From Russia With Blood

C.J. Chivers talks with Foreign Policy about the Kalashnikov, the world's real weapon of mass destruction.

The Avtomat Kalashnikova, C.J. Chivers writes in The Gun, is "the world's most widely recognized weapon, one of the world's most recognizable objects." The AK-47 and its descendants have defined and exacerbated half a century of guerrilla conflict, terrorism, and crime; it is the most abundant firearm in the world, with as many as 100 million Kalashnikovs in circulation, 10 times more than any other rifle.

Chivers, a Marine Corps veteran and senior writer at the New York Times, has spent nearly a decade mapping the spread of the Kalashnikov and untangling its history, from the dusty government archives of the former Soviet Union to the battlefields of Afghanistan. The Gun, his history of the weapon, was published this week. He spoke via email with FP's Charles Homans about the AK-47's uncertain origins, how it has transformed modern warfare, and why the age of the Kalashnikov won't end anytime soon.

Foreign Policy: The Soviet Union's atomic bomb and the Kalashnikov both date from the same year, and you suggest that the United States made a critical error in obsessing over the former while ignoring the latter. But is there anything the United States could have done to limit the spread and influence of the AK-47?

C.J. Chivers: The United States is not responsible for the Kalashnikov's mass production or stockpiling, and during the Cold War it could have done nothing to stop these things from occurring. Later, while it certainly would have been helpful, in the security sense, if it had done more to contain the spread of weapons and ammunition that have rushed out of post-Cold War stockpiles, it might be useful to ask this question of China and Russia -- the two main Kalashnikov producers, who have shown little interest in undoing the effects of their exported rifles. That said, there are many ways to contain the ongoing proliferation, and rather than pursue them with any real determination, the United States has instead become the largest known purchaser of Kalashnikovs, which it has reissued in Iraq and Afghanistan with scant accountability. One thing about the AK-47 story is that almost no one looks good in it.

FP: The Gun expends much ink parsing the origins of the Kalashnikov and the biography of its designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, sorting out myth from (often unattainable) fact. Why are the circumstances of the gun's creation so uniquely opaque? Why does it matter how much we know about them?

CC: Obviously I am interested in guns. But I am not interested in them only as weapons, or objects. Guns can tell us many things; they are lenses that are very useful for looking at other subjects and themes. In this case, tracing the origins of the Kalashnikov is not just a tour of the evolution of automatic arms. It's a journey into Stalin's (and then Khrushchev's) Soviet Union, with all of its national anxiety and the climate of fear and lies. This is a pretty grim ride. In the story of the Kalashnikov is a means to examine and understand how official falsehood and propaganda is organized, and how it works. The workings of this propaganda make the pursuit difficult. They also make it valuable.

FP: How does one go about peeling away the mythology surrounding the Kalashnikov?

CC: It's a mix of textual and technical analysis, and of course interviewing. First is the gathering of materials, accumulating all of the public and private statements you can find from the people involved in the weapon's design. Much of this material is in Russian. It takes years to find what can be found, and to understand it. You bump into closed official archives in Russia, and try to track down sources who might have the material in their apartments in Moscow or in the former Leningrad, or in Kiev.

As you gather the materials, you set the statements against each other, and what you find is that Kalashnikov's own account shifts in the telling over the years, and that much of what he said was challenged by important peers who were there as the weapon took its shape. You also examine the weapon itself, closely, and set it against what is known about other weapons in the design pipeline at the time. In this way, you can see what features the Kalashnikov design team borrowed (some might say, lifted) from other weapons by other designers. And what you find is that the evidence strongly indicates that many of the ideas credited to Mikhail Kalashnikov do not appear to have been his own, or were outright claimed by others in his circle. Ultimately, the conclusion is inescapable: The automatic Kalashnikov, his namesake, resulted not from one man's epiphany, but from design convergence in a massive, state-directed pursuit, and that there is a sordid back story, including the fate of one man who was involved who was later swept away in the repression. This man's role was unremarked upon for decades. Further, Kalashnikov's own engineer, the man with whom he said he worked most closely, claimed that several of the main elements of the rifle -- the things that make it what it is -- were his ideas, and that Mikhail Kalashnikov opposed them and had to be convinced to allow these modifications to his penultimate prototype. All of this flies in the face of Soviet legend. It also helps you understand the Soviet Union more fully.

