How The Humvee Failed On The Battlefield And Sparked A Culture War Back Home

In 1990, before he was the governor or “The Governator,” before his first $20 million movie, and before he helped turn the Hummer into the must-have gas guzzler for overcompensating suburban commandos everywhere, Arnold Schwarzenegger drove himself to work.

We know this, in part, because of a story he told many times over the years. While the details changed often, and the tale smacks of macho myth-making, the broad strokes seem believable enough.

It goes like this: While on his way to the set of “Kindergarten Cop” in western Oregon, Schwarzenegger drove past a convoy of 50 or so military vehicles. Enraptured by the sight, the actor hit his brakes, slowing from 80 miles-per-hour to a dead stop. He was immediately rear-ended, but he barely noticed. “I just stared,” he said.

After spending years looking for a vehicle that matched his own heft, he’d found it. Short and powerful, like a bodybuilder at the bottom of his squat, with a menacing grill and a growling diesel engine, the Humvee was everything Schwarzenegger had always wanted.

“The Hummer may never save anyone. … But my clients like to know that if they had to get off Highway 101 and go over Mount Tam, they could. That’s where it turns into a family insurance policy.”

“From then on, like I was possessed, I was trying to have this vehicle,” Schwarzenegger later said. After the chance sighting in Oregon, the Terminator set off on a mission to convince AM General, the Humvee’s manufacturer, to sell him a street-legal version. After much cajoling and a trip to the Humvee plant in Indiana, Schwarzenegger became the owner of the first Hummer in the summer of 1991.

A quarter century later, both the Humvee and civilian version it spawned are relics. The military is rapidly replacing the former with stronger, more capable vehicles, while the latter has become an anachronistic symbol of American excess — a vehicle that still retains the cultural significance of some of its most famous owners, including Schwarzenegger, Paris Hilton, and Dennis Rodman. The paths of these vehicles, from novelty to ubiquity, and ultimately irrelevance, are remarkably similar, beginning with testosterone-fueled fanfare and puttering out with little resistance as both proved poorly suited for modern times.

The story of the Hummer, and later the Humvee, begins in Vietnam, where the Army ran its fleet of jeeps ragged. After the war, it was clear an update was in order. The demands of advanced weapons systems called for a heftier vehicle. The Army came up with some specs, including diesel power, an automatic transmission, a 2,500-pound capacity, and a name, the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (aka the HMMWV, or Humvee) and asked contractors to design its new workhorse.

AM General, Chrysler Defense and Teledyne Continental were invited to build prototypes. After running them through 600,000 miles of trials in desert and Arctic conditions, the Defense Department awarded AM General a $1.2 billion contract in 1983. The company’s Humvee was a four-wheeled giant that thrived off-road and could carry the crew and technology required for advanced communications. Each one was expected to haul weapons, cargo, and crew, replacing two jeeps and an antitank missile trailer all by itself. After relying on the jeep for decades, the Army had finally found a fitting replacement.

The Humvee got its first taste of action in Panama, during the U.S. invasion to overthrow Manuel Noriega. The vehicle received glowing reviews after the brief conflict, with one after-action report calling it “reliable, durable and battle worthy.” Next it was on to the Persian Gulf, where the Humvee experienced its first brush with fame, thanks to its ubiquity on the ground and the emergence of 24-hour news, which broadcast endless images of the hulking machines plowing through the sand.

It was around this time that Schwarzenegger found automotive nirvana in Oregon and set off to tour AM General’s Indiana plant. Before long, he was home in Los Angeles, carting his glutes back and forth from the gym in a machine he would compliment for its exquisite deltoids and calves.

It wasn’t the same truck he would later ride around California as he campaigned for governor. This was a much more rugged beast. Indeed, if not for the absence of a machine-gun turret, it almost looked as if it had been airlifted from the battlefield and dropped onto the 405. That grittiness was precisely what Schwarzenegger wanted in his Hummer, which quickly overtook a luxury Jeep as his preferred mode of transportation. The Jeep was “beautiful,” he told Rolling Stone not long after bringing the Hummer home. “But there is a tremendous demand out there for something that looks a little ballsier, something that is a statement, you know?”

