America’s African Rifles

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

Robert Kaplan calls them America’s African Rifles, native troops in Niger trained by American Marines:

Baker’s men had just begun training three platoons’ worth of host-country soldiers, individually selected by their commanders for talent and motivation. Nothing fancy here. The initial training cycle consisted of the fundamentals of good soldiery: shooting, land navigation, and basic medicine. Liberty demands authority; without minimal order there can be no freedom. If Niger’s civilian government was going to survive and protect its borders against transnational terrorists, military professionalization was crucial — and it started in part with Baker’s Marines.

I spent my first days at Tondibiah on the rifle range, watching Nigerien troops being trained by four Marines: Gunnery Sergeant Eric Coughlin, of Shohola, Pennsylvania; Staff Sergeant Stephen Long, of Irmo, South Carolina; Staff Sergeant Bobby Rivera, of the Bronx, New York; and Sergeant Chris Singley, of Milledgeville, Georgia. All were in their thirties except Singley, who was twenty-five.

I have spent enough time with Marines around the world to know that these four had to be an impressive bunch. Noncoms are the heart and soul of the Marine Corps, which may have the most powered-down command structure of any Western military force. Battlefield expertise and leadership depend on sergeants’ leading corporals, who in turn lead lance corporals. Without advanced training one doesn’t get to be a sergeant — particularly a staff sergeant, who commands a platoon of two dozen men, or a gunnery sergeant, the exalted go-to guy in every unit. These Marines were experts: Coughlin was a specialist in military mountaineering, Long in marksmanship, and Singley in riverine operations. As for Rivera, he was a member of Force Recon — something of a Marine equivalent to the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force. Rivera and Singley were on loan from the Special Operations Training Group, at Camp Lejeune. Because training Third World armies was for decades a Special Forces affair, the deployment to Chad and Niger constituted an opportunity for the Marines to show what they could do, and the Corps had therefore sent some of its best. (Indeed, a few months later Singley — the youngest and least experienced of the four — would be the senior adviser to an Iraqi army unit on the outskirts of Fallujah.)

It was dark and pouring rain at 6:00 A.M., when we set out for the range. First we halted at the Nigerien barracks to collect the trainees. When we arrived, twenty-three of them were standing in formation, singing a traditional morning melody for their commander. After they finished, they climbed in a silent, orderly manner into the backs of our pickups. A few minutes later, when we got to the firing range, they marched out onto the field and began setting up the targets; then they lined up single file, their field caps in their hands as the rain fell on their heads. After prying open the Chinese-made sardine cans of 7.62mm ammunition for the Nigeriens’ AK-47s, Coughlin and the three other sergeants dumped the rounds into the trainees’ field caps. “Wait till the end of the day,” Long told me. “They’ll actually pick up the brass cartridges on the field without being told to — and not to sell, either. They bring their own medical equipment to the range. The Chadians weren’t like this.” The Nigeriens, I noticed also, displayed real muzzle awareness: when not shooting they kept their rifles pointed at the ground, and never once dropped them in the dirt. The Filipino and Colombian soldiers I had observed hadn’t been nearly as disciplined.

The Nigerien military had participated in messy, violent peacekeeping missions in Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burundi, the Congo, and Haiti. It was a military that formed its own elite social class, with officers sending their young sons to cadet schools. Its soldiers had proved their willingness to die in defense of not only their own but also U.S. interests: on several occasions Nigerien units had hotly pursued Salafist extremists across the border into neighboring countries.

Waiting around, watching the host-country troops load their ammo into the magazines, I mentioned to Staff Sergeant Long that coups, being a feature of modernization, tend to happen when a military is more institutionally advanced than its civilian authority. Long, a stocky, red-haired thirty-two-year-old with piercing eyes, who had been tagged for me by Major Baker as one of the brightest Marines in the unit, broke in about the Filipino military and the inefficiency and corruption of successive civilian regimes in the Philippines. His insights were impressive. As Baker’s remarks about Chad and Niger had shown, Marines suck up knowledge wherever they can. And because their personal experiences are so different from those of journalists and academics, their company is invigorating in an intellectual sense.

