July 25, 2005

AK-47 As Cultural Artifact

Oh, at last, I've revived the ol' internet connection here at home. In a way, that's too bad, I was so enjoying spending the weekend away from the dull glow of the computer screen. But anyway, here's a passage from Robert Kaplan's new book, Imperial Grunts, that's worth sharing—on how you "might learn as much about a culture from its weaponry as you could from its literature":
As [Lt. Col. Custer] demonstrated, while stripping the AK-47 down to its constitutent parts, it was a rifle designed for use by fifteen-year-old illiterates whose life was valued cheaply by the designer. "Illiterates won't clean a gun, or at least not meticulously, so the parts are measured to fit loosely. That way the gun won't jam when it's filthy with grime. But it also makes the AK-47 less accurate than our M-16s and M-4s, which have tight-fitting parts and must be constantly cleaned. And because illiterate peasants aim less precisely," he continued, "the lever of the AK-47 goes from safety directly to full automatic, for spraying a field with fire. With our rifles, the lever rests on semi-automatic before it goes to full auto."

The sites on the Russian rifle could be adjusted for greater accuracy, unlike on American rifles. The Kalashnikov had a bullet magazine that had to be gripped before it could be released, so it wouldn't be lost in the dirt, because magazines were dear in the old U.S.S.R. That made changing magazines slower, and thus further endangered the life of the soldier in combat. In the old Soviet Union, soldiers were more easily expendable than bullet magazines. By contrast, American magazines dropped onto the ground and could be lost, but it made for a faster, more fluent performance by the rifleman.

"The M-4 can hit a man at several hundred yards every time," Custer explained. "The AK-47 is more of an area weapon. We value our soldiers as individuals with precision skills; the Russians see only a mass peasant army."
Good stuff. Kaplan's book, by the way, is marvelous, although extremely annoying at times. He's clearly a far braver man than I could ever hope to be, but ultimately his priorities seem to be: 1) printing stuff that will ensure his continued access to military sources; 2) going out of his way to prick at "delicate" liberal sensibilities**; and finally 3) figuring out how the military works and how it needs to work. Once you figure that out, and filter accordingly, Kaplan's basic thesis—that small, highly specialized military units working without heavy bureaucratic constraint are the optimal way for America to run its far-flung empire, which, like it or not, exists—starts to sound like something worth discussing seriously.

[**An example of this. In a chapter on Afghanistan Kaplan notes, with approval, complaints from grunts that interrogation procedure is too lax: "Usually, an Afghan willing to be uncomfortable for a few days could stiff the American interrogators with impunity. Everyone complained about this." Yikes, seems like an argument for torture, huh? I mean, even the military folks are chafing at the kid gloves that Dick Durbin and Ted Kennedy want them all to wear! In context, it's clear that that's how the passage is meant to come across. But then one page later Kaplan quotes a military man saying about a mission in which they arrest a bunch of Afghan suspects: "The real object of the mission is to treat them respectfully, so that after they are released they'll tell their families how different the Americans are from the Russians." So those kid gloves, it seems, are essential to whole reconstruction project, not an impediment, huh? It seems so, but Kaplan can't admit that without first giving all those squishy liberals in D.C. a kick in the shins.]
-- Brad Plumer 3:05 AM || ||