Monday, November 03, 2008

More on American Rifle

Alexander Rose's American Rifle is subtitled A Biography. While this is a bit odd, it makes sense as he focuses on a centuries long tension in the development of the rifle in the United States. In it and the country's youth, the focus was on long range accuracy. The idea was that a single well trained marksman would be most effective against the hordes of, generally poorly trained, enemies the young nation would likely face.

As time and experience wore on, the idea of mass firepower, expressed in less accurate automatic fire came into conflict with this approach. Some, including the National Rifle Association thought the move towards shorter range, semi-automatic weapons was an attack on the individualistic ideal that the marksmen represented. This idea carried as far as World War 2 with the Marines who kept a nearly 50 year old rifle rather than adopt the less accurate M1 Garand that the Army was using. They changed this approach once they started fighting in jungles, where firepower was of much greater import than single shot sharpshooting.

That the debate was often focused on philosophy rather than purpose is not terribly surprising. As Antulio Echevarria argues here, American thinking on the use of force has tended to focus on capabilities rather than political/strategic outcomes. Debates about military power have tended to be disconnected from what we want to achieve from their use. Debates about Iraq still tend to avoid the basic question about the strategic gains and losses from continuing the war. American politicians have tended to be squeamish about this. In the past it was considered European and now the utilitarian viewpoint is associated with the Nixon-Kissinger approach to foreign policy, which doesn't have too many adherents.

Rose targets his story for the interested generalist. There a fair amount of technical detail about the development of rifling technology, but his focus is more on the personalities and forces that drove the technology. This is appropriate, as technology rarely drives itself, but is instead the result of a mix of political, social and economic factors. Rose does well in presenting this story.

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