On Losing a Rifle

Vietnam pic

Short of actively committing a crime, in the peacetime US military the worst thing a soldier can do is lose a weapon.

In combat it’s different, for obvious reasons. Government property lost or damaged in a war zone—to include weapons—is routinely written off without many questions asked. But in peacetime, control and accountability of firearms is paramount, second in importance only to the safety of personnel, with which it is of course intertwined.

Is that a big surprise? Stay with me here…..

Weapons—in particular, firearms—fall under the rubric of “sensitive items,” the accountability of which is rigorously enforced. Other items in that category include communications codebooks—what we called a CEOI, in my day—which are typically kept lashed to the body. Losing a CEOI will get your ass in trouble in both war or peace. (I presume that modern digital encryption sytems have largely rendered that old school method of cryptology obsolete, much as GPS technology has transformed the art of map reading and land navigation beyond recognition….not necessarily for the better.)

Another “sensitive item” is night vision/observation devices—NODs—both because they are so expensive, and because their advanced technology isn’t something we want falling into the hands of just anybody. (US manufacturers do sell NODs to the general public, including foreign governments, but not top tier military grade ones.)

But when it comes to sensitive items there’s nothing worse than losing a firearm.

If you do, the world comes to a screeching halt. Training stops. Everything stops, and every swinging dick is put to work looking for the missing weapon, round the clock, under excruciating pressure, sometimes for weeks on end. It’s an offense so egregious that not only is the careless soldier himself subject to non-judicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but his or her entire chain of command is held responsible. An NCO or officer who has a soldier lose a weapon is personally accountable for that loss as a failure of leadership and positive control. It can be a career-ender.

Why do you think that is?

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I’ll tell you a war story. (Just an expression: it happened in peacetime, which per above, is the point.)

In the late 1980s I was in an infantry battalion in what was then called West Germany when one of my fellow lieutenants lost an M-16.

For an ordinary soldier to lose a rifle was bad enough, but for an officer to lose one was the end of the world.

Strike that: for an officer, the end of the world would have been better.

I’ll call him Derek. He was a good friend of mine, and this incident notwithstanding, one of the best young officers in that unit, or any unit on our kaserne, which was the largest in all of US Army Europe. In fact, Derek was our battalion’s scout platoon leader, the primo rock star slot for a young infantry officer.

The incident happened while we were on a wintertime training exercise in a bleak and remote Bavarian maneuver area called Hohenfels. (Been there? You’re not missing anything.) When the rifle went missing, Derek’s platoon was immediately ordered to cease training—to cease eating, to cease breathing—and plunged into a desperate search for it. Indeed, the entire battalion and much of the brigade went into crisis mode. Word of the lost weapon quickly spread through all of USAREUR; friends of mine stationed Stateside told me they heard about it.

For weeks the scout platoon walked on line across Hohenfels, armtip to armtip, traversing the training area, kicking snow from dawn to dusk, looking for the missing M-16.

They never found it.

At one point, a general helicoptered in to check on the situation and to speak with Derek, who was under incredible pressure and scrutiny. At the end of their conversation, the general said, almost pleadingly:

“Lieutenant, is there anything you can think of that we haven’t tried?”

To which Derek—presumably trying to break the tension— deadpanned:

“How about a psychic?”

No report on how the general responded, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t give Derek a hug.

After some weeks, the search was finally abandoned. Derek was relieved as scout platoon leader and transferred to a different battalion. In that regard, he was lucky; had he not been such a stellar officer, he might have been summarily put out of the Army right then and there.

I always had my suspicions that one of more of Derek’s soldiers swiped his weapon. I have no proof; just a feeling. Derek hadn’t been in charge of the recon platoon very long, he was a hardass, the scouts were rebels by nature and had been openly chafing under the new regime…..I don’t know. It’s possible. But if so, it backfired badly, as the entire platoon suffered while the search for the lost weapon went on. Morale went into the toilet, and even afterward the scouts took some time to shed the bad rap the incident had conferred on them and recover their old elan and esprit d’corps.

