TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In his work covering war zones for the New York Times, my guest, C.J. Chivers, has been ambushed too many times by Taliban fighters and others carrying Kalashnikovs.
This automatic rifle, whose first incarnation was the AK-47, was designed by the Soviets after World War II. It's since become the weapon of choice for the insurgent, the terrorist and the child soldier, not to mention many armies around the world.
Chivers has just written a history of the Kalashnikov, how it became the world's most dominant automatic weapon and how it's changed warfare. His book "The Gun" is not only based on historical research, it's based on the weapons he's found covering war zones.
Chivers shared a Pulitzer Prize for his Times coverage of the war in Afghanistan. He's also covered fighting in Iraq and Chechnya and served as the Times' Moscow bureau chief from 2004 to 2008. You can also find his writing in the New York Times blog, At War. Chivers served in the Marines from 1988 to 1994.
C.J. Chivers, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you've been ambushed by people carrying AKs. So that's certainly helped you understand how the weapons work and the significance of them. So tell us a little bit about the circumstances that you were ambushed with AKs and what that taught you about the weapons.
Mr. C.J. CHIVERS (Correspondent, New York Times; Author, "The Gun"): Well, what it teaches you is really two different things. The first is it tells you something about their abundance.
It's pretty hard at this point, many parts of the world, particularly in Afghanistan, to go out into territory under insurgent control and not be ambushed by Kalashnikovs. Their numbers are just so outsized that this is quite a common experience.
The other thing that it tells you is that notwithstanding the legends about the Kalashnikov that in some ways it's a mediocre weapon. It's not especially accurate, and it's used often by people who are not especially skilled. So there's a lot of people, I'm one of them, but there's many, many more who have been ambushed by Kalashnikovs and not been shot.
GROSS: You mean because they missed you?
Mr. CHIVERS: Because they miss you. And there's reasons they miss you that are rooted in the weapon's own design and also in the training of the people who carry them.
But the weapon is designed with a relatively short barrel, and it's designed with a relatively loose fit of its parts, and it's got a heavy operating system, and it shoots a medium-powered ammunition.
So like I said, notwithstanding the legends that this is a ferocious machine, a killing tool, at longer ranges, it's actually not especially effective. At shorter ranges, it's a terrible weapon. But at longer ranges, which is pretty common for the ambushes in the arid places such as Afghanistan and Iraq where there's not a lot of vegetation, they often miss.
GROSS: It's still, though, probably a pretty good weapon for terrifying people?
Mr. CHIVERS: There's a lot of measures of a weapon, and one of them is how they work against a conventional foe, like the United States military. That's not the best measure. The better measure is how they work against a larger set of victims: how they work against civilians, how they work at checkpoints, how they work in the commission of crimes. For all of these things, it's a terrible weapon.
GROSS: A terrible weapon?
Mr. CHIVERS: A terrible weapon in that it's very, very effective at shorter ranges because the people who use it, the people who carry it, have a lot of options for its use.
It's very concealable. Most of the weapons out there now have a folding stock or have the stock removed. So you can hide it under a blanket or inside a coat.
At short ranges, it can be used on single shot, known as semi-automatic fire, where one trigger pull results in one round going downrange. Or it can be used automatically. And on automatic fire at short ranges, it has a blistering effect. It fires in bursts, a great number of rounds in a very tight space.
GROSS: Give us an example of a time that you were ambushed with Kalashnikovs, and they tried to shoot you and missed.
Mr. CHIVERS: They tend to shoot at a patrol, into a cluster of people who are walking or a bunch of people who are standing around, you know, at a checkpoint or the like. And in this sense, they sort of shoot often offhand, without the sites up to the eyes. And they fire a burst towards the group. Now, the weapon tends to have its barrel rise upward as more bullets leave in a burst. So as it climbs, the elevation of the bullets leaving it climb, and they tend to fire over your head a lot.
GROSS: Does that give you any confidence when you're fired on?
Mr. CHIVERS: Confidence probably isn't the right word. I mean, but it it still scares you very much, and you react to it. And, you know, you get down, or you get behind something.
Afterwards, when you're around people who have been fired at by Kalashnikovs a lot, many people will chuckle because they miss and because they've missed before.
But I'd like to remind you that's not necessarily the best measure of the weapon, how it performs against sort of a modern, well-drilled, experienced, savvy, Western infantry patrol, because that's not the only place this weapon gets used.
GROSS: It gets used in other places like...
