An Earlier Evasion of Fact: the M16

The Pentagon's refusal to admit the risk to Gulf war troops from poison gas in a timely manner is typical of the military bureaucracy. It has, and always has had, scant regard for the welfare of the average soldier, especially when the bureaucracy is endangered.

In Vietnam, it became obvious at an early stage that the basic weapon, the M16 rifle, was a piece of junk. The infantry knew it, the field commanders knew it, and the Pentagon knew it. But only after the deaths of American troops was anything done.

The M16 replaced the M14, the most reliable and forgiving weapon yet designed. Heavy and slow in full automatic, it nevertheless kept firing when wet, muddy, or unlubricated. By contrast, the M16 was lightly built and fired a smaller round. But it jammed with the slightest amount of mud and required much more maintenance. As heat built up with repeated firings, the bolt stopped halfway through its return. The average American infantryman despised the M16. Most of it was plastic, just like a toy.

About halfway through the war, enough American soldiers had been killed when their weapons jammed to get the politicians' notice. Colt designed a Rube Goldberg quick fix for the M16. On the side of the rifle they added a plunger that could be hammered on to ram the partially returned bolt all the way forward. This ridiculous design was approved by the Pentagon as the M16A1. It was absolute proof of the carelessness of the previous designs. It worked some of the time. Terrified infantrymen, suddenly discovering that their rifle had jammed, were instructed to beat madly on the plunger with the heel of their right hand. If that didn't work, well, submit your complaint in triplicate.

Whatever combination of shoddy politics and crummy manufacturing was responsible for the M16 debacle, nothing was ever admitted. No one went to jail; no one lost their promotion standing. And in time the problem was solved by the soldiers themselves.

Early in my tour in Vietnam, I was part of a raid into Cambodia on a huge enemy arsenal (called Rock Island East after the Illinois arsenal). Truckloads of weapons, medical supplies, and bicycles came back through Tay Ninh where I was with the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN. There were thousands of Russian Kalishnikovs, which were quickly bought or stolen from the US trucks by ARVN troops. They left their issued M16s home for their wives to use. I was advised to get one myself, and so I did. It must have been 10 years old or more, but it was of a heavy, simple construction, brutish but reliable. Many American troops got themselves Kalishnikovs, and imagine our surprise to find out that, through American ordnance channels, the proper ammunition was readily available. At least somebody was looking out for us.

Of course, if anyone had ever asked the Pentagon to explain why their troops favored Russian rifles over the American manufactured ones, I'm sure Pentagon spokesmen (the same profiles in veracity we have today) would have denied that such a thing could be true.

*Jeff Danziger is the Monitor's cartoonist.

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