Dawn came, and for a time the rain held off the heat. I inserted my earplugs and joined the Americans and the Nigeriens as they walked out onto the 300-yard range. It was good to be on a rifle range again. In 2003 and early 2004 I had taken a crawl-walk-run approach to following the U.S. military. I observed Army Special Forces training host-country troops in Colombia and the Philippines, and then accompanied them on presence patrols and armed assaults in Afghanistan; I observed Marines in training and pulling guard duty in Djibouti, and then accompanied them during urban combat in Iraq. This approach required regularly going back to the basics, just as soldiers themselves always do; the circular monotony of military life is fundamental to any experience of it. When Special Forces and Marine battalions return from deployments overseas to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, or Camp Pendleton, California, they return to the rifle range. With the training of indigenous troops at the heart of imperialism, and the rifle range at the heart of such training in our era, the range is truly the center of it all.

“Every time you fire, a bad guy should bleed!” Sergeant Rivera yelled. “Aim for the high center torso. Any hit is good. Don’t worry about carving up the bull’s-eye. This isn’t target shooting. It’s about fighting with a gun.” He spoke with a Bronx accent, his voice at once loud, grating, and intimate. Because Rivera was a specialist in weaponry and the related field of close-quarters combat, Coughlin — who, as Gunny, technically outranked him — deferred to him.

A Nigerien major, Moussa Salou Barmou, translated Rivera’s commands into French and Hausa for his soldiers. Major Moussa had trained with the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Georgia, and with the Ivorians, the Cameroonians, and the Pakistanis. “I didn’t know what real combat was about until Fort Benning,” he told me. “The Americans have the money to simulate war in training, unlike other armies. But I wish the Americans could see how the rebels settle in our border towns in the desert and marry local girls so that they become invisible, so that you don’t know who you have to fight.” Because Major Moussa outranked the Marine noncoms, each made sure to address him as “Sir.”

Rivera went on. The Nigeriens were only fifteen yards out from the targets — paper silhouettes of soldiers aiming their guns. “You will all fire a controlled pair followed by a hammer,” he explained. “A controlled pair is two slow shots. A hammer is two fast ones. Shooting a hammer, the rifle will recoil twice. You won’t have time to readjust, meaning with a fucked-up body position you will miss the target at least once. And that” — he was now shouting — “is unacceptable!”

Rivera demonstrated, repeating and yelling everything, sometimes mixing English with French in his Bronx accent: “En position. Levez la sécurité. Feu! Avancez.” Meanwhile, Coughlin, Long, and Singley worked quietly with individual soldiers. Major Moussa did his part, in one case shoving his knee behind that of one of his soldiers to ease him into the correct body position. I remembered a young Filipino lieutenant who constantly had to be told by an American noncom to pay attention to his own troops. That wasn’t necessary here.

Rivera now made them repeat the drill from twenty-five yards out, this time while changing magazines: “Don’t bend down. Just let the magazine drop. Minimize your movements or you’re gonna fucking die.” He demonstrated shooting and changing magazines while closing the distance from twenty-five to fifteen yards. The impressive thing was what wasn’t happening: there were no wasted movements. “Notice,” he said, “I’m not fast. I’m just smooth. It’s not about speed but about efficiency.”

Later he taught them how to unjam their AK-47s while also changing magazines and closing the distance with the enemy. “This isn’t target practice!” he kept shouting. “This is about killing people!” During the entire morning Rivera only once checked the targets to see how accurately the soldiers were shooting. As long as they were hitting the silhouettes or just the paper, he was happy. He wanted them to be comfortable handling a rifle on the move in combat. He knew from assaults on mud-walled compounds in Afghanistan during the first weeks of the U.S.-led invasion there, in 2001, that survival was less a matter of a perfect shot than of getting a spare magazine quickly out of a side pocket.

Rivera liked the fact that the targets were man-shaped silhouettes rather than concentric circles. “If you’re aiming at a bull’s-eye, you’re being programmed to shoot paper. If you’re aiming at a silhouette, you’re being programmed to kill motherfuckers.”

“Standing is the most unstable platform for firing a rifle,” he went on. “That’s why fifty yards out is the farthest we will ever shoot standing up. At a hundred yards I’ll drop to the prone in two seconds, but then I’ll methodically put two in his chest so the motherfucker will die before he can find his iron sights. That way I’ll live. And I wanna live, because back in America there are a lot of women that love me.” Major Moussa translated, and his soldiers laughed loudly.

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