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, fill in the blank, I mean, pretty much everywhere outside of Western democracies and stable countries. The Kalashnikov is the most common weapon you will see. It's virtually everywhere that it's not safe. And it gets used in those places in the commissions of crimes, in the commission of human rights violations. It is often used by governments as a tool of repression. It's the weapon of the crackdown and has been for more than half a century.
And in these circumstances, like I said, it's a terrible weapon because if you don't have something that can push back against it, and most people don't, then the imbalance clearly goes to the person who's carrying it, and in these types of situations, its technical flaws are really sort of overcome by the circumstances of one side having them and the other side not.
GROSS: And so it's a weapon often used by child soldiers in, for instance, African conflicts. Why is it an effective weapon for child soldiers?
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, it often gets used by child soldiers for two reasons. Again, we go back to abundance. It's out there, and the weapon that's out there is the weapon that tends to get used. But the other reason is it's very simple in its design, very, very simple. It's almost intuitive. You can take it apart very quickly and put it back together just as quickly. It's simple to clean. It's simple to maintain.
It has not - getting away from its design features, into its manufacturing standards, most of the Kalashnikovs out there have been very well made for the actual conditions of war. It has an excellent protective finish. It's chromed on the inside of its barrel and its chamber. All of these things mean that if you're not particularly skilled or attentive to caring for it, it's still going to last, and it's still going to work.
These things, in the hands of any number of people, the dimwitted, the ill-trained, the ill-disciplined or children, make it a kind of weapon that they can use very effectively for a very long period of time, and not all weapons are this way.
Other weapons you know, the M-16 line has a couple of very small components, and you can take the weapon apart and put it together a few times. But eventually, you're probably, if you're not really paying attention, if you're not really well-trained, going to lose one of those parts of misplace it. And at that point, the weapon is rendered almost useless.
The Kalashnikov is not this way. This Kalashnikov has very few parts in its main operating system, and they're big, and they're bulky, and their relationship to each other is pretty clear. Without instruction, you could figure it out inside of an hour. With instruction, I could show you how to use it inside of five minutes.
GROSS: Now, the AK was created by the Soviets under Stalin just after World War II. And this was about the same time as the first Soviet nuclear explosion, which everybody noticed, and as you point out, no one thought much then about how the AK would change the world. What was the AK invented to do?
Mr. CHIVERS: It was, in the simplest sense, a weapon that was designed to be issued to the communist conscripted forces. It was going to be the standard shoulder-fired arm. And the Soviet Union was really quite brilliant at copying its enemies' patterns.
It over the years had in, for instance, developing the atomic bomb, relied on espionage to advance its own weapons programs forward. And the AK-47 was basically a conceptual knockoff, a copy of a German idea, which was to take a cartridge that would be midway, roughly, in size, between those used by pistols and those used by the traditional rifles of the time, and to take this medium-powered, intermediate cartridge and build a weapon around it.
And this brought several technical advantages. With a lighter-weight cartridge, you could carry more rounds of ammunition, which meant each solider could be more effective and could last longer in a fight because he would have more ammunition in his pack or on his kit.
The smaller ammunition also came with other technical benefits. It produced less heat and less recoil, and this meant that the gun could be smaller and lighter and consume less resources in order to manage firing each round in rapid succession. And this drove down the costs of producing the rifle, and it made training a little bit easier because it was easier to fire the rifle.
The Soviet Union wanted a rifle that would do all of these things, and it got one quickly.
GROSS: What did it replace?
Mr. CHIVERS: It replaced a sort of mishmash of arms that Stalin's army - that the Soviet Red Army, had been carrying in the great patriotic war. These included submachine guns, a few automatic rifles that didn't work especially well and a number of bolt-action rifles that had roots back to czarist times in the 1890s.
GROSS: So the Soviet propaganda machine touted the AK-47 as the gun of liberation. You say it ended up being the gun of repression.
Mr. CHIVERS: The Soviet Union assigned a lot of sort of stock fables to the Kalashnikov line, and one of them is exactly that, that the weapon is used as a tool for liberating oppressed people, and the subtext there is people under the Western yoke, under the capitalists' hand, if you will.
This is largely untrue. The initial uses of this weapon, the first time that we know that it drew blood was as a tool for the crackdown against people who were protesting against the Soviet Union.
GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers. His new book about the history of the Kalashnikov is called "The Gun." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers, who is a war correspondent for the New York Times, and he's the author of the new book called "The Gun," which is a history of the AK-47 and the AKs that followed that.
