The technical data that came out of the congressional inquiry persuaded the members of the committee to release an unusually sharp report, charging that the M-16 had been sabotaged by the ordnance corps. Yet the most striking aspect of the testimony was its humdrum, routine tone. When representatives of the ordnance corps were pressed to explain their decisions, they fell back on citations from the rule books, like characters in a parody of bureaucratic life. They seemed to have a hard time remembering who was responsible for crucial decisions; they tended to explain things by saying, “the feeling was,” or “the practice has been …” They could list with careful, bureaucratic logic the reasonableness of each step they had taken: if you didn’t have Arctic test requirements, you might not have adaptable rifles. If you didn’t change to ball powder, you would have had chamber pressures over the allowable limits—which might have been dangerous for the troops. They seemed not to see a connection between these choices and the soldiers who were dying with jammed rifles in their arms. They were certainly aware of the M-16’s troubles, and bowed to no one in their concern. What it proved, they said, was that the rifle had always been a risky experiment—especially (as they pointed out several times) when it was being used by the kind of soldiers the draft was scrounging up these days, who couldn’t understand the importance of keeping their weapons clean. Four years after the hearings, in 1971, an M-16 project manager, Col. Rex Wing, wrote a history of the rifle in Ordnance magazine. The headline on the story said, “Although the Viet Cong greatly feared the M-16 when our soldiers first were equipped with it in Vietnam, malfunctions caused by improper maintenance led to its being downgraded in the press.” The story contained no mention of the change in ammunition.
The committee could find no real evidence of corruption. Its report criticized one Nelson Lynde Jr., a general who was in charge of the Army Weapons Command between 1962 and 1964. He approved purchases of the M-16 from Colt, and then accepted a job shortly after retirement with the parent company of Colt. The committee reprimanded General Lynde for an apparent conflict of interests—even though, as Lynde pointed out, the Army’s counsel had not forbidden him to accept the job. The committee also urged an audit of the profits Colt had made on the rifle and of the “sole-source” relationship with Olin Mathieson. In 1980, I asked the committee’s investigator, Earl Morgan, whether actual corruption—bribes, kickbacks—had been involved. “Oh, I’d be amazed if there wasn’t some, knowing how that business is done,” he said. “But we never found anything we could prove.”
Perhaps the truest explanation of why things happened as they did is the most ordinary: that human beings could not foresee the way that chance and circumstance could magnify the consequences of their acts. The military supply organization, like most other organizations, is always full of power plays and bureaucratic games, which distract attention from the goals that in a rational world would always be pursued. Only occasionally does chance make the effects of these games catastrophic. Doubtless, thousands of military intelligence officers have lapsed in their attention to urgent dispatches; the handful who lapsed on December 6, 1941, were just unluckier than the rest. The ordnance corps was similarly unlucky. In late 1963 and early 1964, when the crucial decisions about the M-16 were being made, few people could have known that the U.S. would soon have half a million land troops in Asia, or that the soldiers would depend for their survival on a weapon that was the product of small-time bureaucratic squabbles. Most other squabbles had come and gone without costing soldiers’ lives. The forlorn tone of one of the Army’s last submissions to the congressional committee suggested the way in which the situation had gotten out of control:
From the vantage point of retrospect, it has sometimes been suggested that the peculiar behavior of ball propellant in the M-16 system should have been predicted. … Had the Army anticipated these developments, it is most unlikely that the course chosen in January 1964 would have been the same. A decision to reduce the velocity requirement, and continue loading IMR 4475 propellant would probably have been made instead.
The committee recommended that the Army immediately conduct a thorough, honest test of the two kinds of ammunition, with the strong suggestion that it should switch to IMR 4475. That never happened. Instead of going back to the original powder, the ordnance corps modified the ball powder and changed the mechanical “buffer” of the rifle, which slowed down the cyclic rate. That solved part of the jamming problem, but did not restore the rifle’s original reliability or “lethality.” (The change in the barrel “twist” was also never corrected.) Through every day of combat in Vietnam, American troops fired cartridges filled with the ball powder that was the legacy of the ordnance corps. And if American troops were sent into battle today, they would use the same kind of ammunition.