AK47 by Michael Hodges

The AK47 has been on a long, strange trip: From the heights of lionization, as the weapon that that symbolized Russia’s defeat of Nazi fascism, to the depths of infamous ubiquity, as something of a talisman for the world’s rebels, insurgents and terrorists. There are 70 million AK47s in circulation today, and it is certainly fair to say that if the AK47 did not directly bring about the rise and fall of communism, the American defeat in Vietnam, and the Middle East’s descent into an era of Islamic extremism and jihad, then it certainly played a major role.

Michael Hodges considers all of this in his intriguing history of the world’s most famous weapon, a book that hopscotches across decades and some of the planet’s worst hellholes, including urban America, to chronicle the impact that the AK47 has had on shaping the world in which we live today.

The AK47, well-known though it is, has always existed more in images than in reality for much of the western world; be it in pictures on the covers of news magazines or in any number of Hollywood flicks: Rambo praised it, sure, and so has Quentin Tarantino, who describes the AK47 in his film Jackie Brown thus: “When you absolutely, positively gotta kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitute”. Most kids could probably draw an AK47 – its thin barrel, it’s wedged shoulder rest, the banana-shaped magazine cartridge – having never seen one up close.

It has only been in recent years that some writers have tried to move the gun out of the realm of Hollywood props and whacko NRA types and into an arena of broader discussion, notably in The Gun That Changed the World (2006), the autobiography of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the gun’s inventor, and The Weapon That Changed the Face of War (2006), by Larry Kahaner.

Hodges’ AK47: The Story of a Gun covers a lot of the same ground as Kahaner, though opts for less political commentary. Hodges’ book reads like a decidedly less wonky Robert D. Kaplan work, and that’s an advantage here: Instead of bogging down his prose with political or literary digressions, he simply tries to show spots of time in the gun’s evolution from novelty to worldwide brand. After a brief welcome in the AK47’s hometown of Izhevsk and a primer on the conditions that led to the gun’s development, the book leaps to Vietnam, Palestine, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq before settling in New Orleans, which if you believe this book, might be the most dangerous place in America.

Hodges is able to humanize this killing machine, telling the gun’s story through those who’ve seen it in action. There is Mr. Phan in Vietnam; Pierre Bullant, a French fashion photographer in the West Bank; Emmanuel, a former Sudanese child-soldier who is now a rapper. For large chunks of this book, the AK47is cast off to the side, relegated to a supporting role with the drama on the page driven primarily by an historic or journalistic accounting of a terrible conflict, from child soldiers in Sudan to Marines in Sadr City. Hodges tries to get in the AK47 wherever he can, which makes his prose feel a little labored in places, like we don’t get the point. This is no more true than in his dialogue, which feels a little coached, as in Emmanuel’s recollections of war: “You’ll even try to get to the front – that’s what an AK47 can do to you. It makes you think that no one can touch you…Once you’ve fired an AK47, you become brave”.

The gun’s ‘story’ is of an instrument of innovation (capable of firing 650 rounds-per-minute and impervious to mud, water and sand) that evolves into a tool of liberation after Vietnam and, later, into a symbol of global resistance after the Afghanistan war of the 1980s. Today, the AK47 can fuel the movement of whole populations, as seen in the Palestinian intifada and Iraqi insurgency, who see the gun as their only means to struggle.

How did this happen? Hodges doesn’t provide a clear answer, perhaps because no good one exists. But the book would have been stronger with an accounting of the world’s arms trade, a subject it largely ignores. What Hodges does hit are points of ironies: There are so many AK47s in the world today in part because the United States put them there, from arming the Contras in the late ’70s to the Mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan in the ’80s, who drove out the Soviets largely based on secrete weapons shipments from Congress. Americans (and of course many, many others) are dying by those same AK47s today.

Where Hodges’ book comes undone is near the end, with a bazaar critique of the gun’s use in Rambo: First Blood Part II (it’s generally not a good sign when you’re calling up a Rambo movie to defend some thesis). Then there’s a discussion of the AK47 sprouting up in rap lyrics, followed by some infamous public shootings in the US in which the AK47 may or may not have figured (Hodges gets the date of Columbine wrong by eight years).

But by then we’d already met Kalashnikov himself, easily the book’s most engaging character. Unlike Eugene Stoner, the multi-millionaire inventor of the American M16, Kalashnikov has never gotten rich off his invention. He still lives in Izhevsk on a government pension of $300 a month. It probably says something about the duel sides of war in that the reader can somehow understand the pride in which Kalashnikov must feel at creating the most dependable weapon in history — yet see how it obviously pains him to know so many have died by its trigger.

RATING 6 / 10