How did the Kalashnikov become the most abundant firearm on Earth? And you say that there's about one Kalashnikov for every 70 people on the face of the Earth. That's an amazing number of guns.
Mr. CHIVERS: As far as we know, there's about one for every 70 people have been made. The number may be a little bit smaller because some of them obviously have been broken or destroyed over time. But the way that it became near-ubiquitous in combat zones is kind of misunderstood.
You often hear that the weapon is very reliable, it's very easy to use. Therefore, it's very abundant. And this makes a couple of assumptions, as if market forces drove the production of this weapon, and that's exactly not the case.
The weapon was made in planned economies. It was made in a host of different socialist countries, according to the dictates of their government. They were made essentially whether anyone paid for them or not. That's why there's so many of them.
They got stockpiled and put away along all the anticipated fronts for World War III, which never or as yet has not happened, in tens of millions. And they got made in ways that no other weapon, no other rifle, anyhow, has ever been made.
I'll give you an example: The second most abundant rifle of our time is the M-16 line, including a few different variants in the M-4 carbine, which is the shortened version, which is pretty abundant today in American troops' hands. About 10 million of these have been made. That's about one-tenth of the number of Kalashnikovs we think that have been made, and there's a reason for that.
The primary manufacturer is Colt. They made about 10 million of them. Why? Because they don't make rifles unless they have an order. They cannot afford to pay for the labor and for the commodities and for the electricity and everything else, to stockpile rifles by the tens of millions. They make orders of a few thousand here or 10,000 there, based on an order from a government.
The Kalashnikov was made by an utterly different set of rules. It was given a priority of resources, priority of labor, access to the steel. Some of the sharper minds from the engineering schools ended up in the design bureaus and out on the assembly lines, helping to manufacture this according to the rules of the socialist state.
This outsize production is why there are so many of them everywhere. Had it been made like the M-16, you wouldn't see it everywhere because it wouldn't exist in the numbers that it does now.
GROSS: And the Soviets gave those weapons to its allies, to its proxy forces, and it ended up in give us an example of some of the countries that Kalashnikovs ended up in.
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, I would have to think you couldn't find a country that does not have Kalashnikovs. But where did it end up in huge numbers? Pretty much anywhere there's war. And initially, it moved by a process that was driven by the centralized state. I mean, the Kremlin, under Khrushchev, moved its Kalashnikovs around in order to curry favor and to win friends or to equip people who might harass the West.
And this followed a sort of rational line of thought. In this case, the Kalashnikov was a tool. But once it broke out of the centralized system, market forces did take over, and then it moved according to the way any other product would move. It was sold. It was stolen. It was pilfered.
It was it would move from war to war, conflict to conflict, person to person, region of the country to region of the country, just like any other product. It would be collected in one place, and it would be transported to another and resold through - sometimes through a series of middlemen, sometimes by the same people. It became a very liquid object.
And one of the things that's made it such an influential tool is once it broke out, its technical characteristics ensured that it stayed out and stayed useful. It's so well-made, it's so well-designed, and it's manufactured in such a way to endure that they last for decades.
I find them in Afghanistan pretty much on every trip that date to the 1950s. These were some of the very earliest Kalashnikovs made and they're still in active use, something like 60 years later in some of the harshest environments out there.
GROSS: When you say you find them, is it just that you notice them with fighters, or do you find them in the Afghan army? Like, how do you notice them?
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, I'm going to you're going to laugh at me, so go ahead.
Mr. CHIVERS: Kalashnikov if you know what you're looking for in the various Kalashnikovs, you become almost like a birdwatcher who can, you know, at a glance into the bushes tell you that there's three or four different types of warblers there or off their song.
And the Kalashnikov is kind of similar. If you know how to look for it, you can, at a glance, at 50 feet or a little more, a little less, tell exactly the variety that you're looking at, based on slightly different features.
I mean, the Kalashnikov is a platform. It's kind of like, you know, the Chevy Nova and the Buick Skylark were basically identical cars, but they had a couple different features besides the placard, and you could tell them apart. And it's the same thing.
And so when I'm wandering around Afghanistan, I look at the guns. I look at them for a couple of reasons. I like to see who has them on safe and who has them on semi-automatic or automatic fire because that tells you who not to stand next to or maybe who to stand next to, depending on the situation. But I also look for guns that tell me something about how weapons move and how they endure in the field, and they have slightly different characteristics that you can spot.
