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Gates, McChrystal, and Some Really Cool Boomerangs

At this week’s Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington DC, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a startling blunt rebuke of General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. While the commentariat buzzed about rifts in the Obama administration and a potential  Truman-MacArthur showdown, I couldn’t help but wonder: What the heck is the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition? I skipped lunch yesterday and headed to the DC convention center to find out.

Billing itself as a “professional development forum,” the exposition is a combination weapons expo and networking event, attended by over 30,000 American soldiers, members of the international defense industry, and representatives of armies from around the world. Here was the entire military-industrial complex--conveniently crammed into one, actual complex.

After slipping past the disturbingly lax security, I found myself surrounded by thousands of uniformed soldiers--mostly American, but also troops from as far as Britain, Germany, and Israel. “There are people whose ass I could kick,” one patron said to a fellow soldier as he walked passed me. “Everybody’s bigger than somebody else.” Another cautioned his friend, “Lots of manly people are gonna try and sell you stuff.”

The hundred or so booths, hawking everything from water bottles to camouflaged tank skin, all seemed to share one common theme: Your Life Depends On This Product. The lifesaver jerry can was vital “because safe drinking water can be the difference between life and death.” The stall behind it said simply, “Hydrate or die.”

But the mood at the convention was far from dour. Men in black suits and name tags mingled with khaki-clad troops, demonstrating the latest in weapons technology. At BBN Technology’s booth, a soldier turned to a sales rep and, pointing at a boomerang suit, said, “That’s actually pretty awesome.”

“Yeah it is. Real slick,” replied the rep.

“So what’s it do?” asked the soldier.

What the boomerang technology does is use “passive acoustic detection” and “computer based signal processing” technology to alert soldiers to the source of enemy fire. Out in the field, the sounds of battle can be deafening to soldiers in a loud vehicle. When enemy fire comes in, soldiers might not realize they’re under attack until something is hit. The boomerang tells them sooner.

Leaving the BNN booth, I almost knocked into a group of costumed, bejeweled female members of the US Army Pacific, who were leading a handful of soldiers in some kind of ritual as part of a Samoan cultural group. Two of the soldiers, in camouflage and boots, wore seashell necklaces and danced to the music against the backdrop of a giant helicopter nearby. It seemed a fitting forum for Gates’s rebuke of McChrystal.