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It’s What Columbus Would’ve Wanted

October 11, 2011

On Monday I went to AUSA 2011, the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting and expo. For those who’ve never been, it’s three days and several city blocks’ worth of defense tradeshow, obviously geared towards ground war, with a fair bit of stuff-that-flies sprinkled in (think drones and helicopters). All the major contractors bring out their best toys in hopes of catching official eyes. I guess there are also some people talking about Army stuff, but uh, I have the listening skills of a two year old, so I skipped that in favor of wandering the halls ogling guns and trying to figure out what was making me so uneasy this year.

To back up a bit, I went to AUSA last year and had a great time. I was funemployed and still figuring out what the defense world was all about, so it was a good – if overwhelming – place to start. I flipped a simulated MRAP, outshot some dudes who really should’ve done better, instructed some ROTC guys in how to pop a magazine out of a pistol (I mean, really, what are they teaching kids these days?), and tested some energy-absorbing seat that simulates an IED exploding to, uh, demonstrate how it hurts less it otherwise could? I guess? I don’t really remember; I had to sign a waiver for that one, and I’m pretty sure I had a mild concussion afterwards. Lesson learned: never sign waivers at defense tradeshows.

MRAP, mid-flip. Derp.

But this year… I don’t know. There was this weird vibe all day, as though everybody’s playing musical chairs and really doesn’t want to be the kid left standing when the music stops and the budget cuts come in. The White-Haired Guys In Expensive Suits seemed on edge, particularly at the small arms booths, and they didn’t really have time to talk to peons; they were too busy scanning the room looking for the decision-makers, which I clearly was not. Given the chatter around the budget cut breakdowns, they’re probably right to be nervous, but still, it was frustrating, if only because I had actual questions this year.

FN Herstal, aka Browning. You can't tell, but it was all soft blue glowy light.

The thing about AUSA is that the exhibitions are so carefully engineered that it’s actually creepy. The lighting is high-contrast without glare. The surfaces are polished and shiny, unless they’re sandy (because war only happens in sandy places, of course). If there’s music, it’s dramatic and driving. The HESCO bar makes you forget that HESCOs are not usually bars. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent to make you feel relaxed, safe, powerful – and totally disconnected from war and death even as you browse the racks of rifles. Everything is calibrated to make you want to say Hooah! and forget that on the other end of that gun, somebody’s supposed to die. It’s a little… dehumanizing?

The HESCO Bar. Not shown: the young women serving beer.

And you also forget that these are just weapons systems, or communications equipment, or vehicles, or whatever. They can’t win wars if we don’t know what “winning” actually is, and since it’s not up to the military to define winning, we’re left standing around pretending this is the important part, that this is where our time and money should be spent, rather than on the nebulous political part of war. We discuss the merits of different product lines, because on the micro level it does matter what the individual soldier is carrying, but I can’t help but think that everything in that building can only prolong our wars – not end them.

But not gonna lie, laser marksmanship training systems are pretty badass. Hey L-3, can I have one?

I don’t mean this as an indictment of contractors, or of defense technology, or of procurement writ large. I’m just offering some broad impressions of this particular tradeshow, colored by being slightly under the weather and the company I was keeping (which, I love you all, but… we were not a chipper crowd, team).

So take it with some salt and go read my pals Spencer Ackerman and Paul Mcleary for actual reporting. Or read Carl Prine for the sarcasm I wanted to muster but couldn’t (yeah, I’m disappointed in me too).

At least the wardogs were cute?

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