By C.J. Chivers
Simon & Schuster, 481 pages, $32
FORGET weapons of mass destruction, real or imaginary. Forget nuclear bombs and missiles.
The most lethal weapon of the Cold War, still efficiently slaughtering and maiming civilians and soldiers 65 years after its invention, is the AK-47 rifle, the Kalashnikov.
It's so simple that even a child can use it -- and children do.
The Gun is the gripping but chilling tale of "the most abundant firearms on Earth."
Author C.J. Chivers, a New York Times journalist and former marine, has won a fistful of awards for his newspaper and magazine journalism.
He demonstrates admirable journalistic form in The Gun, conducting extensive interviews and documentary research. Throughout the book, Chivers makes technical information about guns and ammunition easily digestible, even fascinating.
He tells his appalling tale through compelling quotes and vivid portraits of people from Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the winner of a 1946 Soviet competition to build a new rifle, to Karzan Mahmoud, an Iraqi bodyguard who was shot 23 times with a Kalashnikov in 2002.
After his miraculous recovery, Mahmoud wrote the inventor, "I'm wondering -- how about if you tried it on yourself, one bullet into your feet before sending it out to the market. That might change your mind?"
To the victims of his infernal machine Kalashnikov retorted, "I sleep soundly."
Chivers notes that the inventor's life story was itself invention, partly by the Soviets who needed a proletarian hero as the creator of a weapon of defence and liberation, and partly by Kalashnikov himself who needed to bury his family's politically suspect past.
The Gun demolishes the Soviet propaganda that the AK-47 was an anti-imperialist weapon. In fact, it quickly became "repression's chosen gun, the rifle of the occupier and the police state."
It proved its effectiveness in the bloody Soviet crackdown in Hungary in 1956.
Socialist production and stockpiling combined, inevitably, with market forces that found distribution channels for the guns, first throughout the communist East Bloc dictatorships and then around the world.
Chivers argues that the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 shocked the superpowers into realizing that a total war with nuclear weapons was unwinnable, leaving "small wars and proxies" to promote the interests of the United States and the USSR.
Since then, the AK-47 has been stolen, bought, smuggled and seized in unknown but mind-boggling numbers. "The Kalashnikov marks the guerrilla, the terrorist, the child soldier, the dictator and the thug -- all of whom have found it to be a ready equalizer against morally or materially superior foes."
There is little moral superiority among most of the combatants in The Gun, though. Instead, ignorance, pigheaded romanticism and cruelty mark its fascinating review of the politics and weaponry of the U.S. Civil War, the First World War and Vietnam.
Chivers is particularly strong in his section on Vietnam. Poorly educated peasants armed with AK-47s and fighting for their country drove out the most advanced army in the world, which had to make do with M-16 rifles that jammed and killed the soldiers using them.
Some American forces resorted to using the much simpler and more reliable AK-47s that they seized in battle.
Now how on earth can we get rid of this arsenal?
Chivers devotes only two paragraphs at the end of his book to this question. Large-scale destruction is unlikely because it requires the agreement of too many groups with conflicting interests, he says. But if enough weapons are abandoned and left exposed long enough they will rust --an ironic withering away of the power of the Soviet state.
Humanity can't wait.
Duncan McMonagle teaches journalism at Red River College and writes the Information Tsunami blog at http://duncanmcm.blogspot.com