The Big Lie principle, as elaborated by Hitler and Goebbels, is that if you tell a small lie, you’ll be caught on it, but if you tell a really big, even outrageous whopper, people will tend to believe it. It’s an insight into human psychology which helps explain how those two second-stringers wound up seizing the levers of the most advanced nation in 20th Century Europe and running it into the ground, to the detriment of scores of millions worldwide. But right now, it’s making the rounds in our little world, as hired shills for foreign manufacturers lie about one battle to pad their own paychecks. This lie is so bold and blatant that many have come to accept it as true, even though official documents tell another story.
The lie is that, “9 American Infantrymen died on 13 July 08 at COP Kahler at Wanat, Afghanistan, in the Waygul Valley of Nuristan province, because their M4 Carbines jammed”. This lie clearly doesn’t hold up if you read the historical papers, professional analyses, and interviews with survivors. What does hold up is a story of incredible devotion, dedication and heroism on the part of the Americans there, and of intelligent, bold and fearless attacks on the part of their enemies. But there are some facts the foreign-firm lobbyists don’t tell you.
- to start with, that they’re paid lobbyists.
- Then, that most of the killed were not using M4s at the time they were killed.
- Then, that those that were did not have jammed rifles.
- Then, that the survivors who did have jammed rifles, used the rifles far beyond their duty cycle, because (1) they hadn’t been trained on the limits of the weapon and its duty cycle, but mostly, (2) they hadn’t any other option: their crew-served weapons went down due to failure, ammunition exhaustion, or destruction by accurate enemy MG and RPG fire, leaving them with ugly choices: go cyclic for long periods with rifles, or get defeated. Getting defeated was not a survivable option.
Why, then, does this story persist? It persists because it fits a narrative much beloved of the anti-military writers of the Acela Corridor, many of whom are unsophisticated and trivially spun by lobbyists. The Atlantic magazine is a fine illustration of this. In a recent article by a defense-industry lobbyist and retired general, whose conflicts of interest they have never disclosed, they printed:
The M4, the standard carbine in use by the infantry today, is a lighter version of the M16 rifle that killed so many of the soldiers who carried it in Vietnam. (The M16 is still also in wide use today.) In the early morning of July 13, 2008, nine infantrymen died fighting off a Taliban attack at a combat outpost near the village of Wanat in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Some of the soldiers present later reported that in the midst of battle their rifles overheated and jammed. The Wanat story is reminiscent of experiences in Vietnam: in fact, other than a few cosmetic changes, the rifles from both wars are virtually the same. And the M4’s shorter barrel makes it less effective at long ranges than the older M16—an especially serious disadvantage in modern combat, which is increasingly taking place over long ranges.
OK, perhaps in a future post we’ll break that out, bullshit by bullshit. For example:
- The M4 is a lighter version of the M16 Rifle, yes, and the 2015 Corvette is a modified version of a car introduced in 1953. There are very few parts in an M4 that are the same as the ones this guy’s artillery battery struggled with at FSB Bertchesgaden almost 50 years ago. Most of those parts are in the trigger group, and there’s always the charging handle. Apart from those, from muzzle to buttstock, from sights to magazine, it’s a new gun.
But we’re not going to do that today. Instead we’re going to address this insidious and false claim:
- [N]ine infantrymen died fighting off a Taliban attack at a combat outpost near the village of Wanat. So far, so good. (At least he notes that they did fight off the attack; a lot of careless reporters say they were overrun).
- Some of the soldiers present later reported that in the midst of battle their rifles overheated and jammed. Yes. You see what the author is doing there? He’s making the inferences, without saying in so many words, that their guns killed them. This is one of those things that is “true, but….” Those grunts were not killed by their guns. They were killed by the enemy, and as we’ll see, the malfunction of weapons systems was real, but not decisive. You could argue that bad training, worse officer leadership in the planning phases (the officers provided magnificent leadership under fire), and incredibly-bad site selection were responsible, instead. (The location selected for COP Kahler was the bottom of a bowl, with mountains about 7,000 feet higher surrounding the outpost 360º. It’s hard to imagine a less defensible position, yet these guys defended it). But in the end, they were infantrymen in a hard fight with a determined enemy, and guys get hurt doing that.
So let’s explore the action at Wanat for a minute. Click “More” to continue. This is a long one.
Thanks for hanging with us. Let’s explore the area a bit.
The commanders had a logical set of reasons for putting the position here — they were too starved of airlift to support a peak position with helicopters, unlike the better-resourced soldiers of Vietnam. They needed to be on a road, both to interact with the locals (in accordance with COIN doctrine), and to bring up their supplies.
Welcome to what American forces called a Vehicle Control Post, Vehicle Patrol Base, or Combat Outpost (COP). They all name it Kahler, after a respected platoon sergeant who was murdered in a green-on-blue attack. It was manned by a platoon of paratroopers, reinforced with a weapons squad with two M240 general purpose MGs, a 120-mm mortar and a TOW truck with the Improved Target Acquisition System (ITAS), and supplied with a Long Range Advanced Scout Surveillance Systems (LRAS3) system that the platoon’s artillery FO trained the riflemen to operate. It was well-equipped with crew-served weapons, but possibly on the least defensible ground imaginable — it makes Dien Bien Phu look positively defensible.
