Still Their Fault

Bernard Porter

  • The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War by C.J. Chivers
    Allen Lane, 481 pp, £25.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 7139 9837 5

The Kalashnikov automatic rifle is light, portable and cheap. It scarcely ever jams, even in the most extreme conditions – tropical heat, Arctic cold, bogs, deserts. It can be disassembled and reassembled ‘by Slavic schoolboys in less than 30 seconds flat’. Millions have been manufactured and distributed worldwide. The gun has become iconic, especially among anti-colonial freedom fighters and terrorists: its distinctive silhouette is even to be found on the Mozambique national flag. In 2009, a Missouri car dealer offered a free voucher worth half a Kalashnikov with every pick-up truck he sold. (The voucher was for the semi-automatic version. US gun laws may be liberal, but they do have limits.) More to the point: the Kalashnikov has probably killed more people than any other hand-held weapon in history. That makes it one of the great industrial success stories of modern times.

It was, of course, a Soviet success. For C.J. Chivers, a retrospective Cold Warrior, brought up – brainwashed, you might say – in the dominant American free-market discourse, this poses a bit of a problem. Soviet industry, hidebound by state directives and state planning, uncompetitive and with no profit motive driving it on, should not by rights (or by theory) have been so efficient. The main purpose of his book is to try to explain why it was. The solution is a dark one. It all has to do with the particular way the Kalashnikov was developed and then distributed, which in Chivers’s view makes it intrinsically far more evil than any comparable gun the capitalist world produced – quite apart from all those deaths.

It was not as if the capitalist world had not been trying. The idea of a weapon that would give a single foot soldier – or later a freedom fighter, terrorist or mass murderer – a disproportionate killing power had been a holy grail of arms manufacturers for centuries. (There were medieval crossbows that fired volleys.) It was often justified quite high-mindedly. Mikhail Kalashnikov always claimed that he developed his gun to help his compatriots defend the Soviet Motherland against the capitalist hordes. In the 19th century its bulkier precursors, the Gatling and Maxim ‘volley’ or ‘machine’ guns, had given a similar advantage to small and vastly outnumbered European platoons in the colonies and to American warders in prison riots; later on, hand-held automatic rifles did the same for subject peoples rising against their materially more powerful colonial masters. They levelled the battlefield. Weapons dealers are always being asked to justify their macabre trade; that is one way of doing it.

Richard Gatling’s way was more ingenious: with one gun now doing the killing work of 100 riflemen, he argued, the other 99 could go home, and live in peace. (There must be a flaw there somewhere.) And then there was the argument that you get with every radically new weapon: ‘With a few hundred Gatlings on both sides,’ the Indianapolis Sentinel claimed around 1880, ‘armies would melt away like dew before the sun, and men would soon learn to settle their disputes by arbitration, or some other means less destructive of life.’ Again, no. Gatlings and Maxims were two of the major reasons the First World War turned out as bloody as it did. Lord Salisbury was nearer the mark with his back-handed compliment to Hiram Maxim at a dinner held to honour him in London in 1900: ‘I consider Mr Maxim to be one of the greatest benefactors the world has ever known.’ How so? the puzzled gunmaker asked. ‘Well, I should say that you have prevented more men from dying of old age than any other man that ever lived.’ If Chivers is to be believed, Maxim won’t have lost any sleep over that.

Gatling and Maxim were both pretty typical Western capitalists: they took risks and amassed huge fortunes, though Gatling lost his before his death. So was the American inventor of the hand-held Thompson (or ‘Tommy’) submachine gun, which was roughly the same weight as the later Kalashnikov, could be held under the arm – or in a violin case – and had what Chivers calls ‘a spectacular run’ in the later 1920s and 1930s. Today it is mainly associated with Chicago gangsters, though Chivers thinks that only ‘a few hundred’ Tommy guns got into their hands. Mostly they were bought by the propertied classes to guard their homes, estates and businesses.

