A to the K

AK47, The Story of the People’s Gun, is a work of social history and reportage by journalist Michael Hodges. It charts the rise of the AK 47 from it’s creation in the post WWII Soviet Union to its present status as – according to Hodge’s thesis – one of the most ubiquitous weapons on Earth and a global brand of near unparalleled power.

Structurally, the book takes the form of a short introduction followed by eight chapters, each of which details part of the gun’s history through the eyes of someone whose story helps illustrate that history. The chapters break down roughly as follows: 1: a visit to Izhevsk, where the gun was originally manufactured, with a detour to the London launch of Kalashnikov vodka; 2: a history of how the gun was developed and an interview with General Kalashnikov himself; 3: a discussion of its use in Vietnam and how for a while it came to be viewed as weapon of freedom fighters, even in much of the West; 4: a trip to Palestine and a discussion of how the West came to see the gun as an instrument of terror; 5: takes us to Africa and to the use of child soldiers; 6: talks of how the Kalashnikov came to be used as a marketing tool for recruiting Islamic terrorists in London and elsewhere; 7: shows its use in Iraq, both by insurgents and the police; and 8: shows how it came to be ubiquitous even in in New Orleans and in the inner cities of the USA.

At its best, Hodge’s work is both fascinating and thought provoking. He charts the progress of the gun from popular weapon of liberation to simultaneous joint symbol of global terrorism and (depending on your perspective) armed resistance and is alert to the issues of perspective which can lead to one person regarding the weapon as a symbol of fear and cruelty while another views it as a symbol of manliness and independence. He is excellent on the societal role of the gun and how that has evolved, and happily (for my interest at least) spends relatively little time on the technical aspects of the weapon.

Relatively little time, but not no time. Hodges explains that the AK47 owes its success to its extraordinary reliability and simplicity of manufacture (and, therefore, of repair). The gun operates where others do not, after being dragged through mud, clogged with sand, immersed in water and given minimal maintenance. It works where Western issued weapons fail, and this reliability makes it perfect for use in the developing world where repair facilities are few and conditions often harsh. The AK47 allows a minimally trained child to lay down withering volumes of automatic fire from a weapon which can have received treatment which would render the bulk of contemporary firearms wholly inoperable. It is in that sense, as well as in the social sense Hodges goes on to discuss, that it is the people’s gun.

The first half of this work is much weaker in my view than the second. The trip to Izhevsk I felt only mildly interesting, although the interview with the General was valuable in providing historical context. The chapter on Vietnam, with its account of how an incident in which a Viet Cong soldier fired his AK47 at a B52 became a propaganda story about how a B52 was downed by AK fire, is fascinating, but much of it is not really relevant to the overall story the book is telling. The chapter about Palestine, unfortunately, lost my interest to such a degree that I put the book aside and only came back to it two months later out of a vague desire to push through and see if it improved.

It did, the remaining chapters build in power and interest, and if like me you struggle somewhat with those earlier sections that struggle is rewarded and pushing through is justified.

The difficulty with the Palestine section is that Hodges chooses to explore the issues relating to that conflict through the story of a French photojournalist. Where Hodges writes about Palestine, he is both chilling and effective, the story of the French journalist however simply left me cold and I found it hard to care about a man who seemed not so much a participant in events as a sort of tourist taking photos as much for personal aesthetic reward as for distribution to the wider world.

This chapter does contain some sections with real power, as quoted below, but I had to force myself through it in order to reach the far better chapters that followed.

At the entrance to the cul-de-sac a teenager chewing pistachio nuts sat on a white plastic garden chair outside the local Fatah office. He was an extremely serious youth, and to emphasise it he placed an AK across his lap. Pierre greeted him solemnly every time he passed. The youth would nod back, but seldom smiled. He spent much of his time looking at the sky waiting for an Israeli missile attack.

[Later, after the office “was destroyed by a rocket that killed the young guard”.]

When Pierre got to the office there was no sign of the youth’s body, but the plastic chair was still outside alongside his AK. In the wrecked interior of the building he could only find a burnt toilet brush and some papers to indicate that it had ever contained people. Pierre photographed the wreckage and sold the picture to an American agency. In 2001 pictures of burning buildings still sold well.