And so when I see an unusual gun, one of the older guns, and they're distinguishable because they have a solid steel receiver, which is sort of the central part of the weapon, you know, roughly between the barrel and the stock. And there was a cut made in that weapon. It looks like it was made in a grinder. And they all, all of the original Kalashnikovs have this cut, and it's quite distinctive. And when I see that at 50 feet or 60 feet, I tend to wander over to the person who's carrying it and ask them if I can make a record of it.
And I'll come in tight with a small camera, and I'll record its stamps and figure out where and when it was made off of that. And that has told me, or shown me over the last, you know, nine years or so in Afghanistan, that these original Kalashnikovs from the early 1950s are still in active use.
GROSS: Now although your book is a history of the Kalashnikov, there's a fascinating section on the history of the M-16, which was basically the Pentagon's answer to the Kalashnikov.
You say that, like, during the whole missile-gap era, when the Pentagon was obsessed with not letting the Soviets stockpile more missiles than the U.S. had, there was really a gun gap that wasn't being very well dealt with and that when the Pentagon realized it needed a gun in answer to the Kalashnikov, it came up with something that wasn't as good, the M-16. Why do you think the Pentagon didn't realize what it was up against with the Kalashnikov?
Mr. CHIVERS: There's a lot of reasons for that. First and foremost, there's the Pentagon's thinking coming out of World War II - going into and coming out of World War II and throughout the early years of the Cold War. It was rooted in sort of a traditional understanding of what they wanted their rifles to do.
They wanted a heavyweight by our standards today, flat-shooting, far-reaching battle rifle that could shoot someone at many hundred yards away, maybe 600, 700 yards, even. They wanted this weapon in part because they had old ideas of what a rifle was supposed to do and in part because they were rooted in sort of the frontier mythology, the fantasy of the far-seeing, far-shooting eagle-eyed American marksman. And this wasn't really quite the case.
Marksmanship is a lot more pedestrian than people think it is in combat. The way people shoot on the rifle range typically is not how they shoot in a battle or in a firefight. And enemy combatants don't present themselves quite as targets do on the rifle range.
And often when the fighting is on, the people who are shooting are out of breath, or it's nighttime, or it's raining, or the other side's in camouflage or in a very good, concealed position, and you dont even see them or barely do, or you see them only fleetingly. So what's the point of having a rifle that can shoot reliably out to 600 or 700 yards, when realistically, almost nobody, except the very best shots, the snipers for instance, can be expected to hit somebody out there?
Nonetheless, the idea of this rifle drove the Pentagon's thinking about what it's wanted its rifles to do, and there's a cost with that. All rifles are compromises in design. If you want a heavy cartridge, if you want a powerful rifle, your rifle needs to be heavier to handle it, and you can carry fewer rounds of ammunition.
And the rifles that the Pentagon were making used these larger rounds, and these made it almost impossible when the American troops arrived in Vietnam, and the ranges were short because the vegetation was thick, and the other side had Kalashnikovs, which gave them a very effective short-range rifle that could fire on automatic. It made it almost impossible for the American troops out on patrol to counter this effectively in the typical engagements of Vietnam.
GROSS: C.J. Chivers will be back in the second half of the show. His new book about the history of the AK-47 is called "The Gun." Chivers covers the fighting in Afghanistan for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. We're talking about the Kalashnikov and how this automatic assault rifle changed warfare and became the weapon of choice for insurgents, terrorists and child soldiers, not to mention many armies around the world.
My guest, C.J. Chivers, is the author of the new book "The Gun," about the history of the AK-47, which was created by the Soviets after World War II. Chivers has covered fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya for The New York Times. When we left off we were talking about how the U.S. developed the M-16 in response to the Kalashnikov.
You tell a story that I'm not sure if it was told before, about how the M-16 was tested and how that testing was covered up. Tell us about some of the very odd, maybe even bizarre ways that the M-16 was tested.
Mr. CHIVERS: In the 1960s at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, on very short notice and with very little supervision, a group of scientists in this - what was known as the biophysics division, set to work on a number of tests to determine which rifle, the AR-15, the M-14 or the Kalashnikov, was the most lethal. Now, measuring lethality is not easy, right? I mean its kind of a concept that is very, very hard to replicate without killing things. And so they set about killing things.
They got a bunch of goats and shot them at different ranges and then they tried to observe the way that the goats died. But they also wanted to figure out how these different weapons would have an effect on the human body. That's a little trickier. So they got a bunch of cadavers, they got them from India, and then shot them at different ranges. They also shot human heads - 27 in all. Now, these tests didnt tell them much. They kind of expected it wouldnt tell you much. They shot them at fairly short ranges and every bone that was struck by every bullet, no matter which rifle fired it, no matter which range, shattered, and every head that was struck broke into pieces. So there really wasnt much practical difference between these tests.
