King of the Killing Zone: The Story of the M-1, America’s Super Tank, Orr Kelly

Berkley, 1989, 288 pages, C$5.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-12304-9

With a title like that, you can bet it’s not a book about fluffy rabbits.

No, King of the Killing Zone is definitely a book for the intellectually macho guys among us, the ones who also devour Hustler magazine for the military hardware articles, who buy Tom Clancy novels in hardcover, who don’t quite think that an obsession about military hardware is somehow unhealthy.

(Am I describing myself? Ahem…)

King of the Killing Zone is definitely a dream come true for military buffs among us.

(Which reminds me of the old saying: The difference between a fan and a buff is that the buff in interested in stuff where dying is involved. Witness Military buffs, WWII buffs, history buffs, etc… Are there Spice Girls buffs? There you go.)

There is a special magic in the creation of an expensive machine. The process leading up to the design, debugging and manufacture of your car is sufficiently fascinating in itself. Now imagine the whole story behind the introduction of a completely new tank in the U.S. Army. That’s the subject of King of the Killing Zone.

During your reading, you will not only learn about the M-1, but also about tanks in general, major figures in the U.S. Army since WWII, the military equipment acquisition process, intelligence work, tanks warfare strategy and hundreds of small details that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with tanks at first glance.

This could have been a long, dry read. The drudgery of military administration can be terribly annoying if you’re outside the system. Fortunately, author Orr Kelly has mastered the none-too-obvious trick of writing a densely packed, yet easily readable prose. He obviously knows his subject, and the notes on sources are very complete. A useful index completes an already-great non-fiction account. As a result, King of the Killing Zone moves briskly, yet satisfies the reader.

Among the highlights of this book are the incredible tale of Chobham armour, the competition between GM and Chrysler to decide who would build the tank, the tactics revolution brought by the M-1’s speed, quiet and manoeuvrability, the man who made “all the right decisions for the wrong reasons”, the debugging of the tank’s most obscure flaws…

Behind the whole book, though, stands the question: Is the M-1 Abrahms a good tank? To that, Orr answers with a cautious optimism. The publication date (1989) of the book is ironic, coming two years before one of the most significant military event of the late twentieth century. The Gulf War proved to sceptics that the M-1 could deliver what had been promised. Despite heavy use of fuel and problems due to the infiltration of sand in machinery, the M-1 swept the battlefield and erased most doubts concerning the tank’s worth in combat. It would be interesting to see a post-1991 revision of King of the Killing Zone.

It is only too rare to find a book that lucidly and knowledgeably explains the steps by which new weapons systems are developed, tested and put into service. In an age where the easy 30-second clip on the evening news can weigh more heavily than a thoughtful report, King of the Killing Zone demystifies the process and takes the time to explain. A must-read for techno-thriller fans, and military hardware buffs.

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