Military history


Everyman’s Gun

Q: You said you killed an army officer?

A: He was on a treetop on a small mountain near Kilak, Okidi Hill. The commander was in a tree. He was on a patrol or an observation post.

Q: What happened?

A: We were three. We came from behind. We saw him and he didn’t see us. The commander was using his radio. The officer was not alone—the others were down below, cooking. They opened fire on us.

Q: And then?

A: The officer fell from the tree. It was my accurate fire that shot the officer.

Q: After you knew he was dead, and the fighting was over that day, what did you think of the operation?

A: I was so happy because I knew I would be promoted.

Q: What was your new rank?

A: I didn’t get promoted.

Q: There were other operations?

A: My own group killed my mother. It was announced on the radio. I was involved in a raid, and later I learned my mother had died in the raid.

—Notes from author’s interview with Walter Ocira, a child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army, in northeastern Uganda in 2007

THE EIGHT YOUNG PALESTINIAN MEN, DRESSED IN TRACK SUITS, reached the barrier outside Munich’s Olympic Village in the darkness just after 4:00 A.M. on September 5. The fence was neither tall nor topped with razor wire, and an easy climb for a young man, even a young man with a duffel bag. The athletes and officials participating in the 1972 Summer Olympics slept on the other side. Though the compound was guarded, the security was relaxed, even casual. The West German government, eager to exorcise the memories of Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin in 1936, had chosen a low-key police posture: an unarmed security staff, unimposing barriers, a climate of trust and accommodation rather than suspicion and control. The organizers had dubbed the competition “The Carefree Games.” Like this motto, the public-relations ambition was unsubtle. The XX Olympiad was to be a global affirmation of Bavaria reborn, and a declaration of decency for a nation that had returned from fascism to the civilized world.

The men in the track suits were members of the Black September terrorist organization, a recently assembled cell directed to exploit the Games’ officially friendly atmosphere. A police reconstruction would later claim that two of the cell’s members had infiltrated the village weeks before and taken temporary jobs on the Olympic staff. The commander, Luttif Afif, a thirty-five-year-old émigré who had lived in West Germany for several years, had worked as an engineer; his deputy was a cook.1 Afif had patiently watched this same section of fence the night before and observed athletes returning from parties outside. The athletes had scaled the barrier, dropped into the compound, and continued toward their apartments. No guard had stopped them. They passed unchallenged into the secure zone. Afif decided that his cell would imitate this behavior. The killers would masquerade as athletes coming home.

That night, before leaving their hotel, the Arabs slipped into athletic suits and packed their weapons into gym bags printed with the Olympic logo. Into each duffel they stuffed hand grenades, first-aid gear, amphetamines to ward off sleep, ropes cut to lengths ready for binding hostages, sections of pantyhose for masks, and a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Six of these rifles had been flown into Germany from Algiers, via Paris.2 The world had not yet adapted to the idea that calculated menace, in the form of attacks upon civilians, might lurk anywhere. This was before air passengers and luggage were as a matter of routine thoroughly screened. The Kalashnikovs, tools designed for infantry, were in Munich to be used to corral and kill civilians. As they lifted each firearm and slipped it into the kit, Afif and his deputy gave it a kiss. “Oh, my love,” they said.3Then the team set out, into the night.

One operating tenet of Black September was its almost airtight secrecy. Even now, as they moved toward their crimes, six of the terrorists—Palestinians from refugee camps who had been trained in Libya—did not know what they had been ordered to Munich to do. Afif briefed them in a restaurant. They were to seize members of the Israeli delegation from their beds and then leverage their lives in a hostage siege. The world would be forced to hear the group’s demands, including the release of more than two hundred prisoners, most of them Palestinians in Israeli jails. Afif had the list ready. For Black September, hostage-taking was not unfamiliar. Another cell had hijacked a passenger jet, Sabena Flight 572, several months before, and demanded a similarly extensive prisoner release. Israeli commandos stormed the aircraft as the terrorists waited on the ground. The prisoners remained behind bars. This time Black September had bolder plans and a grander stage. With an international press corps assembled for the Games, a hostage seizure in Munich would bullhorn the Palestinians’ grievances as never before. Israel rarely bent to threats, the more so when demands were issued in public. Live television coverage was a more realistic aspiration than freeing prisoners in a swap. Afif told his cell what to expect. “From now on,” he said, “consider yourself dead.” Their status was predetermined, their fates known: “Killed in action for the Palestinian cause.”

At about 3:30 A.M. the men stepped into taxis and were driven toward the section of fence Afif had selected. They arrived unmolested and met a group of Americans headed inside at the same time. The two teams—the athletes and the terrorists—helped each other over the top, gym bags and all.4 Afif hurried his group toward 31 Connollystrasse, a residence where more than twenty Israelis slept. A new age of terrorism, long in the making, was about to introduce itself. By sunrise, eight men with assault rifles would command the attention of the world and change public security as it had been understood.5

The hostage siege in Munich, televised live worldwide, marked the next leap in the spread of automatic rifles, and the last tactical breakout, when assault rifles were applied to uses that the men and the governments that had given them their shape and numbers had not foreseen. Their steps in this direction, and use as a preferred tool for terror, predated Munich; there are earlier examples.i But September 1972 in Munich brought the day that it became clear that whatever the Kalashnikov once was, whatever it had been meant to be, it had assumed a fuller and more universally dangerous character. After Munich, the Kalashnikov’s utility in crimes against civilians and public order would be demonstrated repeatedly, in hijackings, hostage seizures, assassinations, suicide rifle attacks, and summary executions, sometimes before video cameras, designed to sow hatred and fear. The rifles’ toll would become larger and their uses more ghastly with the passing years. They became requisite weapons for the massacres in Baathist Iraq, in Rwanda, and in the former Yugoslavia, for lawless formations of child soldiers, and for political crimes intended to jolt the world, from the Chechen and Ingush siege at a public school in Beslan to the Lashkar-e-Taiba raid into Mumbai. By the time the Kalashnikov line was a half-century old, its appearance as a central killing instrument in many of the most disturbing acts of political violence was no longer a shock. It was a norm. The people’s gun, defender of Russian soil and socialist ideal, had evolved into a familiar hand tool for genocide and terror.

The processes that completed the Kalashnikov assault rifle’s march out of communist garrisons were not random. They resulted from deliberate socialist arms-manufacturing, stockpiling, and transfer practices, followed by many means of distribution—some legal, some not—that followed.

After the establishment of Kalashnikov factories in the 1950s and 1960s, the early circulation of rifles followed predictable paths. The Soviet Union and other communist nations armed the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, equipping ideological partners for a war carried by ideological currents. Similarly, the gifts of AK-47s and an ammunition plant to Fidel Castro’s Cuba during the 1960s fit with the mandates that armed the Warsaw Pact. These recipients were Kremlin allies. But as weaponry of Soviet provenance shaped socialist military forces around the globe, the Kremlin was also providing assault rifles and other armament to Arab states, seeking to blunt Western influence in the Middle East. By 1967, all of this was visible—as obvious as the Kalashnikovs in the hands of the NVA regulars in Vietnam, and as tangible as the piles of Kalashnikovs collected by the Israel Defense Forces after their defeat of Egypt’s battalions in the Six Day War.ii The state-to-state transfers were also unsurprising. They were for wars fought in an orthodox way, by forces whose organization and tactics were doctrinal and familiar. In the early years of its proliferation, the AK-47 was a calling card, an explicit mark of the socialist hand in wars in which its weapons appeared, even in wars, like the Six Day War, that were watched uneasily within the Kremlin and by the Eastern bloc’s ruling elite.

The transfers of assault rifles to Arab governments were scarcely remarked upon as they occurred. Diplomats and commentators concentrated on Soviet military hardware thought to be more menacing—the artillery, tanks, armored personnel carriers, radar systems, missiles, and aircraft that might change the regional security equation. Rifles were just rifles. Who worried over a weapon with a range of a few hundred meters, which injured its victims bullet by bullet, when a neighboring state was updating its jet fighters and main battle tanks? What was lost to the security experts of the era was a process more dangerous than the introduction to the region of larger-ticket conventional arms: the prodigious migration of the rifle from state garrisons to those bent on unconventional war and crime. By the late 1960s, the ingredients enabling this migration were in place. Assault-rifle production had reached such levels that socialist military forces were well supplied, the proxy fights were established, and new armed political movements had taken shape. The movements represented a mix of nationalist, religious, and ethnic ambitions, and were organized by leaders willing to exploit arming opportunities made available by the Cold War. Within a very few years the Kalashnikov’s attributes—its mechanical characteristics combined with its unprecedented availability—transformed Stalin’s rifle, conceived as a tool of the state, into an engine for violence in the service of almost any cause.

Two phenomena paired to ensure this outcome. One was a socialist 'margin-top:13.5pt;margin-right:0cm;margin-bottom: .1pt;margin-left:0cm;text-align:justify;text-indent:.1pt;line-height:normal'>Decades of arms-manufacturing policies in the planned economies of the Eastern bloc had led, by the 1970s, to a material consequence: surpluses of arms without apparent use. The full extent of the Eastern bloc stockpiling is unknown. No thorough historical record has ever been assembled. Nor is it possible for a complete and accurate record to be made. All of the factors related to the socialist arms industry and the associated forms of trade—the conventions of state secrecy, the volume of production over time, administrative incompetence, personnel turnover, pervasive corruption, and other forms of criminal activity—worked to prevent accountability. Further, weapons and ordnance were stockpiled by a range of organizations, adding complexity to the problem. The Soviet army served as the primary storekeeper in many regions, but in each of the Warsaw Pact countries the national army, the federal police, and the intelligence services also had armories. Many nations also cached weapons for emergency issue to workers and ad hoc militias, and stored others in schools, where they were used for preparing teenagers for conscription and civil defense. Years later it is not possible to assemble the accountability puzzle fully. And yet in a few nations, enough arms eventually turned up, or enough researchers tried to document what was occurring as the weapons left government possession, to allow insights into the nature of stockpiling and the risks that accompanied amassing arms at such scale.

A pair of examples sketch the history. The urge to lay away weapons was powerful, and not readily deterred, even in the People’s Republic of Albania, a founding member of the Warsaw Pact that broke from the Kremlin’s orbit. From late in World War II through most of the Cold War, Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha, an avowed Stalinist. After Stalin died, Hoxha quarreled with the Kremlin. The tension grew severe enough to cut off the Albanian police and military from the principal source of socialist arms supply. The rupture in relations did not set Albania’s state institutions back in their quest for arms. By the early 1960s, Albania was receiving military aid from China, which was learning to use its weapons programs to build relations with other governments. At first China shipped in enormous quantities of arms and ordnance. Shipments alone were not enough to satisfy Hoxha, who wanted the further security of domestic sources. By 1964 the aid reached the next step: China was helping to build arms plants. Just as Soviet specialists had worked in mainland China in the 1950s to modernize small-arms production and train workers, Chinese technicians provided the same service in Hoxha’s Albania. Some of the visiting Chinese specialists remained in Albania at least three years.6 One project involved launching Kalashnikov production in the central mountain district of Gramsh, where output eventually reached more than 275,000 assault rifles a year.7 In these ways, the Hoxha regime did more than stay apace in the arms race with other governments. Albania under his hand became a bunker state. Vast storehouses of arms, tinder for future wars in the Balkans and elsewhere, were stashed in buildings and tunnels across the land.

