Wednesday, October 26, 2011

M-16, or 'The Little Black Rifle That Wouldn’t Shoot'

In Vietnam GI’s (VGI) first issue of January ’68, Editor Jeff Sharlet ran a front page story under a bold, large cap title calling attention to problems with the M-16 rifle. What was this about?

For those of us who soldiered in the Cold War ‘50s, the trusty M-1 was the standard US infantry rifle of the day. A long, heavy semi-automatic rifle which took an 8-round clip, the M-1 had carried us to victory in Europe and the Pacific in WWII. By the end of the ‘50s however, it had been superseded by the new M-14, also a big rifle, but a fully automatic one, which carried a 20-round box clip, used a heavier more powerful bullet, and maintained a much faster rate of fire at a longer range. It seemed like the Army and Marines had their new battlefield weapon for the long term.

Then came Vietnam. Not the big frontal war on the plains of Europe the Pentagon strategists and weapons designers had planned for, but small unit, close-up warfare in an unforgiving jungle terrain favoring the enemy’s hit & run guerrilla tactics. For American military personnel advising the South Vietnamese Army in the early ‘60s, it soon became apparent that the long (nearly 4 ft) and heavy M-14 was no match in combat for the Soviet-style AK-47 assault rifle carried by the Viet Cong (VC) and troops of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

As US involvement in what became its Vietnam quagmire deepened, the Pentagon in haste accelerated the development, testing, and deployment of a new basic firearm, a prototype of the M-16, called the AR-15 assault rifle. Standard procedure of seeking competitive designs and bids for a new weapon was ignored, and instead Colt, armorer to the cowboy era, which had acquired the rights to the future M-16 as a lightweight weapon with a black plastic stock, got the nod. In Secretary of Defense McNamara’s rush to deploy the rifle once the US escalated in spring ’65, unresolved flaws in the weapon, familiar to the manufacturer, were disregarded as M-16’s were shipped to the combat zone.

M-16 rifle

In one of the early skirmishes with the VC during spring ’65, an airborne unit suffered “many casualties” when a number of M-16’s jammed. Later the same outfit would report that a number of rifles had blown up, killing one GI in the process. Yet in its first major battle in November ’65, the new rifle was given unqualified good marks by the field commander in spite of the fact that the M-16 had only been issued to his troops 10 days in advance with little time for familiarization on the weapon. Did the new rifle really perform well, or was the colonel just practicing good military politics for the M-16’s debut? The occasion was the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, which pitted the NVA against the new US 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in heavily forested jungle terrain of South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Leading the way were elements of the 7th Cavalry Regt, on its first outing since Custer, which was nearly wiped out after unwittingly stumbling into an ambush in an the area where three battle-hardened NVA regiments were bivouacked.

Only through the extraordinary valor of the American GIs backed by massive firepower and air support did the unit survive the hellish four days of the battle, albeit with very heavy casualties. However, the NVA losses were greater, leading US HQ Saigon and Washington to begin the Vietnam spin game, depicting the outcome as a great victory. Simultaneously, Ho Chi Minh and his generals studied the results and also declared victory. In reality, the fighting on the ground, often hand to hand, was closer to a draw.

♫The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin', bullets loadin'…*

The conversion from the M-14 to its successor M-16 continued through ’66 as the number of US forces in Vietnam rapidly increased. Sporadic, scattered reports of the M-16 jamming in combat situations were duly filed, but generally ignored by the command structure. However, by early ’67, the problem, which had become the cause of casualties as GIs and Marines found themselves in deadly firefights with malfunctioning weapons, could no longer be ignored. Grunts were writing home about the jams, sending letters to hometown papers.

By then Colt was well aware, to put it euphemistically, of customer dissatisfaction among ground troops, but treated the matter as a confidential company issue which they hoped to resolve by re-engineering the M-16. The Pentagon, or at least parts of it, was also now aware that the rifle was costing US lives, but in classic CYA decided to classify the reports and restrict circulation to a Need to Know basis, lest the occupants at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue learn the seriousness of the matter.

