Confronting The Unthinkable

by Conor Friedersdorf

Last week, my non-fiction newsletter took up "The Gun," an excerpt from CJ Chivers' book length history of the AK-47. The selection concerns the way that the American military responded to the weapon during Vietnam: intent on getting an assault rifle of its own into the hands of troops, it settled on the M16.

Had the early M16 been reliable, this might have been a straightforward and simple development, a story as old as war. One side gets a new weapon, the other side matches it in kind... The early M16 and its ammunition formed a combination not ready for war. They were a flawed pair emerging from a flawed development history. Prone to malfunction, they were forced into troops' hands through a clash of wills and egos in Robert McNamara's Pentagon.

Instead of a thoughtful progression from prototype to general-issue arm, the M16's journey was marked by salesmanship, sham science, cover-ups, chicanery, incompetence, and no small amount of dishonesty by a manufacturer and senior military officers. Its introduction to war was briefly heralded as a triumph of private industry and perceptive management. It swiftly became a monument to the hazards of hubris and the perils of rushing, a study in military management gone awry.

I found this piece timely due to the recent anniversary of President Eisenhower's warning about the military industrial complex. If you read the whole story – and I recommend doing so – you'll see that domestic politics and institutional flaws in the military were so influential that nothing was done even as American troops were sent into actual battle in wartime with weapons that didn't work.

A more egregious failure is hard to imagine – and it still wasn't sufficient for the matter to be immediately corrected. So ponder how much more difficult it must be to stop nonsensical military spending that isn't literally malfunctioning on the front lines. This bit of history suggests to me that we can never underestimate the mercenary impulse of humankind, that we cannot count on common sense or patriotism or a functioning moral code to ensure functional procurements, and that constant skepticism and vigilance are required, however uncomfortable it may be to acknowledge that some American defense contractors are perfectly willing to put lives at risk to safeguard their profits.