Thursday, January 30, 2014




LONDON — Several weeks after his death, Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, the designer of the world’s most renowned assault rifle, was quoted posthumously as saying his invention had brought him unbearable “spiritual torment,” as if finally acknowledging something akin to guilt on behalf of a weapon produced and sold in tens of millions to kill on a near-industrial scale.
Previously, General Kalashnikov had boasted that he never missed a night’s sleep over the uses to which his AK-47 — Avtomat Kalashnikova 47 — and its many successors had been put since he designed it in the 1940s.
“My spiritual torment is unbearable,” he wrote to a priest following his embrace of Christianity before he died at age 94 in December. “If my rifle killed people,” he agonized, did it mean that he was “responsible for people’s deaths, even if they were enemies?”
His words said something about the changing patterns of wars and the changing intentions of those who promote and fight them.
And it could be argued that his epiphany reflected the weapon’s seesawing mystique, not so much in the 50 or so lands that have adopted its derivatives for their national armed forces as in the far-flung places where the weapon’s vaunted primacy as the weapon of colonial liberation has been supplanted by newer, bloodier struggles.
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A Somali boy with an assault rifle based on the AK-47 in Elasha Biyaha, near Mogadishu, in July  2012. Simon Maina/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Today the AK-47’s stutter has come to sound the syncopation of slaughter from Syria to Libya, from South Sudan to the Central African Republic. When I first heard one aimed in my direction in the 1970s, a particularly macho colleague in Beirut told me: “You never hear the one that hits you.” By that measure, Kalashnikovs have fired the rounds their victims never heard from Vietnam and Rwanda and around the world.
Drug barons and hoodlums have amplified its bloody repute. Osama bin Laden was filmed firing one. It is the weapon of choice for Islamic militants from Nigeria to Somalia.
The Al Shabab terrorists who attacked Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in September were shown on video footage using Kalashnikovs, almost casually, to spread death and mayhem.
“This despicable tool,” wrote the columnist Harold Acemah, a former Ugandan diplomat, has “caused more tears to flow than any other instrument in human history.”
But, depending on ideological perspective, it was not always so. From Southeast Asia to the West Bank and Gaza to Latin America, the AK-47 entered the narrative of liberation. The flag of Mozambique, adopted after the demise of Portuguese colonial rule, depicts a hoe crossed with an AK-47.
In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma rallied followers with a song called “Umshini wami” — “Bring me my machine gun” — from the days of armed struggle against apartheid. Nelson Mandela was the first commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation, formed in 1961 as the armed wing of the African National Congress.
Yet as the Cold War deepened, and the United States and the Soviet Union fought through their African proxies, it was no surprise to find Moscow pouring in cheap and deadly weapons — AK-47s at the top of the list — to those opposed to Western-backed regimes, just as Washington filled its own clients’ armories.
And it was there, perhaps, that the AK-47 was transformed, in Africa most graphically, from tool of liberation to the 30-round-per-clip device that turned small wars into vast charnel houses.
If General Kalashnikov came to acknowledge doubts, he was not alone.
Of course, the AK-47 was no more than an instrument in the hands of its users. But its distinctive curved magazine and chunky front-sight posts became associated with marauders, wild gunmen, coups and despots, under-age soldiers recruited into brutal irregular forces in Sierra Leone, Uganda and elsewhere.
“The weapon is so simple that even a child can use it,” The Economist said in an obituary of General Kalashnikov. “Alas, many do.”