FP: At what point did the spread of the Kalashnikov become uncontainable?

CC: The key decisions were in the unchecked manufacture and stockpiling that occurred, beginning from the 1950s, in the Eastern Bloc. Once the rifles were made by the tens of millions, it was only a matter of time before their influence would be felt. 

FP: You write that the United States had the "most puzzling reaction" of any country to the Kalashnikov. Why was it that we alone failed to grasp the significance of the rifle, when everyone else did?

CC: There was a romance in the American military with the idea of the frontier marksman, and it manifested itself in the institutional idea of the far-shooting, eagle-eyed American grunt. So along comes the idea of a lower-powered rifle, with a shorter barrel, that fires automatically -- three traits that make it less accurate, especially at medium and long range. This was the AK-47. It was early in the Cold War. The two sides were making choices about how to arm themselves. The Pentagon took stock of the AK-47 and all but sneered. It did not even classify the AK-47 as a rifle. Traditionalists advocated a heavier rifle that fired a more powerful round. The M-14 was designed, developed, and fielded. When the two rifles met in Vietnam, the Pentagon realized its mistake.

FP: The experience of American servicemen in Vietnam, saddled with the flawed M-16 and fighting in conditions that favored the Kalashnikov's capabilities, added much to the myth of the AK-47. How is it viewed by American soldiers today? Does the weapon maintain any mystique for them, with their now superior arms?

CC: There is a deep and grudging respect for the weapon's place. Yes, there are better weapons out there these days, particularly for fighting in arid climates where ranges of typical engagement stretch out. But most troops I have spent time with understand that their world is armed up with Kalashnikovs, and made much more dangerous because of it, and their lives are endangered by it.

FP: The Kalashnikov was the defining weapon of the Cold War's small wars and proxy conflicts, but it also defines the upheavals of the post-Cold War era, from the 1989 execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu -- performed by a group of soldiers with Kalashnikovs -- to the current conflict in Afghanistan. How did the weapon's role in and influence on conflict change after the fall of the Soviet Union?

CC: It only increased, because as the brittle governments of the Eastern Bloc fell apart, many of them lost control, then custody, of their guns, and boundless supply flowed into conflict zones. The weapon already was enormously significant. Now it is more so.

FP: How has the symbolism of the Kalashnikov evolved in the post-Soviet era? In the 1970s it was straightforward, denoting a generic leftist bravado -- but by the time Osama bin Laden was posing with the weapon in his video dispatches, you write, it had taken on much more complex meanings.

CC: As the rifles have moved about the world, they have been appropriated by all manner of combatants to have all manner of meanings. The rifle's evolving iconography is a fascinating subject because it shows how both governments and combatants view themselves. And it's even more interesting because it began with an ample amount of lies. The Kalashnikov, in the Kremlin's version of its meaning, is a tool for national defense and liberation. But its first uses were not for defense at all, but in smashing freedom movements in the Soviet satellites in Europe, and later in shooting unarmed civilians trying to flee the socialist world for the West. This part of its story has been redacted from the official account. So the entire Kalashnikov legend all began with a series of manipulated stories, and in the decades since, the rifle and its meanings have been recast repeatedly. This is a rich and rewarding line of reporting. In it is a pantheon of modern war. Saddam Hussein handed out rifles that were plated in gold; they were strongman party favors. Bin Laden has made a point of being photographed with the version of the rifle carried by Soviet helicopter crews in the 1980s, a clear case of the rifle, almost like a scalp, signifying martial cred. (In this case, he might be trying a little too hard, because there is no credible evidence I know of that he was ever involved in downing a Soviet helicopter.) We'll see more of this. To governments and combatants alike, symbols matter, and the Kalashnikov can be assigned an almost infinite array of meanings.

