Thursday, November 29, 2012

"The Gun" by C.J. Chivers (2010)

Guns don't kill people. People kill people... 


This is a book about the history of the AK-47 assault rifle. But it is also a book, as any good book is, about much more. An author can't really tell the story of the AK-47 without also telling the history of modern warfare. So Chivers does just that. In four fascinating chapters he quickly and thoroughly took you over the bloody fields of the American Civil War where Gatling guns were first used, then through the insanity of World War One where Maxim machine guns shocked the world with their grim efficiency, and past the battlefields of WWII where assault rifles were born. After this history lesson, Chivers launches into a masterful and painstakingly detailed chronicle of the life of the most recognizable gun on Earth.

C.J. Chivers is a war correspondent for the New York Times, but before that he was a Marine who served in the first Gulf War in Iraq. He has reported for the Times from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and Libya. You are convinced that Chivers, along with people like Simon Klingert and Richard Engel, is one of the finest war correspondents in the business. The man knows war and he writes like he does. It came as no surprise to you that the prologue for "The Gun" was written in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

This is a book written by an unflinching warrior about modern warfare. Chivers pulls no punches nor does he hide from hard truths. War is Hell, and the AK-47 made war even more hellacious.

After hundreds of thousands of young men were sent marching abreast into the certain death of barrages of machine gun fire in World War One (21,000 British men died in one day in the battle of The Somme), modern military tactics were forced to change. WWII saw those tactics mature into what you think of as modern warfare today, soldiers in camouflage using available cover and terrain to advance under a blanket of supporting heavy machine gun fire in order to eliminate enemy positions from fairly close range. Most of the soldiers in WWII were perfecting these tactics using either single shot long-range rifles or submachine guns firing short-range pistol rounds. Towards the end of the war the Germans developed a machine gun that combined the automatic fire of the submachine gun with the range and stopping power of the rifle. The sturmgewehr (or "assault rifle") was born. Individual soldiers now had the possibility of pouring accurate heavy-caliber fire onto targets at ranges of a few hundred yards. Germany lost the war (even though they had much better weapons than the Allies) and Russian soldiers brought home examples of this sturmgewehr. Recognizing the potential of such weapons in the inevitable future conflicts with Western nations, Russian arms makers began a contest to develop their own assault rifle.

Two years after the Great Patriotic War ended (you've always loved what Russians call WWII) a design was chosen. It was 1947, and the automatic rifle's designer was named Kalashnikov. The gun was designated the Avtomat Kalashnikova, the automatic by Kalashnikov. Thus, the name AK-47 was born. It was sturdy, easy to use, and extraordinarily reliable. The oversize parts of the machinery fit together loosely (as opposed to the tight, technical fit of Western weapons) and this loose fit helped the gun to effectively knock dirt and carbon build up out of the chamber as it fired. The AK-47 is almost a self-cleaning weapon. The Soviet Union immediately put the Kalashnikov into mass production.

Everything in the book after this moment reminded you of the story of The Golem of Prague. Jewish tradition tells of a rabbi who created a simple, mindless creature from clay to defend the Jews of Prague from attacks by the Holy Roman Emperor. The rabbi unleashed the Golem on the world and it destroyed the enemies of the Jews only to turn on them and eventually its own creator. This is the same story repeated again and again in human culture. It is the story of Frankenstein's monster terrorizing the population, of Darth Vader turning on The Emperor, of Sauron being defeated by the Ring of Power. It is a warning. It is the story of the AK-47.

Kalashnikov believed that he and his colleagues were creating a weapon that would be used to defend the Soviet Union, the Motherland; a weapon that peasants could use to rise up against the bourgeoisie, a weapon that an untrained farmer could use to overthrow his capitalist oppressor, a weapon that would sweep the imperialistic western world into the ash heap of history. He had created a powerful tool, and one of the most reliable guns in modern history. He could never have dreamed that his invention would be used against his own countrymen as often as it would be used by them. He could never have imagined a world where children took up his weapon to murder children at the whim of mad-men-turned-warlords in the jungles of Africa.

The USSR was eager to share the new technology with its allies throughout Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Soon Kalashnikov factories were spouting up all over the world. The weapon was on track to proliferate like no other gun in human history.