A different set of circumstances filled the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic with arms. Throughout the Cold War, the German drive across Slavic soil in the Great Patriotic War was both a fresh memory and a core narrative in Soviet national identity. The Kremlin considered Ukraine a buffer in the event of another conventional war with the West. As Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces arrayed along the borders of the capitalist world, Ukraine was prepared as a second defensive line. Huge stockpiles were cached on its territory, ready to be issued in any number of desperate scenarios. The most spectacular of the storage sites was in Artemovsk, in eastern Ukraine, near the border with Russia. Artemovsk lies in a region atop geological deposits of salt, and when the Soviet army sought a place to hide a reserve of conventional arms, the mines—out of sight of American spy planes—seemed ideal.

More than 150 meters belowground, in man-made caverns from which miners had carted away salt, the army sequestered surpluses. The mines became a repository of small-arms firepower on a scale unknown in the West. The tunnels were filled with caches within caches, a layering of small arms reflecting generations of European war. Within them were weapons reaching to World War I, along with arms captured from the Third Reich or donated to the Red Army by the United States during the Lend-Lease program of World War II. Added to these were Soviet arms that the Red Army had used to fight the Wehrmacht, but subsequently replaced. There were newer additions: stockpiles of standard Soviet small arms from the Cold War, up to and including the most recent designs. The Artemovsk arsenal was an armory and a warren, a storage network mapped out by logisticians in which crates of weapons were separated by type and stacked toward ceilings, in places ten meters or more high. Electric cables and lights ran along the walls, keeping the place in a dim artificial glow. Beneath this maze and monument to Cold War thinking, farther below the earth, miners continued to extract salt. The depot was sealed off, separated by heavy doors and airlocks, the entrances watched by guards.8 In all, the caves held some 3 million guns.

While Kalashnikov rifles were piled into storage, the assembly lines across the Warsaw Pact and Asia were producing more. Izhmash, the factory that began arms production in 1807, was now the busiest manufacturer of the Soviet Union’s principal firearm and served as a routine stop for communist dignitaries visiting the Urals. The factory provided a source of national pride. The Kalashnikov assault rifle, like the caviar, like the vodka, like the furs, was seen as quintessential—a mark of the nation that produced it. Mikhail Kalashnikov had a new role. He was a tour guide. Early in the 1960s, before deposing his mentor, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid I. Brezhnev visited Izhevsk as part of his duties as chairman of the Supreme Soviet, the union’s legislature. Brezhnev was in his midfifties, dark-haired and emanating the insider confidence of a politician on the rise. Kalashnikov, ever capable of befriending and performing for power, was eager to escort the chairman on his rounds. In the Soviet Union, important decisions rested within few hands. Brezhnev was a potential patron, a man to be solicited, to be known to, no matter what.

I was entrusted with giving the necessary explanations. Of course, I was very enthusiastic about that assignment: as a rule, the future of the enterprise as a whole and the small arms business specifically depended on such visits. I wanted to bring up not only general problems but also my own, designer’s problem—the construction of an engineering building for small arms producers. Ideally it had to be exactly like the testing range near Moscow that had been destroyed so thoughtlessly years ago.

As always we began the tour in the experimental section, then went on from there. We were passing a conveyor with suspension brackets which held brand-new AKMs. Whenever Brezhnev picked up an assault rifle, the first thing he looked at was the bayonet… I did not really worry, but thought with curiosity: “Haven’t the advisers of the esteemed guest notified him beforehand that the cardinal merit of my creation was not the bayonet but other more essential components and units?”

But everything soon became clear. Brezhnev bent down to me and asked me in a subdued voice: “Can it be stolen?”

I had to make one of those vague gestures which could be interpreted in many different ways. One or two minutes later Brezhnev said again in a conspiratorial tone: “What if I steal it?”

For that not to happen, I had to give Brezhnev the bayonet which he liked so much. He was delighted as a boy. I reassured him sympathetically: “You can always tell a hunter.”9

Having played to the chairman’s feelings, Kalashnikov asked for what he wanted: an engineering building. The polygon at Schurovo, where the design contest that led to the AK-47 had been held, had been closed by Khrushchev. Kalashnikov seethed about this. He hoped Brezhnev would replace what the small-arms designers had lost. The chairman did not commit. (Some years later, Kalashnikov and officials from Izhevsk landed an hour-long meeting with Brezhnev, who by then was the general secretary—the Soviet Union’s most powerful man. Brezhnev promised them that they would have the building. It was never built.) The exchanges pointed to the perils of the Kremlin’s governing style. A small-arms research-and-development center was a cog in the national security apparatus. Arguably it was an important cog. It was not of sufficient importance for its status to require a decision of the head of state. But the concentration of power in few hands meant an endless scrum for access and favor, and involved the most senior officials in matters better handled by ministries and staff. It also colored the way midlevel bureaucrats acted and thought. Kalashnikov blamed Khrushchev for Schurovo’s closure. He could conceive of relief only through Brezhnev.

The Soviet Union’s behavior, and that of its Warsaw Pact underlings, manifested itself in uglier ways.

As Brezhnev’s power and stature were rising, the assault rifles being assembled in secret in East Germany had found their way to border guard detachments at the boundary with West Germany. The new knockoff was starting to replace the PPSh submachine guns that had been carried by the government’s border guards since the units had formed. The guards stood grim duty. In 1961, the East German government had begun construction of what it called the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall, another milestone in doublespeak, considering that the purpose of the wall was not to keep Germans from the west from entering the east, but to stop the flow of émigrés fleeing the oppression and stagnation of the socialist side. The Kalashnikov’s participation in state-directed violence against civilians here would be of a smaller scale than what had been seen in Hungary, but its introduction would be dark, and would resonate for decades.

Early on the afternoon of August 17, 1962, two young construction workers in East Berlin, Peter Fechter and Helmut Kulbeik, agreed not to return from their lunch break on a road-reconstruction project, opting instead to examine a building near the wall that separated them from West Berlin. They wanted to escape, and planned a reconnaissance. Any attempt would mean dashing across the open space, known as the “death strip,” scaling the short wall on the far side, and passing under the barbed wire. The building, near Checkpoint Charlie, was beside the new wall. Perhaps it would offer a suitable leaping-off point, out of view of the armed East German guards. Inside the building, the pair found a storage room with a rear window that was not bricked over. The wall was in front of them. It was not much taller than a grown man. They had not intended to make their escape on this day. But the temptation was powerful. After observing the narrow space they would have to run across, Fechter and Kulbeik slipped through the window and landed on the death strip. Their sprint began.

The young men were quick, and they likely surprised the border guards watching the stillness below their posts. Both men reached the far wall. As they neared the concrete, the border guards opened fire with Kalashnikovs. Dozens of bullets flew toward the men. The range was short—perhaps sixty meters. The bullets missed Kulbeik. He scaled the wall and squeezed through the strands of barbed wire. Fechter was lean and fresh-faced; he looked fit. As he leaped to gain a hold with which to pull himself up, one of the rounds found its mark. He was hit. He fell, back to the eastern side.

Kulbeik sensed his companion’s peril. But Fechter was so close. If only he could get up and try again. “Now go, go now, now move ahead!” Kulbeik shouted.

Fechter could not raise himself. He had been struck in the pelvis.

The hips, upper thighs, and pelvic girdle are among the worst places for a rifle bullet to smack into a human being. Wounds to these areas are often instantly immobilizing. Load-bearing bones rupture. Victims buckle and collapse. Complicating matters and raising the risk of swift death, large blood vessels follow the contours of bones. If cut, these blood vessels tend to bleed heavily and in ways that can be hard to stop. In the mad race to stop the flow, pressure and tourniquets are hard to apply.

Just a few feet from Kulbeik, at the edge of the communist world, Peter Fechter could not stand, much less scale a vertical concrete wall. Unarmed, eighteen years old, and at the mercy of two governments whose boundary he straddled, he slumped to his side, his blood draining from a wound almost impossible to treat. He was in need of immediate aid. His hasty attempt to escape had come to a full stop. He was not inches from freedom. He was a spectacle, watched by residents and officials from both sides, a helpless young man, minutes from death.

He shouted for aid. Surely he was not a threat, or capable of escape. Weapons were no longer required. But the wall was new, and the procedures for this kind of moment uncertain. From their posts on the east and from the west alike, the guards watched, joined by a growing crowd. No one dared to step into the strip and help. Fechter was thrown a bandage from the Western side. His wound was too severe, and too tricky, for him to hope to treat himself. Fechter bled. After several minutes he passed into unconsciousness, and fell silent. He slumped on his side, in the fetal position, wearing a dark sport coat. Later, the East German border guards, helmets on, their assault rifles slung across their dark coats, ventured to the wall and picked up Fechter and carried him away. An East German doctor soon pronounced him dead.

No one outside his own circle had heard of Peter Fechter before. He verged on anonymity in life. His death was of the most public sort, and East Germany was unapologetic about how in his ending he realized instant and gruesome fame. Karl-Edvard von Schnitzler, the caustic East German television host, swept aside complaints, and defended the guards’ decisions both to shoot and to leave the young man to die. “The life of each of our brave boys in uniform is worth more to us than the life of a law-breaker,” he said. “One should stay away from our border—then you can save the blood, tears, and cries.” The killing of Fechter also fit the use of the assault rifle for which Mikhail Kalashnikov had been rewarded: “reinforcing the power of the state.” Here was the real Kalashnikov, 1962, propaganda peeled away.10

The Kremlin’s posture toward its satellites and their yearnings for self-determination remained true to this form.

In early 1968, the Soviet Union faced another challenge from its western vassals, this time in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, where a reform-minded politician, Alexander Dubček, assumed control of the nation’s Communist Party. Dubček sought change, including loosening restrictions on speech and on the press, liberalizing the economy, and offering citizens more consumer goods. The challenge to Kremlin hegemony was less confrontational than the uprising in Hungary twelve years before. But it was a threat. Its nickname, Prague Spring, suggested it was only a start. By July, with the Kremlin worried that tolerating one upstart might encourage others, the Soviet army was planning exercises—the word used to mask an invasion—on Czech and Slovak soil.11 Soviet divisions struck in August, advancing alongside troops from Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland. The airport outside Prague was seized, allowing transport planes to offload troops. Resistance was sporadic and mostly light. But more than seventy people were killed, and Moscow had sent a fresh signal to its satellites and to the West: The communists’ hold on power would be preserved by force. When it felt threatened, the Soviet Union and its local partners would move past talk of fraternal relations and partnership and turn its guns on its own, just as they would fire on their unarmed citizens when they tried to flee.

