Friday, July 25, 2008

July 2008 Early Indications: The Story of a Gun

Last month, we discussed the fact that the planet has crossed the 3.3 billion cellphone mark, which, if equally distributed, would supply a phone to every second person in the world. This month, we are reminded that technologies of communications have long developed in parallel with technologies of violence. Michael Hodges, a British journalist, recently documented the history of the AK47 assault rifle, a technology that also has achieved wide distribution all over the world. The story of the gun, and of its many implications, provides a sobering counterpoint to the achievements and potentialities of mass mobile communications.

Hodges ranges widely, but several salient facts about the weapon grab the reader's attention:

-Between 70 and 100 million AK47s are in circulation worldwide (to put this in perspective, there are at least enough weapons to arm the Chinese People's Liberation Army, the world's largest, and its reservists at least 25 times over). About 8 million more guns a year are sold, more than all M16s made in nearly 50 years.

-The weapon fires 650 rounds per minute; a clip of 30 takes about 3 seconds on full automatic.

-The AK47 was designed to be simple enough for even illiterate recruits to learn, maintain, and fire.

-The rifle has proved amazingly reliable, performing for 60 years in nearly all operating conditions -- cold, rain, sand, mud, jungles, and cities -- with minimal maintenance.

-The AK47 was invented in Russia but was later manufactured, royalty-free, in many other countries. (This makes the weapon an early example of open-source hardware, before anyone called it that.)

-With a mere eight moving parts, machined only to loose tolerances, the gun can be readily repaired in or near the field (but this design choice also exacts a cost in accuracy).

Numerous examples testify to the AK47's effectiveness, longevity, and cost-effectiveness. In Afghanistan, after Soviet forces grew tired of being ambushed with their own rifle, convoys drove when possible on roads cleared of cover for 300 yards on either side in deference to the weapon's effective range. In Viet Nam, U.S. soldiers often grew frustrated with their M16s, which jammed in wet conditions, and took up AK47s when they were recovered from enemy casualties or POWs. More recently, when the U.S. needed to arm the re-formed Iraqi security forces, the contract was awarded to a Bulgarian manufacturer of Kalashnikovs selling for $100 apiece.

But Hodges is not interested in strictly military history. His story of what he calls "the people's gun" has several facets, some of which prove more persuasive than others. The assertion that the weapon, and its distinctive silhouette, have become a global brand, alongside Coke and Sony, feels slightly underdeveloped but also only marginally relevant. That the AK47 has become a political totem, a "signifier" (to use the jargon of literary theory), is undeniable. From Afghanistan, where Osama Bin Laden poses with different variants of the weapon in his video missives to the world, to Mozambique, whose 1983 flag features an AK crossed with a hoe, the gun has a long history of symbolic potency.

For our purposes, it is not symbolism but very physical implications of the gun that matter. At the same time that mobile phones connect families, market participants, and community resources such as ambulances in India or banks in Bangladesh, wide availability of assault weapons counteracts these tendencies. Grudges and tribal antagonisms intensify; desperation among people without hope is given violent outlet. Gang wars mixing some combination of rites of passage, turf conflict, drugs, and gunplay (whether in Pakistan, Columbia, Sudan, or U.S. inner cities) both grow deadlier and trigger waves of payback and escalation. The cycle of recruitment, killing, retribution -- and collateral damage -- can spiral out of control as gangsters outgun most peacekeepers.

Hodges is grimly persuasive when he writes of "Kalshnikov cultures," places where poverty, heavily armed combatants, and radical politics combine to render rule of law and even basic notions of civil society moot. On particularly depressing outgrowth of such cultures is the recruitment of [often orphaned] children, who are placed in the first wave of attacks since they are light enough to not trip land mines. The AK47's ease of use makes such a scenario possible. Indeed, when a weapon becomes "the people's gun" and stops being "the army's gun," many basic rules of social interaction are rewritten or, more accurately, erased.

Because AK47s circulate beyond the locked armories and strict rules of a typical army, the story of their distribution is an exercise in social networking of a lethal sort: most parties who want a weapon are well within "six degrees" of obtaining one. Between the open-source hardware mentioned above, and the weapon's nondescript footprint which lacks radiation or radio frequency emissions, it is virtually impossible to track. Finally, because of their proven durability, decades-old rifles still pose a threat to life and limb: even if manufacturing were to be curtailed tomorrow, the size of the weapons population would continue to shape crime, politics, and terror well into the 21st century. Changing the impact of the gun will be an exercise in changing minds, not controlling the technology.

As powerfully as it explains key facets of contemporary terror, Hodges' story also reminds us that technologies of communications and killing have frequently developed in parallel: radio and mustard gas were commercialized within a few years of each other. Gunpowder and a new style of musical notation were roughly contemporaneous, and the first cast-iron gun predated European movable type by about 20 years. To give credit where it is due, Mikhail Kalashnikov invented a technology that did what it was designed to do, under adverse conditions, for over six decades, at low cost.* It also changed the face of both warfare and politics, a claim that can be made by few inventors, of any era.

*At a much higher price tag, the B-52 bomber has achieved similar longevity: several grandchildren of the original pilots are now operating these aircraft in various theaters.

Michael Hodges, AK47: The Story of a Gun. San Francisco: MacAdam Cage, 2008.