Almost as soon as the AK-47 was used in combat it was adopted by revolutionaries and enemies of the USSR. The day after a failed attempt by Russian forces to put down a growing rebellion in Hungary in 1956, photographers snapped pictures of rebels on the streets of Budapest brandishing the now iconic assault rifles. The rebels had taken the Kalashnikov's from the bodies of slain soldiers or had picked them up when surprised troops had dropped them in a mad dash to retreat to safety.  One day after its introduction to warfare, the Kalashnikov had already become the symbol of the revolutionary, of the insurgent. Even though these particular revolutionaries were eventually defeated, a powerful symbol was born.

Kalashnikov had dreamed that his gun would be used to bolster the freedom movements of people throughout the world, but on the streets of Budapest, rather than being a tool for liberation "It made its debut smashing freedom movements." And in putting down the popular national uprising in Hungary in '56, the AK-47 might have made the difference. Had it not been for the soviet soldiers' new massed fire capabilities, it is conceivable that the rebels could have held out and a symbol of resistance to the mighty USSR might have been ignited a mere decade after the Cold War began. But they couldn't answer the new increase in firepower, the Russians were just too well armed. The Kalashnikov was beginning to change modern warfare. As the Soviet emissaries reported back to Moscow, "To (the rebels') solitary shots we replied with salvos."

Thirty five years after that day, the USSR would no longer exist, but the world would be awash in millions of AK-47's. The mentality of the Cold War and the war machine of the Soviet Union ensured that this weapon would be produced in quantities numbering in the millions and in dozens of countries across the globe, from China to Cuba. Caches of thousands of Kalashnikov's were stored throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East in preparation for a Third World War. When the Soviet Union collapsed, these caches were raided and the guns were spread to every corner of every hot spot and armed dispute on Earth.

Ironically, the United States soon became the number one purchaser of the Kalashnikov as it struggled to arm freedom fighters in Afghanistan. Most ironically, in the Soviet Union's last days, it was kicked out of Afghanistan by these religious militant freedom fighters wielding none other than Kalashnikov's assault rifles.

AK's are found in every conflict around the globe, often on both side of the battlefield. They are used in crimes, and insurgencies, and revolutions. Kalashnikov's are reliable, easy to use, and pack a serious punch. As Chivers says at the beginning of the book, "When Kalashnikovs show up in the hands of mobs, it is time to leave." Because AK-47's do one thing and they do it very well: They kill people. In fact, if you count up all of the people killed by all of the high-tech aircraft and submarines and nuclear missiles the USSR went bankrupt building, the number looks puny compared to how many humans have had their lives ended by the most recognizable weapon in the world.

The lesson was clear to you as you read "The Gun". Beware the things you create and let loose in the world. Like the Golem, they tend to free themselves from your control. And all too often, they turn on their masters.

One story haunted you the most from the book's last pages. Karzan Mahmoud was the driver for the Prime Minister of Iraq in 2002. He was gunned down and crippled by would-be assassins wielding AK-47's. In a letter to the author he mused what he would ask Mr. Kalashnikov if they ever met, "Why did you make this machine? You don't like living people? Why not make something to help people, not make them dead? I'm wondering... how about if you tried it on yourself, one bullet into your feet before sending it out to the market. Might that have changed your mind?"

You wished that all those who wage wars, and design weapons, far from the front lines would take Mahmoud's advice. "Why not make something to help people?"

On to the next book!

But first... a chart! The AK-47 is the one at the top. All of the others are variations on Kalashnikov's original design:

Milled receiver AKS, stock folded · Original stamped receiver AK47 · Milled receiver AK47 · AKMS · AK74 · SVD sniper rifle · Hungarian AMD65 · Yugoslavian M70B · East German MPIK.M · Yugoslavian M85 "Krinkov" SMG · South African R4 · Finnish Valmet M76 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

"Red Star Rogue" by Kenneth Sewell with Clint Richmond (2005)

A Cold War mystery and the stuff of nightmares. Non-fiction is always crazier than fiction.

This is a war book. Even though we call the war "Cold", implying there were no real casualties, it was a real war and a lot of people died. This is also a mystery book. On May 7th, 1968 a Soviet submarine sank somewhere in the Pacific ocean taking 98 sailors to the bottom with it. That submarine was called K-129. For years afterwards, the United States government obsessed over gleaning every possible scrap of intelligence from the wreckage. It is clear something tragic happened aboard, but what?

