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NONFICTION: Power of Steel and Wood

Michael Hodges, AK47: The Story of the People’s Gun (Sceptre, 2007)

I hate guns. But Michael Hodges’s fascination for the AK47 seems to take that hatred hostage, skillfully suspending the affliction. For be it hatred or admiration, indifference or ignorance towards the world’s most infamous rifle, readers will likely be compelled to travel with Hodges through his deft reportage across the globe. In AK47: The Story Of A Gun, Hodges takes his willing readers on the winding, turbulent, and terror-laden journey of the infamous rifle, commonly known after its inventor as the Kalashnikov.

From the planes of postwar Russia to the People’s Army of North Vietnam; from the Palestinian guerrillas of the West Bank to the Maoist insurgents of the Himalayas; from the child-rearing armies of the Sudan and the gang-filled ghettoes of New Orleans to the Iraqi gunmen of Sadr City and the unhinged Americans of Waco, Texas; Hodges’s deft, keenly visceral, and intensely immediate reportage of the AK47’s presence across the globe pounds readers with hard, cold details of the gun’s powerful resonance—both as popular killing machine and as branded weapon of revolt. It is the story of the world’s cheapest, most durable, and most effective rifle, and of how its brutal efficiency and potent endurance on a global scale has made it the weapon of choice for revolutionaries and terrorists, child soldiers and teen gangs, pious rebels and unhinged individuals alike.

Hodges plots the gun’s presence across the globe, over the past sixty years, clocking readers with its users and its victims while charting its impact on popular culture. From its iconic configuration in the midst of war (as the most effective rifle on the worldwide weapons’ market), and in Hollywood movies, video games, and hip-hop tracks (as the ultimate killing machine), to its fashioning in liquid (as a brand of vodka), and in crystal (as a gift from Vladimir Putin to George W. Bush), in Hodges’s story, and on the world stage, the AK47 is, indeed, a notorious star.

Hodges is at his best when tracking the gun’s physical and psychological trails worldwide, which he does with great efficacy. His work reads at times like a series of taglines (the ones we haven’t been given by The Associated Press) for the countless news images and bit reels we’ve seen of young men masked or unveiled—from desert to jungle, dust pile to mountain top—holding up the unmistakably curved wooden handles of their AKs. Hodges attempts to fill in the gap that seems to have gone unexplored (as so much does) in the popular news media, by asking the question that we rarely do: What is it about that gun?

Through interviews with the Russian inventor himself, insurgent fighters, rebel soldiers, and guerrilla recruits from Chechnya, Vietnam, Africa, and Afghanistan, Hodges expertly melds the violent psychologies and bloody realities of war with how they relate to the AK. While relaying his thin encounters with the young men who have held the rifle in their hands, Hodges provides intimate insights into what the AK came to represent in the wars they fought (the wars fueled by and through their Kalashnikovs).

Though the book at times teeters on the line between being an overarching commentary on war and on guns, it is the disciplined and global tracking of the AK itself that guides Hodges’s eye and his readers’ to that which is both compelling and horrifying: the cold, hard facts of the gun’s reign over our world’s most unrelenting battlefields. Through six decades and generations, Hodges shows us how the AK has come to affect the psychology of its fighters and the world at large.

What makes Hodges’s work so fascinating and compelling is that it is not so much a history of the AK as it is a retrospective of its branded use. And it is through Hodges’s retrospective eye that we see the AK in all its gore and glory, through its seeming, teeming timelessness; as it—a hunk of metal and wood—has gained the status of a legendary symbol of revolution and terror, garnering itself as a contemporary icon of rebellion and revolt, throughout the world.

Devastating as it is complex, brutal as it is charged, hero-and-enemy-laden as it is stomach-churning (much like war itself), Hodges’s report on the AK fuels its readers with a contagious sort of fascination for the gun’s enduring prowess. It is a vicious and fiery fuel that Hodges ignites in his readers, one that raises questions, churns the stomach, and ultimately compels us to turn the page.


Charlene Choi

Charlene Choi is a 29-year-old writer from Dumbo, Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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