The Eastern bloc had changed from Stalin’s time. The Great Terror had given way to a less bloody form of centralized rule. But there would be no organic evolution from the totalitarian remains of what Lenin and Stalin had built. If the system were to give way, it would have to crack. The political consequences of this posture, and its effects on civil liberties and human rights, were obvious. The security implications were worrisome. One day, when the communist systems came under strain, or when they shattered, their huge storehouses of weapons might slip from state control to markets, where appetites for the arms were growing.

Eastern bloc infantry rifles had come to the Middle East in large numbers in the mid-1950s. The first large shipment to be widely recorded—the Kremlin-negotiated deal via Czechoslovakia to Nasser’s Egypt in 1955—apparently did not involve AK-47s. Czech rifles were shipped. But not long after these transfers, Soviet AK-47s began to flow to the Egyptian army, as did M1943 ammunition and the technology to produce both the weapons and the cartridges. By the late 1950s, American technical intelligence officials were secretly testing Egyptian-manufactured 7.62x39-millimeter cartridges—a sign that a Middle Eastern version of the ammunition was already in significant circulation.12 By the early 1960s, Egyptian soldiers were carrying an Egyptian-made AK-47 knock-off—the Misr, the first of many Kalashnikovs to be cloned in the Middle East. Soon the Kremlin’s engagement with Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya resulted in their militaries’ adopting the Kalashnikov line. The timing was portentous. Unlike many military items the Soviet Union provided its customers in the region, small arms could be easily transferred to third parties, who could easily master their use. And the rush of Soviet infantry weapons into the region aligned with the rise of Palestinian nationalist groups, many of which engaged in campaigns of terrorism against Israel and its citizens.

Middle Eastern terrorism had been nurtured with state sponsorship. Soon after Israel declared independence in May 1948, Egypt’s King Farouk I had organized unconventional fighters against the Jewish state. The fighters called themselves fedayeen, guerrillas prepared to sacrifice their lives. From bases in Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and with backing from Egypt’s intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, they conducted attacks against Israelis in the early 1950s. After Farouk was deposed in 1952, in part because of Egypt’s military failures, the Egyptians lent the fedayeen more support. Unconventional war and sabotage proliferated as other Middle Eastern governments and the Palestinian diaspora followed the Egyptian example. Unable to defeat Israel by conventional means, they maintained pressure in other lethal ways, while seeking a measure of deniability.

In the evolution of war, processes that develop in parallel—political, technological, or tactical—can suddenly cross, and at these points of intersection wars change. In the crucible of the Middle East in the 1960s, this was the case. The Palestinian groups that chose militancy soon procured the newly available rifles that the Eastern bloc had shipped to its Middle Eastern clients. The AK-47 and the AKM became standard arms for unconventional war. They were studied in militant training camps and carried on guerrilla and terrorist missions that entered the groups’ tactical routine. Assault rifles, those lightweight instruments for concentrating firepower, multiplied the menace of individual insurgents and terrorists, elevating the danger they posed and the ambitions they voiced. The weapons’ utility was not lost on the groups’ leaders. Khalil al-Wazir, a commander who eventually led Fatah’s armed war under the nom de guerre of Abu Jihad, embraced the AK-47 as a vehicle to victory. “The Kalashnikov is our only language until we free all of Palestine,” he said.13 From the fedayeen camps in the Middle East, the weapon, and the mentality for turning its barrel toward civilians, spread outward. Eventually a flight from Libya in 1972 carried six of the rifles to Munich.

By 4:30 A.M., the Black September cell members, assault rifles in hand, were trying to open the door to Apartment 1 at 33 Connollystrasse, where Israeli coaches and athletic officials were resting. One of the Israelis, Yossef Gutfreund, a wrestling referee, heard the noise. He opened the door and came face-to-face with the attackers. Gutfreund slammed the door, leaning into it and shouting to the other Israelis, calling them from their sleep. But the Palestinians had been quick. In the instant the door had been ajar, two of them inserted their assault-rifle barrels past the jamb, preventing Gutfreund from closing the door fully. They began to pry. Gutfreund was a huge man. He pushed back as long as he was able. For several long seconds he kept them out. His efforts saved a man. Tuvia Sokolovsky, a strength-and-conditioning trainer, scrambled from his bed and forced open a window. He dropped outside as the Palestinians rushed in. At least one of them opened fire as Sokolovsky dashed, but the bullets missed the man.

Inside the apartment, the attackers rounded up their captives: Gutfreund, Amitzur Shapira, Kehat Shorr, Andre Spitzer, Jacov Springer, and Moshe Weinberg. By this point, the Black September mission had already realized a measure of success. The cell had penetrated the Olympic Village and taken hostages, and its members were unharmed. But there was still a chance for the hostages to resist. Some of these Israelis were veterans of their country’s many wars and possessed the light feet and powerful frames of lifelong athletes. These men had had an understanding of how and why to fight. Weinberg, a wrestling coach, acted first. He lunged at Afif with a kitchen knife. Another Palestinian fired. The bullet slammed into the side of the coach’s mouth. Weinberg fell. It was a grotesque injury, but not fatal—a pass-through that missed his skull. He sputtered blood; his senses and much of his strength were intact. The Palestinians herded their unwounded captives through the apartment and bound them with their precut ropes.

Afif was not satisfied. With other members of his cell to help him, he forced Weinberg to his feet, ordered him outside onto Connollystrasse, and set out to seize more hostages. Weinberg was the quick-thinking sort, more than a match for the men who had captured him. He led Afif past Apartment 2, where smaller-statured Israeli athletes were quartered, toward Apartment 3, where Israeli wrestlers and weightlifters lived; these men brought muscle to a fight. Inside, Afif and his cell gathered six more hostages—David Berger, Zeev Friedman, Eliezer Halfin, Yossef Romano, Gad Tsabari, and Mark Slavin—and marched them at gunpoint outside, toward apartment 1.

Tsabari ran. One of the captors opened fire. Again the bullets flew wide. (As is the case with many who carry Kalashnikovs, the Black September terrorists were well armed but not crack shots.) Near the apartment’s entrance, Weinberg lunged again. Even after being shot, he was formidable—a thick-necked career wrestler who had served as an Israeli commando. He punched one of the Palestinians in the face, fracturing his jaw. The man dropped his rifle as he fell. Weinberg scrambled to pick it up. There was not enough time. Another guard fired, shooting the coach several times. He collapsed. The remaining Israelis were forced inside, where Romano, a weightlifter on crutches from a recent training injury, sprang at their captors. After a struggle, one of the Palestinians opened fire. Romano’s torso was shredded by automatic fire.

The Black September operation was a secret no more. The sounds of gunfire had awakened the Olympic Village, and an anemic counter-terrorism response began. A short while later, an unarmed German guard made his way on foot to the building, carrying a handheld two-way radio. There he spotted a man in a mask at the doorway, clutching a rifle. The security guard reported what he saw to his dispatch center, beginning a chain of notifications: to other apartments, to the Munich police, to the interior ministry of Bavaria, to the federal police, and to the German chancellor and diplomatic corps, which called Israel’s ambassador at his residence in Bonn.

At 5:08 A.M., the terrorists dropped three pieces of paper from the apartment to a security officer below. The papers contained their demands. German police ringed the building and the world watched on live television as the first deadline for executions, and then others, passed. Israel reacted as expected. It refused to negotiate. A deal was struck on the ground: The Germans would provide passage by helicopter to a nearby NATO airfield, from where the hostages and their captors would be flown by passenger aircraft to an Arab nation. Much of the world had not yet organized for domestic counterterrorism action, and did not have highly trained units designated for these moments. The West Germans were unprepared. The end came quickly. That night, after the Black September cell surveyed the Boeing passenger jet that was to carry the captors and captives from Europe, the Germans initiated an ambush at the airfield. It failed. The hostage seizure descended into a gunfight, in which the terrorists turned their Kalashnikovs on their hostages, who were bound and helpless before them.

On the morning of September 6, not quite twenty-four hours after Afif and his subordinates had scaled the fence, Jim McKay, an ABC television sportscaster, introduced the world to the age when military assault rifles had become elemental ingredients in forms of terrorism that would only grow. “Our worst fears have been realized tonight,” he said, and then gave a summary of the number of athletes seized. Eleven men in all, he said, and added: “They’re all gone.”

Inside the Soviet Union, arms production continued. Throughout the mid-1960s, Soviet arms designers had watched the American rollout of the M-16 and had examined captured specimens from Vietnam. They had not been favorably impressed with Colt’s rifle. (Kalashnikov himself called it “freakish,” “prankish,” and “capricious,” and something that American soldiers “threw away.”)14 The M-16’s ammunition was another matter. It demanded attention. By the early 1970s, within five years of the M-16’s designation as the United States’ standard military rifle, the Soviet army was at work on its own small-caliber, high-velocity round: the 5.45-millimeter cartridge. Once the round was available to armorers, Kalashnikov, whose weapons were now entrenched in the Soviet military to the point of enshrinement, led a design team that created the weapon the army chose to fire it: the Avtomat Kalashnikova-74, the automatic rifle by Kalashnikov, selected in 1974. The AK-74iii was to the AK-47 what the AR-15 had been to the AR-10—a pre-existing design reworked for a smaller, faster round.15 It entered mass production in 1976, and the Soviet army displayed it to the world in the 1977 October Revolution Parade in Red Square. It soon became the Soviet standard arm for many units, displacing the AKM.16 Old patterns in West-East arms design had recurred. The Soviet army had eagerly grasped and imitated the technical thinking of an opponent. Small-arms design had further converged.17 And again Mikhail Kalashnikov was toasted: He was named a Hero of Socialist Labor for a second time.

The award provided another curious glimpse into life in the center of Soviet arms-design circles. One of the honors that accompanied designation of a two-time Hero of Socialist Labor was the assignment of an artist to make a bust of the hero, to be installed at the recipient’s place of birth. As Kalashnikov’s bust was being shaped, he visited the studio of Anatoly Beldushkin, the artist commissioned to render him in bronze. He was surprised by what he saw. Beldushkin had fashioned the bust closely to Kalashnikov’s likeness, but added a facial feature the designer did not possess: dense eyebrows. Kalashnikov understood.

I saw him make my brows very thick and protested half in jest: “What do I need brows like Brezhnev’s for?” “Brezhnev has nothing to do with it,” the sculptor tried to explain amicably to me. “Such brows are indicative of constant strain of thought.”

Such was Kalashnikov’s world, the Soviet Union of the 1970s, a system in which the habit of kowtowing was ingrained even in the sculptor’s hands, and those enjoying its perks had casually, even cheerfully, accepted the strange rules. “I laughed merrily,” Kalashnikov wrote. “‘Couldn’t you relieve me of this strain?’”18 His bust was completed, bearing brows like those of the general secretary. It was placed on a pedestal in Kurya, the village from which the Kalashnikov family had been cast out during collectivization and sent into exile.19

By the 1970s, the Eastern bloc arms stores were proving to be of limited Cold War use, and the risks of the stockpiles and of greater assault-rifle distribution were becoming discernible. The war the rifles were to help the Kremlin win was not fought by the means the stockpilers had planned, and the armories stood as powerful attractants for all manner of opportunists. Illicit diversion was a natural risk. The pulls and pushes of demand and supply, along with ample precedents of diversions and their consequences, were in view. Three examples were instructive: the movement of firearm stocks left from World War II; the introduction of assault rifles to Uganda, where the government fell; and the assassination in 1981 of the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat.