FP: The Gun includes a chilling account of the use of the Kalashnikov by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, where the gun's durability in a harsh environment has prolonged the guerrillas' activities and its ease of operation has enabled the deployment of child soldiers. How responsible is the weapon for the nature of the protracted, de-professionalized wars that have torn apart so much of east and central Africa over the past two decades? Are there conflicts that we likely wouldn't have seen but for the proliferation of Kalashnikovs?

CC: I like these questions, so let me riff on them. Let's be clear: Without Kalashnikovs, there would still be war, and plenty of it. It would be naive, even foolish to think otherwise. But let's also be clear about the Kalashnikov's role: It would also be naive, even foolish, to think that the costs and consequences of many wars would not be lessened if automatic Kalashnikovs were not so widely distributed, and so readily available.

Once or twice I have heard very accomplished Western soldiers say, "Hey, the AK is not very accurate, and it's not very well-used by many of the poorly trained people who fight conventional forces; therefore it's influence on war today is less than what it might seem." In this view, the improvised explosive device (aka, the IED) or the suicide bomber is the greater threat to many troops in the field, and military small arms are of less importance than they used to be. I reject this latter view, that the rise of one weapon in two wars signifies the decline of another. They are complements. What do I mean?

CC (continued): I won't downplay the role of the improvised bomb, which in recent years has become the dominant cause of wounding to Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a broader view is essential to understanding war and how it is waged. We need to get past the lenses of the most robust and well-equipped forces in the world because (outside the Kalashnikov's early advantage against the early variants of the M-16 in Vietnam) the experiences of Western troops against Kalashnikovs is not where this weapon is at its best, or most influential, at least if measured by body counts. The fuller and more important measure of the automatic Kalashnikov is not how its users perform in head-to-head combat against the current generation of Westernized forces, who have body armor, armored transport, updated weapons with updated optics and night sights, extensive fire support, and medical treatment both immediately (within most patrols) and beyond (via medevac helicopter crews, forward hospitals, and then the infrastructure of the home nation). Of course a network of lightly trained, lightly resourced fighters with Kalashnikovs faces material and tactical disadvantages in many head-to-head gunfights of this sort, and so they have adapted other weapons to match the fight. Thus, the IED.

Let's do the fuller measures. Casualties are not the only yardstick. A weapon can have an enormous effect without wounding anyone at all because it limits the other side's movements or the choices made each day about where and how to go. It can reduce an enemy's mobility and increase the costs of his operations by encouraging him to wear or ride in armor. It can redirect the direction and ambitions of operations -- from campaigns to patrols, in many, many ways. And even this is not enough. The fullest measure of the Kalashnikov is its effects on the vulnerable -- on civilians, on weak governments, on lower-performing government forces, like, for example, the Afghan police or, as you allude to, the Uganda People's Defense Force. Entire areas of many countries are beyond their governments' influence because local anger is coupled with automatic Kalashnikovs, which engender lawlessness and provide a means for crime, rebellion, insurgency, and human rights abuses on a grand scale. The Lord's Resistance Army provided a telling example. It descended from an insurgent organization that had few Kalashnikovs and was short-lived -- its precursor was, in a word, routed. Then came the LRA. It acquired Kalashnikovs. Almost 25 years later, it's still in the field, and the territory it operated in is a social and economic ruin. That was a different war before Joseph Kony got his AKs. And there are many other examples.

