We're kinda behind on this one, because it's already been praised by NPR and The Atlantic and The New York Times and pretty much everyone who enjoys non-fiction. But with our audience... well, we're on the web, and magazines and newspapers don't always get noticed in this digital age. So today Scott's going to tell you a little bit about The Gun by C. J. Chivers. If you don't feel like reading us, you can just check out this three minute video and get the idea:
The Gun is the history of the AK-47, and indirectly the story of the evolution of the machine gun. Short version: it's a really good book. Long version: we'll see you inside for Scott's review.
Just a quick visit to the author's website and you'll know this isn't some twenty-something hacking together an opinion piece. Chivers served as a U.S. Marine, graduated from the Army's Ranger School, and shares a Pulitzer Prize for on-the-ground reporting in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This background makes him perfectly able to see the gun as a useful tool, but then also as a machine that creates political drama. And it is from that drama that the modern weapon was shaped. Take, for example, the official story of Kalashnikov, the hero of the people. Creator of a new type of gun, he was given awards again and again through out his life. But through Chivers' work, we learn about the team that actually perfected the design which bears Kalashnikov's name, and how he was often just trotted out in the name of Cold War politics. Then, on the other side, there's the scandal of the M16s in Vietnam. Here the weapon intended to be the answer to the "backwards" Soviet gun somehow didn't actually work. We read about the soldiers who refused to carry them, the top brass who didn't want to admit a mistake, the hero who put his name on the line to force them to change, and the slow process of modification that led to the fully-functioning military weapons of today. It's pretty fascinating how all the parts fit together.
Chivers also gives you a look at the family tree from which today's weapons grew. Gatling's first experiments, Maxim's improved design, the slow change from classic tactics to the dominance of the machine gun, it's the process that laid the groundwork for the AK-47 to become a pop star referenced by cultural icons such as Rage Against The Machine and Ice Cube. The writing only turns technical when it absolutely has to and even then works hard to define its terms, so a gun neophyte such as myself can easily keep up with the importance of cartridge size and ejection angles and stuff like that. It's the human angle that Chivers aims towards, and he does this by smartly moving between stories. Gatling's attempts to gain funding and the role of his weapons in the Spanish-American War seems just as important as the story of Maxim and his son shooting dried white beans at a police officer across the street. And why shouldn't it be? My personal complaint was that the book ended too soon, as I would have enjoyed reading more about the way salvaged weapons have been used by African soldiers, freedom fighters, warlords and thugs, but this book is about the rise of the gun itself, so of course the history lesson is ala carte. If you've even been curious about engineering, or military fiction, or man's inhumanity to man, or why any random high school kid can draw the silhouette of a sixty year old Russian weapon, The Gun is the book to read.