The bountiful trade in infantry rifles and machine guns assembled for World War II provided a useful precedent for understanding what was ahead. The war had pushed large quantities of military firearms around the globe, and when the fighting ended many governments were left with surpluses, sometimes staggering surpluses. For conventional forces, these excess weapons quickly became obsolete. In the arms-race climate of the Cold War, Western and Eastern armies adopted new standard cartridges and updated their standard arms. Where did the earlier generations of weapons go? Not into foundries. Some went into storage sites like the salt mines below Artemosvk. Others went to markets, wherever markets were. And once they entered markets, they turned up in conflicts everywhere. The gun-running business was often quiet and opaque, but one private dealer of the era, Samuel Cummings, an American who decamped for Europe and made his fortune brokering deals, granted moments of transparency. In the mid-1970s, Cummings, by then a minor tycoon, offered a tour to a British journalist of part of his arsenal, and explained how small arms move liquidly from fight to fight.

Here, he points out, is a stack of American Garand rifles which were first exported to Germany in the ’fifties for the first German rearmament. When Germany got more advanced weapons they were transported to Jordan in the late ’sixties, and when Jordan got more advanced weapons they were bought by Cummings and shipped to Manchester. From there many of them were shipped to the Philippines, to help fight Moslem rebels financed by Libya, while a few remain in Manchester waiting for customers. Here, just next door to the Garands, are some British Enfield rifles which were captured by the Japanese in Indo-China, then taken over by the Americans and used in Vietnam, before they were bought by Cummings. Here are some Springfield rifles which were first supplied to the French in Indo-China in the ’fifties. Here are Mausers which were brought over to Taiwan by General Chiang Kai-shek when he left the mainland in 1949. Over there are German ME42 guns which were left by Hitler’s troops in Greece, Swedish guns made under license in Egypt and captured by the Israelis, British Sten guns dropped by parachute during the Second World War for the French Maquis, American Brownings for the Dominican Republic, Belgian Mausers from Venezuela, American M16s from the Chilean Army. . . . Cummings knows that his arsenals depend for their stocks on the aftermath of wars.

Cummings, in one of his signature one-liners, declared the flow of arms “an index of the world’s folly.”20 Folly interested Cummings, and he made sure to read it well, because the business opportunities it presented interested him even more. What Cummings understood, and what his guided tour showed, was the durable nature of demand in a world in which the next local struggle was always about to start somewhere, and in which whenever one combatant adopted a new rifle its opponents wanted upgrades, too. There were almost always customers—if the price was right, the supply could be found, and weapons unneeded in one place could be married with a purchaser someplace else. If, as Cummings implied, today’s arsenals depend on their stocks from the aftermath of yesterday’s wars, then the Cold War had provided the biggest boon of all. Socialist stockpiling served as an immeasurably large, if latent, source of future supply—the greatest supplies yet. Cummings grasped this last point, too. He marveled at the appeal and practical merits of the Kalashnikov line, compared to what else was available. “If I was a Marine in Vietnam and was given one of those new ArmaLites,” he said, during the height of the M-16 scandal in Congress, “I’d throw it away and say I’d lost it and try to get one of the Russian rifles off a dead V.C. They’re the best.”21

In his breezy and informed way, Cummings offered insights into private networks eager to move Kalashnikovs when the rifles became available. Idi Amin, in Uganda, offered a peek at a cruder form of transfer, which would be a factor in small-arms proliferation, too. Amin, a hulking career army officer, seized power by coup in Kampala in 1971. He was an outrageous character, a boxing champion and rugby player whose flamboyance and ease with spilling blood contributed to what became his international persona: brutish dictator and murderous buffoon. Some of those who knew him as a younger man, before his sadistic streak had manifested itself in wholesale executions, saw him as stupid, “a splendid type and a good player, but virtually bone from the neck up, and needs things explained in words of one letter.”22 But he possessed a viciousness, like Stalin’s, that was chilling when connected to power. During more than eight years as head of state, Amin squirreled away weapons with the help of the Kremlin, East Germany, and Libya, and applied his soldiers’ firepower advantage to the tasks of thwarting rivals and repressing Uganda’s population. Amin relied on the tools of the purge: large-scale arrests of civil servants and suspected guerrillas and their supporters, followed by imprisonment without trial, torture, and extrajudicial killings, often by firing squads, sometimes by hammer blows. Like many despots, he overreached. As resentment and fear exhausted Uganda, he annexed a portion of neighboring Tanzania, triggering events that chased him from the presidential suite. Tanzania’s army and a coalition of anti-Amin guerrilla groups invaded. Amin bolted. The disappearance of a commander in chief is never a good sign in a military government, and the Ugandan army took its cue from the boss. Officers and troops disappeared from many barracks. What happened next pointed to the risks ahead in Europe when communist nations crumbled from within.

In the northeastern region of Moroto, Ugandan troops vacated their garrison, leaving behind an armory. Moroto was inhabited by the Karamojong tribe, traditional herders who roamed the countryside in search of water and forage for their livestock. Their region was formally Ugandan but never fully under Ugandan control, and as a seminomadic people, many Karamojong saw themselves as unincorporated. They had paid for this perceived backwardness and disloyalty at the hands of Amin and his government. After the evaporation of the army at Moroto, local men looted the base and relieved it of weapons. This marked a consequential rearrangement. The Karamojong were already accomplished cattle rustlers, and with their newly acquired Kalashnikovs they could raid their neighbors’ herds with heretofore unimaginable ease. The qualities that made a Soviet conscript with an AK-47 much more formidable than a Soviet conscript with a Mosin rifle or PPSh translated seamlessly to the business of rustling. But there was a difference. The introduction of Kalashnikovs to the Karomojong multiplied their firepower by a much larger factor than had the introduction of AK-47s to Soviet infantry squads, because the rustlers were not graduating from rifles and submachine guns. They were moving up from spears. In the ensuing years, traditional Karamojong power arrangements eroded, and the elderly leaders were supplanted by younger men leading bands of rustlers equipped with assault rifles. Warlords became a force. Karamojong raiding parties set upon their neighbors and claimed herds owned by the Iteso and Acholi people. Before the raids, the Acholi had three hundred thousand cattle. By 1997 many Acholi switched to raising donkeys. Their cattle holdings shrank to five thousand. Government efforts to control the Karamajong proved insufficient. Upheavals in Rwanda and Congo, and the eruption of an unrelated Acholi insurgency, brought more Kalashnikovs into the country. A local arms race matured. Attempts to restrict the flow of assault rifles were futile. The Ugandan government chose a new strategy. Hoping to co-opt some of the warlords and to create an informal buffer against the expanding Acholi insurgency, it urged Karamojong men to register their rifles in return for monthly stipends of about ten dollars.23 What had been illegal in Uganda had become so entrenched that policy now sanctioned it with cash.

As the Karamojong were changed by their acquisition of Kalashnikovs, the Egyptian experience with the rifles also took an ugly turn. Egypt’s wars with Israel had yielded it little, whether under King Farouk or under Nasser, and its support for the fedayeen had fanned activities and sentiments it could not control. In 1979, President Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel and agreed to recognize the Jewish state. The treaty enraged the fedayeen and their closest supporters, who turned on Sadat with a loathing reserved for traitors. On October 6, 1981, at a military parade in Cairo, assassins within the Egyptian army struck. While a ceremonial convoy passed the reviewing stand, a lieutenant ran toward the dignitaries standing for the pass and review. The officer with the Kalashnikov seemed part of the performance; perhaps he was to salute. He started firing. At the same time, more soldiers on a troop transport opened fire on the bleachers. Sadat and eleven other people were killed. Egypt passed under martial law.

These three examples—the savvy of Cummings, the vulnerability of Amin’s armories, and the fate of Sadat, cut down by his own guns—were markers. And they were valuable for the smallness of their canvases. Cummings’s business centered on himself, but he could explain the forces that drove a larger system. In Uganda, processes difficult to see in international arms transfers could be traced. In Egypt, the risks of sponsoring terror on a neighbor’s soil had played out in full view, as had the ferocity of automatic-rifle power when miniaturized. The events in Uganda and Egypt also reflected an unstated but disturbing fact. The calamities that visited these governments had roots in steps intended to increase the governments’ strength: acquiring assault rifles to be ready for any foe.

The Soviet Union, seemingly impregnable under Stalin after the Great Patriotic War, was not to last. While it did, its idiosyncratic rules held. By the 1980s, Mikhail Kalashnikov wanted to travel within the Warsaw Pact to observe the production of his rifles elsewhere. He mentioned this desire on a visit to Moscow to the office of Dmitri F. Ustinov, the Soviet minister of defense. Kalashnikov regarded Ustinov as a mentor and friend. The reaction was cold. He sensed his mistake.

Hardly had I started to say that I wanted to see a weapons factory in Bulgaria, when Ustinov became gloomy and frowned. He said in a low voice: “Comrade Major.”

I was in civvies as usual, but the minister’s tone made me want to rise from the armchair and stand at attention.

It should be mentioned that this happened at precisely the time when the Americans had published an insulting story about “the Russian sergeant having armed the whole of the Warsaw Pact,” and they started rapidly raising my military rank. In the morning, I found out that I had been given the rank of senior lieutenant, and in the evening I was already a captain.

Obviously, Ustinov personally monitored my “military career,” and that was the case when I found out that I had been made a Major.

But that didn’t change anything.

I felt a chill go down my spine when the minister said distinctly: “You have not said that. I have not heard you say that. Anything else?”24

Kalashnikov, for all his official achievements, lived within Soviet constraints, no matter that the series of arms carrying his name had entered the official national culture.iv The Soviet Union maintained its military ranks through obligatory mass conscription, and before teenagers were drafted, they were required to master the assembly and disassembly of the AKM. The training was a part of the Program of Pre-Conscription Preparation of Youths, a Ministry of Defense curriculum managed by each school’s military and physical-education instructors. In Soviet schools, rifles were the fourth R. The curriculum also included competitions in donning gas masks, thousand-meter cross-country runs, hundred-meter swims, pull-ups, and throwing simulated hand grenades. All male Soviet students were expected to perform these tasks, along with learning the rudiments of marching, civil defense, and first aid.25 Even students from the most privileged families participated.

