Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Guns and Butter

I've been reading C. J. Chivers' The Gun, which is about as fascinating a book as I've read. Chivers' book is a history of the AK-47; it's relatively nonjudgmental from a political point of view, and traces the emergence of the AK-47, first as an Eastern Bloc weapon, and then as the world's go-to weapon for criminals, revolutionaries and terrorists. One excerpt I find particularly interesting:

Any distillation that treats the AK-47 as a spontaneous invention, the epiphany of an unassuming but gifted sergeant at his workbench, misses the very nature of its origins as an idiosyncratic Soviet product. The weapon was designed collectively, the culmination of work by many people over many years, and the result of a process in which Senior Sergeant Kalashnikov was near the center in the mid and late 1940s. This process was driven not by entrepreneurship or by quirky Russian innovation and pluck, but by the internal desires and bureaucracy of the socialist state. The motivations that fueled it were particular to a moment in history. The Soviet Union, once a technologically backward society that had been brutalized and organized by Stalin's police state, had been militarizing throughout its existence, and it had recently been fully transformed into a military-industrial economy by war and its fear and hatred of Hitler. As Hitler exited the stage, this economy's potential for arms-making was harnessed again, this time in a mix of almost religious revolutionary ideology - socialism was, according to the party's core teaching, to sweep the world in an irresistible advance - and to a rational suspicion of the united States, with which it was compelled to compete...

What makes the origins of the AK-47 interesting are not these easy platitudes, but the larger insights its story provides. The Soviet Union of the late 1940s was at a high point in its history. When it focused on technical tasks, it could excel. And when it focused on creating an automatic weapon that could be carried and managed by almost any man, it was able to quickly make on of the world's superproducts, and one of the truest symbols of itself.

If you have even a passing interest in history, military or otherwise, pick this book up. It's a fantastic read.

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