(Postscript: After fighting in Panama with another division and serving as a company commander, Derek was eventually pushed out of active duty in the ’90s. I don’t know what other factors might have played into that fate, but at a time when the Army was conducting a ruthless, euphemistic “reduction in force,” the lost rifle was an albatross around his neck that was impossible to overcome. After 9/11, with the advent of the “global war on terror” and the emergent need for experienced manpower, Derek came back on active duty, got promoted, and went on to fight in Afghanistan. I guess the Big Green Machine got a lot more understanding when it needed bodies to feed into the meat grinder.)

I was in that unit in Germany for three and a half years; in that time, lots of crazy shit happened. One of my soldiers got stabbed in the heart by his wife. (He lived, and they stayed married). The brigade commander was relieved for having a brazen extramarital affair with a female second lieutenant. I had a 42-year-old first sergeant decide to get a circumcision to see how the other half lived. We had several suicides. The Berlin Wall fell a month after I returned to the States, and eighteen months later, my old division deployed to the Persian Gulf and fought the Iraqi Republican Guard 3000 miles away from the Fulda Gap where for 45 years it had been preparing to fight the Red Army. All of it will be in my forthcoming memoir, How I Won the Cold War Without Really Trying.

But nothing ever created as much havoc and panic as that lost weapon.

*****************

But I digress.

The gravity with which US Army treats accountability of firearms is instructive, as is the reason why.

Unlike a night vision device, a rifle or pistol is not particularly expensive, and certainly not by the standards of military procurement. (Remember the Navy’s $435 hammer?) Nor are these items so technologically advanced that their specs need to be zealously safeguarded. Far from it.

No, the insistence on ironclad control of weapons has one rationale and one only:

The United States military doesn’t want battlefield weapons falling into civilian hands.

Why is that such a big deal? I guess it’s because the Pentagon understands that it’s a bad idea for private citizens to have military-grade rifles that were designed for just one purpose: to kill human beings as quickly and efficiently as possible in a combat environment.

Last spring, I wrote a pair of essays for this blog about gun violence in America, the need for common sense firearms regulation, and the battle over the Second Amendment. (Why Can’t I Own an M-1 Tank?, March 3, 2018 and Blood On Their Hands, March 8, 2018.) No topic that I have ever written about—not even abortion—has generated the level of vitriol that rained down on me in response to those essays. Not even close. (That in itself speaks to the bizarre American obsession with guns.)

Many of my, uh, let’s-be-generous-and-call-them critics seemed fixated on terminology, like what constitutes an “assault rifle.” They cling to their semantics like shipwreck victims hanging onto floating debris.

In the wake of Parkland, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, or any other mass shooting you care to name, not to mention the “routine” everyday carnage on the streets of various American cities, somehow it is not a pragmatic discussion of how to stop this madness that dominates the national conversation, but rather, an idiotic hairsplitting debate about terminology.

But the US military does not need to bother with how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin-style pissing contests about whether the Founding Fathers intended the American public to own AK-47s and AR-15s. An institution of profound practicality, the military is concerned only with the patently obvious dangers thereof, and its own desire not to be complicit in that homicidal/suicidal dynamic.

So we can talk about the definition of “semi-automatic,” about trigger pull speed, muzzle velocity, cyclic rate, magazine capacity, bump stocks, three-round burst suppressors, and anything else you want. Who cares? The pointless obsession with these meaningless distinctions is all camouflage designed to obfuscate the truth rather than illuminate it—either dishonestly for the general audience, or as a form of self-delusion, or some combination of both.

Personally, I  don’t give a shit. I know a battlefield weapon when I see one.

Like art or pornography, it’s hard to define but easy to understand intuitively. The US Army seems able to grasp it, and why civilians have no business owning such weapons.

Maybe someday the rest of the country will catch up.

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Photo: http://www.historicalfirearms.info/post/116333305624/m16-m16a1-the-xm16e1-was-first-adopted-in-1962

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