CJ Chivers talks to Foreign Policy about the Kalashnikov assault rifle, the world's true weapon of mass destruction.
The Kalashnikov assault rifle, as CJ Chivers writes in his book The Gun, is "the most recognized weapon in the world, one of the most recognizable products in the world." For half a century, the AK-47 and its descendants have defined and exacerbated guerrilla conflicts, terrorism and crime; it is the most widespread firearm in the world, with up to 100 million Kalashnikovs in circulation, ten times more than any other rifle.
Chivers, a Marine Corps veteran and senior editor for the New York Times, has spent nearly a decade mapping the spread of Kalashnikovs and unraveling the rifle's history, from the dusty government archives of the former USSR to the battlefields in Afghanistan. The book "Automatic", the history of this weapon he wrote, was published this week. He emailed Foreign Policy's Charles Homans, answering questions about the unclear origins of the AK-47, how the assault rifle changed modern warfare, and why the end of the Kalashnikov era is still a long way off.
Foreign Policy: The Soviet atomic bomb and the Kalashnikov assault rifle were both created in the same year, and you write that the United States made a critical mistake by focusing on the bomb and ignoring the assault rifle. But could the United States have done anything to limit the spread and influence of the AK-47?
CJ Chivers: The United States is not responsible for batch production and stockpiling of Kalashnikovs, and during the Cold War there was nothing they could do to prevent this. Later, while it certainly helped from a security point of view, if the US did more to contain the proliferation of weapons and ammunition released from Cold War warehouses, it would be useful to ask this question to China and Russia - the two main manufacturers of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, which show no interest in remediating the consequences of their exports. However, there are many ways to contain continued proliferation, and instead of using them vigorously, the United States has become the largest known buyer of the Kalashnikovs it distributes in Iraq and Afghanistan with little or no consideration. One thing is certain about the AK-47 story - almost no one looks good in it.
You spared no ink to analyze the origin of the machine and the biography of its creator Mikhail Kalashnikov, separating myths from (often unattainable) facts. Why are the circumstances of the creation of the machine so uniquely vague? Why is it important how much we know about them?
- Obviously I'm interested in firearms. But it interests me not only as a weapon or as a product. Firearms can tell us a lot: they are like glasses that can be used while looking at other subjects and topics. In this case, the investigation into the origin of the Kalashnikov is not just a tour of the evolution of automatic weapons. This is a journey to the Soviet Union of Stalin (and then Khrushchev), with all his state anxiety and an atmosphere of fear and lies. It's a pretty grim ride. Kalashnikov's story is a way to examine and understand how official falsifications and propaganda are organized and how they work. The internal mechanisms of this propaganda make the search for [the truth] difficult. However, they also make them especially valuable.
How can you remove all mythology from the history of Kalashnikov?
- I used a mixture of textual and technical analysis, and of course I did a lot of interviews. The first is the collection of materials, the accumulation of all public and private statements from people related to the development of weapons that can be found. Most of these materials exist only in Russian. It takes years to find what can be found and to figure it out. I came across closed official archives in Russia and tried to find sources that could store these materials in their apartments in Moscow or former Leningrad or Kiev.
As I collected materials, compared the statements with each other, I discovered that over the years the story of Kalashnikov himself has changed, and that much of what he said was questioned by important colleagues who were around when the machine was created. I also carefully studied the submachine gun itself, and compared it with what is known about other weapons being developed at the time. Thus, you can see the characteristics borrowed (some might say "stolen") by the Kalashnikov development team from other assault rifles developed by other people. And I found that the evidence indicates that many of the ideas attributed to Mikhail Kalashnikov did not appear to be his own, and some of them were directly claimed by people in his circle. Ultimately, the conclusion is inevitable: the Kalashnikov assault rifle, named after Mikhail Kalashnikov, was not the result of an insight that descended on one person, but the fruit of a massive, state-sponsored search, using many developments, and all this has a dirty background, including the fate of one a man who was involved in development, but later became a victim of repression. Nothing has been said about this man's role for decades. Moreover, Kalashnikov's own engineer, with whom he worked most closely, argued that several of the main parts of the rifle - which, in fact, make it what it is - were his ideas, and that Mikhail Kalashnikov opposed, and had to be convinced allow these amendments to his penultimate prototype. All this contradicts the Soviet legend. And it helps you understand the Soviet Union better.