The test did have one value, which was that there had been a previous field report of the M-16 or the AR-15, as it was called at the time, that seemed to report that the M-16 had a spectacular effect on struck Vietnamese guerrillas and that it would cause traumatic amputations, literally tear off limbs that were struck.
The value, if there was any, to this secret test that was conducted at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, is it pretty much demonstrated that that field report was false. They could not replicate that in the laboratory no matter how they shot, no matter what range. Even if they took soft tip bullets and shaved the bullet tips further to try to create more dramatic wounds, they were unable to create these traumatic amputations. That might have helped in the conversation happening in the Pentagon about whether the M-16 was really all it was built up to be. But there was a problem, which was that the Pentagon became so ashamed that it had held these tests, so embarrassed and so worried about the repercussions, you know, the sensationalism, as they called it, in their secret memoranda of the time, that they covered the whole test up and it was hidden for just about 50 years.
GROSS: So the M-16 was rushed into production because it was needed for the Vietnam War?
Mr. CHIVERS: The M-16 was rushed into production because first McNamara and then General Westmoreland understood that the United States military was outmatched on the ground, rifle for rifle, with what the Viet Cong and the NVA were carrying, and so this was hurried out of its prototype phase, rushed into production and handed out to troops overseas with very little training. And it was really an incomplete understanding of how the weapon worked.
I mean weapons that have been handed out in the past, you know, issued to American soldiers, typically go through a very rigorous design cycle and testing cycle. And this one, in the simplest sense, it didnt. It was rushed out. It was a reaction and it was a bungled reaction and it cost people their lives.
GROSS: What were the problems the soldiers in Vietnam had with the M-16s?
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, there were several different types of problems that all came together in the same phenomena, which is that the rifle would stop to work - it would jam. And there was a particular species of jam that was really the biggest problem of all. And you know, its one thing to say my rifle jammed, you know, which mean, what does it mean? It means it stops firing. It means that youve got a magazine inserted and you think youre firing on automatic and it just stops, right? Click, it's over, and you have to get the thing to work again.
But the M-16's most damning problem was that it didnt just jam, but the round - the last round of fire - would often leave its cartridge behind wedged inside the chamber of the rifle and that would prevent a new round from being seated, but it gave an infantryman under fire a really odious, difficult, potentially terrifying task, which is to get that stuck round out of the chamber, often while under fire or while his friends were under fire.
GROSS: Now, the M-16 has been improved since then, right?
Mr. CHIVERS: Oh, sure. It's not really a fair conversation at all to compare the M-16 today to the M-16 of say, 1966 or 1967 or early 1968. There were some specific problems with the weapon's manufacturing standards - you know, it had not been chromed inside. That was one of the main things. And these were in the main fixed with a series of upgrades, changes to the assembly line, slight changes to the design that had occurred by the end of the 1960s. Now, the M-16 is still a controversial weapon and there still are many critics, and there are reports of problems with it that persist from Afghanistan and Iraq, but they're not on the same order at all.
GROSS: So if youre just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for The New York Times. He's covered wars in several places. Lately he's been covering the war in Afghanistan. He's a former Moscow bureau chief. His new book, "The Gun," is a history of the Kalashnikov and its impact on wars of all sorts and terrorism.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. He's been covering wars in several places, including Afghanistan. He's a former Moscow bureau chief. His new book, "The Gun," is a history of the Kalashnikov and how it's has affected wars of all sorts and terrorism.
Youve spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. Youve been studying who has which weapon and what model, what year of the Kalashnikov they have. Youve been studying, you know, where the guns are coming from. So having done all of that analysis, what would you say about the guns that the Taliban have, where they're from, what level, you know, what grade of Kalashnikov they are?
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, the Kalashnikov, wherever you see it in the hands of guerrillas, you almost always will find that they're carrying many forms. And this is true with the Taliban too. There's been a number of times where I've been able to inventory weapons that have been carried by the Taliban. They turn up when, you know, Americans or Western soldiers or Afghan soldiers get them after a firefight from, you know, dead insurgents or they get them, you know, when they sweep buildings and they find, you know, sort of, you know, weapons caches. And most of the Kalashnikovs in the hands of the Taliban that I've seen are pretty old and they're in pretty rugged shape, at least externally.
