October 21, 2010
Petzal: Your Chance to Chat with Chivers
By David E. Petzal
In my post of October 8, I introduced you to C.J. Chivers, a senior correspondent for The New York Times, former Marine officer, and the only Times staffer who knows which end of a gun the bullet comes out of, which makes him as rare as a coelacanth. Due to an arrangement far above my pay grade, Chris has agreed to field questions from you on his book, AKs, the military, The New York Times, or anything else he could reasonably be expected to know about. To prime the pump, here are my two along with his answers. When this post appears, chime in with your own questions and Chris will answer them shortly.
Petzal: In your book, our small arms procurement system, and in particular the Army Ordnance Department, come off very badly, and over a long period of time. Based on what you’ve seen in the past ten years, are things better now?
Chivers: How could they not be better? The introduction of the M-16 into American military service (to which The Gun devotes considerable space) was so badly executed that it’s hard to imagine worse.
But let’s do a fuller answer about the present day, and channel some of what I hear from the field or have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My sense is that the many people in the procurement system of today have tried to find and field weapons that meet the particular needs of troops in these wars. In some cases they have done well. In others their system has not. And there is a strong bias among some of the people in the procurement system to embrace the status quo, and defend it. How has the status quo performed, in the troops’ eyes? This is important, because the final and lasting test of any infantry arm is how it performs in the field, not what the people within the bureaucracies or at the test ranges think of it. And my sense of that measure, the most important measure, is that the reviews are mixed, and many troops are not satisfied.
I say this having spent years walking patrols and riding between missions with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and having seen a lot of these weapons in fights in varied circumstances and conditions, and as someone whose email box is often loaded with a rich set of insights from soldiers and Marines. So allow me to try a rough summary. Some weapons seem well-regarded. I would say without hesitation that the M240 is better weapon than the M60E3, which I trained on in the Marines, and was a dog. The M249 SAW has its supporters, but I often hear credible complaints in and from the field about its reliability, and when I have been with units in Afghan fighting I have wondered about its effective range in the open vistas that often accompany Afghan shooting. It’s fairly heavy, hard to clean, and as a machine gun it does not work especially well beyond medium ranges, in part because it tends to be fired more as an automatic rifle than a true machine gun.
I’ve seen cases where troops did not bother to fire at escaping Taliban fighters who were in the open, say 8,00 or 1,000 yards away, feeling they could not hit them. And so I’m very interested in the newer IAR, which the Marines have been testing. I don’t know enough to have a strong opinion, but I do know enough to say that the research and testing effort in a replacement for the SAW would seem well-placed, given the many concerns about this weapon, and many troops aren't quite satisfed with what the procurement system has provided them.
Pistols? The 9-millimeter Berretta is unpopular and in some corners it is loathed. You’ll remember that not long after it was introduced it had a slide problem—that's an understatement, actually, considering that slides shattered in use—which did not speak well of those who fielded it. But let’s talk pistols for a moment. As a former infantryman I say this: Why wouldn’t the Berretta be disliked by the grunts? Most sensible grunts, while they might appreciate a well-made pistol as a firearm or law-enforcement arm, don’t hold pistols in high regard as battlefield weapons. Sometimes I hear people saying they wish they had a .45. But knowing what we know about how the .45 was accepted a century or so ago I’m not convinced that the .45 is all it’s made out to be either.
The Colt .45 is certainly well-made and reliable; I don’t mean that as a slap at Colt's product per se. But pistols simply are not, in almost all circumstances, effective infantry weapons. But it still matters that the Berretta is unpopular, because its low reputation has helped strengthen many troops' perspectives that the procurement system does not listen to them.
Back to rifles. Perhaps surprisingly, given the AR-15 line’s history, I find the M4s and M-16s are generally well-liked, as far as 5.56-millimeter rifles go. I do read a lot of complaints about them on-line, and while some fraction of those complaints are probably true, many have the feel of urban legend. A large fraction of what you hear is unverifiable, and the failures described are not accompanied by essential information—the names of people involved, the dates and locations of the firefights, the units involved, descriptions of steps taken after to report and remedy the problems. Over the years, when I have been in the field and interviewing soldiers and Marines involved in the fighting, I have not been able to replicate these complaints, and I have grown suspicious of them. And in the many firefights and engagements I have been present for, I have yet to see an M-16 jam or have some other stoppage. I’m open to being wrong here, and I invite anyone who has fresh information to share it with me. Until I see better evidence, I’ll go with what I hear and have seen first-hand, which is that Colt’s and FN’s current M-16 variants are generally regarded as rifles that work—again, within all the limits of the current NATO-standard 5.56-millimeter round.