At what point did the distribution of Kalashnikov become unrestrained?
- The key decisions were the rampant production and accumulation that began in the 1950s in the countries of the Eastern Bloc. After tens of millions of rifles were produced, it didn't take long for the impact of these weapons to manifest around the world.
You write that of all countries, the United States showed "the most disconcerting reaction" to the Kalashnikov. Why did we alone fail to grasp the importance of the rifle when everyone else understood everything?
“The American military couldn't give up the idea of a pioneering sniper, and this idea was reflected in the institutionalized notion of a far-shooting American eagle-eyed infantryman. And this is where the idea of a short-muzzle rifle that fires automatically comes in - and these characteristics make it less accurate, especially at medium to long distances. This was the AK-47 rifle. The Cold War was at the very beginning. Both sides made decisions about how to arm themselves. The Pentagon studied the AK-47 and only did not scoff at it aloud. The US military did not even begin to classify the AK-47 as a rifle. Traditionalists favored a heavier rifle that fired more powerful shots. The M-14 rifle was developed and launched into production. When the two rifles met in Vietnam, the Pentagon realized its mistake.
The experience of American soldiers in Vietnam, burdened with defective M-16 rifles and fighting in conditions favorable to the capabilities of the Kalashnikov, contributed greatly to the myths about the AK-47. What do American soldiers think of him today? Does the rifle retain its mysterious charm when soldiers today have new, superior weapons?
“Soldiers treat this weapon with deep, albeit jealous, respect. Yes, there are better weapons today, especially for combat in dry climates, where typical clashes take place today. But most of the servicemen with whom I spoke understand that their world is armed with Kalashnikovs, who make this world much more dangerous and put their lives at risk.
“The Kalashnikov was the defining weapon of the small wars and substitute conflicts of the Cold War, but it also defines the unrest of the era that followed, from the 1989 execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu - carried out by a group of soldiers with Kalashnikovs - to the current conflict in Afghanistan. How has the role and influence of these weapons changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
“The influence only increased because as the fragile governments of the Eastern Bloc collapsed, many of them lost control of their weapons, leading to unrestricted supplies to conflict zones. This weapon was already extremely significant. Now this is doubly true.
How did Kalashnikov's symbolism develop in the post-Soviet era? In the 1970s, things were simple, meaning some standard leftist bravado - but you write that by the time Osama bin Laden began posing with a rifle in his video messages, this symbolism had become much more complex
“As the rifles spread throughout the world, they were appropriated by all sorts of fighters who put all sorts of meaning into them. The rifle's changing iconography is a fascinating subject to study because it shows how governments and combatants see themselves. And it's still much more interesting, because it all started with copious lies. In the Kremlin's version, the Kalashniki are an instrument of national defense and liberation. But its first use is not associated with defense, but with the suppression of liberation movements in Soviet satellites in Europe, and later it was used to shoot at unarmed citizens trying to escape from the socialist world to the West. This part of the story has been removed from the official version. So the entire Kalashnikov legend began with a series of rigged stories, and over the decades the rifle and its meaning have been transformed many times over. Journalists have something to profit from here. This is the pantheon of modern warfare. Saddam Hussein handed out rifles lined with gold; these were such souvenirs from the dictator. Bin Laden was sure to be photographed with a variant of the rifle that was in service with Soviet helicopter pilots in the 1980s, and here the rifle, almost like a scalp, signified his military authority. (In this case, he may have overdone it because I have not seen any credible evidence that he ever participated in the shooting down of a Soviet helicopter.) We will see a lot of that. For both governments and fighters, symbols are of great importance, and the Kalashnikov can be attributed to an almost endless range of meanings.
