it right straight down our alley.”

    Somewhere along the line—and no one is sure why—people started to call the new vehicle a “jeep,” perhaps from “GP,” from general purpose, or after the character “Eugene the Jeep” in the Popeye comic strip, an animal that could go almost anywhere, like Willys’s car.

    GIs fell in love with the jeep. They used it as a reconnaissance car, ammo carrier, medical transport, and command center. Its presence meant a reliable link between frontline troops and supplies, medics, and information. The Germans produced their own version, a militarized Volkswagen Beetle, but it lacked four-wheel drive and spent much of the war in the mud. In the words of America’s highest-ranking general, George C. Marshall, the jeep was “the greatest advantage in equipment the United States has enjoyed.”

    American automakers, Ford as well as Willys, produced more than 600,000 jeeps during the war, and they went all over the globe. They climbed high Caucasus mountains (Soviet troops adored their “villis”—for Willys); they struggled through dense Philippine jungles. One day in 1942, 18 jeeps driven by British Special Air Service commandos raced across the Egyptian desert toward a German air base. When their flying-wedge formation reached the base, the commandos opened fire with machine guns, destroyed 25 Nazi planes, and returned back into the desert, without ever stepping out of their jeeps. These raiders helped inaugurate a new era in war, in which highly mobile cars or trucks could be used not just as vehicles but as fighting troop carriers. Of course, tanks and planes had led the way, but now even the most basic need of warfare, to bring soldiers to combat, was accomplished by internal combustion. The jeep was no longer a mere substitute for shoe leather and horseflesh.

    In his groundbreaking examination of the realities of war, The Face of Battle, the historian John Keegan noted there still was no detailed picture of mobile warfare’s effect on soldiers and society. In 1985, shortly after the book’s publication, the U.S. military premiered the next stage of the jeep’s revolution in mobile warfare, the HMMWV (high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle), or Humvee. Twice as heavy and with two and a half times the horsepower, the Humvee dwarfed Willys’s jeep, though it was designed for essentially the same purposes. The American military embraced the Humvee even more enthusiastically than it had the jeep, and the newer vehicle’s uses help paint a picture of the mobile military Keegan wondered about.

    Though it has been in service for more than two decades, the Humvee may forever be associated with the current conflict in Iraq. The American military, finding itself in a war of occupation, hoped the Humvee would offer a safe way to patrol a hostile country. Early in the war, large, heavily defended American bases dispatched convoys of infantry in Humvees to confront ambushes on Iraq’s main roads. This strategy was the most vehicle-reliant military effort in world history.

    But the Humvee was designed to haul bullets and bandages, not take on ambushes or improvised explosive devices. Just 235 Humvees in Iraq had any armor at the start of the war. To combat this weakness, soldiers have been “up-armoring” their Humvees with military kits or by welding on scrap metal. The process has risks. It weighs down the trucks and can even keep the doors from opening after IED attacks. Another option is replacing Humvees with heavy armored troop carriers called MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles). The Army and Marines have already purchased hundreds of those noisy 16-ton behemoths, an even farther departure from the old Willys jeep.

    Yet the Humvee’s biggest drawback may actually be the false sense of security it imparts. American troops, many military theorists now argue, are too removed in their vehicles, fighting for Iraqi hearts and minds with a drive-through mentality. The open-air jeep meant that soldiers could, and had to, interact with the people of occupied nations; the closed, air-conditioned Humvee has only isolated American forces from Iraqis. This is even more of a problem with the MRAP, which offers only small, armored windows to peek out of. Though the tactics of the current surge seek to get troops out of their vehicles more often, many politicians involved in the debate over Humvees assume—perhaps erroneously—that more armor means more safety and success.

    The public rarely debates military technology during popular wars. The Willys jeep, for instance, lacked a roof or doors but somehow found its way into combat with few complaints. Most Americans agreed with the cause for which it fought and were willing to overlook its shortcomings. The controversy over the Humvee may have its roots in the war in Iraq’s much-questioned justification and management, but few actually consider the larger historical shift the vehicle represents.

    The jeep and the Humvee may show us some of the strengths and limitations of our motorized way of life. We are a nation of drivers, and even our wars reflect this. We may naturally expect wars to be swift and decided by machines, as car races are. So while the American military has come a long way since the eve of World War II, often thanks to our gas-guzzlers, every innovation has its flaws. When the flaws come to the fore, the original genius of the innovation may be forgotten, just as the great advantage of not having to march into battle is forgotten while we grapple with the difficulties of IEDs and MRAPs. So 66 years on, we still struggle with the legacy of the hardy little jeep and the revolution it began.

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