Friday, August 24, 2007

Review: "AK47: The Story of the People's Gun"

Michael Hodges's new book on the history of the Kalashnikov assault rifle is clearly a work that fits in with this blog. And we can say that it's also well worth reading; not just for the knockabout, although there are some good stories (the brothel in the Izhevsk arsenal; Mikhail Kalashnikov's special elk soup).

As history, it covers the development of the weapon, and neatly debunks the notion that Kalashnikov merely copied the German Stg44. Hodges does well to point up Mikhail Kalashnikov's background as the son of kulaks exiled to Siberia, and his running away to join the engineers - he fled the penal colony and jumped a train, eventually landing an apprenticeship in the Turk-Sib railway yards. This is something a lot of people fail to realise about the Soviet Union; as well as a bureaucratic tyranny, it was (especially up to the 1940s) a continent on the move, full of transients and orphans and bastards and geniuses. Rather than merely being ideologically blind to the tyranny, western visitors failed to realise that both co-existed.

Rather like the generation of twisted-but-brilliant people who emerged from deep-south rural poverty in the United States of the 40s, these men went on to make the Soviet state's technological achievements. Alexei Leonov was the son of an exile; Sergei Korolev did time in the gulag. The railways were a good place to disappear, and that's precisely what young Kalashnikov did; by the time he was invited to join the Communist Party, his background was long forgotten. By the time he was commanding a T-34 tank, everyone was (at least for the duration) past caring.

But the weapon Kalashnikov designed to fill the firepower gap between German and Soviet infantry wasn't ready in time to be used on fascists. This is the central irony of the book; though the Red Army loved it, and vast quantities were soon ordered, they weren't going to be used to defend the Motherland, or for that matter the revolution. Although propaganda lionised the ex-kulak Kalashnikov as the maker of an anti-fascist weapon, the Soviet Union had soon begun using them as an instrument of realpolitik.

Hodges overstates, I think, the importance of the weapon as a weapon; I'm not sure it's possible to characterise any such thing as a "Kalashnikov insurgency", and the defining weapons of Iraq have been RPGs and bombs of various kinds. I suspect he also overstates the Vietnam-era stories about throwing away M16s.

But where the book scores is on the weapon's role as a symbol; as he makes clear, in many places it's far more important as such than for any actual military effect. He is especially good on its role in recruiting jihadis - for the lads he interviews, just handling one was enough to partake of the movement. (Update: See also here.) Far more important than its image as the weapon of revolution, it appears, is its role as an icon of machismo.

And its sheer quantity; where everyone has one, everyone needs one. This is another paradox; despite all the ideological overlays (the revolution, the jihad) and association with personal security or dignity, one thing is clear. The more Kalashnikovs somewhere has, the worse life is likely to be. Which makes it a pity, then, that in his chapter on the rifle's role in US gang culture, he didn't quote Ice Cube: I didn't even have to use my AK/I can't believe it. Today *was* a good day.

At least, as good a day as you can expect when everyone has automatic weapons. Believers in the idea that an armed society is a polite society are strongly advised to read this book.


Chris Gerrib said...

The reliability of the M-16 varied wildly during the Vietnam era. In the early stages of the war, units were issued rifles without cleaning kits, and the M-16 is *NOT* a "fire dirty" weapon. Later on, troops figured out ways to make the weapon work - including tucking a bottle of WD-40 in one's socks.

Sir S said...

Interesting what you say about the Soviet Union in the early years. I read Primo Levy's "The Truce" (the tale of his return through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to Italy, after he survived Auschwitz), and I was struck very strongly by the chaos in Russia. I had expected it would be the orderly world of one's Orwellian nightmares, but the Soviet Union he described seemed to be a big, colourful, cheerful circus. Maybe his experience was coloured by being free from Auschwitz, but still... I was surprised.

dd said...

but you'll never get to heaven with an AK47!

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