It’s a little puzzling that the US should have lost its lead in this field to the Russians in the 1940s. The Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947, to give the gun its full name – hence ‘AK-47’ – was very much a Soviet achievement. Its inventor – or the nearest to an inventor it had – was a modest Red Army sergeant with a mechanical knack, who might not have been given the opportunity to realise his potential under other systems, and whom the Soviet propaganda machine turned into a model Soviet citizen, which, though Chivers spends an awful lot of time trying to debunk this, he probably was. Predictably, he became a Hero of Socialist Labour; less predictably, he retained enough of his aura to be dubbed a Hero of the Russian Federation after the fall of the USSR. He’s still alive, aged 91, and was active on the American lecture circuit until recently. His personal life and conduct seem exemplary compared, for example, with that of the greedy, draft-dodging trigamist Hiram Maxim – apart from the small fact of his having been indirectly responsible for the death and wounding of so many. ‘Why did you make this machine? You don’t like living people? You are smart. Why not make something to help people, not make them dead?’ one of his victims, a dreadfully maimed Iraqi, told Chivers he would like to ask Kalashnikov. We know what his answer would have been: ‘It is the Germans who are responsible for the fact that I became a fabricator of arms. If not for them, I would have constructed agricultural machines.’ There is no reason to doubt his mainly patriotic motivation – ‘I made it to protect the Motherland’ – or his unhappiness about the later uses of the gun. ‘Then it was like a genie out of the bottle and began to walk on its own in directions that I did not want.’ On balance, however, it had been a good thing, ‘because many use it to defend their countries’. So, ‘I sleep soundly.’

It was not just an individual achievement, however. (It would not have been Soviet if it had been.) The young engineer was supported by an industrial system that was able to spot the virtues of his gun and then maximise them. A committee arranged a competition for new designs, rigorously tested them, selected the best one, and then developed it, rationally. So it was a triumph for socialism, too. That riled many Americans, who at the time refused to believe the AK-47 could be as good as it was made out to be. Western capitalism should have been at least equal to this. Why was it not?

Reading this book, we can get some idea. Its most interesting parts are not on the Russian arms industry, but on the American. The sorriest story is that of the M16 assault rifle, issued to the troops in Vietnam in the 1960s, which jammed repeatedly – exactly what American soldiers did not want when ambushed by Kalashnikov-pointing Vietcong. ‘You know what killed most of us?’ one survivor of a particularly gory action in 1967 asked rhetorically. ‘Our own rifle … Practically every one of our dead was found with his rifle tore down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.’ ‘It was a pretty good bayonet holder,’ was the best another could say of it. Some wielded them like clubs. The M16 was ‘heralded as a triumph of private industry’; but private industry turned out to be a combination of ‘salesmanship, sham science, cover-ups, chicanery, incompetence, and no small amount of dishonesty by a gun manufacturer [Colt] and senior American military officers’. To all this we can add stupidity on the officers’ part: they tended to dismiss the Kalashnikov not only because it was socialist, but also because it wasn’t particularly accurate. But who needs accuracy when you’re spraying bullets around? In any case, the more accurate a gun is – the more tightly engineered – the more liable it is to jam. The Russians worked this out early on; one of the distinctive characteristics of the AK-47 is that its parts are loose-fitting.

In the meantime the US Army top brass seemed obsessed with sharp-shooting and – harder to understand – with experimenting, gruesomely, to find out which sorts of bullet made the biggest wounds. (This was called ‘terminal ballistics’. At one point a batch of human heads was imported from India for them to practise on.) What on earth was the point of that? As Chivers remarks, ‘there is, after all, but one degree of death.’ So much, then, for the ‘article of political faith in Washington’, that ‘the American businessman was the world’s most astute, and the American engineer the most innovative’; and, it could be added, their generals the brightest buttons in the box.

Chivers, however, seems reluctant to give much credit to the Soviet system for its success with the gun. For a start, he argues that it wasn’t really a fair test of capitalism. The American system of arms manufacture ‘was neither capitalist nor fully state-driven. It was a disharmonious hybrid.’ It was the state part of the hybrid that let it down. Second, it had to operate in ‘a stable Western nation with functioning police, courts and legislatures and a durable public compact’. Which is why the Tommy gun in particular didn’t take off. One result of the Chicago gang wars had been the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934, limiting the usage of automatic weapons (the reason the Missouri car dealer could only offer semis), and so cutting down on the demand which, in a truly capitalist system, is the main engine of innovation and growth. Of course the army should have picked up on all this, but it was too busy shooting bullets into cadavers.

