Technology and individualism

I recently re-read C.J. Chivers book The Gun, a history of the Kalashnikov (the AK-47) and its American-made rival, the M-16. Basically the story goes like this: the USSR produced a weapon of hideous destructive power, an automatice rifle capable of shooting a LOT of bullets very quickly. It was made all the more hideous by the fact that it was incredibly rugged and dependable. It would almost never jam, under any circumstances. Soak it in a salt water lagoon for two weeks, pick it up, and it starts firing, shedding water and sand as it goes. There are tens of millions of AK-47s in use today, all over the world.

America’s M-16, on the other hand, was a disaster at first, mostly because it corroded and jammed. American soldiers and Marines in Vietnam detested and distrusted it. Congressional inquiry revealed stories of soldiers found dead with a jammed M-16 in their hands. American Marines would try to discard their M-16s and use captured Kalashnikovs instead.

The M-16 is still in use–it’s been fixed for the most part, so it’s more reliable. But Chivers points out the unexpected fact that while the Soviet system produced an extremely effective, cheap, rugged, dependable machine still in general use, unchanged, over fifty years later, the American system produced an expensive, over-complicated and unreliable rifle that put its user at risk.

The Soviets made a “peasant’s weapon,” suitable for untrained men with no access to supplies. Cheap to make, cheap to acquire, cheap to maintain: all you needed was bullets and a sense of grievance. As a result, the AK-47s is the favored weapon of stateless insurgents–Hamas, the Lord’s resistance Army, the Taliban.

The US set out to make a better automatic rifle–more accurate, with more range, a faster rate of fire, lighter. The key difference is that the US assumed a trained soldier: someone under “fire discipline,” someone hectored and drilled and habituated in the maintenance of the weapon, a soldier with access to cleaning kits and supplies and a deep conviction of their necessity. They imagined, in other words, “state actors,” individuals under the discipline of state authority. [1. Indeed, when word of the problems with the M-16 surfaced, the first response was to blame the troops for not maintaining it properly. From The Gun: “Though the army knew the M-16 had technical problems that needed technical solutions, combat units were blamed for their rifle’s worrisome traits. The troops entered the monsoon season of 1967 with rifles prone to fail, and a bureaucracy ready to scold them when they did.” The key point is the Americans envisioned the user as an individual subordinated to state discipline.]

The Soviets imagined a potato farmer with the gun under his bed.

So the double irony is that the Soviets, working in an authoritarian regime, rightly critiqued for denying individual freedom, produced a machine usable by anyone, anywhere, while the Americans produced a machine that only worked well when individualism was subordinated to state authority.

Below is a modern variant of the M-16 and the array of accessories available for it.

Superficially, it looks like a model of consumer choice, like options for a car. You can get all these add-ons! But as a result, each M-16 comes with a huge supply chain–each of those accessories must be contracted for and built, stored and shipped to the front; each requires a manual for its use and the personel to develop the manual. And each requires a regime of training in its proper use and a soldier disciplined in that use. Again, the imagined consumer is under the discipline of the state, enmeshed in a  vast and complex state apparatus.

This guy has no accessories, and no supply chain, no state apparatus, and little or no discipline.

Foucualt’s Discipline and Punish argued that in premodern societies, “the soldier” was a person marked by unique physical attributes–strength, but also a “martial bearing,” a character of courage that manifested itself physically. You could give a peasant a pike, and he could do some damage,  but he would not be a soldier: a soldier was born, not made. The modern Army assumes quite differently that anyone can be made a soldier; that the Army can bring to bear on him (or her) a regime of training, drill and discipline, backed by hundreds of years of experience, and study, that can make virtually anyone a soldier.

Foucault’s point is always that the Army’s capacity to individualize soldiers–to make them specialists, to address their specific strengths and deficiencies and shape them as needed–is entirely inseparable from the Army’s capacity to impose a disciplinary authority, and that “freedom” is an odd metric to use in measuring such a society.

The USSR is gone, and the society that produced the M-16, with its expectations of a disciplined, trained, habituated soldier under state authority, ended up winning the Cold War. But all around the world, untrained and undisciplined insurgents still carry the AK-47. In this sense the United States, the exponent of individual freedom, has ended up proving the  power of the exact opposite point.


  • Actually the problems with the M-16 were due to the change in the formulation of the gunpowder used. The rifle was designed to use IMF powder, but the military ended up using ball propellant due to availability and cost. I don’t recall what book I read that in, but here’s a link that seems relevant:

    This actually includes the congressional testimony.

    btw: “The USSR is gone, and the society that pro­duced the M-14…” This is a typo for M-16?


  • Chivers describes the use of problematic gunpowder, but also the corrosion of other “hi-tech alloy” parts in humidity, and the lack of appropriate cleaning equipment.

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