Weapon of choice

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - BOOKS - Re­view by JUSTIN MAROZZI

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

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