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Before dawn I woke, shivering with cold. I had never been so cold in my life. While it was still dark, the bugle sounded reveille. We dressed as close to the heat as we could, then fell out under the frosty stars and were shoved and commanded by the sergeants into the semblance of a company formation.

We were given instruction in tank driving. The idea was simple. You pulled on a lever that braked one track; the other track would keep going and the tank would lurch in the braked direction. The farm boys, fresh from tractors, had no trouble with this; neither did truck drivers from Brooklyn; but I had never driven anything but a bicycle. At one point my instructor shouted, “Jesus Christ!” and swung at my head with a monkey wrench—though I don’t believe he was really trying to kill me; it was just self-defense. They listed me not as a driver, but as a loader and radioman.

The aim of military training is not just to prepare men for battle, but to make them long for it. Inspections are one way to achieve this. When you’ve washed the barracks windows and floor till they are speckless, you arrange your clothing and equipment in symmetrical patterns on and around a bed made tight as a drum. You stand at attention while a colonel and your company officers pass by. Sometimes the colonel stops in front of you. He may ask you to recite one of the sacred orders of guard duty; he may look through the barrel of your weapon, or harass you in a new way. 

The colonel stopped in front of me. 

“Soldier,” he said, “do you believe in God?” 

For weeks no one had asked my opinion about anything. My vanity was roused and I seized the opportunity to star. I hesitated, then said, “No, sir.” 

In a moment the air seemed to have become as fragile as glass. I had already begun to be sorry. The colonel spoke again. “Soldier, look out of that window.” 

I looked. There was a brown glimpse of Texas and a slice of sky. There were the tanks drawn up in rows. 

“Who made all that?” 

Someone else might have replied, “General Motors,” but I didn’t. Retreating from my expressed position as fast as possible, I said, “I suppose it was God, sir.” 

The colonel told me that He had, and not to forget it.

We turned out in the freezing dawn. I climbed into the tank turret, put on my helmet, and strapped myself to the seat. The tank lurched with whining engines and jingling, squeaking tracks over the plain. When the sun rose, through the periscope I glimpsed jigsaw pieces of sky and earth. We traveled in clouds of dust. At the end of day, we joggled home and came to a stop. But the task was not over. The tank guns then had to be cleaned and greased, and sometimes a track had to be repaired. While the infantryman returned to the barracks, cleaned his rifle, showered, and went his way to chow and a movie, we struggled with our monster, cursing, shoving, sledgehammering. 

Fort Hood! It was there we beat the Germans. There, shivering at dawn and sweating at noon, we endured the climates of Africa and pestilent Kwajalein. The iron of which those tanks were made entered our souls. Hood was our university. There we got our real education, which set us off from the men who came before and the men who came after.

Under certain conditions human nature can be changed into something else. A man can be changed from a political animal into a machine—articulated to climb or leap from a height, to swing a sledgehammer, to dig with a shovel. His instincts can be trained so that with fingers from which all doubt has departed he can pick apart a machine gun under a blanket and assemble it again. Turn men out of their offices, separate them from the flesh of women, and books, and chairs; expose them to the naked sky and set them drudging at physical tasks, and in a few months you can change the mind itself. Religion, philosophy, mathematics, art, and all the other abstractions, can be blotted out as though they never existed. This is how Ur and Karnak vanished and this is how the Ice Age will return.

Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Louis Simpson.

From “The Making of a Soldier USA,” which appeared in the February 1966 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay—along with the magazine’s entire 168-year archive—is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.


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June 2018