The program could be seen in Pripyat, founded in 1970 to support the Nuclear Power Station in the Name of Vladimir I. Lenin, which had been constructed at Chernobyl. Its citizens were selected from accomplished families. Theirs was to be a model city, brick-and-mortar testimony to Soviet progress and the atom’s peaceful use. In Pripyat as elsewhere, the AKM was as surely a part of the curriculum as Lenin, Pushkin, and the periodic table. In one set of evaluations, held at School No. 1 on April 10 and 11, 1986, the tenth-grade boys, most of them sixteen years old, were timed assembling and disassembling their school’s assault rifles. The AKM’s few parts and simple design made it ideal for the exam. Most students needed only thirty-four to fifty seconds to complete the test, held under the watchful gaze and stopwatch of I. D. Peshko, chief referee. Some students were remarkably fast. Andrei Avramenko, born in 1969, took apart his Kalashnikov and put it together again in twenty-eight seconds. Sergei Svirnov performed the chore in twenty-four seconds. Sergey Salih was the best of all, completing the task in twenty-two seconds. His hands must have been a blur. Even the laggard, Oleg Bryukhanon, was capable. He needed seventy-five seconds—and that was the slowest of all.26

Two weeks later, the dream of Pripyat came to ruin. Reactor No. 4 exploded, bombarding Pripyat with radiation. Families were evacuated in an apocalyptic panic while the Kremlin pretended all was well. The evacuees left behind a world in freeze-frame—contaminated, sealed from intrusion, stopped in time. The abandoned city and its records, including I. D. Peshko’s military preparation files, became an exhibit of the Soviet experience everywhere. The preconscription records showed the extent of assault-rifle infiltration into Soviet life. On purely ergonomic grounds they were consistent with records from tests organized by the United States Army in 1966, which underscored the simplicity of the Kalashnikov compared to American-designed arms. In those tests, conducted with American soldiers, the average assembly-disassembly times for the M-14, the M-16, and the AK-47 were seventy-one seconds, eighty seconds, and thirty-four seconds, respectively.27 At sixteen years of age, the schoolboys of Pripyat were quicker than American soldiers with their own service rifles.28 Assembly-disassembly times are not the most important measure of a rifle’s design. But if a rifle is otherwise sound, they can be a measure of some significance. And the preconscription training, the tests held for teenaged boys handling assault rifles as part of their school day, established this: Children, it turned out, could figure out the basics of the Kalashnikov at least as quickly as soldiers could.

*   *   *

From school gymnasiums to jungle patrols to terrorist attacks, the AK-47 and its descendant arms seemed to be almost everywhere in the 1980s—in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations, in Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, in the Middle East. They were represented in the hands of state armies, police and intelligence services, and guerrilla formations and shadowy terrorist groups. The Iraqi and Iranian armies each carried Kalashnikov variants in the trench warfare along their contested border, as did the insurgents they underwrote on each other’s soil. The weapons remained the tools of the strongman and the crackdown, and were used by the People’s Republic of China to clear demonstrators from Tiananmen Square. In the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Kalashnikovs became the primary rifles of all parties—the occupying Soviet army and its Afghan government forces, as well as the mujahideen they fought.

The arrival of the Kalashnikov in Afghanistan predated the Soviet invasion in late 1979. As part of its military aid programs, the Kremlin had provided arms and training to Afghanistan’s government since 1956. In the early 1970s, Pakistan was training insurgents as assets to undermine the presidency of Mohammad Daoud Khan. After the Marxist coup of 1978, and the Soviet invasion the following year, the insurgents acquired arms from several sources, ranging from battlefield collection to defecting Afghan government soldiers. Ultimately they received arms through a mechanism that brought the Soviet assault rifle nearly full circle: an international arms pipeline, fed by several nations, flowing through Pakistan.

The pipeline was an open secret. To feed it, arms were purchased by the Central Intelligence Agency, Saudi Arabia, and wealthy Arabs, among other sources, and moved by containership to the port of Karachi, where they were received by officers of the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence service. From Karachi, most of the arms moved by rail to the Ojhri Camp in Rawalpindi, which became an ISI arms depot—a reservoir of arms and ammunition to be sent over the border. The items were sorted there and carried by truck to Peshawar and redirected again, often to warehouses of Afghan commanders and groups fighting inside Afghanistan. The commanders’ logisticians moved the arms to the border on their own fleets of trucks and passed them off to smaller camps, from where they sometimes moved by animal train. The system was slow. At any point after Karachi it could look mismanaged and vulnerable. Ammunition was piled high in Rawalpindi without adequate attention to safety (and in 1988 the Ojhri Camp depot exploded). The routes to the border were watched by Pakistani border guards and police officers who often extracted bribes. Afghan commanders diverted and resold weapons, redistributing them for cash. And inside Afghanistan, the Soviet army, while mostly road-bound, was actively searching for the pack trains. But the pipe was force-fed enough equipment in Karachi that arms and ammunition flowed out the other side, and the mujahideen were outfitted for war in remote terrain.29 It also proved nearly impervious to interdiction at large scale. In time it was publicly acknowledged to have grown from ten thousand tons of weapons and ordnance in 1983 to sixty-five thousand tons in 1987.

I would liken our system to a tree. The roots represented the ships and aircraft bringing supplies from various countries to Pakistan. The trunk lay from Karachi almost to the border, at which point the many branches lay across the frontier. These branches divided into hundreds of smaller ones inside Afghanistan, taking the sap (arms and ammunition) to the leaves (the Mujahideen). Lop off a small branch, even a large one, and the tree survives, and in time others grow. Only severing the roots or trunk kills the tree. In our case only the branches were subject to attack.30

The path of the Kalashnikov into Afghanistan and through generations of mujahideen has been well established and reasonably well traced. The value of its reconstruction lies in this fact: Processes hidden from view elsewhere in this case eventually came to be known. The sheer scale of shipments ensured that some portion of this movement came to light. In many other wars, determining the origins of arms with precision is more difficult, and few people attempt the task. Often, absent public accounts by people directly involved, inquiries into assault-rifle transfers become a frustrating exercise in working backward. Weapons identified in combatants’ hands are traced, to the extent possible, to their sources. Such efforts have been intermittent, and even the most talented and industrious researcher rarely succeeds in connecting every dot. Most glimpses have been fragmentary. But fragmentary views have value. One of the finer examples, little known and scarcely studied, was the record assembled of weapons used in the 1980s by the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front, or FMLN, which at the time was a socialist insurgent group in El Salvador.

At the close of the Cold War, the Institute for Research in Small Arms in International Security, an assemblage of scholars and arms enthusiasts, underwrote a researcher who created a database of captured FMLN arms. The database grew to include 5,429 weapons, of which 4,713, or almost 87 percent, were assault rifles.v The database confirmed what anyone could see. Assault rifles, rejected by the United States until the 1960s, had come to be regarded as requisite equipment for modern war. But the data did more than document the obvious. They revealed the complexity and richness of a guerrilla movement’s sources of supply. They also pointed to the ease with which assault rifles travel from place to place, overcoming logistical difficulties, geographical obstacles, or efforts at interdiction.

For the war in El Salvador, the majority of the assault rifles captured by the government, and the preponderance of the assault rifles captured early in the war, were American-made M-16s. Since the White House did not purposely supply the FMLN and backed the government the movement sought to overthrow, the natural deduction was that these weapons had traveled roundabout routes to insurgent hands. When the researcher traced serial numbers, the discovery was startling. Of almost 3,000 captured M-16s, nearly 1,900 could be traced back to a previous owner. Of these, 1,239 had once been in the inventory of the United States military, including 973 rifles documented as having been in Vietnam. The American military had left them in Asia, where they had been collected—perhaps by a private broker like Cummings but more likely by the intelligence service of a communist government—and shipped back across the sea. Another nearly 600 of the guerrillas’ M-16s had been provided to the Salvadoran government as part of the American foreign military sales program and had leaked from government possession to the insurgency.31 In sum, the United States had armed its foes, indirectly but surely. The war echoed edicts of Mao: “Guerrillas must not depend too much on an armory. The enemy is the principal source of their supply.”32

The channels of supply became more varied and sophisticated with time. Early in the insurgency, the Salvadoran government captured several primitively scrubbed FAL assault rifles; on each, a drill had been used to cut a hole through the magazine well where a crest identifying the nation of manufacturevi had been located. Whoever attempted to hide the rifles’ national origin had missed a step. The serial numbers remained intact. A review of these markings found that the rifles had entered the region in 1959 in Cuba, in the last moments of the rule of Fulgencio Batista, when Fabrique-Nationale, the Belgian arms manufacturer, had a contract to provide its NATO-standard assault rifle to Cuba.33 The arms became property of Fidel Castro’s government after revolution chased Batista from power, and from there they had been provided to like-minded revolutionaries a hop away. These rifles were old, worn, and heavy. As the FMLN picked up momentum and recruits, it sought newer arms, leading to the acquisition of M-16s—a much more impressive logistical feat. By the mid-1980s, the movement’s sources of supply further diversified, and Kalashnikovs began to reach the insurgents, including large numbers of Kalashnikovs from North Korea and a smaller quantity from the East German plant in Wiesa. A few insurgents also carried Yugoslav RPKs. By 1989 Dragunov sniper rifles had been captured, too.34 (These weapons also had been scrubbed. The serial numbers had been filed off, though their Cyrillic markings showed them to be of Soviet origin.) While the socialist suite of infantry arms edged in on the war, the markings on captured 7.62x39 cartridges used in FMLN Kalashnikovs revealed that their ammunition had been manufactured in Cuba. What did it all mean? The insurgents’ arms-procurement arrangements had progressed, from rifles abandoned by capitalist enemies in Cuba and Vietnam, to interlocking and complementary socialist sources. The socialist system of export had matured. Kalashnikov assembly lines—created under the auspices of defending the Soviet Union and ensuring arms standardization for conventional communist forces—had developed into a supply network for insurgency in the Americas. This was armed revolution practically applied. It was also what it looked like, in logistical and ideological terms, when the Kremlin’s brand of socialism worked. Each of these Kalashnikovs, and they were now appearing in every war, represented an incongruous achievement. As it groaned and buckled in its last years, the Soviet Union was struggling to deliver food to the citizens of Moscow. Its weapons reached the far corners of the world.

Then the system fell. Mikhail S. Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, and by 1986 the party was loosening its hold and allowing reforms. For those in Eastern Europe under communist rule and Soviet occupation, the desire for independence—suppressed by violence several times since World War II—was rekindled. In early 1989, the formerly banned trade union, Solidarność, exacted a commitment from Poland’s communist government to hold elections, which it won overwhelmingly in June, creating an irreparable crack. Events accelerated. Czechoslovakia held its Velvet Revolution in November 1989; the Berlin Wall fell the same month. Romanians revolted in December. Hungary held free elections in spring 1990, and Bulgaria in June. Ukraine declared its independence that July, followed by Azerbaijan and Armenia. Georgia and the Central Asian republics announced their independence the next year. Albania voted its communists from office in 1992.

Violence marred communism’s last hours. Deposed President Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania was executed with his wife after a hasty victor’s trial; they were shot, husband and wife standing side by side with hands tied behind their backs, by soldiers firing Kalashnikovs on Christmas Day. Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, much more blood was spilled, sometimes by officials trying to maintain power, other times because of ethnic tensions that had been both stoked and contained under Soviet rule. Riots were put down with Soviet force in 1986 in Almaty, in 1989 in Tbilisi, in 1990 in Baku, and in 1991 in Riga and Vilnius. Fighting broke out between Azeris and Armenians in early 1988, igniting a six-year war. In 1991, Georgia attacked separatist South Ossetia, and Chechnya declared its independence from Russia, setting a course for a larger and more costly war that would see human-rights abuses by Russia and its proxy forces on a grand scale, and the separatists’ adoption of the tactics of terror. Yugoslavia was fracturing, heading into a series of ethnic wars. Civil war erupted in Tajikistan in 1992, the year fighting broke out in Transnistria, and between Georgia and the Abkhaz.