However, the inevitable constituents’ letters began reaching Congress, and a special House investigative subcommittee was created in May ’67 led by Congressman Ichord of Missouri. Officers and NCO’s had tried to signal superiors through channels, but consistently ran into the standard command response, i.e., the M-16 was a fine rifle; the fault lay with troops not cleaning their weapons properly. Finally, out of concern for his men and in disregard for his career, a Marine junior officer made an end run around the brass, sending a well-documented letter simultaneously to the Washington Post, Senator Robert Kennedy, Congressman Ichord, and his local paper. He revealed that after one engagement, no fewer than 40 of his men reported rifle malfunctions to him, effectively blowing the lid off the Pentagon’s cover-up.

The word was out, the military had sent men into battle with an unproven rifle, and many troops had been found dead next to their stripped down M-16’s. The weapons had fatally jammed, leaving them defenseless against determined adversaries. As one night patrol leader radioed, “out of hand grenades, all weapons jammed.” When a relief column reached the position the next morning, all were dead.

As VGI reported to its GI and Marine readers in the first issue, the sources of the M-16’s problems were well known, both to Colt’s engineers and to the Pentagon’s ordnance brass. The M-16 had originally been issued to the combat infantry as a weapon which required little maintenance, one that could fire longer without cleaning than any other rifle in existence. As a result, minimal and inadequate cleaning materials were provided to the troops. Notwithstanding US technological hubris, the weapon frequently jammed due to incompatible ammo at an exceptionally high rate of fire which left a residue, fouling the firing chamber – even after a thorough cleaning.

As VGI wrote, once “the fat was in the fire” in Washington, the military began ordering necessary design changes, including replacement of the ammo and the use of chrome in the firing chamber, barrel, and bolt, of the new model M-16, making it less susceptible to corrosion and jamming. However during ‘67, US troop levels in Vietnam were approaching half a million. Replacing or refitting hundreds of thousands of M-16s in the midst of hard and constant fighting would be neither quick nor easy.

Meanwhile the Congressional committee and the general public were treated to tragic stories of men’s lives lost in vain due to the M-16’s journey through the military bureaucracy “marked by salesmanship, sham science, cover-ups, chicanery, incompetence, and no small amount of dishonesty by a gun manufacturer and senior American military officers.”** Time quoted a wounded Marine’s letter home recounting the disaster which had befallen his unit in battle during late spring ’67:
We left with 72 men in our platoon and came back with 19. … I
just caught a little shrapnel. I wish I could say the same for all my
buddies. … believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our
own rifle … the M-16. Practically every one of our dead was found
with his rifle torn down next to him where he had been trying to
fix it. ***
Inevitably, once the press got hold of the story, comparisons were made to the enemy’s weapon of choice – the Soviet designed Kalashnikov, aka the AK-47. Heavier with a slower rate of fire than the M-16 (when it fired), the AK-47 was a sturdy, durable rifle with a large banana clip, a weapon which rarely misfired or jammed, ideally suited to Third World battlefield conditions. In contrast, GIs and Marines, stuck with an unreliable weapon, nicknamed their M-16’s the ‘Mattel Toy, or the ‘Little Black Rifle That Wouldn’t Shoot’.

NVA soldier with AK-47, Battle of Hue, ‘68

A Marine platoon Sgt, whose unit had been plagued by jammed M-16s in the heat of firefights during spring ‘68, picked up an AK-47 he found on the battlefield. A senior officer, spotting him in base camp with the rifle slung across his back, challenged him, “Gunny, why the hell are you carrying that?” The Gunnery Sgt replied, “Because it works”**** – Sir.

In late ’67, the Congressional subcommittee had issued its sharply worded report that the M-16’s malfunctions were “serious and excessive,” and the Army and the Marine Corps had been negligent. Too late though for a number of guys whose names would later go up on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.