“The Automaton book contains a chilling story about the use of Kalashnikovs by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, where the durability of the rifle in harsh conditions prolonged guerrilla activity and its ease of use made it possible to use child soldiers. To what extent are these weapons responsible for the nature of the protracted non-professional wars that have been tearing apart many countries in eastern and central Africa over the past twenty years? Are there conflicts that probably would not have happened if not for the proliferation of Kalashnikovs?
- I like these questions. Let's agree for the sake of clarity: without the Kalashnikovs, the wars would not have gone anywhere, and there would have been enough of them. It would be naive, even foolish, to think in any other way. But let's also understand the role of the Kalashnikov: it would be naive, even foolish, to believe that the costs and consequences of many wars could not have been less if Kalashnikov automatic rifles were not so widespread and so readily available.
A couple of times I've heard very experienced Western soldiers say, “Look, the AK is not a very accurate weapon and is not used very well by many of the poorly trained people fighting conventional armed forces, so its influence on the war today is less. than it seems. " From this point of view, improvised explosive devices or suicide bombers pose a great threat to troops, and small arms no longer play such an important role. I deny this view that the rise of one weapon in two wars means the decline of the other. They complement each other. Do you understand what I mean?
I do not want to belittle the role of improvised explosive devices, which in recent years have become the main cause of injuries to Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But to understand war and how it is fought requires a broader perspective. We need to take off the rose-colored glasses of the strongest and most well-equipped forces in the world, because (apart from the early advantage of the Kalashnikov against the early M-16 variants in Vietnam), the experience of the collision of Western forces with the Kalashnikovs is not necessarily associated the weapon is on strike, or the most powerful, at least in terms of human casualties. A more complete and more important criterion for evaluating Kalashnikov assault rifles is not how its users perform in hand-to-hand combat against the modern generation of Western forces, which have individual body armor, armored personnel carriers, improved weapons with telescopic sight and night vision devices, fire support and medical assistance., both urgent and subsequent. Of course, the network of poorly trained fighters with the Kalashnikovs finds itself at a disadvantage in many skirmishes of this kind, so they have adapted other types of weapons to counterbalance the struggle. Hence the improvised explosive devices.
Let's do a more complete assessment. Human loss is not the only criterion. Weapons can have a huge impact without ever hurting anyone, because they restrict the movement of the other side or affect plans for where and how that side can move each day. The weapon can reduce the enemy's mobility and increase the cost of his actions, forcing him to move in armor. Weapons can change the direction and objectives of an operation - from large campaigns to patrolling in many, many ways. And even that is not enough. To fully appreciate the Kalashnikov assault rifle, you need to assess its impact on the vulnerable - on civilians, on weak governments, on government forces such as the Afghan police or the Uganda People's Defense Forces. Entire regions of many countries defy the influence of their governments, because local rage is combined there with Kalashnikovs, which breed lawlessness and provide opportunities for crime, riots, unrest and human rights violations on a grand scale. The Lord's Resistance Army is a prime example. It grew out of an insurgent organization that had few Kalashnikovs and did not last long - in a word, its predecessor was utterly defeated. Then the Lord's army of resistance appeared. She bought Kalashnikov assault rifles. Almost 25 years later, she is still at war, and the territory in which she operates is social and economic ruins. Before Joseph Kony acquired his AKs, it was a different war. And there are tons of other examples.
Will the Kalashnikov era end in the foreseeable future?
- I don't see such a future. A huge number of these rifles were produced, and many of them disappeared from government stocks. Rifles kept in old warehouses remain in excellent condition and will guarantee fresh supplies for decades to come. China still produces and exports them in unknown quantities. Venezuela opens a new production plant. And wherever they are - locked up in weapons depots or used in battles - they are too durable to talk about their "obsolescence." All of this, and in addition, efforts to address the proliferation of battle rifles are too often not brilliant - and coherent. This combination of factors virtually guarantees that we will observe this rifle and how it is commonly used throughout our lives. Will they go out of use? I have not seen such predictions. I regularly find Kalashnikovs made back in the 1950s in Afghanistan. These rifles are over 50 years old and are still in active use. What do these rifles tell us? They tell us that the Kalashnikov era is far from over.