Turns out, the demand was not quite as tremendous as he thought. AM General decided to produce a civilian Hummer because it, too, saw a market in the nation’s off-roaders, ranchers and winery owners. But by early 1994, 18 months after the Hummer became available, there were only 1,000 on the road. The $50,000 behemoths were more muscle than most drivers needed. And despite its Sasquatch-like footprint, the Hummer only sat four passengers thanks to what the New York Times described as “engine and transmission housing extending front to back, rather like a refrigerator laid between the seats.”

Over the next five years, the Hummer remained a novelty, confined to the garages of aggro movie stars, athletes, and homeowners with steep driveways in snowy climates — a niche product for the over-indulgent. Then, in 1999, GM swooped in and purchased the brand from AM General. But getting Schwarzenegger would cost extra. Though he was never paid by AM General, Schwarzenegger thought GM should kick him some cash for his work building the Hummer brand. His price tag reportedly shocked the automaker, but they settled on a compromise in 2001, and Schwarzenegger’s Inner City Games charity gladly accepted a check for $13 million.

Wikimedia Commons photo
H2 Hummer

In 2002, the Hummer H2 hit the market, giving every gym rat with a tribal tattoo a slightly less conspicuous marker of manliness. Unlike the original Hummer, re-christened the H1, the H2 combined tactical toughness with luxury features, and added some practicality. Though smaller than the original, the H2 carried two more passengers. It had heated seats. Hooks on the hood, for those seeking a helicopter airlift, came standard.

Of course, GM knew the most treacherous terrain an H2 would likely encounter was a crowded Target parking lot. According to the company’s own estimate, only 10% of buyers would ever take the H2 off-road. Most would use it just like they used the SUVs that came before it, shuttling kids back and forth to school, commuting to work, and feeling invincible on the roads. With its ability to clear 16-inch logs and cruise through 20-inches of water, the H2 offered a luxury that was hard to come by in the post-9/11 era: peace of mind.

“The Hummer may never save anyone,” Army vet and Hummer salesman Gerry Schumacher told the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2002. “But my clients like to know that if they had to get off Highway 101 and go over Mount Tam, they could. That’s where it turns into a family insurance policy.”

Although GM sold more than 15,000 in the H2’s first six months, criticism soon followed. The vehicle’s awful gas mileage — around 10 miles per gallon — was an obvious problem, especially as the buildup of troops in the Gulf highlighted U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Meanwhile, the H2 drew further heat due to its avoidance of the “gas guzzler tax.” Like so many of its fellow SUVs, the H2 was so heavy it officially qualified as farm equipment. In the summer of 2003, the backlash led one especially motivated Hummer-hater to break into a Southern California dealership and torch 20 new H2s while spray painting other vehicles with phrases like ”gross polluter” and ”fat, lazy Americans.”

U.S. Navy photo
U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the Bravo Battery 3rd Battalion 320th Field Artillery Regiment along with Iraq Army soldiers from the 1st Battalion 1st Brigade 4th Division perform a routine patrol, March 22, 2006.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Humvee was taking a beating of its own — becoming a symbol of the brash decision-making that led the United States to rush into a war some thought it was unprepared to fight. Despite its imposing snarl, the Humvee was always meant for use far from the front lines, but as the military found itself fighting in urban settings such as Baghdad and Fallujah, it was increasingly pressed into action on the battlefield.

That was problem for the men and women inside who suffered the devastating consequences of running combat patrols in vehicles not equipped to take fire. Troops wound up working independently to make their Humvees safer. As Army Spc. Thomas Wilson told then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2004, he had “to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass.”At a press conference in Kuwait, Wilson famously asked Rumsfeld why stronger armor wasn’t “readily available.” To which Rumsfeld offered up a now-infamous reply: “You go to war with the Army you have.”

At the beginning of 2005, the Army responded to complaints like Wilson’s with an armoring spree. But the attempt to make Humvees safer with add-on armor kits wound up taxing their suspensions and slowing them down.

