Tor­ment from an in­stru­ment of death

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By ALAN COW­ELL

SEV­ERAL weeks af­ter his death, Mikhail T. Kalash­nikov, the de­signer of the world’s most renowned as­sault ri­fle, was quoted posthu­mously as say­ing his in­ven­tion had brought him un­bear­able “spir­i­tual tor­ment,” as if fi­nally ac­knowl­edg­ing some­thing akin to guilt on be­half of a weapon pro­duced and sold in tens of mil­lions to kill on a near-in­dus­trial scale.

Pre­vi­ously, Gen­eral Kalash­nikov had boasted that he never missed a night’s sleep over the uses to which his AK-47 – Av­tomat Kalash­nikova 47 – and its many suc­ces­sors had been put since he de­signed it in the 1940s.

“My spir­i­tual tor­ment is un­bear­able,” he wrote to a priest fol­low­ing his em­brace of Chris­tian­ity be­fore he died at age 94 in De­cem­ber last year. “If my ri­fle killed people,” he ag­o­nised, did it mean that he was “re­spon­si­ble for people’s deaths, even if they were en­e­mies?”

His words said some­thing about the chang­ing pat­terns of wars and the chang­ing in­ten­tions of those who pro­mote and fight them.

And it could be ar­gued that his epiphany re­flected the weapon’s see­saw­ing mys­tique, not so much in the 50 or so lands that have adopted its de­riv­a­tives for their na­tional armed forces as in the far-flung places where the weapon’s vaunted pri­macy as the weapon of colo­nial lib­er­a­tion has been sup­planted by newer, blood­ier strug­gles. To­day the AK-47’s stut­ter has come to sound the syn­co­pa­tion of slaugh­ter from Syria to Libya, from South Sudan to the Cen­tral African Repub­lic. When I first heard one aimed in my di­rec­tion in the 1970s, a par­tic­u­larly ma­cho col­league in Beirut told me: “You never hear the one that hits you.” By that mea­sure, Kalash­nikovs have fired the rounds their vic­tims never heard from Viet­nam and Rwanda and around the world.

Drug barons and hood­lums have am­pli­fied its bloody re­pute. Osama bin Laden was filmed fir­ing one. It is the weapon of choice for Is­lamic mil­i­tants from Nigeria to So­ma­lia.

The Al Shabab ter­ror­ists who at­tacked Nairobi’s West­gate shop­ping mall last Septem­ber were shown on video footage us­ing Kalash­nikovs, al­most ca­su­ally, to spread death and mayhem. “This de­spi­ca­ble tool,” wrote the colum­nist Harold Acemah, a for­mer Ugan­dan diplo­mat, has “caused more tears to flow than any other in­stru­ment in hu­man his­tory.”

But, depend­ing on ide­o­log­i­cal per­spec-

Deadly: tive, it was not al­ways so. From South-East Asia to the West Bank, and Gaza to Latin Amer­ica, the AK-47 en­tered the nar­ra­tive of lib­er­a­tion. The flag of Mozam­bique, adopted af­ter the demise of Por­tuguese colo­nial rule, de­picts a hoe crossed with an AK-47.

In South Africa, Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma ral­lied fol­low­ers with a song called Umshini Wami (Bring Me My Ma­chine gun) from the days of armed strug­gle against apartheid. Nel­son Man­dela was the first com­man­der-inchief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Na­tion, formed in 1961 as the armed wing of the African Na­tional Congress.

Yet as the Cold War deep­ened, and the United States and the Soviet Union fought through their African prox­ies, it was no sur­prise to find Moscow pour­ing in cheap and deadly weapons – AK-47s at the top of the list – to those op­posed to Western-backed regimes, just as Wash­ing­ton filled its own clients’ ar­mories.

And it was there, per­haps, that the AK-47 was trans­formed, in Africa most graph­i­cally, from tool of lib­er­a­tion to the 30-round-per­clip de­vice that turned small wars into vast char­nel houses.

If Gen­eral Kalash­nikov came to ac­knowl­edge doubts, he was not alone. Of course, the AK-47 was no more than an in­stru­ment in the hands of its users.

But its dis­tinc­tive curved mag­a­zine and chunky front-sight posts be­came as­so­ci­ated with ma­raud­ers, wild gun­men, coups and despots, un­der-age soldiers re­cruited into bru­tal ir­reg­u­lar forces in Sierra Leone, Uganda and else­where.

“The weapon is so sim­ple that even a child can use it,” The Econ­o­mist said in an obit­u­ary of Gen­eral Kalash­nikov. “Alas, many do.” — In­ter­na­tional New York Times

a 2007 file pic­ture of rus­sian weapon de­signer Mikhail Kalash­nikov pos­ing with the first model of the leg­endary aK-47 as­saul ri­fle. — aFP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.