*Eve of Destruction by P.F. Sloan, 1965
**C.J. Chivers, The Gun (2010)
***Time, June 9, 1967
****Esquire, October 27, 2010

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Surveilling and the Surveilled

I once had a brother; I remember him fondly. He died in 1969 at the age of 27, and I have been ‘searching’ for him since. My brother was much younger, so the trajectories of our lives often found us far apart geographically—never more so than the year 1963-64 when I was studying in Moscow while brother Jeff Sharlet was at a remote military outpost west of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. Jeff was a GI in an intelligence outfit; I was a graduate student researching my PhD dissertation. He was a Vietnamese linguist with the US Army Security Agency (ASA) under the aegis of NSA-Washington, the National Security Agency; I was a visiting scholar at Moscow University Law School. Jeff’s regular assignment was the North Vietnamese Army’s communications traffic; my preoccupation was Marxist legal philosophy, the language of my daily life, Russian.

That year the war in Vietnam, at least the American part of it, was still in its infancy, a low intensity guerrilla insurgency fought in the shadows. As such, Vietnam was just a set piece in the global Cold War, the dangerous rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. In early ’61, President Kennedy (JFK) had begun building up US forces in South Vietnam, sending thousands of additional military advisors, including elite Special Forces as well as squadrons of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. At the superpower level of the larger Cold War, JFK and Khrushchev, leaders of the two great adversaries, presided over their respective spheres of influence. Each commanded thousands of nukes as well as the means of lethal delivery.

Both the Cold War writ large and its smaller regional offshoot in Southeast Asia, former French Indochina, had their origins in 1945 in the wake of WWII. That year Ho Chi Minh had declared Vietnam’s independence from the French Empire, igniting the first Indochina war as the French struck back at their colony. By ’54, the Viet Minh, a guerrilla army of Vietnamese Communists and nationalists, finally defeated France. However, reflecting the bipolar Soviet-American world, independent Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel into the Communist North, a Soviet ally; and non-communist South Vietnam, a US client state. Several years later, North Vietnam secretly launched an insurgency in the South aimed at overthrowing the Saigon regime of President Diem and unifying the country under the red flag with a yellow star.

By contrast, the Cold War was a far more visible and dramatic conflict – beginning with the Soviet blockade of West Berlin and the US Berlin Airlift of ’48; the USSR’s explosion of its first A-bomb in ’49, ending the US monopoly; the beginning of the Korean War in ’50; the continuing Berlin crises of the ‘50s, culminating in the erection of the Berlin Wall in ’61; and, of course, the most dangerous moment in the long Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62.

I was in Moscow shortly thereafter, fortunate to have been chosen as a member of the small American academic group under the umbrella of the US-USSR Cultural Exchange Agreement of 1958. Jeff was part of a larger contingent of ASA personnel in Vietnam. I was in the Soviet Union for the academic year 1963-64; Jeff, too, was scheduled to leave Vietnam and head back to the States in late spring ‘64. First, though, we had to reach our destinations a world apart. As an internal political crisis intensified in South Vietnam during summer ’63, Jeff and a team of linguists were quickly flown from their base in the Philippines (PI) to Saigon in late August. The South Vietnamese generals were quietly planning a coup against Diem with Washington’s blessings. However, since the US had a political stake in Vietnam within its overriding struggle with the USSR, JFK wanted to be sure he was privy to the generals’ plans. Hence, Jeff and crew were posted to an Army Signal Battalion facility outside the capital – off in a distant corner of the base where they hooked up to giant antennas for clandestinely surveilling the coup plotters’ communications. The equipment was manned around the clock.

Signal base at Phu Lam, giant circular antennas visible right background

I made it to Moscow a month later – by ship, truck, and train. I crossed the North Atlantic by ocean liner, then the North Sea and the Baltic Sea up through the Gulf of Finland by a smaller Soviet passenger ship. Arriving at the port of Leningrad at the mouth of the River Neva, I and fellow students were met by a taciturn fellow driving a beat-up WWII-vintage army truck, the kind shipped to the beleaguered Soviet Army by the hundreds under the US Lend Lease Plan. The truck carried us and our luggage through the rain slicked streets of the city to the train station where we boarded the ‘Red Arrow’, the night express to Moscow.