During these years, an arms-pilferage drama unfolded across the Warsaw Pact. The events in the German Democratic Republic provided one example. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, pitching the country on a new course. During more than forty years of communist rule, East Germany had become an armed police state and well-stocked military front. The arsenals were large and varied, augmented by the secret production in the Wiesa rifle plant. The Nationale Volksarmee, or National People’s Army, was the most heavily armed organization. But the police, the secret police, and the border guards had arms stores as well, and as many as four hundred thousand military weapons had been cached in factories, positioned to arm workers’ militias ahead of national uprising or war. Party officials had another one hundred thousand small arms. The dismantling of the wall marked the beginning of German reunification. But the procedures of uniting the nation and its property were neither immediate nor clear. Nearly a year passed before the West German Bundeswehr, the federal defense forces, assumed responsibility for East German arms stores. By then, the depots were no longer full—large numbers of weapons had drifted from state custody into the possession of collectors, criminals, and faraway rebel bands. Adding to the arms-bazaar atmosphere was the presence of the garrisoned Soviet troops, some of whom remained on German soil into 1994. These soldiers and their officers were implicated in sales and diversions, too.

Increasingly, Soviet soldiers are caught peddling small arms, hand grenades, and larger hardware to German citizens in exchange for alcohol, pornographic movies, and Deutschmarks. Pistols can be had for less than US$100, AK assault rifles along with ammunition is [sic] being sold on the black market for US$200 to US$300. Two journalists scored a scoop last autumn when they succeeded in buying from a Soviet major for a total of 3,000 Deutschmarks (approximately US$2,000) a number of hand grenades, an AK74, ammunition including an anti-tank mine along with one perfectly operational SAM-7, the Red Army’s equivalent to the US Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile.

Within the last year black market sales of ex-NVA or Soviet weaponry has grown to unprecedented proportions in Germany. In Berlin everything including 120mm mortars had found their way into the hands of collectors. Much more of a problem than misguided gun-nuts are smuggling rings that recently have come to the attention of the police. One of these rings was uncovered when Stuttgart authorities got hold of two independently operating groups in the vicinity of that southwestern industrial city. Receiving AKs, pistols and ammunition from a Turkish connection in East Berlin, the two groups dispatched the guns to Yugoslavia’s rebel groups in Kosovo province. One at a time, the weapons were carried past border checkpoints by returning Croatian and Serbian migrant workers using the weekly shuttle buses that travels [sic] from the Stuttgart area where many of the migrant workers have found work in the heart of Germany’s automobile industry.

Various incidents prove that the above examples are not exceptional occurrences but rather are the tip of a small arms iceberg.35

The iceberg extended beyond Germany. Other nations had larger stockpiles and less capable successor governments. In the early 1990s, Albania maintained a veneer of control over its postcommunist affairs. Appearances did not hold. Its leaders knew little of business, and beneath their assurances that an orderly transition from totalitarian bunker state to market economy was under way, the country’s economy was carried along by Ponzi schemes fronting as legitimate investments. A large fraction of the population poured savings into these traps. In 1996 the end came. The schemes ran dry. The funds defaulted. The population’s savings vanished. Panic came quickly as the pyramids collapsed. In 1997, public anger turned to rage. Rioting broke out early in the year, driven by popular fury at the government for not protecting the people from nationwide fraud. Citizens ransacked government buildings and turned on the army and the police. Just as had happened in Moroto in Uganda, crowds seized the state’s guns. The Kalashnikov factory at Gramsh was picked clean. Armed gangs formed, and in many regions anarchy prevailed. The highest pitch of disorder lasted several weeks, during which hundreds of people were killed. By the fall, when the government offered an assessment of what it had lost, the numbers were staggering: nearly seven hundred thousand firearms, 1.5 billion rounds of ammunition, more than 3 million hand grenades, and a million land mines. As much as 80 percent of the army’s small arms were missing. Researchers later claimed the official estimates were low.36 Some of these weapons were recovered through government offers of amnesty. Most were not. Many went north to the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, which at the time was listed by the State Department as a terrorist group. The next year, the KLA was fighting a war against Serbian troops.

Ukraine provided another example, both of the incredible size of the stockpiles and of a means of leakage. In the early 1990s, after the Warsaw Pact had dissolved, Soviet military units gradually left the lands they had occupied. They turned toward home—long, deflated columns rolling eastward by train and by truck. The remnants of the Soviet army lacked the organization, will, and resources to carry all its equipment. It did try to carry much of its weapons and ammunition. Many columns reached Russia. Others made it only to Ukraine, where their journey stopped. Ukraine, already a prestaged conventional arsenal, became an arms dump along the army’s road home, a nation where rail cars crammed with munitions were abandoned in the open air. (In the area around Odessa, 1,500 standard freight cars full of ammunition were idled and exposed; near Chudniv another 330 cars were unattended; near Slabuta roughly 1,000 freight cars came to a stop.) The burden taxed Ukraine in extraordinary ways. After trying to count its inheritance, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claimed to own between 2.44 million and 3 million tons of ammunition in as many as 220 depots, and an estimated 7 million military small armsvii—roughly one hundred firearms for every soldier.

Once this sort of material was available, factors that ensured its travel went to work: international demand, inadequate inventory procedures, an overwhelmed and inexperienced government populated by corrupt officials, weak international controls, and networks of brokers ready to match buyers to goods. Little in the gun-runner’s world is shared in public; transparency is typically accidental. The exact amounts of arms and ordnance that leaked from Ukraine, and their destinations, will never be publicly known. But two deals arranged by one particular broker, a debaucher of cartoonish proportion, did tumble into view.

In August 2000 the police in Italy raided a suite in a hotel outside Milan and arrested a large, naked man well into a night of prostitutes, drink, and cocaine. The man was Leonid Minin, a Ukrainian-born arms smuggler who had become a naturalized citizen of Israel. Arms dealing, to a large degree, had once been conducted between European courtiers and salesmen who wanted to be perceived as gentlemen. The Gatlings and Maxims and the former military officers in their company, with their fine dress, presented themselves as refined in experience and learning. Gatling insisted on being called Doctor. Maxim cultivated England’s elite. Samuel Cummings, to the end, had panache. Theirs could be a dark business, but many practitioners put on airs. The upscale touch had its reasons. Some salesmen demonstrated weapons before princes and presidents, or generals who hailed from military academies where cadets learned to use their spoons. Minin was another sort. He was corpulent, hard-partying, and coarse—a dealer who moved casually through the post-Soviet underworld and all of its crudities, assessing weapons stocks and making useful friends. He fit a niche. He could hobnob with the warlord in need of weapons in one country and in another country speak the language of the shabby colonel whose nation had lost the Cold War and had excess weapons under lock and key. He was fifty-two years old, had many aliases, and was a streetwise businessman and able slob. In his possession at the time of his arrest, aside from the drugs, were five hundred thousand dollars’ worth of unrefined diamonds and hundreds of pages of documents related to his business dealings, including the business of running guns. The documents showed that in a productive run of years seeking profits in the husk of the Soviet Union, Leonid Minin had assembled the social connections and basket of shell companies to obscure the movements of illicit cargo with paper shuffles that no one had managed to unwind. Some of these papers, once translated from multiple languages, offered a view of two weapons shipments to Africa from Ukraine.

For the first transfer, in March 1999, Minin organized the air shipment to Burkina Faso of three thousand AKM rifles, a million rounds of M1943 ammunition, twenty-five rocket-propelled grenades, and one type each of antiaircraft and antitank missiles, with eighty missiles in all. The shipment, sixty-eight tons of freight on an Antonov-124 cargo jet, was enough to arm a midsized rebel force. Though these weapons were officially listed as bound for Burkina Faso, they were not for that country’s use. Once the plane landed in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, the weapons were offloaded and transferred to another aircraft. This second aircraft, owned by Minin, shuttled the weapons by back-and-forth flights to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, which was under United Nations arms embargo at the time. The second transfer, organized the following year, was larger. It included 10,500 Kalashnikovs, 120 sniper rifles, and 8 million rounds of ammunition. The cargo was flown out of the same Ukrainian airfield, at Gostomel, northwest of Kiev, and carried on the first leg by the same Antonov-124. The flight landed on July 15, 2000, in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, and the arms aboard were reshipped to Liberia via a smaller cargo plane, which operated with a faked registration. Once in Liberia, the weapons and munitions were transferred overland to the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, a rebel group in Sierra Leone backed by Charles Taylor, the former guerrilla who at the time was the warlord president of Liberia.

Under international rules, legal arms shipments are required to be accompanied by documents known as end-user certificates. These certifications, provided by the nation receiving the shipments, officially declare who the final recipient of the weapons will be. They serve as a government’s seal of consent on arms deals on its territory. Minin’s operation revealed how easily the rules could be sidestepped. He had provided the Ukrainian state arms export agency with end-user certificates signed by officials from Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire; the documents claimed that these countries were the end users. They weren’t. (Such records, arms dealers say, are easy to obtain, as simple as paying a bribe to a defense attaché on duty in Asian and African embassies in Europe. The paperwork can be arranged over dinner, even lunch. Brussels has been a favorite stop for procuring them, the dealers say, because many impoverished nations that have no representation in Eastern European capitals where arms deals are made have diplomatic representation there.)37 The fraudulent certificates gave the Ukrainian arms export agency, which was riddled with corruption, plausible deniability, though many Ukrainian state officials were said to profit from the deals. By the time Minin was arrested in Italy, the weapons were already in the field, in the hands of the RUF. Minin’s operation had other elements that easily skirted international controls, including shell companies registered in Gibraltar and the British Virgin Islands and banks that accepted wired deposits in Hungary, Cyprus, and the United States.38 With air traffic control over Africa spotty, he had entered a business that was surprisingly secure.

If all of this looked complicated, it was complicated only in its unraveling. In practice, it was rather simple: Minin was a broker, a man who had access to both ends of an illegal arms deal—the people who wanted weapons in one country, and the people who controlled weapons stockpiles in another. With a bevy of bank accounts and shell companies created for the cost of registering them offshore, he assembled the mechanics of black-market transfers. The deals, to a casual observer, were masked by the patina of legitimacy. And once customers were assured of this, Minin passed along the prices for purchases and shipment, arranged transit, and ensured that each party at each leg had the necessary paperwork to present to the authorities, such as they were, to stamp, sign, or seal. All that was required was money, and contacts, and a willingness to break the law.

