Apr/May 2008

AK-47: The Story of a Gun

Susie Linfield


This is a book about a contemporary phenomenon that is crucially important, utterly terrifying, and largely ignored. In AK-47: The Story of a Gun, Michael Hodges, a British journalist, charts the spread of the titular weapon—especially in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia—and the ways in which the gun virtually guarantees the continued implosion of failed states and the intensification of terrorist violence. For thousands, perhaps millions, of people, the AK has developed “a cultural velocity” that has proved to be “both irresistible and catastrophic,” Hodges writes. It is not just a weapon but an unmaker of whole societies, substituting a culture of death for the creation of civil and political institutions.

The weapon’s origins lie in World War II, when the Soviet Union, facing an unquestionably superior Nazi army, sought to invent an automatic gun that was powerful, easy to operate, and virtually indestructible. A determined young tank commander named Mikhail Kalashnikov came up with the winning design, though not until 1947. “Miraculously tough, artfully simple and devastatingly effective, Kalashnikov’s invention would revolutionize the way guns were used on the battlefield and within fifty years change the world itself,” Hodges writes. Today, he estimates, there are an astonishing seventy million AKs in circulation, and they are produced all over the world—often in small workshops in some of the poorest countries.

In the ’60s, the AK-47 became a symbol of third-world revolution, due especially to its use by the Vietnamese. In the jungle, the AK demonstrated its vast superiority to the M16 used by the Americans and was even credited, albeit apocryphally, with shooting down an American bomber. The AK’s image underwent another transformation in 1972, Hodges explains, when the Palestinian group Black September used it to murder Israeli athletes at the Olympics: “If Vietnam had paved the way for the Kalashnikov as an icon of liberation, Munich would be the first signpost on the road to its incarnation as the terrorist’s gun and that of the Palestinian terrorist in particular.” Today, the gun is used—and lovingly fetishized—by militants in the West Bank and Gaza, insurgents in Iraq, separatists in Chechnya and Kashmir, and jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The AK has become their central cultural artifact, their marker of identity, their source of pride and power, their substitute for politics. Osama bin Laden—though he seems to prefer bombs and airplanes—makes sure a trusty AK is at his side for his video missives to the world.

The gun’s effect on Africa has been monstrous, especially in the past two decades. “Demobbed government soldiers and rebels, bank robbers, poachers, truculent teenagers and pickpockets all had access to Kalashni­kovs,” Hodges says, “a situation which guaranteed that life could never be normal. . . . For millions the Kalashnikovs brought blood-letting rather than liberty, and by the 1990s ‘Kalash!’ was a cry of despair rather than pride.” The AK has been key to the rise of the bizarre and horrific phenomenon of child soldiers and in ensuring that so many of Africa’s recent civil wars have veered into “racial annihilation and national self-destruction.”

Unfortunately, Hodges’s treatment does not do his subject justice. This is a sloppily and lazily reported book, if reported is indeed the operative word. For most of the wars Hodges discusses, he uses only one source to tell his tale: in Sudan, a child soldier–turned-musician; in Vietnam, an ex-soldier vaguely named Mr. Phan; in the West Bank, a ludicrously romantic French photographer. Surely, the victims of these wars—and Hodges’s readersdeserve a fuller exploration of these conflicts and their complicated histories. The book’s lack of endnotes and bibliography can only exacerbate the reader’s mistrust of Hodges’s methods.

Finally, what of Mikhail Kalashnikov himself? Eighty-five years old when Hodges interviewed him as he puttered around in “a pair of fun fur leopardskin ankle slippers,” Kalashnikov comes off as a nostalgic, somewhat bewildered figure. Like the American scientists who worked on the atom bomb and came to regret their invention, he is pained that the weapon he created to fight fascism and defend the Soviet Union is now used by nine-year-olds in Freetown and against nine-year-olds in Beslan. “I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that terrorists use it,” Kalashnikov told a group of German journalists. “I would have preferred to invent a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work. For example, a lawnmower.” Indeed, he has called for the destruction of every AK in the world—though the book makes clear what an impossible demand this is.

Ironically, Kalashnikov’s gun has become a signifier not just for the earth’s most wretched citizens but also for its most powerful. In the summer of 2004, a bottle of vodka, made of crystal and shaped like an AK-47, was sent by Vladimir Putin to George W. Bush.

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