Gun Violence in the United States: Reverberations of Empire

I don’t know much about guns. Nor do I, an otherwise inherently inquisitive type, want to know that much. Playing with GI Joe figures as a white boy in the suburbs in the 1980s was enough, thank you very much. What I do know something about, however, is the boomerang effects of colonial forms of rule: how techniques of power deployed in far-off lands by imperial rulers tend to be repatriated for domestic use. Hannah Arendt advocated a version of this thesis in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950). For her, the roots of the Nazi Holocaust sit with the Boers in South Africa. Michel Foucault in Society Must Be Defended, a collection of 1975-1976 lectures, refers to the “considerable boomerang effect”:

It should never be forgotten that while colonization, with its techniques and its political and juridical weapons, obviously transported European models to other continents, it also had a considerable boomerang effect on the mechanisms of power in the West, and on apparatuses, institutions, and techniques of power. A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself (103).

More important for this line of critique than Foucault or Arendt, however, is Aimé Césaire, who identified this tendency decades earlier than Foucault in his Discourse on Colonialism, also from 1950. A key figure in the Black Radical Tradition, Césaire points to the specifically racializing aspects of colonial rule. Notably, Arendt was astonishingly tone-deaf (to put it charitably) in her analysis of Boer power dynamics and practices, as she argued that their crudeness and violence resulted from their adoption of the crudeness and violence of the black Africans subject to their rule (on this point, see George Steinmetz's "Decolonizing German Theory"). Though it is unlikely he had access to Arendt’s thesis, Césaire anticipates exactly this type of exculpatory racist logic in his analysis of the “terrific boomerang effect":

And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss.

What [“the very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century”] cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the "coolies" of India, and the "niggers" of Africa (36).

These theoretical claims have catalyzed new research agendas, perhaps best characterized, by Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler, as “reverberations" of empire. Some, however, do argue that the boomerang effects are impossible to “prove,” whatever that means. Much more research is necessary, particularly in the case of the United States, where it is too often forgotten that before the post-1945 era of informal empire the United States took colonial possessions on, in the helpful phrase of scholars Alfred McCoy, Francisco Scarano, and Courtney Johnson, the Tropic of Cancer: The Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa, and Hawai’i beginning in 1898. (To this day, Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa remain colonies; the US Virgin Islands were added to the collection in 1916.) That forgetting is itself part of the technology of US imperial rule, which always insists empire was thrust upon it rather than sought, was an aberration, or was temporary and benevolent (and even anti-colonial). Historians such as McCoy have documented the history of such repatriated colonial techniques of rule and their effects on domestic state-formation and security apparatuses like the police and intelligence agencies. My own work is in this vein for the period of the Cold War. One pitfall is the implication that colonial techniques of rule, with all their racialized coercion, violent terror, and sexual predation, merit critique only because they tend to migrate back to the homefront. Certainly the thrust of Césaire’s alerting us to the phenomenon is nothing like this dubious ethical claim, but as one reads the work of those who take up Foucault’s charge, it occasionally seems the outrage is misplaced, as discussed here.

In any event, here are some quotations appropriate for the present moment, as guns are on the minds of US citizens (as if they ever are not). The history of the AR-15, the semi-automatic rifle that is the apparent weapon of choice for young white male mass murderers, is a history of the reverberations of empire.

First, from Michael T. Klare’s 1972 War Without End: American Planning for the Next Vietnams, here on the history of Cold War social-technical science research (namely Project Agile) in Southeast Asia:

At the request of the CIA, in 1962 Agile shipped 60,000 Colt AR-15 high-velocity rifles to Vietnam for testing by Special Forces units under combat conditions. The AR-15, a lightweight aluminum-alloy weapon, became particularly popular with the small montagnard tribesmen recruited for mercenary units, who had difficulty carrying standard Army rifles. Although the AR-15 fires a bullet weighing only a third that of standard .30-caliber ammunition, it is fired with such velocity that it seems “to explode the target rather than punch a hole through it.” The shock of impact is so great that many victims die from what would normally be superficial wounds. On the basis of the Agile tests, the Army overcame its initial antipathy to the unorthodox AR-15 and obtained large quantities for Vietnam use.

During the My Lai murder trial of Lieutenant William L. Calley, Army pathologist Major Charles D. Lane testified that bullets from the AR-15 have the same effect as the fragmenting dumdum bullets proscribed by international law. “Upon impact and penetration into the target source,” Lane said, “the bullet fragments into a number of pieces . . . producing a great deal of soft tissue injury and bone fragmentation.” Lane was asked to testify after studying “wound ballistics” in South Vietnam as part of an Army research team that conducted more than 550 postmortems. Shown pictures of the My Lai victims, he identified the wounds as probably having been caused by AR-15 fire. Lane indicated that there probably would be no difference in wounds caused by dumdum bullets. Nevertheless, the AR-15 rifle, now known by its military designation as the M-16, is issued to all Vietnam-bound G.I.’s and to all mercenary and “allied” troops (219-20).

The AR-15 and the M-16 are not the same weapon, but the latter is based on the former. The original M-16 is actually an inferior weapon, responsible historically as much for killing as for getting killed, because it so frequently malfunctioned. It is therefore worth noting that so much of the debate around guns today deploys a military-civilian distinction that is not just tenuous but in this case ridiculous: M-16s, according to Vietnam-era designs, might be less deadly than their “civilian” counterpart, the AR-15 Bushmaster of today, because they were so poorly designed. Here is James William Gibson from his exceedingly brilliant and incisive The Perfect War: The War We Couldn’t Lose and How We Did, as he details how frequently M-16s malfunctioned, causing many soldiers to get killed as they were trying to fix jammed rifles:

It took a special congressional subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee to investigate what was wrong with the M-16 and why U.S. ground forces had been issued weapons that did not work. Army and marine officials insisted that the M-16 was fine, but that troops did not clean it properly. High-ranking officers involved in testing, approving, and lobbying for the M-16 thereby retained unblemished records.