Here are some quotes from reports and papers on Wanat. Initially, they seem to support what the grizzled old lobbyist is saying. From a draft historical report that is available at the Washington Post:
SSG Phillips poured out fire, as recalled by another Engineer SPC loading for him, “…[SSG Phillips] went through three rifles using them until they jammed.”103. SSG Phillips recalled: “My M4 quit firing and would no longer charge when I tried to correct the malfunction. I grabbed the Engineers SAW [M249 5.56mm Squad Automatic Weapon] and tried to fire. It would not fire, so I lifted the feed tray tried clearing it out and tried to fire again. It would not.” SSG Phillips did not realize that SGT Queck had earlier attempted to fire this SAW, and it had failed at its first shot when a bullet jammed in the barrel. Queck had quickly discarded the SAW, swearing profanely in frustration that it was “fucked up!” (pp. 112-113).
Phillips was in the main COP. The next-named soldier, SPC Bogar, was in the hardest-hit defensive position, the Observation Post established on high ground (but not on the full crest) to the east of the main position.
SPC Bogar fired approximately six hundred rounds at a cyclic rate of fire from his SAW when that weapon became overheated, and eventually jammed the bolt forward. SPC Stafford noted, “Bogar was still in our hole firing quite a bit. Then Bogar’s SAW jammed. Basically it just got way overheated, because he opened the feed tray cover and I remember him trying to get it open and it just looked like the bolt had welded itself inside the chamber. His barrel was just white hot.” (p. 126)
Additionally, their SAF was so devastating that one of the grenade launchers was struck with a bullet through the feed tray, permanently disabling it. The other Mk-19 grenade launcher jammed, which they are prone to do. Thus, the American defenders at the main COP had only a single .50 caliber machine gun, the Marine M240 machine gun, and their own small arms to repel the assault. It is to the credit of the Chosen soldiers that they maintained at least fire parity from the COP. (p. 117).
[T]he 2d Platoon soldiers were firing their weapons “cyclic,” on full automatic at the highest possible rates of fire. As a result, numerous soldiers experienced weapons malfunctions, just as SSG Phillips had faced at the mortar pit. One young SPC fighting at the COP Kahler later complained, “…I ran through my ammo till my SAW would not work anymore despite the ‘Febreze’ bottle of CLP I dumped into it.” (pp. 117-118)
By condemning the M4 (but for some reason not any other weapons, which also failed) for failing under these conditions, the lobbyist is serving whoever his corporate masters are this week (H&K? FNH?) by criticizing a weapon because it cannot do the impossible. The hardest thing to manage in the design of automatic weapons is waste heat. Cyclic rate is something that can be used for a short period, at a cost to the durability of the weapon. The men at the COPs around Wanat were left hanging for very long periods, with no meaningful air or indirect fire support, and had been given so little training in automatic fire that they didn’t know they were hazarding their weapons. There is no weapon on Earth that will hold up to firing thousands of rounds on cyclic rate without a barrel change or water cooling. But we’ll go into that in Part 2. For now, let’s just see who it was that a failed M4 “killed.”
But when we explore the AARs and historical reports, asking, “Who exactly was killed by his weapon at Wanat?” we have a hard time putting a name to this blood libel.
There were, in fact, nine men killed at Wanat. Only one was killed at the main VCP, COP Kahler — the other eight died at Observation Post Topside. Let’s add them up.
- Two of them, SP4 Gunnar Zwilling (M240 assistant gunner) and SP4 Matthew Phillips (designated marksman) were slain in the initial RPG volleys, so their weapons didn’t get a chance to let them down. Phillips’s rifle, an ancient M21, was destroyed by the RPG fire anyway. All the other soldiers in the OP were wounded in that initial attack. (2KIA)
- CPL Jonathan R. Ayers exhausted his M240 ammunition and then began engaging the enemy with his M4. He was then killed by enemy small arms fire while engaging the enemy; his weapon had not jammed while he was alive, but was destroyed by an AK hit in the volley that killed him. Sp4 Christopher McKaig had been fighting alongside Ayers, and continued to do so until his M4 jammed. He had fired about 360 rounds when his gun failed. He tried to use Ayers’s, but saw it has been destroyed. Neither man had known that 7.62mm ammo was available from Zwilling’s abandoned M240, that could have gotten Ayers’s running again. (McKaig would survive the battle. 3 KIA)
- The next three men to be killed were two reinforcements who had climbed to the OP from the main Combat Outpost, Lt. Jonathan Brostrom and Sp4 Jason Hovater, and the survivor of Ayers’s MG crew, Sp4 Pruitt Rainey. No one was with these soldiers when they were overrun, but as near as anyone can tell, Brostrom was positioning Hovater and Rainey with the M240 when insurgents who penetrated the OP perimeter killed them at close range. Rainey was heard to shout, “He’s right behind the fuckin’ sandbag!” before a wild burst of enemy and friendly fire tapered off into enemy fire only. The reliability of their M4s does not appear to have been a factor in their deaths. (6 KIA)
- The seventh man killed was SP4 Jason Bogar, the guy who had fired so many rounds from a SAW that it welded the bolt in place. As the fight went on, he got back into action, presumably with an M4, and then ran out to close with the enemy. He was killed at some distance from the OP. None of the documents or interviews suggest his M4 failed him. (7 KIA).
