Weapon of choice
Author: C.J. Chivers Publisher: Allen Lane, 413 pages
APART from an absence of decent bed linens, the world’s most hellish war zones have one thing in common. From the insurgent Islamist group al-Shabaab in Somalia to the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, from the mountain-bound forces of the Taliban in Afghanistan to the roaming rebels of Darfur in northern Sudan, the chances of not seeing an Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 (or AK-47 assault rifle for short) are nil.
The AK-47 is the Manchester United of firearms, albeit with better manners than your average Premiership footballer. It is an iconic brand that is instantly recognisable around the world, has legions of devotees and packs a prodigious punch.
This reviewer recalls working in Iraq alongside battle-hardened South Africans who took one look at the American-made M4 carbine they had been issued, put it down in disgust and picked up the old favourite, the tried and tested AK (yours for US$200 or RM623 in downtown Baghdad). They know a thing or two about fighting.
If grizzled Boers are a sure guide to the AK-47’s astonishing success and longevity, C.J. Chivers has the right credentials to write what amounts to a comprehensive biography of the Soviet firearm. A former US Marine officer who served in the first Gulf War, he is a senior writer at The New York Times and its former Moscow bureau chief. With this dense tome running to more than 400 pages, one has to wonder whether anyone will ever want to write about the AK-47 again.
When it comes to telling the story of its origins, there is plenty of fiction to disentangle from fact, hardly surprising since it was born in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Chivers is admirably meticulous in his research.
Contrary to received wisdom, the weapon was not solely the invention of the suitably proletarian Senior Sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov, a wounded Great Patriotic War veteran turned engineer. It was the fruit of considerable teamwork within an organised competition, but the Stalinist regime was not one to let little facts like that get in the way of a good story. The sergeant became an honorary lieutenant-general. Not bad for an unschooled peasant whose family had been exiled to Siberia after the father’s denunciation as a kulak (prosperous peasant).
The Soviets had been seeking a radical improvement to their battlefield weaponry, not least because they had been on the wrong end of superior German firepower twice within a generation. Kalashnikov’s gaspowered AK-47 and its 7.62mm M1943 cartridge ensured that Soviet infantry would not be outgunned again. Together they combined deadly power, a lightweight yet rugged design and, critically, they were inexpensive. It set the new standard.
If technical details of killing machines are not everybody’s idea of a good read, Chivers tells a thoroughly gripping story of the AK’s unpredictable and chilling evolution. Conceived at the outset of the Cold War, it came of age as a popular, “more universally dangerous” weapon in September 1972, when Palestinian gunmen from Black September took hostage and murdered 11 Israeli athletes. This televised attack ushered in a new role for the weapon in hijackings, assassinations, suicide operations and filmed executions. By the time it was celebrating its 50th birthday, “The people’s gun, defender of Russian soil and socialist ideal, had evolved into a familiar hand tool for genocide and terror.”
And, as Chivers reminds us, contrary to the carefully controlled Soviet line that the weapon was an instrument both of national defence and later, when it was freely distributed throughout the world, of liberation struggles, the AK-47 was, in fact, as frequently as not used by repressive governments against their own peoples. Thus its darker role propping up regimes in Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Tbilisi, Almaty, Moscow, Beijing, Baku, Bishkek and Baghdad, not to mention Kabul, where it remains the weapon of choice for all parties to the conflict.
Whatever one thinks about guns, the remarkable durability of a product such as the fully functioning 1954 AK-47 Chivers spots being used by an Afghan army soldier in 2008 must surely appeal to those beyond the ranks of classic car enthusiasts. Chivers doesn’t expect it to disappear from the world’s war zones any time soon.
One can speculate about the merits of global disarmament as much as one likes, but history offers precious little encouragement. The trend from the very beginning of our occupation of the planet has been to devise ever more powerful ways of destroying one another. It is worth remembering that we have gone from the bows and arrows of the Asian steppe, a ruthless enough weapon in the hands of warlords like Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, to nuclear weapons in the small matter of 600 years, a blink of the eye in terms of human history.
Bearing this in mind, and with an eye on the breathless march of technology, it is difficult to resist Stephen Hawking’s fatalistic prediction that humankind will eventually destroy itself with a weapon of catastrophically destructive power. Climate change and the AK-47 will seem very small beer by comparison. – © The Daily Telegraph UK 2010