Once the book hits the half way mark though, it begins to really hit its stride. Hodges explores how the gun has come to be used in Sub-Saharan Africa, describing how in Mozambique and Angola, anti-colonial guerillas used to name their sons Kalash in honour of it, and how Mozambique came on independence to feature a Kalashnikov on its national flag (at least two nations have Kalashnikov’s on their flag to my knowledge, one of those rather chillingly with a bayonet attached). He tells the story of Sudanese child soldiers, sent over minefields before regular troops on the basis they were more likely to get through (being lighter) and detailing one disastrous battle the aftermath of which involved children committing suicide with their AKs due to thirst and hunger. He talks of Bob Geldof’s shameful decision to ban African acts from Live8 and this section of the book manages to be both a successful work of reportage and yet to be angry with what it has to tell (but then, perhaps a degree of anger is necessary for this form of reportage).

From there, Hodges visits the Finsbury Park Mosque and speaks with young men who have gone to terrorist training camps in Pakistan. They describe how they are trained with AKs, but the gun’s use is as a symbol, a recruitment tool, when the only weapon these young men are ever likely to use is their own bodies with explosives strapped to them. For these young men, the AK is an emblem of resistance to the West, training with it and the mere holding of it are gestures rich with significance for them, it’s utility to those who control the camps being more as an icon than as an actual weapon. Hodges also here describes how Pakistan and Afghanistan came to be flooded with AKs, in part through Western foreign policy designed to that end, and how that has come back to haunt us in the form of largely inaccessible territories filled with terrorist training camps, heavily armed militias and ungovernable tribal factions.

Moving to Iraq, Hodges develops the theme of the AK as symbol, describing the Iraqi custom of firing AKs into the air at weddings and celebrations and the disastrous consequences that custom has had when combined with nervous US forces with little understanding of local practice. He talks of how Iraqi police saw off the butts of the rifles so they can hold them pistol style, a habit which is thought to make the wielder look cooler but which also makes the gun hopelessly inaccurate. He talks of the pitiable faith of the Iraqi insurgents in the weapon, who treating it as a form of modern Ghost Shirt will stand in open ground firing upon armoured cars which they cannot possibly damage and of the devastating response that tends to follow and the collateral damage that can ensue.

During that long Sadr city night I’d listened uncomfortably to the ping-ping-ping that an AK round makes when it hits a steel door, but I had never been in real danger. The Bradley I drove in had been near impregnable. Only fools would attack it with AK47s, yet as I watched the al-Mahdi army fighters had come out to attempt it with almost transcendental arrogance. Across Iraq the resistance in its many forms, the militias and even the police force didn’t just fire their AKs but wielded them in the air, as if the very iconic nature of the semi-automatic rifle had entered into the men themselves. The Americans had killed five, just as they had killed as many as twenty fighters on other nights, but as the young gunner told me when we got back to War-Eagle and he pulled himself wearily out of his hatch, ‘Doesn’t seem to matter how many I kill – they keep on coming back, night after night, firing AKs at us.’
I had seen the AK become more than a gun. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, the AK47 operates as a symbol of resistance to the United States, although in Iraq the symbolism of the AK sometimes seems to be of superior importance to its mechanical abilities. The Viet Cong did not knowingly raise up their AK47s as a signifier of their fight, but Iraqi resistance fighters do so regularly. America’s occupation has become one of the most effective marketing campaigns that the Kalashnikov has ever benefitted from. As long as American forces stay, be it for five or ten years, each day enhances the gun’s image, each Bradley mission into the heart of Sadr city confirms its potency and the threat it poses to those who wield power in the world. In Iraq the Kalashnikov has finally become, to the long-lasting detriment of the country and misery of its inhabitants, the people’s gun.

Finally, Hodges goes to the US, to discuss how the AK became commonplace on the streets of American cities and how following Hurricane Katrina it was once again used as a weapon by dispossessed people who considered themselves as waging a war of resistance against an occupying power, in this case their own government.

Hodges’ story then is of how a gun became a symbol, and more than that how it became a brand. His argument is that the brand itself has power, beyond its mere use as a weapon, and that today it is one of the most potent brands the world possesses even though few think it that way. His case is largely persuasive, his reports from London, Africa, Iraq and the US solid works of reportage (and in that context I mean solid as a complement). Although I found the first half of the book wanting, I will look with interest at Michael Hodges’ future reports.



Filed under History, Politics, Reportage

9 responses to “A to the K

  1. I remember once attending a talk by someone who likened the AK-47 in the developing world to swords in medieval Europe.

    In both cultures owning one of them is something of a status symbol, they’re invariably passed down from father to son along with tales of old glories and they’re also taken down from above the fireplace and waved at the government whenever something goes wrong.

