ALL HE COULD SEE, IN EVERY DIRECTION, WAS WATER. It was June 23, 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of his plane's gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had winnowed down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.
The thing people don't understand about an army is its great, unpunctuated wastes of inaction: you have to scavenge for food, you are camped out somewhere with a rising water level because your mad capitaine says so, you are shifted abruptly in the middle of the night into some indefensible position, so you never really sleep, your equipment is defective, the gunners keep causing small unwanted explosions, the crossbowmen are either drunk or praying, the arrows are ordered up but not here yet, and your whole mind is occupied by a seething anxiety that things are going to go badly because il principe, or whatever little worshipfulness is in charge today, is not very good at the basic business of thinking. It didn't take him many winters to get out of fighting and into supply. In Italy, you could always fight in the summer, if you felt like it. If you wanted to go out.
There is no doubt that 'force multipliers' - squad automatic weapons - have changed the character of warfare once again, just as their predecessors did during the First World War, if perhaps not to quite the same degree. In the immediate future it seems that most armies will be using some form of 5.56mm machine-gun at squad level, be it a box-fed LSW or belt-fed SAW. If there is a cloud on the horizon where modern light machine-guns are concerned it is that they are not powerful enough for long-range work, or for penetrating cover and light armour. Nevertheless, the new generation of light machine-guns will remain in use well into the next century, not least because they are popular with the soldiers who operate them, the machine-gunners. Likewise, there will still be a place for the heavier GPMG, which does have the 'punch' that the LSW lacks. Machine-guns themselves have become lighter, and their operating principles both more secure and more efficient; the ammunition they use has shrunk to a quarter of its original size and become almost 100 percent reliable. The one important thing which has not changed dramatically is the human component; the attitude with which man faces the prospect of death in battle, and how he prepares himself to face that possibility quite deliberately, for it was the original invention of the machine-gun which reformed that. More than any other single 'advance' in weapons technology, the machine-gun allowed an individual (or actually, a small team of men) to dominate a sector of the battlefield. They had an inhuman advantage which simply had to be exploited if they were to be on the winning side, whether their opponents were Zulus, Sioux, or Dervishes, or other industrialized nations to be beaten into last place in the race toward economic supremacy. Whether the machine-gun has been as important, in any sense at all of the word, as it near-contemporary, the internal combustion engine - or even, date one say it, the bicycle or sewing machine - is still to be decided, but there is one clear, irrefutable fact connected with its short history: it has killed tens of millions of men, women and children and blighted the lives of tens of millions more.