“The armour had all sorts of problems. You had armored doors that weighed hundreds of pounds and they were hard to open…it was like doing a one arm sideways bench press,” Paul Scharre, a former infantryman who deployed to Afghanistan in 2002, told Army-Technology.com. “The additional armour to the turret — because the turret was originally unarmoured — would make the vehicles really top heavy which decreased the roll angle considerably…it was much easier to flip.”

The bigger problem with reinforced armor though was that it did little to reduce the damage inflicted by an improvised explosive device. A favored weapon of insurgents in Iraq, IEDs turned Humvees into scrap metal, and by 2007, the Pentagon had settled on a solution: the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP. In May of that year, then-Defense Sec. Robert Gates called the MRAP “the highest priority Department of Defense acquisition.” Later in the month, Congress authorized $4 billion to build the exceedingly heavy, armored steel trucks whose v-shaped hulls and high ground clearance made them better able to deflect blasts.

Troops in Iraq began training on MRAPs in November, as their need was becoming ever more apparent, with IEDs accounting for 69% of all casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, or 19,248 in total. By May 2008, with around 3,000 MRAPs on the roads in Iraq, they were proving far more effective than the Humvee. Despite a surge in roadside IEDs, deaths in the attacks were down.

AP Photo/The Army Times, Rick Kozak
A Humvee from the 630th MP Company destroyed by an IED while responding to an attack on a Bradley fighting vehicle that killed five U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter in eastern Baghdad, June 21, 2007, in Baghdad, Iraq.

As soldiers realized the need for a bigger, badder Humvee, civilians were presented with a daintier Hummer, dubbed the Hummer H3, in 2005. If the H1 resembled Schwarzenegger, the  bulging bodybuilder, and the H2 the more trim, movie-star version, then the H3 was the guy in a suit zipping up and down California’s coast campaigning for governor. Unlike its predecessor, which looked like a giant shoebox on wheels, the H3 featured smooth lines. Its gas milage was improved to 16 miles-per-gallon, and it cost a mere $30,000. It was, without doubt, still a Hummer, but after years of turning up its nose at the tofu and Prius crowd, GM began courting them, albeit with ads that explicitly called on them to “reclaim their manhood.”

In what many viewed as an eyebrow raising display of marketing hubris, the H3 billed itself an “approachable vehicle that will appeal to introverts, extroverts, vegans, and carnivores,” a company spokeswoman told Slate. Remarkably, the pitch worked: In 2006, Hummer sales peaked at 71,524. But as average gas prices soared, setting records in 2007 ($2.80) and 2008 ($3.27), the popularity of the famously inefficient vehicle waned. In 2008, only 37,573 Hummers rolled off the lot, and after GM’s bankruptcy in 2009, it vowed to sell off the brand.

In 2010, after failing to find a buyer, GM killed the the Hummer outright. “Everything it stood for just kind of collapsed,” Jessica Caldwell, an industry analyst at Edmunds, told The Washington Post. “It was seen as completely frivolous, and ultimately that led to its demise. It’s not cool to have a car that gets 10 miles to the gallon.”

“It was seen as completely frivolous, and ultimately that led to its demise. It’s not cool to have a car that gets 10 miles to the gallon.”

Meanwhile, the military Humvee had long been pronounced dead, even with hundreds of thousands still in use. In 2006, the Defense Department announced it would be replaced by the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, and nine years later, the Wisconsin-based Oshkosh was awarded a $6.7 billion contract to to build the trucks, which are stronger than Humvees and more nimble than the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles that replaced them in combat. All told, the Army and Marines plan to introduce more than 55,000 JLTVs, each carrying a $399,000 price tag.

It will still take decades to phase out the many existing Humvees, which are expected to remain in support roles at least until 2030. That process is being helped along by GovPlanet.com, which has a contract with the Defense Department to auction off aged Humvees to consumers with extra garage space. Most of the trucks on the site are from the 1990s and have surprisingly low mileage. But there’s one big catch for those who want to bring one of these suckers home: They’re not street legal.

As for the civilian Hummer, you can still stumble on one from time to time on used car lots or Craigslist. But don’t expect to see Schwarzenegger driving one. He’s moved on. The 69-year-old now prefers his 4×4 Mercedes-Benz G-Class with 490 horsepower and, most notably, an electric engine.

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