CC: Not that I can foresee. Vast numbers of the weapons were manufactured, and many slipped from state custody. The rifles in storage in old stockpiles remain in excellent condition and will provide fresh supply in the decades ahead. China still manufactures and exports them in unknown quantities. Venezuela is opening a new factory. And wherever they are -- locked up in armories or loose in the field -- they are too durable and long-lasting for us to talk about obsolescence. All of this, and efforts to address military assault-rifle proliferation are often lackluster and, viewed together, incoherent. This combination of factors all but ensures that we will see this rifle, and all of its characteristic uses, for the rest of our lives. Will they become obsolete? Not on any depreciation schedule that I have seen. I routinely find Kalashnikovs from the 1950s still circulating in Afghanistan. The rifles are more than a half-century old, and they are still in active use. What do these rifles tell us? They tell us that the Kalashnikov age is nowhere near over.

MAXIM MARMUR / AFP / Getty Images 

Correction: An image of a Congolese child soldier originally featured in this slideshow included a rifle that was incorrectly labeled a Kalashnikov in the caption. It was actually a Vz. 58. We regret the error.


The Car Czar Speaks

Steven Rattner talks to FP about how he pulled Detroit back from the brink -- and what lessons that success could have for Obama going forward.

Two years ago, no one would have believed that by 2010, America's Detroit-based automakers would be turning a healthy profit. Sunk by billions of dollars in debt and obligations, during a time when car sales were at a nadir and the financial sector was too wobbly to offer backup loans, America's "Big Three" -- General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler -- seemed to be on their deathbed.

Then, on New Year's Eve of 2008, a phone call between incoming Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and private investor Steven Rattner changed everything. Rattner accepted the challenge posed by Geithner in that call: run the government's reorganization of the auto industry. He was named the government's "car czar" in the spring. And in just over a year, the team would turn the automakers' fate around. The team slashed overhead costs, brought in new talent, and got the companies lean enough to compete as 21st-century firms. In short, the auto industry is back on its feet and finally making money rather than losing it. In August, GM filed for an initial public offering (IPO) to raise $100 million. And so remarkable was the success that the Economist, which had railed against the plan and skeptically dubbed GM "Government Motors," apologized to Obama in August.

Rattner is in the news today for a rather different sort of financial deal -- a scandal in which the financier's private-equity firm, Quadrangle Group, was accused of offering kickbacks and favors for access to New York's pension fund. Rattner will pay $6 million to settle the case. It comes just days after Rattner's newly released book, Overhaul, tells the story of the auto rescue -- a story about the political wrangling over the more controversial elements of President Barack Obama's reconstruction plan. Rattner's settlement may do damage to the image of the reform-friendly team that engineered the auto rescue that the author portrays. Before that news, Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson spoke with Rattner about why Obama hasn't gotten credit for the restructuring and why his administration has struggled to replicate its success.

Foreign Policy: You've worked so closely with the White House -- what were the one or two things you learned about the way that Obama runs his administration?

Steven Rattner: Many people have raised the question of whether Obama is qualified to be, in effect, the most important CEO on the planet, given the fact that he's never run anything except a Senate office and some campaigns. I spent 26 years [in business and] met many CEOs, and I honestly think he's a natural. His temperament, his managerial style, his willingness to dig into things that are far from his sweet spot, were all very evident to me. He came to the meetings prepared; he'd done his homework. He asked all the right questions, and he made sure everyone expressed their views. In short, he did everything a good CEO does. And then he made decisions.

FP: As an outsider now, what would you say needs to happen for the auto industry to continue growing?

SR: I think the most important thing is to not muck around with the companies and let the very professional management teams and boards that were put in place do their job. One of the things that I think the administration was very good about was keeping the auto rescue disconnected from other policy objectives. They never said, we should make requirements about fuel efficiency or green cars or anything beyond what's already required for every automaker. To try to make policy around helping the auto industry -- whether it be protectionist kinds of things or other things -- I think would be a big mistake.

FP: The auto reorganization was arguably a huge success. But the administration hasn't necessarily gotten much political capital out of it. Why not?

SR: For whatever sort of reason, I don't think the president has gotten the credit he deserves for this. We're in what everybody calls the silly season [of midterm elections], where everything is so influenced by the politics. And running [one's campaign] against bailouts in general, including the auto bailout, seems to be a very viable political strategy. So you have people from both parties doing it, and that makes it hard for the president's message to break through.