This isn't unsurprising. I mean they have to hide them. They have to bury them; they may toss them into canals. So they tend to often be pitted and worn. They also tend to be at times a mish-mash. You'll see that the rifle kind of like, you know, Mr. Potato Head, has got different parts on it. You know, the receiver cover maybe have made in one factory and the bolt may have been made in another, and sometimes the stock may have been made in a third place, and theyve been modified often.
The Taliban has figured out, unsurprisingly again, the Western rules of engagement and they know that one of the surest ways to get shot is to be seen carrying a rifle, so they're often not seen carrying a rifle. And one way to do that is to remove the stock. And if you remove the stock, if its a wooden stock, it's just - its a pretty simple thing, just a couple of screws that have to come out - you reduce the rifle's length significantly, and then you can hide it under the blanket that youre wearing over your shoulders or inside of your coat. You also ride with it on a motorcycle, which is a way a lot of the Taliban fighters move around. And so what you tend to see, if you get your hands on the, you know, the Taliban member's Kalashnikov, is that it'll be old, that it'll be shortened and that it'll be in poor shape.
Poor shape again, is relative. It doesnt look good. It may work just fine but it doesnt look good. The inner guts - I took apart a Kalashnikov this spring in Marja that looked like it had spent a long time at a canal and it was in very rugged shape on the outside. But inside, the guts of the weapon, the bolt and the operating system, had been freshly oiled. It would've worked just fine.
GROSS: Youve traveled with the Afghan military and with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. And one of the things youve noticed is that the Taliban will fire on the Army with Kalashnikovs, and of course the soldiers try to take cover but they can't really because there's IEDs where they are, so you risk taking cover and exploding an IED. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to be in a circumstance like that?
Mr. CHIVERS: Its very interesting you put it that way because that's exactly how weapons can be used in ways that you dont necessarily measure their direct effects and yet they're very effective. So the Kalashnikov, as I've told you, might not be the most accurate weapon system, but having a direct effect and having a terrible effect are not necessarily the same thing. You can use a Kalashnikov or any other type of weapon to perhaps herd a group of combatants into a place where you have something else waiting for them. And that's how the Kalashnikov often will get used. And some of the initial patrols that the Marines were sending out when they first arrived in Helmand Province would encounter almost no resistance.
And then what would happen after a few patrols is the Marines would take a stray shot or two and whoever had fired that shot was apparently working in concert with a bunch of spotters and they would watch the Marines drill. The Marines have a number of ways that they react to coming under fire. They're called immediate action drills and there's some for immediate action drill left, immediate action drill right, immediate action drill for a short range ambush, for a long range ambush, but they involve a number of responses. And these were studied by the Taliban and the people working with them, and they would watch where the Marines went to. A couple of Marines would go to this wall, a couple of Marines would go to that tree, a few would go to that paddy dike, and they would kind of take note of the natural places in a given ambush zone where human beings are going to gravitate under fire.
And if you were under fire, Terry, you would naturally end up, you wouldnt probably even know how you got there, in a ditch or behind a wall. It just happens. And then you'd probably be cursing the buttons on your blouse that were holding you up off the ground, that extra bit of height. You try to get low. And the spots that let you get low are pretty apparent when youre under fire. And what would then happen, sometime later, a Marine patrol would be moving through that same area and a few more shots would be taken at it and a similar drill would follow, and many of the Marines would end up in the exact same spot that the previous Marines had been, only this time there would be an IED there.
GROSS: That is so diabolically clever.
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, you know, one of the first rules of war is that its a very good teacher. The survivors learn. I remember when I was in Iraq in 2006, a Marine captain pulled me aside and said, you know why its tough here now - we were out in the Anbar Province - he says because the junior varsity's all dead. We're fighting the varsity. These are the guys who survived. They know a few things. And that's the same thing you see in Afghanistan at this point. They might not have the ideal rifle for shooting four, five, six hundred yards against a materially superior Western foe who has got great body armor and a good helmet and air support and GPS and a whole sort of suite of weapons and support that makes it so formidable. But they're still people and they still know how to fight and they're adaptive, and those who are still doing it have been doing it for a long time.
GROSS: So the arms that the U.S. has given to the police and to the military in Afghanistan, do you worry about what's going to happen to these arms when the U.S. pulls out?