  2. That sounds about right, it’s not so much about usage as about ownership and display.

    Which isn’t to say they’re not used of course…

  3. KevinfromCanada

    You might want to check out The War We Don’t Want to See in the Dec. 18 issue of the New York Review of Books (it is available on line). It looks at what some of the terrible outcomes are of this modern “sword” — an entirely appropriate comparison that Jonathan M has raised.

  4. Thanks Kevin, I found it online at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22179, I’ll take a read.

    Edit: An excellent article, thanks for the recommendation.

  5. KevinfromCanada

    What I found interesting with these comparisons (your review and the NYRB article) is that something which is a “symbol” in one context becomes “a devestating threat” in another. And since the latter case has so much firepower — and so little life experience — carnage results. The sections in the NYRB article about teenagers looking for, and shooting at, an enemy break my heart.

    I have two resulting impressions. One is an observation — and I don’t know who first made it — that until the 20th century, only soldiers, not civilians, died. With developing military technology, we are fast approaching the opposite scenario.

    The other comes from when, as a Canadian, I was living in the U.S. just prior to the invasion of Iraq and when I asked a colleague about whether none of the lessons of Vietnam had been learned he said “this war will only last two weeks”. He was wrong — and I do wonder how much the examples you cite from this book are responsible for that.

    Tony Judt has written that the reason America engages in war is because the country has never experienced an invasive war at home (as opposed to its Civil War) — that Europe has experienced and learned that lesson. I hope that he is right and that Obama’s outside America exposure has somehow taught that lesson. The sooner that the AK47 and its counterparts become a symbol of futility, instead of power, the better.

  6. AK47 has many sections on teenagers and their interactions with the gun in question, each of which is also quite heartbreaking. It’s a book which is at times angry, though not so much so as to fall into polemic (I think he gets that balance right actually).

    I’m afraid civilians did die before the 20th Century though, during the 30 years war parts of Europe became near depopulated, I think in the Napoleonic wars there were also some hefty civilian casualties though I don’t think anything like the scale of the 30 year war. It tended to be starvation though that killed, troops would destroy infrastructure and loot farms and the civilians left behind simply couldn’t survive. Death by massive excess firepower is I think more of a recent, 20th Century, phenomenon.

    Jonathan has if I recall correctly a degree in War Studies (if that’s what we call that course still, it may be conflict studies now) so if he’s still about he can speak far better than I can to the civilian issue.

    There was a bizarre optimism in the US before this war, in the face of all evidence as well. I suspect this was part of that, but only part, I think there were a number of factors and sheer wishful thinking played a large part. It’s always dangerous when one prefers ideology to evidence, which I think occurred here with those who pointed out the actual facts on the ground being seen as naysayers and defeatist.

    There may be some truth to Tony Judt’s views, the experience of war is an effective prophylactic in many ways, though not a foolproof one as Europe’s history in the 20th Century sadly shows. I fear though that the AK47 will remain a symbol of power for decades to come, I don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of its reign yet.

    Edit: On civilian casualties, I recall now the old Roman custom that a besieged city would be given three days to surrender, but if it then did not all within were forfeit. That continued into the middle ages, leading to such incidents as the massacre at Bezier where 25,000 people were killed in a day when a city gate was left open – men, women and children, the whole population of the town. The sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders similarly involved widespread civilian massacre.

  7. Forgot to say, AK47 is good in the Iraq section on the way the combination of US airstrikes, US troop practices on the ground and local cultural attitudes to the AK47 combine to create widespread civilian casualties. Hodges considers issues such as where the massive ordnance laid down in a firefight goes, since most of it doesn’t hit the intended target but it of course ends up somewhere. I mention above the tragic consequences of the Iraqi custom of firing AKs into the air at celebrations, at least one US GI has been killed by fire falling from the sky during a celebration (and of course many Iraqis have died that way, before the US ever showed up, it’s an absurd custom), and a great many Iraqis have died from airstrikes targeted at what appeared to be insurgent automatic fire.

  8. jackdawdle

    War’s expense was never better expressed than by Homer.

    Yet to argue against war by piling on evidence against it is to give short shrift as to why nations wage war in the first place. A political agenda it is not and God smite us were it waged for profit.

  9. Quite so jackdawdle. I’m reading Herodotus at the moment, he has Croesus say to Cambryses “For no one is so senseless as to choose of his own will war rather than peace, since in peace the sons bury their fathers, but in war the fathers bury their sons. – Which is rather good.

    Hard to beat the classics on these issues.

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