I would like to think that in the fullness of time, as GM goes public at what I think will be a good valuation and as the money starts to come back to the Treasury, people will see that this was a smart thing to do. But I certainly agree that at the moment it hasn't resonated the way it should.

FP: You covered Jimmy Carter's White House for the New York Times back in the 1970s, and many people have made a comparison between Obama and Carter. Do you see that resemblance at all?

SR: I've heard that analogy, and I just don't agree with it. I'm not going to sit here and say that the president has hit a home run in conveying his message during this election season. But the idea that he's Jimmy Carter sitting in a sweater by the fire is crazy. I think he's got good policies; I think he can explain them. I just think it's very tough when you have 9.5 percent unemployment to convince people you're doing a good job.

FP: Something that was so striking in your book was some of the examples of the decadence and the disconnectedness of GM in particular. Does this offer broader lessons about how U.S. industry will have to change to compete in a globalized world?

SR: I would agree with you completely. I would say one thing a little bit differently: The notion that these large companies are of a single nationality is really archaic. In other words, GM has a huge business in China, a huge business in Brazil, a large business in Europe in the form of Opel. GM is no longer competing just against Ford and Chrysler where it's OK to just do a little bit better than the other two Detroit companies and you'll be fine. They're competing globally against all these other companies, many of which are tightly managed, on their game, focused, and so on. So it does put pressure on every company and every multinational business to be on their game, and that's unambiguously a good thing.

FP: Do you see the U.S. auto industry stepping up to the challenge?

SR: I do. What's interesting about the auto business is that all three companies now have CEOs who did not originally come from the industry. Sergio Marchionne at Chrysler is the closest thing in that he ran Fiat for a number of years, but he then had a very different background including as a banker. That little fact may be complete coincidence, but I think it's more likely that it [indicates] that each company recognized that it did not have the talent either in its own company or in the industry to do the job. And so it reached out to what I view as world-class CEOs from other industries to step in.

FP: Well you mentioned the automakers' business abroad. Again here too, arguably they've been much more successful in places like China and Brazil lately. Why do you think that is?

SR: I think I can answer the question by asking about why they were so unsuccessful in the United States. They were just burned by huge legacies, and I don't mean just the legacy health-care costs for the United Auto Workers, but a whole historic apparatus of management of dealers, of labor, that just didn't work anymore in the modern world. In these other countries, they were presumably able to start with a clean sheet of paper and build an organization and a structure for the business that was in keeping with the 21st century. In the United States, until the restructurings, they were operating a business that was more in the mid-20th-century form. And that just didn't work anymore.

FP: Talking about the success of the restructurings, how could Obama take the lessons of that success and transfer them to other areas where his administration has not been as successful -- for example some areas of foreign policy?

SR: On Afghanistan, to pick the most pressing foreign-policy question, the difference between that and the auto restructuring is that, in the case of the auto restructuring, we actually did have available to us a clear path forward that made sense. In the case of Afghanistan, they were faced with a series of equally unpleasant choices and none that people could look at and say, "This is great; this is gonna work; let's do this."

So the president quite correctly devoted extra time to those discussions, and they were brutal. They were long, long discussions, and from everything I've heard, also very thoughtful and constructive. But it was really a tough decision. And much tougher than any of the decisions we had to make on autos.

The other thing I would say is that, in the case of autos, we didn't have to deal with Congress because we had access to TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] money. The fact is that on most policy decisions, you also have to factor in what can be achieved legislatively, and right now that's a very, very difficult piece of the puzzle. Another policy area about which there were tough and long discussions was over what to do with the banks. Again there, I would argue that the choices that the administration faced were very unpleasant choices, and so again they took a lot of time, they came to a point of view, and I think it was the right one even though they get criticized for it.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Fortune Magazine