Whether the Soviets played similar games we don’t know. What is certain is that they were not so easily distracted; not by such games, or by the thousands of other demands that are a feature of consumer capitalist societies – for fridges and cars, for example. Unlike the Gatling and the Maxim, which were born of ‘individual entrepreneurship and inventiveness’, and so somehow cuddlier, the AK-47 was ‘a product of Stalin’s state, not of a single man; it was the work of a government and the result of the vast resources the government applied to creating it.’ It was ‘the sinister product of sinister forms of government, set loose on the world via dark processes that were, and often remain, all but unchecked’. It shows what happens when gun manufacture is ‘uncoupled from free markets and linked to mass production in the planned economies of opaque or brittle nations’. It is, in other words, a Communist thing.

Kalashnikovs later proliferated among ‘guerrillas, thugs, bandits, child soldiers, and a host of other users at odds with the stated, or perhaps supposed, reasons of their design’. The chapters on this make grim reading: AK-47s (and knock-offs) were used to mow down anti-Soviet demonstrators in Hungary and other satellite states; to prop up Soviet allies; by anti-Soviet rebels, when they managed to get hold of them; and lastly – and currently – to enable terrorism, genocide and the bloodiest forms of criminal activity. ‘The people’s gun,’ Chivers writes, ‘defender of Russian soil and socialist ideal, had evolved into a familiar hand tool for genocide and terror.’ This may not have been what the socialists had intended. But it was still their fault. Some might blame market mechanisms: the lifting of state controls on its proliferation, combined with the weapon’s qualities, enabled the spread of the Kalashnikov. Chivers does not dispute the gun’s superiority over its rivals, but adds:

The AK-47 was not to break out globally because it was well conceived and well made, or because it pushed Soviet small-arms development ahead of the West. Technical qualities did not drive socialist arms production. It was the other way around. Soviet military policies mixed with Kremlin foreign policy decisions to propel the output that made the AK-47 and its knock-offs available almost anywhere. Were it not for this more complicated set of circumstances, the AK-47 would have been a less significant weapon.

And, he says, Mikhail Kalashnikov would have ‘remained an obscure figure’ – as obscure as Chivers clearly feels he deserves to be.

The Soviets were to blame for this in three ways. First, they deliberately used the sale and licensing of AK-47s as an instrument of foreign policy: ‘support us and we’ll supply you with Kalashnikovs.’ No Western country, of course, would ever use weapons sales as an instrument of diplomacy. Second, they ‘stockpiled’ the guns in greater numbers than really necessary, so creating a surplus; ‘a behaviour’, Chivers claims, ‘linked to the excessive rifle production in planned economies’. But he produces no evidence that the guns were produced in greater numbers than a paranoid nation might believe would be needed in the future. And, again, doesn’t America stockpile weapons – nuclear warheads, for example? Lastly, the Soviet Union collapsed, enabling the contents of the stockpiles to trickle out in the ensuing anarchy. So the old Communist system and its failure to stop its own collapse lies at the root of it all.

Chivers knows his guns – he used to be a US Marine Corps infantry captain – and also his modern Russia, as a former newspaper correspondent there. But that’s about all. The best passages of this book are the technical ones about weapons; the most boring and unnecessary the tirades about the evils of Sovietism; and the most superficial are those expounding his narrow neoliberal ideology. All the stuff, for example, about the dangers of ‘uncoupling’ weapons production from ‘free markets’: is he really saying that if the market had been freer in the 1950s and 1960s, fewer Kalashnikovs would have been sold? The American gun lobby is always telling us that it’s not guns that kill people, people kill people. But it makes it worse if the guns they kill people with can kill more than one person at a time. And even more so, it seems, if they’re Communist guns.