Once the payments from Africa were posted in his offshore bank accounts, Minin dispatched planeloads of Ukraine’s weapons—made for the Cold War, cached in European bunkers, marooned by the Soviet collapse, and tended by government officials both incompetent and criminal—on their journey to Africa, thereby moving guns from a northern Cold War front to the postcolonial power struggles to the south. In this way, the Kalashnikovs and their ammunition, paired fuels for modern-day African war, were handed out to the thugs. These were not ordinary thugs. The RUF, among its many crimes, specialized in mutilation. In raids on villages along the Liberian border, it captured civilians and amputated limbs by hacking them off. It then released survivors and burned down villages as warnings to others. Its leaders with time were indicted on war-crime charges, as was Charles Taylor, who helped ferry them their guns. Sierra Leone and Liberia were not the only African countries to suffer from war criminals emboldened by excess Soviet guns, nor were they the only African countries that suffered atrocities and mutilations at such men’s hands. The list is long: Angola, Rwanda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and others. And thus the Avotomat Kalashnikova earned another name. To Europe’s south, a busy destination for assault rifles made elsewhere, the acronym AK meant not just the Automatic by Kalashnikov. The letters stood for something more: the Africa Killer, the gun that helped sink country after country into fresh cycles of blood.

Almost no one was moving on the red dirt track leading to the village of Ajulu. The dozen or so young soldiers from the Sinia Brigade, hiding in the vegetation a few yards off the road, had little to do as minutes stretched into hours. They lounged and paced with their assault rifles, chatting, passing time between crimes. All the while they listened, waiting for a car or truck.

The group had been in place since 5:00 A.M., on orders from their commander, Joseph Kony. Their mission was not a hard one, at least not physically. They had been instructed to waylay travelers and lead them into the bush. Another team, responsible for administering warnings and collective punishment, waited in a gully a short walk away, ready with their razor blades. Only occasionally would a victim appear. It was 1998. The people of Acholiland, the area of northwestern Uganda where these fighters roamed the forests, had been living in fear for more than a decade. The survivors had adapted their habits to avoid the horrors of the roads. Yet even the most cautious could not stay off the roads entirely. People needed to go to market or for medical treatment in Gulu or Kitgum, or to visit relatives in the displaced-person camps near the Nile. From the rebels’ perspective, the day had not been lost. They had captured several people, cut them, and released them to stagger home. One of the hidden fighters, Patrick Okwera, saw the next victim: a man about thirty years of age. He was pedaling toward them on a bicycle. The fighters prepared themselves. When the man came close, they would rush from hiding and seize him, too.

Patrick was fourteen years old and in his fifth year as a soldier of the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, the Sinia Brigade’s parent command. His life, and that of his family, ran through Joseph Kony’s nihilistic and inexplicable war. Patrick’s parents had been abducted by the LRA when he was a small boy. The rebels released his mother. They chopped his father to pieces. Patrick’s own encounter with the LRA came in 1993, when rebels kidnapped him from a stream in which he was bathing. Later, his younger brother, Jimmy, was abducted, too. The boys were reunited in LRA camps in southern Sudan, where they were taught to kill. They became child soldiers, molded for violence by commanders who led them back into the bush. Several years on, by the grisly standards by which the LRA judged him, Patrick Okwera was a success. He had been pressed into service as a nine-year-old and quickly sensed that survival required compliance. He had complied, becoming a killer within days of his capture. Now just past puberty, he was a veteran. He knew the tactics of the ambush, was experienced with the details of the kidnapping raid. He had fought in several battles and shown himself to be an effective supervisor of other children under arms. He had stormed enemy barracks, and helped cache weapons and ammunition throughout the countryside, so that if the Lord’s Resistance Army lost Sudanese support its war might go on. By Patrick’s own estimate he had shot at least thirty people with his automatic rifle. He had not hesitated yet.

Outside his depleted family, Patrick’s kidnapping and conversion were barely noticeable. The Lord’s Resistance Army relied on child abduction to maintain its ranks. Tens of thousands of children had been stolen from their lives, often under circumstances more spectacular than his, including raids in which children were roped together and led into the bush with wrists lashed behind their backs. Sometimes the miserable columns became death marches. Those who straggled risked execution at the hands of the other captives, who were forced to beat fellow villagers to death. The first ordeal ended only upon arrival at the rebel bases, where the survivors were reshaped. The boys became fighters. The girls were forced into lives as servants, cooks, and sex slaves. Awarded as wives to LRA commanders, they were repeatedly raped. Many bore children in forest encampments. Abducted children were the clay of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla force summoned into being by Kony, who claimed to channel holy spirits and follow the will of God.

Patrick stopped the man on the bicycle. He and several other children led their captive at gunpoint into the forest. The man trembled as they walked. He was silent. Patrick understood: The man knew what to expect. Up ahead was the cutting team, and there, with a razor, boy soldiers would slice away the man’s lips and nose.39

The Lord’s Resistance Army, sinister and bizarre, descended from a mystical guerrilla movement founded by Alice Auma, a childless Acholi woman who by various accounts was either Kony’s aunt or his cousin. In 1985, Auma returned from a period of isolation on the banks of the Nile claiming to have been possessed by the spirit of an Italian army officer, whom she called Lakwena. Lakwena, she said, spoke dozens of languages. His name meant Word of God. In the early months after her supposed possession, Alice passed time aimlessly, working as a healer and oracle in Gulu; an enchanted freak. The spirit Lakwena grew into a taskmaster. He upped the duo’s ambitions. Late in 1986 Alice announced that Lakwena had ordered her to organize a movement to overthrow the Ugandan government, which was led by Yoweri Museveni, a former guerrilla commander who had displaced a post-Amin Acholi president. At that, Alice Lakwena, a composite of personalities in the form of a young woman with no military experience, became as strange and underqualified a guerrilla leader as the world had known. Yet she found a following. Uganda was suffering, and the Acholi felt abused by Museveni. Her message of rejuvenation appealed.

Lakwena organized her recruits into a cultish military wing known as the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, and channeled other spirits to assume each unit’s command. Wrong Element led Company A; he claimed to hail from the United States. Ching Poh, from China, commanded Company B. A spirit variously called Franko or Mzee commanded Company C. He was responsible for food. Alice was fresh-faced and often dressed in long white robes. As the spirits seemed to alternate within her, she whispered, then raged. With her followers ringed round, she sat on a lawn chair and promulgated the Holy Spirit Safety Precautions, rules that required her soldiers to fight standing and never to hide behind cover. Service in her war demanded faith. But the precautions were more than instructions for battle. They formed a code of social behavior, which Lakwena insisted would protect her adherents from harm. Among the prohibitions were bans on stealing, smoking, drinking alcohol, carrying charms, killing snakes, or shaking hands with anyone while traveling to a fight. Sex was forbidden, as was killing enemy prisoners. Some precautions would seem easy to satisfy, like not carrying a walking stick into battle. For the movement’s men Precaution Number Twenty was easier still: “Thou shalt have two testicles, neither more nor less.”40

Rituals arose around Alice’s invocations. Before battle, the soldiers attended purification ceremonies and were rubbed with shea butter oil, which Alice said would render their skin bulletproof. Many Holy Spirit fighters did not carry rifles. Those who did, at least in the beginning, were ordered not to aim at their enemies, but to fire in the general direction and allow spirits to guide bullets toward flesh. Others believed that if they chose the right rocks, those rocks, when thrown, would explode like grenades. The Holy Spirit Mobile Forces were not a rational military organization. But their cultishness gave them an early power against their foes, some of whom believed Auma’s magic was real. Had she adopted classic guerrilla tactics, she might have led an effective insurgency. Instead, the mobile forces’ tactics were theatric, a show resembling a parade. Their order of battle ensured the movement’s short life.

The Holy Spirit soldiers took up positions and, as ordered by the spirit, began to sing pious songs for 10, 15 or 20 minutes. Then the time-keeper blew a whistle. On this sign, the troops began marching forward in a long line, shouting at the tops of their voices: “James Bond! James Bond! James Bond!” Lakwena’s chief technician was named James and called himself James Bond. The stone commanders led them and the line commanders ensured that the front line was maintained. Each stone commander carried a stone wrapped in cloth, which he threw at the enemy, at the same time calling to each company and leading spirit, “Ching Poh, Franko, or Wrong Element, take up your position, command your people!” This stone marked the limit past which the enemy bullets could not penetrate, thus creating a protective zone.41

After a few spectacular successes, the movement suffered its defeats. The ending arrived on the march on Kampala, Uganda’s capital, when the Holy Spirit soldiers, many without weapons and calling for James Bond, were subjected to assault rifle and artillery fire. They were cut down. The survivors were put to flight. Alice promptly announced that the spirits had abandoned her. She slinked off for Kenya, where she was granted asylum and faded from view, aside from occasional interviews with journalists, who documented her end as an exiled lush, hooked on gin, spiritless, vowing a return.

Her homecoming was unnecessary. Joseph Kony replaced her as the possessed guerrilla leader of Acholiland. The new commander had learned what Auma had not. Kony did not ask his child soldiers to rest their faith on shea butter and stone grenades alone. He made sure to give them guns.

Joseph Kony raised Alice Auma’s millennial weirdness several notches, blending her mystical persona with more practical ways to kill. He claimed to inherit her otherworldly contacts in 1987, when spirits took possession of him. His spirits formed a troupe. Juma Oris was their chairman, and mandated that Uganda be ruled by the Ten Commandants. Silly Salindi, a female Sudanese spirit also known as Malia Mackay, set down a fuller set of rules: no smoking or drinking, and sex only when allowed. She required prayer three times a day from the LRA’s impressed conscripts, and ordered that whenever they crossed rivers or passed anthills they must make the sign of the cross. Who Are You, an American spirit, also had an alias: Zinck Brickey. He was in charge of intelligence. King Bruce controlled heavy weapons and kept alive the idea of the stone grenade as part of the army’s supporting arms. Dr. Salan organized medical care, and insisted he could bring fertility to the barren. Willing Hing Sue, a Chinese spirit, was said to make the enemy hallucinate, even to imagine that the LRA had armored troop carriers that floated in the air. There were many more. A former LRA captain described how the spirits appeared.

In the beginning he was possessed sometimes two or three times a day. . . . Kony would always be alerted by “Who Are You” that a spirit would come at a certain time to speak for a certain time (for example at 1400 hours for three or four minutes). Kony’s secretary (Chief to Lakwena) would make the preparations, and Kony would dress in a white robe. A glass of water, a bible, and a rosary were placed on the table. To start the possession Kony would dip his fingers into a clear glass of water. Multiple spirits would pass through Kony in a single session. On average at least three spirits would talk in a session. Junior spirits always talked first. After the session the LRA commander would address the crowd. No one corrected what the spirits said, nor did people dare question the spirits.