Committee investigators found several important army-mandated changes creating the M-16 from the original AR-15 test rifle. The number of grooves in the barrel was changed so that the rifle would fire a bullet following a stable trajectory in weather colder than 65 degrees below zero—a bizarre requirement. [. . .] ordnance specialists who had tested the AR-15 for three years thought that the additional mechanical complexity contributed to breakdowns.

But these changes were responsible for only some M-16 malfunctions. More important, the army changed gunpowder’s used in the 5.56mm ammunition. This change in gunpowder made the M-16 fire at a much faster rate than the weapon’s design and preferred ammunition had intended. Increased stress from faster cyclic rate helped produce more jams than the original AR-15 design and ammunition (194-5).

Gibson quotes a congressional report:

Undoubtedly many thousands of these were shipped or carried to Vietnam, with the Army on notice that the rifles failed to meet design and performance specifications and might experience excessive malfunctions when firing ammunition loaded with ball propellant [emphasis in original] [. . .] Colt was allowed to test using only IMR propellant at a time when the vast majority of ammunition in the field, including Vietnam, was loaded with ball propellant. The failure on the part of officials with authority in the Army to cause action to be taken to correct the deficiencies of the 5.56mm ammunition borders on criminal negligence (195-6).

Following Klare, these weapons were not originally intended for use by US soldiers because the United States was not supposed to send soldiers to Vietnam. They were intended for use by mercenaries drawn from upland Southeast Asia's historically recalcitrant, culturally and linguistically separate peoples (that’s what the word “montagnards” indicates above). And soon many of them would be supplied to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Thus, if the M-16s were defective, well, that was not something to weigh heavily on the conscience of US business leaders and bureaucrats. At the same time, what made the rifles defective was their design enhancements intended to make them more lethal—again, better to kill and maim the Vietnamese. The adoption of the M-16 by US soldiers was an accident of the unanticipated direct US involvement in the war. There was not simply “criminal negligence” toward US soldiers. Rather the "crime" was the racist, genocidal directive that made the weapons more deadly for their targets, combined with racist, genocidal indifference toward the mercenaries, also perennial “others,” who were to point them.

“Criminal negligence” does not quite capture the active, intentional logic at work here. The Congressional report’s outrage is the outrage of “the very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century,” analyzed by Césaire. Instead of “criminal negligence,” perhaps more appropriate is “optimistic cruelty.” This is Lisa Duggan’s term for “a moralized and libidinal politics of joyful greediness in the face of scarcity and conflict.” It is appropriate given the amount of profit at stake then in developing the M-16 and shipping it to Vietnam and today in keeping guns largely unregulated (thus ensuring huge markets). Undergirding the profits are the phallic video-game fantasies of white male superhuman gun-conferred invincibility (so frequently conjured as for the protection of defenseless, delicate white women and girls).

Gibson writes, further, “Soldiers called the M-16s ‘Mattels,’ after plastic toy guns produced by the Mattel Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s. It was one way of making a joke out of a grim situation. ‘If it’s Mattel, it’s swell,’ went the old TV ads” (196). The linkage between toys, play, and deadly firepower is an old one, but its relevance never ceases to surprise, particularly today as we learn that young white male mass murderers emulate the experience of video games during their killing sprees, and that their guns are manufactured to resemble toys rather than the other way around. 

Optimistic cruelty in this sense contains both active racist depravity and more passive racist indifference, because it finds a certain pleasure and self-satisfaction in the suffering that inheres to neoliberalization’s upward redistribution of wealth. It treats the suffering of poor people, of people of color, of queer people, of women, as both assurance and insurance that boys will be boys, whiteness stays white, and the moneyed remain moneyed. Remember, capitalism by its very character produces immiseration. The inadequate protections of the Fordist-Keynesian safety net lessened the immiseration slightly. Their absence ensures recrudescent multiform misery, which begins to suggest why mass shootings have become so pervasive only with the onset of post-Fordism (workplace shootings are an issue that somewhat shockingly remains underanalyzed in terms of class politics).*

On the question of class, Gibson quotes an anonymous letter from a GI to his congressman, and this letter is perhaps my favorite part of an exceptional book. After detailing both the callous indifference and class prejudice that would enable well-paid arms manufacturers to produce defective rifles, Gibson describes another form of class prejudice that defined the Vietnam experience: the incompetence, indifference, and sadism of officers who put their grunts needlessly in harm’s way. As a result, so-called “friendly fire” or “fragging” was pervasive. In order to avoid pointless, suicidal missions, lower-class GIs frequently attacked their own officers. The letter to the congressman says:

Dear Congressman,

I take pen in hand to complain about my piece. After months of assiduous care and maintenance of the weapon (M-16) it failed to function at a critical moment endangering my life and the lives of other men in this company. Last night, at 0300 hours I had a clear, unobstructed shot at the captain. To my chagrin, the weapon misfired. It may be weeks before I get another crack at the bastard (210).

Boomeranging optimistic cruelty structures all sides of this transaction.

Happy Gun Appreciation Day.


* This is similar to the argument of Mark Ames, though he uses a different vocabulary and political lens than I do.

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