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Author of Gunpowder and Lead and Twitterati extraordinaire Diana Wueger was bringing it with some great tweets this week including one on these great Small Arms ID playing cards (PDF).  On a similar theme, Wueger turned her followers onto DAVA Consulting’s small arms and light weapons encyclopedia app, Modern Weapons: Small Arms, for the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad (available via iTunes for $0.99). I do love me some militant Apps, so I thought I would give this one a whirl.

If you have visited the English and Russian-language Modern Weapons web site, the layout of the app will be familiar. When you open the app, weapons are first listed according to general categories including handguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns, and so on. Aside from what the title suggests, the app also includes a variety of light weapons including Rocket & Grenade Launders and MANPADS.  Right from the get go, the feel of that app is a little too ‘video gamey.’ For example, developers could swap the term “sniper rifles” for “precision rifles.”

Within each of these categories, individual weapons are listed. The user can organize according to name, caliber, or country of origin. Resorting the list is quick and easy–a welcome feature. Naming conventions, however, are inconsistent. Some weapons are listed according to manufacture then model name; others give the US or another country’s military designation alone.

Individual entries were more pedestrian offering basic specs (weight, dimensions, magazine capacities, etc.). Here, there were some missing pieces.  In the technical specifications, listing the action/mode of operation and the barrel’s rate-of-twist would be would be even more useful than the token muzzle velocity entry, which is variable with ammunition. The manufacturers are absent unless listed in the title of each entry. This would be good to reference particularly in the cases where multiple manufacturers produced the weapon.

The AK-47 family is particularly thin in this regard. Anyone can identify an AK-47. I want to be able to differentiate between a Tobuk and Zastava! Where are the proof marks, stampings, and other identifying markings?  Random images are great for the amateurs ogling guns; professionals want to be able to identify weapons.

There is also a “favorites” feature, which allows users to ‘bookmark’ a short list of frequently referenced weapons.

The app also offers an internal browser that takes you to each weapon’s Wikipedia page, which is helpful given some missing information in the descriptions. However, the browser has no back or forward buttons, which can be a hassle if you click one or two successive links on the Wiki page.  Plus, resorting to Wikipedia is a real inconvenience without access to an internet connection. The YouTube and gun store/shooting range locator are puff features for the hobbyist–a waste of resources in my opinion.

A “pro” version of the app might include manuals for each of the weapons. At the very least, I would like to see instructions on clearing and field stripping.  This would be would be worth a good bit more than its extant $0.99 price tag.

There is some real promise here. I love that this app does not stop at small arms but also includes many light weapons including MANPADS.  (Even with some recent additions with version 1.4.9, the developers could greatly expand on this feature.) However, it lacks some vital features to aid small weapons and light weapons identification. All things considered, DAVA Consulting has made a very handy SALW ID app with some room for growth–particularly in terms of a professionalism upgrade.

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Wading through Twitter this morning, I came across Andrew Exum’s post on Harold Bloom’s dismissal of Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which appeared in The New Yorker.  Rolf Potts asked Bloom what he thinks of the novel’s inclusion in military reading lists, and the literary critic is less than impressed.

“I can’t take that seriously, I’m sorry,” he said. “I suppose it’s on the list because that’s the world we’re headed towards.”

The world, I can only assume, Bloom is referring to is a hyper-technological state of exception where franchise is linked to military service.  From orbit, soldiers in armored exoskeletons descend onto alien worlds and exterminate a largely nameless, faceless other who is posited as an existential threat to humanity.  From its Cold War context to the contemporary War on Terrorism, Starship Troopers has struck an alarming chord for many in the academic left for this very reason–the foreclosure of anti-war dissidence and the limitless weaponization of technology.  As much as its vision of the future frightens some, it seduces many more–not the least of which are the military and defense industry.  Space-bound light infantry in exoskeletons would seem to be the an answer to a logistical prayer at a time when Afghanistan–or other far-flung sites of foreign intervention–might as well be an alien planet and the fighting load of warfighters has not only crippled their ability to fight but also, in many cases, their bodies as chronic back injuries haunt them.

