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How can the people who develop weapons be so callous about the lives of young soldiers? My friend Mark Berent, the Air Force author, is also a well-known aviation writer. He was making the rounds of defense contractors at the Paris Air Show, checking out the new gadgets with a former infantryman friend, a paraplegic who had been crippled by our own bombs. At booth after booth he'd introduce this guy, and the result was always the same. They could not see him. They didn't acknowledge the introduction; they didn't look at him. His presence did not register. This is as interesting for what it says about the nature of human consciousness as for what it says about the attitudes of defense contractors.

With these problems in mind, I checked with Howard "Max" Mullins, a former ranger and ranger instructor. He says that the M16A2 carried by most of our troops has corrected all these problems, that it is now a reliable weapon in the jungle and in the desert. The M4, the shortie version carried by special operators and light infantry, is even better. It has a shorter barrel and a collapsible stock, which makes it easier to carry, and it is a more flexible weapons system, in that it can have a laser target designator, or a scope, for day, night, or infrared attached. And a grenade launcher. It's also adaptable for a 100-round box magazine.

Max's fondness for it is not universally shared. One young Special Forces officer still on active duty writes, "Still jams too danged easily, and the round is weak. The accuracy is good and the gadgets are great. I like a simple AK, have since Azerbaijan, Colombia, and Sierra Leone, and that continued in the Stan [Afghanistan]. I signed out an AK, but then the command had a conniption..."

I'll probably never fire a rifle in combat again. But for me, the M16 is damaged goods. I'd rather carry a rattlesnake around in my pocket than an M16.

It cannot be denied, though, that they worked well in Iraq.

How do you keep it clean in the sand? Find someplace out of the wind, break it down, and wipe it with a shaving brush. Works like a charm. Now, let's get to work on the boots.

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