Thursday, November 30, 2006

Accept no substitutes

In 'Weapon of Mass Destruction' (Washington Post), Larry Kahaner has written a brief but fascinating history of what is probably the most distinctive and well-known weapon ever created: the AK47.

Why is this relevant to anyone's life? Well...

The AK-47 has become the world's most prolific and effective combat weapon, a device so cheap and simple that it can be bought in many countries for less than the cost of a live chicken. Depicted on the flag and currency of several countries, waved by guerrillas and rebels everywhere, the AK is responsible for about a quarter-million deaths every year. It is the firearm of choice for at least 50 legitimate standing armies and countless fighting forces from Africa and the Middle East to Central America and Los Angeles. It has become a cultural icon, its signature form -- that banana-shaped magazine -- defining in our consciousness the contours of a deadly weapon.

This week, the U.S. military's presence in Iraq will surpass the length of time that American forces were engaged in World War II. And the AK-47 will forever link the two conflicts. The story of the gun itself, from inspiration in Bryansk to bloody insurgency in Iraq, is also the story of the transformation of modern warfare. The AK blew away old battlefield calculations of military superiority, of tactics and strategy, of who could be a soldier, of whose technology would triumph.

Given that it seems to have been around forever (and, indeed, it has been around quite a while...since...well, 1947), it's somehow bizarre to realise that its inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov, is still alive:

Now 85, tiny, feeble, nearly deaf, his right hand losing control because of tremors, Kalashnikov is often haunted by the killing machine he has bestowed upon the world. "I wish I had invented a lawnmower," he told the Guardian in 2002.
(Indeed. That would have been interesting, and would, most likely, have resulted in the most indestructable, bad-ass lawnmower the world has ever seen. But I digress...)

Kalashnikov receives no royalties from his weapon, though, and he has of late turned to marketing another lethal weapon under his name: vodka.

But it doesn't seem that his invention is going away anytime soon.

Even the newly forming Iraqi army -- trained by the U.S. military and civilian contractors -- refused American-made M-16s and M-4s. When the Coalition Provisional Authority was planning to outfit Iraqi forces, they were surprised to find that the Iraqis insisted on AKs.

"For better or worse, the AK-47 is the weapon of choice in that part of the world," said Walter Slocombe, senior adviser to the CPA. "It turns out that every Iraqi male above the age of 12 can take them apart and put them together blindfolded and is a pretty good shot."

Which is not only impressive, but also again suggests the limits to that old slogan that an armed society is a polite society...

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