In "Red Star Rogue" Kenneth Sewell makes the case that the unthinkable happened. He argues the the submarine was overtaken over by a rogue crew who attempted to launch a nuclear weapon against the United States in order to start World War III. Your reaction to this statement was simple:


In 400 pages, Sewell lays out an argument that you found pretty convincing, that the world came to the brink of nuclear war without the consent of any of the leaders of any of the Super Powers. The book moves from a charmingly written (if a bit long) personal history of K-129's captain and executive officer, into a detailed chronicle of the tragedy. Sewell draws on interviews with people in the espionage community, and guys who worked on the ships that were gathering the Top-Secret intelligence on the wreck, as well as his own first-hand experiences on board a US submarine. He gives a reasoned and rock-solid analysis of geo-political motivations before and after the sinking, and he exposes official documents that prove the government of the United States lied time and time again about what the truth really was.

Here is Sewell's case: US tracking hydrophones ( sensitive underwater microphones) tracked K-129 from her home port to the exact location where she sank (that location is still Top-Secret). There are audio recordings of the explosions that sank her, and of the sub then sinking into the crushing depths of the Pacific Ocean. A US spy satellite above recorded exactly what it was designed to record, the flash of a missile launch in the exact location and at the exact time that the hydrophones placed the K-129 disaster. Since no missile was recorded launching from the site and into the air, Sewell concludes that the missile exploded upon launch and caused the sinking of the submarine and the deaths of 98 Soviet sailors.

And here's where everything gets crazy. K-129 didn't need to surface to launch her missiles, and her missiles' range was far greater than the 350 miles from her target that Sewell places her. So here is the big question of the book. If K-129 was supposed to launch a nuclear missile at Hawaii to destroy Pearl Harbor and Honolulu, why not launch all three of her missiles from father away and from underwater, and why not have all the other submarines and bombers and ICBM's in the Soviet arsenal attack the US at the same time?

Sewell's answer is the craziest part of the book. He argues that the only logical conclusion is that a secret cabal within the Soviet Union, headed by members of the KGB and without the knowledge of Soviet Premier Brezhnev, ordered a small cadre of Special Forces warriors to seize control the K-129, imprison the officer corps of the boat, sever communications with Soviet Fleet Command, and then launch one missile at Pearl Harbor to make it look like China had attacked. The plotters in the Soviet Union would wait for the US and China to then destroy one another. In the nuclear wake of WW III, this cabal plotted for their nation to wade into the power vacuum and establish themselves as the sole dominant Super Power on Earth.

Sewell speculates that the warhead's fail safe mechanism engaged, as it was designed to do when ordered to launch without proper authorization, and the subsequent explosion destroyed the submarine.

But Sewell's argument isn't as crazy as it sounded to you at first. He frames the whole theory in a historical context. When K-129 sank, it was only 6 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, 4 years after the US escalation into Vietnam, and a few months after the North Koreans had hijacked an American surveillance ship (the US Pueblo) letting Soviet espionage experts crawl all over her. International tensions between the US and the USSR were so high in 1968, that almost everyone agrees that the Russians, thinking the Americans had sunk K-129, retaliated by sinking the US Scorpion attack sub, killing 99 sailors. This act of war was widely believed by (and seemed completely reasonable to) analysts on either side of the Iron Curtain. This act of lunacy almost made sense when you put yourself in the shoes of the Russians.

And this was something you really enjoyed. Part of what made "Red Star Rogue" so fascinating was that it gave you the opportunity to place yourself in the mind of your nation's opponent circa 1968 (even though you weren't born yet). Viewing America from Russia's point of view, an America weary of war and in the midst of a cultural revolution, colored the 1960's differently for you for the first time. Instead of seeing that decade as a historical turning point in the story of America's cultural evolution, you were able to see how an external adversary could have seen it as the perfect opportunity to take advantage of an enemy who appeared to be on the ropes.

The relationship between The USSR and China had quickly soured over the course of the 1960's to the point where soldiers of both countries were clashing along their border with shocking regularity and with body counts in the hundreds. For the Soviets, China had suddenly gone from a potential ally to an alarmingly nearby enemy with a massive military freshly armed with nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union had even helped China develop some of those weapons and had given them submarines with which to deliver them... submarines which were identical to K-129 and which could only launch their limited range missiles from the surface of the ocean. And because China had provided Russia with the uranium in many of their warheads, any nuclear weapons fired from K-129 would carry the same radioactive signature as a Chinese weapon. Framing China as the nation who picked a nuclear fight with the united States was almost too easy.

This theory reminded you of Professor John Mearsheimer's theory of "Offensive Realism", that whenever possible, Great Powers will try to secure their influence by playing one adversarial power off a third, allowing the two adversaries to destroy one another while the Great Power survives. In addition, the conspiracy theory of a hawkish cabal inside the government of the Soviet Union didn't sound quite so far-fetched when you remembered how Generals LeMay and Taylor tried their damnedest to get JFK to start a nuclear war over Cuba in October of 1962.

