As both a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a U.S. Marine infantry officer (he served in the first Gulf War), C.J. Chivers is uniquely qualified to explore the history of automatic weapons. Although this absorbing book purports to focus on the Soviet AK-47, it tells an equally fascinating and deeply disturbing story of the American M-16 assault rifle. Chivers -- a senior writer for the New York Times -- uses these two guns in his new book, "The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War," to describe larger truths about war, politics and military dysfunction.
Chivers explodes several myths in this exhaustively researched account, beginning with the Stalinist legend that uneducated novice designer Mikhail Kalashnikov independently created the world's most widely recognized weapon. As Chivers explains it, Stalin manufactured a "hero story" to explain the AK-47's origins: "New heroes were necessary. ... Kalashnikov was one of them." The real truth about the gun's design may never be known, Chivers explains, because "the weapon came into existence inside one of the most secretive and paranoid military systems the world has known."
Chivers believes that the AK-47 was a triumph of collectivist design. He shows how the expansion of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe and the developing world led to the global proliferation of Kalashnikovs. He also shows that the lightweight, powerful, concealable and mechanically reliable AK-47 is the preferred weapon of today's Middle Eastern terrorists, African child soldiers and global drug traffickers.
Chivers offers an excellent history of automatic weapons, beginning with the Gatling and Maxim machine guns of the 19th century. These weapons would be used to decimate American Indians and Africans rebelling against colonial rule. Initially, Chivers notes, the AK-47 was also a weapon of state repression, used by Soviet armies to crush anti-Communist uprisings in Eastern Europe.
The M-16 would become the battlefield counterpart of the AK-47. Chivers' account of the M-16's design and early history is a stunning indictment of the gun's producers and the U.S. military command. Chivers indisputably shows that the M-16 wasn't ready when it was issued to U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. The M-16's clear record of jamming in the middle of firefights led to significant reductions in platoon firepower and certainly got U.S. soldiers killed. While troops understandably lost confidence in their weapon, military commanders blamed the troops for malfunctions.
"The military had the option of delaying the issue of the M-16 until its shortcomings were worked out," writes Chivers. "But that would have meant admitting to a mistake." Instead, U.S. soldiers were sent into battle with malfunctioning weapons and then told to shut up as part of an army coverup. Chivers offers us examples of U.S. soldiers who refused to carry M-16s and instead took AK-47s from enemy troops. These "enemy adoptions" spoke volumes about the lethality of AK-47s and the incompetence of the early M-16s. Chivers has done outstanding work telling the story from both sides of the barrel.
Chuck Leddy reviews books for the Boston Globe and B&N Review. He lives in Boston.