The Gun - C.J. Chivers The AK-47 holds almost mythological status in the world. Terrorists, revolutionaries, and insurrectionists all brandish this Russian-made weapon in defiance of those in power. Chivers calls it “a ready equalizer against morally or materially superior foes.” The U.S. decided to be more sophisticated and complicated and outfitted its soldiers with the M-16, a weapon I remember hearing it being loathed by soldiers just returned from Vietnam as chronically unreliable. A theme of the book is the United States’ failure to design a gun of similar technical merits to the AK-47. Chivers estimates there are currently over 100 million of these lethal weapons floating around out there, a staggering number., a weapon he describes as “the most lethal instrument of the Cold War.” It was first produced the same year as the Russians detonated their own atomic bomb.

The AK-47 could be considered a form of machine gun, so Chivers spends a considerable portion of the book to the history of machine guns. Ironically invented by a southern slave-holder, Richard Gatling, it was offered by the inventor to Lincoln in 1864 to support the Union cause. His reasons were philanthropic if naive. He reasoned that if one man could control the firepower of several with his Gatling gun, there would be need for fewer soldiers on the battlefield and thus fewer casualties. He was distraught over the number of wounded returning from the front. The US Army purchased the first Gatling guns in 1866. Foreign governments found them particularly useful in destroying native uprisings.even though they were notoriously unreliable. There was nothing worse than to have a machine gun jam while being descended upon by thousands of screaming natives. “The Gatlings jammed and the colonel dead,” was Sir Henry Newbolt’s line in 1897.

Hiram Maxim’s gun (“the most dreadful instrument I have ever seen or imagined,” was the Archduke William of Austria’s comment) took killing to a new level. His gun was much more reliable (he had been born in Maine, then emigrated to the UK) water-cooled and belt-fed design was lighter, requiring not a carriage but merely a tripod and variations remained in use well into the 1960’s. Thinking they had a huge advantage, the British knighted Maxim (his gun was renamed the Vickers) but in German hands it proved to be quite useful in mowing down British soldiers. The British actually mistrusted the machine gun as being extraordinarily wasteful of ammunition. One of the most mind numbing aspects of WW I is the willingness of troops to attack barbed wire emplacements defended by machine guns. It was wholesale slaughter on an unimaginable scale.

The forerunner of the AK-47 and M-16 was the Schmeisser, an assault rifle that entered the war in 1944. The AK-47 was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov and while his name has always been associated with the gun, Chivers says it was really a product of the Stalinist state. Chivers also asserts that much of what we think we know about Kalashnikov was reworked to fit the requirements of Communist propaganda. The Russians, contrary to those in the west who championed the more accurate rifles, believed in mass assaults and required weapons with high rates of fire. What makes the Kalashnikov so different is the almost loose fitting of the parts. They clank around and rattle but it would work even after being subjected to extremes of the battlefield and weather.

The U.S. decision to ignore the lessons of the Kalashnikov lies at the feet of Robert McNamara who had heard of an incredibly lethal weapon (the lethality tests were conducted on live goats and cadavers imported from India, an extremely sensitive topic) produced by the ArmaLite Company in California. The impact of its bullets was so messy and destructive that the Americans just had to have it for the nascent war in southeast Asia. That it required a different bullet than the standard 7.62 NATO round even though that standardization had been imposed on NATO by the U.S. The M-16’s malfunctions became a scandal during the Vietnam War, but Colt, maker of the gun, blamed the soldiers’ poor cleaning habits. By this time, the top brass had become so linked with the decision to manufacture the weapon, they supported Colt. One soldier when asked by his commander why he carried a captured AK-47 instead of the M-16 simply replied, “because it works.” According to Chivers, the Army in Afghanistan uses the M-4 carbine but the current generation’s platoon has much more firepower in the form of other types of weapons than the Taliban who use the AK-47. Still, he wonders if the unsophisticated IED may yet cause the downfall of the more technologically advanced. Another triumph of the simple over the complex. (See for another example.)

A more depressing theme of this book is how American exceptionalism prevents us from connecting to peoples whose motivations are high and technologies unsophisticated, yet in the end, as in Vietnam and elsewhere, manage to beat the more technologically advanced.

Chivers is a former Marine officer and war correspondent. He writes well, if frighteningly, in this fascinating work that details the political and psychic effects of the Cold War on policy and decision-making, often to our detriment.