The Soviet missile's one megaton warhead was about 100 times the size of the 12.5 kiloton bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima 23 years earlier and was more than enough to destroy the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and incinerate the half million residents of the city of Honolulu. This attack would certainly have drawn a swift and devastating nuclear response from the United States. The cabal inside the Soviet government made sure that their military was not at alert at all so that the US would see that the USSR was not preparing for a war and therefore couldn't be responsible for a first strike. The theory goes that US leaders would have turned to the only other nuclear armed enemy on Earth and begun a nuclear retaliation against China.

Sewell spends the rest of the book piling up a mountain of evidence to back up his claim. Just before the K-129 sailed, eleven extra men were brought on board the already cramped submarine. The identities of these men remain mysteries. After the ship sank, the US government sent spy subs into the depths and used the first deep sea remote control subs to photograph the wreckage and collect evidence to explain what had occurred. They even enlisted the help of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes who built a gigantic recovery ship to bring the entire Soviet sub to the surface where US espionage personnel were free to investigate what had happened. These analysts came to one conclusion, K-129 had sunk in the act of firing one of their nuclear missiles.

Once the alleged knowledge of a failed launch had been learned by the new American president, Richard Nixon, he took it to the Soviet premier Brezhnev who immediately cleaned house of all the alleged conspirators and removed control of the USSR's nuclear weapons from the hands of the KGB. Nixon then engaged in his own brand of "Offensive Realism" and took the information to the Chinese. Suddenly after hundreds of years of China being closed to the West, they opened relationship with the Nixon administration and cooled to the Soviets even more than before.

The list of evidence just kept piling up higher and higher, each bit more remarkable than the last. But here is the thing....

You didn't believe it.

You weren't convinced.

That bothered you. Why didn't you believe this? This author was much smarter than you, he had done exhaustive research, he had experience in submarines, he did interviews with people who saw the wreckage with their own eyes, he laid out a logical and intelligent theory that you were unable to argue against. And yet... you still weren't convinced.


And the you realized.... it wasn't that you didn't believe it, it was that you didn't want to believe it.

The only thing that saved the world from full on, no holds barred, nuclear war, was a mechanical fail safe. If Sewell is right, these men didn't come close to launching a nuclear weapon against the US... they launched one. They hit the button! And the US knew the submarine had come from a Russian port. Unbeknownst to the secret Russian cabal, the US had tracked K-129 all the way to the exact spot where it sank. So the gamble wouldn't have worked. The US wouldn't have attacked China. The US would have attacked Russia, and Russia would have responded in full. There is no time to investigate complex motivations of your aggressor or the sordid details of a conspiracy theory when there are missiles in the air heading for your country.

World War III would have happened. Society, as we know it, would have ceased to exist on March 7th, 1968. The nightmare would have become reality, if not for a piece of mechanical gadgetry.

You like to think that the reason that humans have not wiped ourselves out is a result of our common decency, a mark of our inherent goodness, and a byproduct of our sense of self-preservation. Sewell's theory undermines your hopes for the world, it shakes your faith in humanity as a whole. But then you remembered one small fact hidden in the piles of evidence.

Sewell reveals that declassified documents divulge that, early in his presidency, LBJ had secretly given the Soviets access to American designed Top-Secret fail safe technology for their missiles. These fail safes would detonate the conventional explosives in the warhead without setting off a nuclear blast if the missile did not receive the correct authorization codes to fire. Soviet leaders would have kept this knowledge secret too, and if any sub commander ever went rogue and tried to fire a missile without authorization, his boat would have been destroyed and sunk... exactly what happened to K-129.

President Johnson believed that both sides of the Cold War needed to have some guarantee that if it came to nuclear war, at least it wouldn't be accidental.... So he shared secret technology with his sworn enemy. This act of faith in his enemy, and selfless protection of the people of the world was what saved us from war on that day in 1968.

You finished the book and one quote kept playing over and over in your head. A quote from the movie "Thirteen Days". Kevin Costner plays the character Kenny O'Donnell, a top aide to President Kennedy. During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, O'Donell is shown sitting forlornly on his home staircase. When his wife sees him, she rushes to his side asking what is wrong.

"If the sun comes up tomorrow," he says, "It is only because of men of good will."

The sun came up after that day, and it came up after March 7th, 1968 too.

Maybe your faith in humanity is not so shaken after all...

On to the next book!