However, these nightmare and fantasy readings of Starship Troopers belie the importance of the novel as social commentary that is particularly relevant now given the sudden enthusiasm for military intervention in Libya.  First, the chasm between civilians who would ask the military to intervene and the military men and women who must bear the cost of such intervention presents an ethical breech within the democratic process.  Secondly, no matter how technology shapes the battlefield, war is fought and won by men (and women) on the ground.*

The first issue addresses the divide between those who have experienced war and those who have not.  In Starship Troopers, much of Heinlein’s social commentary comes through the character Mr. DuBois, a veteran and teacher of a class named “History and Moral Philosophy.”  Through him, Heinlein sets up his most controversial claim about the civilian-military divide–that citizenship should be reserved for those who have served in the military.  Detractors of the novel have linked this to a fascist impulse in which only those who desire violence are given a voice in the political process, but I have a different reading.  In class, DuBois asks what is the “moral difference” between a soldier and a civilian and Rico, the story’s protagonist, answers:

“The difference,” I answered carefully, “lies in the field of civic virtue.  A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life.  The civilian does not.” (Heinlein 24)

For Heinlein, this “personal responsibility” is linked not only to a willingness to assume the physical risks for political decisions but also an understanding of what those risks entail.  Throughout the novel, there is the sentiment that decision makers, participating citizens, and officers–leaders of the society–must understand the meaning of those risks through experience.  Citizens must have been soldiers; officers must first be enlisted.   Before one can send another off to die for whatever cause, one must have been so ordered.  The result is not a citizenry of hawks; rather, a citizenry who understand the inescapable violence of war.

This understanding of war’s violence is more important than ever, given fantasies old and new. With the ascendency of counterinsurgency theory in the popular imagination, there has been a proliferation of the misunderstanding that war has become a string of humanitarian acts like building schools and providing medical care like those described the now-fictional Three Cups of Tea.  Similarly, the technological abstraction of war has given an ignorant populace the idea that no-fly zones, drone strikes, and a host of half-measures can skirt the violence of war–or at least the worst of it–and restore order for those abused and disenfranchised.

These are not the fantasies of those who have fought the twenty-first century’s wars, but those who have seen their simulacra on cable news and Modern Warfare.   In a recent Small Wars Journal op-ed entitled “War by Any Other Name Is War,” Jason Whiteley–an Iraq veteran and author of the forthcoming Father of Money: Buying Peace in Baghdad–describes the disconnect between citizens and the soldiers:

Yet, American civilians are prepared to wave yellow ribbons and project support for soldiers while remaining comfortably ensconced in cozy lifestyles. In this way, American civilians can feel supportive of those who wage war on their behalf without personally experiencing the effects. […]  This disconnect can only create an aura of irresponsibility. As long as the troops are supported, why should we care about what they actually do? Consider that the average American consumes only a few minutes of news per day and that news tends to be sensational or highly anecdotal. Soldiers have missions that are routine and, hopefully, boring. Their day to day activity does not excite America.

Instead, an uninformed and disinterested public continues to live through euphemisms created under the guise of humanitarianism and technological abstraction.  While warfighters may act as humanitarians, they know there is no non-violent war.  They have born the costs.

Here, we return to the question of Libya.  Whether or not we subscribe to Heinlein’s theories on citizenship, his notion of “moral responsibility” does warrant consideration.  The general public, familiar not with the violence of war but the narcissistic media in which they wallow, has seemingly been enticed by the so-called “Twitter and Facebook revolutions.”  War can be fought–so they think–with 140-character dribble rather than soldiers and revolutionaries.

This ignorance is why Starship Troopers is worth reading.  For all his jingoism, Heinlein does not let us forget that the violence of war is inescapable and soldiers on the ground will pay the costs.

Works Cited

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Ace Books, 1987.

* – In its day, Heinlein’s was an oddly inclusive view of race and gender.  Women, for example, had faster reflexes, so they would be the fighter pilots of the future; men’s brute strength kept them as exclusive members of the infantry.

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Nathan Hodge at Danger Room has a great story on the Israelis use of YouTube and Twitter alongside their bombing campaign:

Among other things, the Israeli military has started its own YouTube channel to distribute footage of precision airstrikes. And as I type, the Israeli consulate in New York is hosting a press conference on microblogging site Twitter. It’s pretty interesting to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reduced to tweets of 140 characters or less (“We hav 2 prtct R ctzens 2, only way fwd through neogtiations, & left Gaza in 05. y Hamas launch missiles not peace?”; “we’re not at war with the PAL people. we’re at war with a group declared by the EU& US a terrorist org”).

The snippets on Twitter floored me–although I am not sure they should. If you ask me, cable news offers the same level of discourse.

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