Mr. CHIVERS: I think not just I worry about it, I think pretty much any reasonable person does, including the people who are handing them out. History tells us, and hopefully history can be proven wrong, but the track record has been that when you hand out weapons in Afghanistan, they go to uses to which you dont intend. All of the previous efforts to make an Afghan military have ended badly, and the members of those Afghan military units have become the clay for future militias and their weapons have re-circulated in and around the region. The U.S. is trying to buck history here. They're trying to create an Afghan military that will actually endure, that will last and that hopefully will maintain custody over its arms.
In many cases, the United States has issued weapons that it's already lost track of, though. In the early years there wasnt any inventory or there was an inadequate amount of inventory and so the weapons were being handed out without being recorded by serial number, and a lot of these weapons have changed hands already. You know, in Pakistan they're selling weapons that the Americans had issued in Afghanistan in the arms bazaars in the frontier provinces.
Similarly, there's types of ammunition that didnt exist in Afghanistan until the United States started issuing it and ammunition has very distinctive stamps on the bottom of the cartridge. And you can also, when you manage to get your hands on the Taliban's magazines, you'll often find that they're packed with ammunition that the American taxpayers have bought.
GROSS: Now you served in the military, in the Marines from - was it '88 to '94?
Mr. CHIVERS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: When you are reporting from a war zone and youre getting shot at, do you ever wish you had a gun like you did in the military when you were in the war zone?
Mr. CHIVERS: You know, I got over that a long time ago. We make our choices and I made mine. And I'm not a combatant. I dont carry weapons and I dont want to.
GROSS: Can you tell us a little bit about how you made the decision to go from being in the military to being a reporter and eventually covering war?
Mr. CHIVERS: You know, I'd like to tell you it was more linear than it was. I got out of the Marines in '94. I enjoyed the Marine Corps for the most part and, you know, I did about six and a half years on active duty and I was a platoon commander and company commander and, you know, I served in the infantry and I got a lot out of it. But by 1994 there wasnt much going on. I mean the American military by my measure was, you know, intellectually adrift and the Cold War had ended. But the new doctrine was, what the new mission was, was not apparent and I didnt want to spend, you know, much more of my time in a big government bureaucracy, which I had picked up captain and that's what I could kind of see where my life might be heading.
I wasnt real comfortable with rank either. I liked it down at the bottom better and I liked having sort of the independence of, you know, being a lieutenant and, you know, the license to make mistakes that went with it were sort of gone. And so I had the decision to leave while I still could and, you know, feeling good about the time I'd spent there, so I walked.
When I walked, I had no idea that what we're in now was coming. I mean who would've seen it? I went to graduate school and became a reporter and was covering crime and corruption and politics, you know, and sort of this, many of the standard beats that new reporters at newspapers cover across the land. I didnt see myself being a war correspondent. I, in many ways, thought I was done with all of this. And then came 2001 and, you know, weve been running ever since.
GROSS: Do you think being a former Marine has helped you as a war correspondent?
Mr. CHIVERS: How could it not? Of course, it does. It helps on a lot of levels. I mean some of it's obvious, I mean packed into my head. There's a lot of stuff I picked up by osmosis in the Marine Corps. I mean, I understand small unit tactics and I studied a lot of military history, and so that obviously helps day by day. And it helps socially because I still know some of the people in uniform and I understand a lot of the people in uniform. I know, in the largest sense, in many cases who they are and why they're there, and that helps. But other times it just helps physically.
I mean, I spent a bunch of years on the ground in the Marine Corps and grew pretty comfortable with hardship. I dont have a lot of high expectations for comfort out there. I dont look for it. I dont need it. I'm comfortable in a wide range of climates and circumstances. In maybe a sort of sick way, I like being out there. Its in some ways simpler than working in the office.
And so all of these things come together and they make it so that when I'm out there I can work pretty effectively and probably more effectively than I would if I didnt have the background I do.
GROSS: You probably know how to be safe too, or safer than you would have.
Mr. CHIVERS: I like to say I know how to work the margins. I wouldnt say that makes you safe.
GROSS: Hardly anything really makes you safe in a war zone, but...
Mr. CHIVERS: Yeah, there's a lot of luck.
Mr. CHIVERS: I understand how much luck is involved and I do have a sense of how to work the margins and maybe manage the risk a little bit. But I also work with a really excellent reporting partner and he and I have been together a bunch of years and we look out for each and this is just as valuable as my background.
GROSS: This is Tyler Hicks youre taking about, the photographer?
