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.