NICHOLAS CAGE: Of all the weapons in the vast Soviet arsenal, nothing was more profitable than the Avtomat Kalashnikova model of 1947, more commonly known as the AK-47 or Kalashnikov. It’s the world’s most popular – BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s actor Nicholas Cage as arms dealer Yuri Orlov in the 2005 movie Lord of War. NICHOLAS CAGE: It doesn’t break, jam or overheat. It will shoot whether it’s covered in mud or filled with sand. It’s so easy even a child can use it, and they do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the 60 years since Mikhail Kalashnikov created the AK-47, it has become the most popular assault rifle in the world. As Orlov notes in the film, the Soviets emblazoned it on a coin, the nation of Mozambique on its flag, to celebrate the gun’s role in overthrowing Portuguese colonials.
Russian President Vladimir Putin himself said at a ceremony a week ago, quote, “The Kalashnikov rifle is a symbol of the creative genius of our people.” Michael Hodges is the author of AK-47: The Story of the People’s Gun, published last month by Sceptre. He says that even the story of the gun’s creation was a media invention. MICHAEL HODGES: That’s right. It first came to the notice of the Russian people in an article in Pravda, where Mikhail Kalashnikov was given as an example of the perfect proletarian, the perfect Communist citizen, whose ingenuity had created this weapon that was going to defend the revolution and Socialism.
So even in 1947, the AK-47 was a creature of the media, I think you could argue. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. And in fact how it was actually used, at least in the ‘50s and ‘60s, was not to defend one’s motherland or fatherland, but to overthrow their leadership. It became the gun of third world revolutionaries. MICHAEL HODGES: I think that the key moment in the Ak-47’s journey from, if you will, the state gun of Soviet Communism to the international symbol of a more kind of libertarian idea of revolution, the more ‘60s counter-cultural idea of what revolution meant, was Vietnam and certainly the Tet Offensive in 1968 when astonishing footage of Vietcong soldiers, guys in black pajamas with this incredible, distinctive assault rifle with its almost phallic, banana magazine curving away underneath it, alerted the world to its imagery, and it was laden with power.
And in the same year as ’68, also, in the area where the Ak-47 would perhaps take on its most sinister imagery eventually, the Israeli Army invaded Jordan, a 10,000-strong raiding party to try and crush Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization. And although technically they won, for the first time they were held by Palestinian fighters.
And Time magazine, over there in New York, put Arafat for the first time on the cover, and next to him was, as Time put it at the time, a Fedayeen, the new Arab guerrilla, holding an AK-47, and that was a key moment, I think, in the AK-47 being perceived throughout the world as the weapon of the underdog. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Before we move back to the Middle East, let’s stay in Southeast Asia for the moment. It was noted at the time the American soldiers in Vietnam realized quickly that the AKs they confiscated from dead soldiers worked better than their own M-16s. MICHAEL HODGES: The M-16 was almost over-engineered. I mean, it was, in the sense of its technical superiority, its caliber, its engineering, the best assault rifle in the world.
But the jungles of Vietnam didn’t require the best assault rifle in the world. They required the toughest. So in the heat and mud of Southeast Asia, the M-16 jammed, it rusted, it expanded and didn’t shoot, which is kind of important in battle, that your gun shoots.
I mean, originally it was American Special Forces, the guys that were dropped behind the lines to look for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, who started taking the enemy gun with them, primarily ‘cause they knew they could trust it, but eventually it became quite commonplace for American soldiers, in general, to pick up AK-47s in the battlefield where they found them. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell us how Osama bin Laden first encountered the AK-47. MICHAEL HODGES: Well, the story of the AK-47 is rich in irony, but this is perhaps the most ironic episode. I was in Israel in 1982 when the Israelis invaded the Lebanon, primarily to disarm the Palestinian guerrillas there, which they did. And shortly after the invasion I went to a public park in Israel where, on display, were thousands and thousands of AK-47s that the Israelis had captured. And in this public park there was music, there were picnicking families, there was laughter. The imagery of the gun was such that the Palestinian without the AK was a cause for celebration.
Those same AK-47s that had been taken were then sent by the CIA and shipped via the Pakistani Secret Services into Afghanistan, where they were then given to the jihadis who were fighting the Russians there. The first time Osama bin Laden picked up an AK-47, it was quite likely to have been given to him indirectly by the CIA. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now the gun has become a virtual symbol of international terrorism and jihad, hasn’t it? MICHAEL HODGES: Yes, it has, and in training camps in the Philippines, there are murals on the walls depicting two hands, one holding an AK-47, the other holding the Koran. And the double K of the Koran and the Kalashnikov has become the dual symbol of the jihad across the world. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s also become a symbol of urban struggle that’s made its way into a lot of popular music, especially rap. In fact, we’ve created a montage. [MONTAGE OF RAP MUSIC] MICHAEL HODGES: It has a particular appeal, certainly to black disadvantaged angry youth, because it’s not only cheap and available but also it carries with it a revolutionary imagery that no other weapon can give them.
Rock and roll here in England has always been slightly in love with guns, probably because most rock and rollers don’t see what guns actually do when they’re fired. But The Clash here have had machine guns on their tee shirts and the Manic Street Preachers have sung about AK-47s.
It gives a kind of cheap kudos, a revolutionary danger to rock and roll, which I don’t take very seriously, but I think in urban music it should be taken very seriously indeed. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s also made its way into Hollywood films, from Rambo to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. We have an expurgated clip of that. [CLIP]: ACTOR: AK-47, the very best there is. When you absolutely positively got to kill every mother [BLEEPED] in the room, accept no substitutes. [END OF CLIP] MICHAEL HODGES: Tarantino films are cartoonish and there’s a definite lightheartedness about the way violence is portrayed. But Hollywood has been dealing with the AK-47, since America withdrew from the Vietnam War. I guess you guys lost the war but Hollywood decided you could win the weapon that beat you. [BROOKE LAUGHS]
Like ink on blotting paper spreading throughout American culture, I think Hollywood acted as an effective propaganda tool, an advertising agency for a weapon which they, in retrospect, might regret doing, I think. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kalashnikov is now 87 years old. He seems to be of two minds about this gun he brought into the world. He told you that sometimes he wishes he’d invented a lawnmower. On the other hand, he said recently that his conscience is clear. You visited with him at his dacha in Russia. What’s your impression? MICHAEL HODGES: As he sits there in his old age watching the news, and sees things like Beslan, the slaughter of the schoolchildren there, which was an AK-47 battle primarily, when he sees Osama bin Laden with an AK-47 by his side, eventually these things force him into a position where he feels obliged to defend himself. So though he doesn’t feel he’s to be blamed, he feels obliged to speak out.
When I first met the general - we were sipping vodka, as you do in Russia - he described the AK-47 to me as the golem, which is the mythical creature of Eastern European Yiddish culture, when you take inanimate material, in that case clay, and you invest it with life and it goes off and does your bidding. But of course in the legend it gets a mind of its own and you can’t get it back.
And I thought it interesting that the general should call the AK-47 the golem, because that’s what it’s done; it’s long, long ago slipped out of his control. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you so much. MICHAEL HODGES: It was my pleasure, Brooke. Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Hodges is the author of AK-47: The Story of the People’s Gun, published by Scepter. [RAP MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer, assisted by Rob Christensen. We had help from Madeleine Elish, Andrya Ambro and Cora McCormick. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org, and email us at onthemediaat wnyc.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC TAG]