All of this said, the situation remains imperfect. Here’s a question that points to one example: why did it take a half-century to find reliable magazines for the M-16 line? You’ll remember that the first magazines for the first M-16s, the straight box magazines, were both designed and manufactured poorly, and the lips were prone to damage, and would bend out of shape. When I had the chance to read Colt’s internal correspondence from the 1966-1968 I was amazed at how extensive the magazines’ problems were, and how well documented the problems were within the company. The early magazines were long ago replaced, but the replacements and the new designs were never satisfactory. And often when the credible reports of jamming in recent years have been examined, the results have pointed not to flawed rifles, but to failing magazines. The Army and the Marines have both made strides in this regard, and I have seen new magazines in the field this past year. But why did it take decades? This does not speak well of procurement.
Now, you’ll notice my description of the M-16 line had a caveat—about the cartridge choice. I do think there is a widespread sense among the troops and those who follow military small arms in the field, that there has been a certain inflexibility, even an outright unwillingness, at the Pentagon to examine other possible caliber choices and consider making a change. Is the 5.56 round really the ideal choice for general issue for troops fighting worldwide? I know this is a whole other discussion, and that rifle and caliber (and bullet composition) choices are perrenial arguments. But I raise it here because it goes to the sense out there among reasonable, experienced people that things could be much better in the Pentagon's procurement system, though, to be clear, it has not failed on the order of how it failed American and allied troops in Vietnam.
The introduction of the early M-16 was a problem of a different scale of magnitude. I remember something you once said to me. You said (and this is a paraphrase, working from memory) that there were many differences between how the USSR and the USA developed and fielded infantry rifles. And one difference was that if Stalin's designers had fielded a rifle the way their American counterparts fielded the early M-16, they would have been shot.
Petzal: You were a student at Cornell University in 1983 when you joined the Corps. Tell me about that.
Chivers: In 1983 I was a college freshman, and a few weeks into my freshman year, in October, a suicide truck bomb leveled the barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines and sailors. As a high school student I had considered joining the Marines. And a few days after that attack I was looking at the pictures in Newsweek of those Marines in Lebanon, pulling at the rubble, trying to save their friends or recover their friends’ remains. I was drawn to join them. I looked around the university campus and found that what those young men were doing, and who they were, was more compelling and important than anything I could see at college. There seemed to be a new war on. Not many people in the states had yet defined it that way. But you could feel it in that event. So I went to see the recruiters, and I began to tell my family my plans, and by the summer of my sophomore year I was standing in front of Marine Corps drill instructors and on the road to the infantry.
I come from a family with strong and enduring traditions of military service. We can trace relatives to American uniforms in World War I, and perhaps to the Civil War. So taking this step was not especially hard. I had thought of dropping out of school as I entertained my options in the Corps. But the Corps told me it was not the best plan. They wanted me to study, and to have the discipline to study well, and not to waste the opportunities I had. They made that clear—that I should push myself as hard at school as I was willing to push myself in anything else. That was very good advice. I picked up a ROTC scholarship and I completed my studies and started active duty a few years later as a lieutenant. I left as a captain in 1994, having commanded a platoon and a company. And that war? We’re still in it. The Cold War went away, or mostly did. And this other war took off. More than a quarter-century has passed since I signed on. Trying to understand it remains a large part of my life.
Thanks for your questions, David. Now let’s see what’s on your readers mind. I’ve been doing a lot of conversations with readers lately, and have found them very valuable. Let me open the floor to questions with a declaration or two. Like this: I'm not a firearms' expert. I know a thing or two about infantry arms, and have a certain amount of field experience and have passed years in my own study and immersion in tactics and the experience of small-unit ground war. But I do not pretend to expertise. So I'm here to listen to and to learn from your readers, as much as to talk. If you have readers who don't want to ask something in public, or want to communciate with me directly, send them to cjchivers.com or to firstname.lastname@example.org. For questions posted here at "The Gun Nut," or any message sent to me directly, please understand that I travel a lot, and I have many deadlines for my writing, and a lot of ongoing stories in the works. So if I don't answer immediately, don't worry. I'll be back to you as soon as I can. —Chris Chivers