I settled into the Lenin Hills dorms of Moscow University fairly smoothly. Few students were around. It was harvest time in the Soviet Union and the majority of the law students were thousands of miles away on the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan, helping the peasants bring in the wheat crop. Upon completion of their so-called ‘social obligation’ to society, the students returned to the capital by special trains in late September when the Soviet academic year was scheduled to begin. I finally met my Soviet roommate, Volodya, a tall, lantern-jawed Russian of about 25 with a strong handshake and a hearty bass voice. He made me quite welcome. Actually we were suite mates since each of us had a private bed-sitting room and shared a common foyer as well as semi-private facilities. Volodya hailed from Astrakhan on the lower Volga. Before entering law school, he’d worked as a stevedore on a Black Sea freighter. In the fall of ’63 he was beginning his senior year in Criminology, a Soviet law school discipline for training detective/investigators who worked with public prosecutors.

Moscow State University in the Lenin Hills

I was assigned to the Jurisprudence Department of the law school where the chair and nationally known Professor Doctor Denisov (Andrei Ivanovich once one became acquainted) became my Soviet advisor. He urged me to audit his courses in legal philosophy. I readily agreed and began my weekly routine of law classes and long hours of library research on my dissertation.

The law school was in a very old building on Herzen Street near the center of Moscow, a few blocks from the Lenin Library, the USSR’s equivalent of our Library of Congress, which stood within sight of the Kremlin walls. Getting to my destinations was a fairly long commute by bus and metro from the Lenin Hills, so once in downtown Moscow one usually spent the day, sometimes into the early evening. Meanwhile back at the dorm, aside from being friendly and helpful, Volodya had become very interested in my daily comings and goings.

Any time he heard me close my door to leave, he would pop out of his room and casually ask where I was going. During the week, invariably my answer was either ‘to the law school’ or ‘to the library’. Hearing me return later in the day, sometimes in the early evening since the library kept late hours, Volodya would appear again and with a big smile ask, ‘Otkuda’, where’ve you’ve been? I in turn would simply reiterate the day’s itinerary. This went on for weeks. He never tired of asking, and I unfailingly played my part in the friendly exchange. Curious, I checked with other visiting American scholars to see if anyone had noticed any unusual interest in their daily movements. No one. On the contrary, most reported that Soviet suite mates kept their distance, rarely initiating conversation.

Not surprising, since we were after all ‘bourgeois foreigners’ – there was no percentage for a future Soviet legal official getting too chummy with us in closely watched Moscow. I concluded that I had apparently been singled out by the mysterious powers that be – it was considered inappropriate in Soviet public etiquette to mention the secret police known as the KGB – for special attention. The likely reason, I surmised, was that I was the sole American in the dorms that year that had been in the military. I had been an ASA linguist based in Europe in the late ‘50s, and my classified work had involved the Soviet Bloc. Although that was all behind me and I was singularly focused on an academic career, one could never be sure what the Soviets knew about one’s background or, even less, what they thought about it.

Jeff in Vietnam and Volodya in Moscow had completed their respective surveillance duties by November. Jeff and fellow interpreter/translators had fed back to NSA-Washington on a daily basis all the South Vietnamese generals’ relevant conversations about the impending coup. On November 1st, the plotters struck, seizing power and assassinating Diem in the process. Volodya, too, had no doubt been conscientious, presumably passing his observations of my mundane movements up through channels, although on a less urgent schedule, probably weekly. Eventually somewhere across Moscow, a bureaucrat responsible for monitoring foreign students in the capital concluded, after weeks of reading Volodya’s monotonous reports, that I was in the USSR exactly as advertised, to assiduously study Soviet law and relentlessly research my PhD dissertation.

Mission completed, ASA flew Jeff back to the PI. Similarly, about the same time, Volodya from one day to the next ceased his incessant inquiries. His task finished and, nice guy that he was, he invited me to his room a few days later along with a few of his friends for a boozy celebration of the Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the 46th for anyone counting. A flurry of за ваше здоровье’s* as we chugged vodka Russian-style.

Then one evening just a few weeks later, while hanging pictures in my room, I was stunned by the breaking news that JFK had just been assassinated, but that’s a story for another time.

*To your health.