- At this point, there were four living soldiers in OP Topside, all wounded, and only one, McKaig, able to fight. The men had schlepped up what they thought of as an “assload” of ammunition, but McKaig was down to his last two magazines. At this time the survivors thought that FO SGT Ryan Pitts, who had been wounded multiple times, had died of his wounds. He was unresponsive, so the three survivors: McKaig, seriously wounded SGT Matthew Gobble, and SP4 Tyler Stafford, withdrew down the hill to the main COP. Gobble was shot and wounded again on the way down. But Pitts was not dead, just unconscious. In time he came around, and realized he was all alone, and could hear enemy talking nearby. Not good. He called for help on the radio, and a reaction squad was hastily organized at the COP and patrolled out to the OP. Shortly after arriving and reorganizing, a volley of RPGs announced a new enemy attack, and one of the RPGs scored a direct hit on SGT Israel Garcia, mortally wounding him. His M4 was not a factor in his death. (8 KIA).
That’s eight of the nine killed at the battle, all of those killed at the outpost (which produced most of the killed and wounded also), and, while nobody was thrilled with weapons jams (which happened with M4, M249, M240, and Mk 19 systems), nobody died from them, either. (Ironically the one weapon that is not recorded as having jammed is the least important, the M9 pistol). Even Claymores didn’t function 100% (although they did take a toll of insurgents, some had their wires cut by the RPG barrage).
What about the ninth man? The ninth man killed was the only one killed at the main outpost. He was mortar gunner PFC Sergio Abad. Abad, a young paratrooper whose leaders remembered him as “cocky,” was mortally wounded in the initial assault by fire, which was target on the crew-served weapons and their positions. That didn’t prevent him from taking his place handing 120mm mortar rounds to the men that replaced him, even as his wounds sapped his strength. His crewmates succeeded in getting him to cover, but some of them were hit again crossing open ground. The only medic was down with wounds; although another infantryman tried to decompress Abad’s chest, he died of his wounds. His M4 was not a factor in his death.
In addition to the 9 Americans KIA, 27 Americans were wounded, of whom 16 were evacuated by air and 11 were treated and remained at COP Kahler. 4 Afghan National Army soldiers, who held a sector in the main COP with their Marine advisors were wounded badly enough to be evacuated, one of them extremely seriously.
Intelligence sources supported a claim of 20-50 enemy killed and a greater number wounded, but only two enemy bodies, and only one AK, were recovered by US forces.
And on weapons failures? Let’s let the CSI report (final) address that:
A detailed analysis of these assertions shows that weapons did not fail and that problems with logistical support, while possibly hindering the creation of an impregnable defense, did not hinder the creation of an adequate defense.
We wouldn’t go that far. Weapons did fail, albeit when pressed outside of the design requirements, and even the physical possibility, of their performance. Maybe what we need is a new kind of weapon, conceived for defending a vehicle or fixed position at cyclic rate for a longer period. Like a minigun — or a Browning M1917. But the state of the art of 2008 (or 2015) requires a trade-off of weight & portability vs. sustained fire. To coin a new Hognose’s Law (how many does this make?):
You can carry it all day, or you can shoot it all day, but not both.
Anyone who says you can by changing to the SCAR, or the HK416, or the phased particle array in the 40 kilowatt range, is either misled himself, or trying to mislead you.
Combined Joint Task Force-101, “Army Regulation 15-6 Investigation into Battle of Wanat (Redacted, Unclassified Version)” (Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan: 21 October 2008.
Cubbison, Douglas R. Occasional Paper: the Wanat Operation (first draft). US Army Combat Studies Institute, 2009. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/world/battle-of-wanat/correspondence/documents/2-Army-Historians-Report.pdf
Ross, Kirk. What Really Happened at Wanat. Proceedings Magazine, July 2010. Vol. 136/7/1.289. Retrieved from: http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2010-07/what-really-happened-wanat
Staff of the US Army Combat Studies Institute. Wanat: Combat Action in Afghanistan, 2008. Leavenworth, KS: US Army Combat Studies Institute, 2010. Retrieved from: http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/Wanat.pdf found at: http://usacac.army.mil/organizations/lde/csi/pubs.
Steeb et. al. Perspectives on the Battle of Wanat: Challenges Facing small Unit Operations in Afghanistan. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/occasional_papers/2011/RAND_OP329z1.pdf