Mr. CHIVERS: This is Tyler Hicks. Yeah. Yeah. I mean we really look out for each other and we have a sense of what the other one's thinking without words. Just like, you know, a really good, you know, Army or Marine infantry squad or, for that matter, a really good bunch of guerrillas. They all know each other and they all kind of fill in each other's gaps. And we have that same sort of rhythm and without it I probably wouldnt be out there as much as I am.
GROSS: Well, C.J. Chivers, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your book "The Gun." And I also want to thank you for the risks that you take from war zones to report the story for us. Thank you so much.
Mr. CHIVERS: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: C.J. Chivers is the author of the new book "The Gun." He covers the fighting in Afghanistan for The New York Times. You can read an excerpt of his book and find links to his recent articles on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "Great House" by Nicole Krauss who wrote the bestseller "The History of Love."
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
The AK-47 was created by the Soviets after World War II and changed the way war is fought. Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent C.J. Chivers explains how the gun became the weapon of choice for insurgents, terrorists and child soldiers.
The flag of Hezbollah features a fist holding an AK-47. The gun has become a symbol worldwide, says author C.J. Chivers.
Stringer / Getty Images
The AK-47 was designed after World War II by the Soviets, who issued the guns to the communist army's conscripted forces. In the past few decades, the AK-47 has become one of the weapons of choice for many groups -- and one of the most commonly smuggled weapons in the world.
One of the first true assault rifles, the AK-47, or Kalashnikov, was designed for soldiers who have to endure terrible conditions on the battlefield: It's light, it can carry a lot of ammunition, and it can withstand harsh weather and poor handling. The gun's design and ubiquity also have made it popular among small-arms dealers -- as well as insurgents, terrorists and child soldiers.
C.J. Chivers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent for The New York Times, has encountered the Kalashnikov while reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq. His new book, The Gun, traces the migration of the AK-47 across the world, detailing the consequences of its spread.
"It's pretty hard in many parts of the world, particularly in Afghanistan, to go [into] territory under insurgent control, and not be ambushed by Kalashnikovs," says Chivers. "Their numbers are so outsized that this is quite a common experience."
One estimate by the World Bank suggests that 100 million of the 500 million total firearms available worldwide are variations of the Kalashnikov.
"There's a lot of measures of a weapon, and one of them is how they work against a conventional foe, like the United States military," he says. "That's not the best measure. The best measure is how they work against a larger set of victims: how they work against civilians, how they work at checkpoints [and] how they work in the commission of crimes for all of these things. It's a [terribly effective] weapon."
Chivers has covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya and served as the Times' Moscow correspondent from June 2004 through mid-2008. He also served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps from 1988 to 1994. He received the Livingston Award for International Journalism for his coverage of the collapse of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic and shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his dispatches from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On why child soldiers favor them
"It's out there. And the weapon that's out there is the weapon that tends to get used. But the other reason is the design. It's very, very simple. It's almost intuitive. You can take it apart very quickly and put it back together just as quickly. It's simple to clean. It's simple to maintain. Most of the Kalashnikovs out there are very well made for the actual conditions of war. It has an excellent protective finish. It's chromed on the inside of its barrel and its chamber. All of these things mean that if you're not particularly attentive in caring for it, it's still going to last and it's still going to work."
On the invention of the AK-47
"It was a weapon that was designed to be issued to the communist conscripted forces. It was going to be the standard shoulder firearm. And the Soviet Union was really quite brilliant at copying its enemies' patterns. ... The AK-47 was basically a conceptual knockoff -- a copy of a German idea, which was to take a cartridge midway in size between those used by pistols and those used by the traditional rifles of the time and to take this medium-powered intermediate cartridge and build a weapon around it. And this brought several technical advantages. With a lighter-weight cartridge, you could carry more ammunition, which meant each solider could be more effective and could last longer in a fight because he would have more ammunition in his pack or kit."
On the AK-47's range
"The other thing it tells you ... is that, in some ways, it's a mediocre weapon. It's not especially accurate and it's used often by people who are often not especially skilled. I'm one of them, but there's many, many more [people] who have been ambushed by Kalashnikovs and not been shot. Because they miss you. And there's reasons they miss you that are rooted in the weapon's own design and also in the training of the people that carry them."
"The weapon is designed with a relatively short barrel and it's designed with a relatively loose fit of its parts and it's got a heavy operating system and it shoots a medium-powered ammunition. At longer ranges, it's actually not incredibly effective. At shorter ranges, it's a terrible weapon. But at longer ranges -- which is pretty common in the arid regions such as Afghanistan and Iraq where there's not a lot of vegetation -- they often miss."