When Kony dipped his finger in glass [sic] of water he slumped forward for a few seconds, then sat up. Each spirit had a separate personality. His voice changed to a woman’s tone of voice when possessed by Malia. Some spirits spoke faster than others. Who Are You was rude—quarreling—and he complained a lot. Chairman Juma Oris talked slow and calm with a flat tone like an “important person.” Malia gave morale and hope after operations, and would say that those injured would recover with help from Dr. Salan.42

Kony’s spirits set rules: Pigeons were sacred and not to be consumed; fish could be eaten as long as they had scales; eating pigs was forbidden, but warthogs were meat. Shea butter oil was believed to make LRA soldiers bulletproof; in time, this belief subsided, apparently overcome by facts.43Setting aside Kony’s mimicry, there was an important difference between the movements. If Alice Lakwena had intended to purify Acholiland and then Uganda, Kony and his spirits had another plan—to subjugate it by force.

In almost any other setting or any other time, Kony would have been marked down as a barking madman, a person to be walked wide around when encountered on the street. But Acholiland was rife with cross-border intrigues, and across Uganda’s northern line, in Sudan, Kony found support. Sudan was willing to arm him and the abducted children with whom he crossed out of Uganda, and to use the LRA to undermine a neighboring state. With support from Khartoum, Kony encamped in southern Sudan and built an army of children with Kalashnikovs. The guns were issued from Sudanese government trucks.44 His soldiers carried thousands of rifles on raids back into Uganda, and to fight the Dinka, a Sudanese minority tribe that the government in Khartoum also wanted Kony to harass. They hid thousands more in the hills and forests along the border. In this way, Kony made his name. Acholiland burned. “The Sudanese government gave it a lot of firewood to make it cook well,” said Lieutenant Colonel Francis Alero, another of Kony’s former commanders.45

Assault rifles did more than amplify the war. They gave it stamina, a duration it otherwise could not have had. The children sensed this. “The Arabs gave Kony many weapons, and up to now that is how he has been able to resist,” said one former soldier. “Without the guns it would have just been sticks.”46 The Lord’s Resistance Army—its crimes and their consequences, along with its longevity—condensed the perils of assault-rifle proliferation. The simplicity of the Kalashnikov allowed Kony and his commanders to convert columns of abducted children, roped together like slaves, into a terrifying irregular force. Young and illiterate fighters, some as young as eight or nine, could be instructed on how to load and shoot their rifles, and how to keep them clean. “It takes only one week,” said Colonel Alero. The boy soldiers were not good shots.viii But in short-range ambushes and surprise raids, running and spinning and firing, often targeting civilians, they turned their own homeland into a hell.

The Kalashnikov’s traits also allowed the LRA to keep its campaigns alive for years. Kony’s brigades cached guns crudely. The Ugandan climate was harsh. And yet if the weapons were buried with a modest amount of care—first coated with oil and sometimes also with charcoal and ash to repel insects—they could be retrieved as long as four years later and still be made to fire.47 Ammunition was also stored underground, stuffed into jerry cans. One former child soldier, Dennis Okwonga, abducted at age thirteen, was ordered to restore rifles pulled from hiding. The Kalashnikovs had been buried in caves, towering ant colonies, or holes dug into the earth. Before being hidden, they had been oiled, bundled within tent tarps, and placed on a sheet of plastic in pits. A second plastic sheet had covered them, then a layer of rocks and dirt. Dennis helped dig apart an anthill that contained 240 Kalashnikovs and four 82-millimeter mortar tubes. The work began.

Some were rusted and the ants had eaten the handgrips. We had to shape new hand grips with wood. It didn’t take long to make them all work. There were three of us, sometimes more. We worked for one month to recondition them and we reburied them. We test-fired them—they all worked. We at first used water to wash them, to get rust off. Then we used oil, gun oil. One pit had 240 guns but they brought us guns from other places—898 in all. A storekeeper had to keep track of the numbers. AK-47s and mortars. All 898 worked after we cleaned them.48

In this way, the Acholi insurgency progressed from Alice Auma’s hapless spirit show to Joseph Kony’s organized brigades. The LRA was not alone in its use of child soldiers. But its development from sideshow movement into a near-permanent presence along Uganda’s northwest border and the frontiers of Congo served to illustrate how such a force can be mobilized, set loose, and then survive. Armed with Kalashnikovs, Kony’s brigades displaced more than a million and a half Ugandans. They punished suspected informants mercilessly and cut away the lips and noses of residents as a warning not to pass information to Museveni’s soldiers. Their actions provoked reactions. The population suffered from both sides. The Ugandan government forced rural Acholi residents into displaced-person camps, both to protect and to control them. The Acholi economy withered. Eventually, the government invested in heavy weapons to chase the child soldiers down. The use of Mi-24 helicopter gunships was decisive in pushing the brigades across Uganda’s borders. But Kony and his army’s remnants lingered on, moving between Uganda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a force drawing strength from the resilience of its guns.

During the years of Kony’s rise, the Kalashnikov was more than a requisite tool for regional African war. On the Pashtun frontier, where Kalashnikov saturation was as dense as anywhere, it became a gateway to international jihad. After the Soviet army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban formed and claimed control of much of the country. Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan provided sanctuary for militant Islamic groups and parties. The international recruits who entered this world were ushered from guesthouses in Peshawar and Kabul to camps in the Afghan provinces, where they were trained for terror and guerrilla war.

Camps operated near Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, Khost, Kandahar, Kabul, and elsewhere. Different parties—some local, others from Central Asia, Kashmir, Africa, or Arabia—operated their own schools and taught their charges in a variety of languages, including Urdu, Uzbek, Tajik, Russian, Arabic, and Pashto.49 The schools shared more than ideology and common purpose. They began instruction with an inaugural lesson—how to use the Avtomat Kalashnikova. Notebooks of students who attended these courses, recovered across Afghanistan in 2001, underlined the preeminent place that Kalashnikov rifles had realized in introducing new jihadists to their holy war. The handwritten notebooks the students left behind showed that the recruits attended classes covering the history and characteristics of the AKM and other Kalashnikov variants and received basic instruction in their use. Later lessons covered tactics, including the fundamentals of patrolling and ambushes, and immediate-action drills—the steps to be taken by small patrols upon making contact with a foe. The instruction was of mediocre quality. Some of it contained errors or unrealistic descriptions of the weapons’ qualities. (A class given to Asadullah, a recruit in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which became an al Qaeda affiliate in the late 1990s, included charts claiming that an AKM had a one-thousand-meter range.) But the instruction was earnest, consistent, and meticulous, suggesting that whoever had organized it had given it considerable thought. The Kalashnikov was viewed by the jihad’s trainers as a fighter’s first tool.

Its prominence was demonstrated by a simple fact: The extent of Kalashnikov proliferation by the late 1990s was such that the only question for a fighter seeking to obtain one was price. The price of a Kalashnikov is often misunderstood, and in many conversations subject to distortion. One common view has long held, and falsely, that in many regions of the world an AK-47 can be purchased for the cost of a chicken or a sack of grain. Kofi A. Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations from 1997 through 2006, repeated these lines, and added that an AK-47 “can be bought for as little as $15.”50 Such prices may have existed in one place or another for a very brief time. But loudness and repetition are not truth, and these statements, echoed by journalists and arms-control advocates over the years, are best viewed with skepticism. The more realistic retail price range for a single automatic Kalashnikov in much of the developing world, depending on many factors (the rifle’s exact type, nation of manufacture, and condition, the local laws and security conditions at the time and point of sale, the experience of the purchaser) is on the order of several hundred dollars. In some conflicts, a thousand dollars is not rare.

Prices climb when and where Kalashnikovs are difficult to obtain. In nations capable of enforcing the laws they pass, strict gun control can send prices soaring. In the United States, a well-used fully automatic Chinese Type 56 Kalashnikov, in 2005, could cost $10,000;51 the price is higher as of this writing. But the United States is its own case, and prices there are not indicative of prices in regions where the Kalashnikov line is readily available or widely used. Other examples are more germane. In eastern Uganda in the late 1980s, after more than fifteen years of local Kalashnikov proliferation, an AK-47 could be bought for about $200, or traded for three or four cattle52—a good bit more than a chicken. In the arms bazaars along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, prices for a Kalashnikov ranged from $1,500 to $3,500 during the early years of the 1980s, when demand for weapons for the war against the Soviet army outstripped supply. By the late 1980s, as other governments shipped hundreds of thousands of rifles to the war, Kalashnikov prices had dropped. They reached roughly $700 by the time the Soviet army withdrew. Prices then sank further, dipping nearly to $300 by 2000, before climbing again with the onset of new war.53 In Iraq, Kalashnikovs could be purchased in early to mid-2003 for $150 or less, the soft retail prices reflecting an abundance of weapons available as the Baathist state security structures disbanded and weapons flooded markets, as well as the brief sense of optimism immediately after Saddam Hussein was toppled.54 As the insurgency grew and sectarian violence spread, and as new forms of demand pressured supply—including an influx of contractors seeking assault rifles for security duties—Kalashnikov prices moved up. By 2005, an AKM clone with a fixed stock cost roughly $450. By 2006, these same rifles cost $650 to $800, with higher prices being paid for Kalashnikovs with folding stocks, which can be more readily concealed and are easier to fire from within a car. In the end, a Kalashnikov on the retail market, which often means on the gray or black market, is like a handmade carpet in a shop. It is worth what a seller can convince a buyer to pay for it. Many factors determine price, and an astute buyer and informed seller can haggle over the details of a gun—not just condition, but Romanian versus Hungarian, Chinese versus Russian, under-folding versus a side-folding collapsible stock—the way collectors might debate the relative merits of a Turkmen, Azeri, or Persian tribal rug.

Not just cash and barter have been used to acquire rifles; extortion has proven an effective means. In Chechnya, insurgents often gain rifles and ammunition through novel agreements. A local fighting cell will use middlemen to negotiate with Russian or pro-Russian Chechen units for truces. In exchange for not attacking a certain Russian position for a prescribed length of time, the insurgents exact a tax paid in armament—a rifle, a can of ammunition, perhaps a sack of grenades. Sometimes to close deals, they sweeten agreements by delivering vodka regularly to a government checkpoint or position. In this way, Russian units have arranged quiet tours.55 Such arrangements are mercurial, and similar pressures can be applied in the other direction and serve as a mechanism for disarmament. Russian units, when seeking to capture weapons, have set up roadblocks and impounded Chechen civilians’ cars and trucks. For each vehicle to be released, the soldiers tell the evicted drivers, the price is one Kalashnikov rifle, to be obtained as the vehicle’s owners see fit.56 In such situations, a rifle becomes very expensive—worth as much as a family’s automobile.

Prices can be set in yet other ways, including special cases that have little to do with needing a weapon for war, as when a weapon’s novelty or symbolism creates prestige. Prestige within Kalashnikov culture, like prestige surrounding other product lines with large followings, almost invariably drives up price. Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, who headed the Afghan bureau of the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, claimed that the CIA paid $5,000 for the first AK-74—the new Soviet assault rifle that fired the smaller cartridge—captured in Afghanistan in the 1980s.57 At other times a weapon can assume an aura, and aura similarly affects price. Weapons even resembling the smallest Kalashnikovs of all, the AKSU-74, a short-barreled, collapsible-stock design that American gun enthusiasts call the Krinkov and that Osama bin Laden has been photographed with, could cost more than $2,000 during the most violent period of the most recent war in Iraq.58 This weapon had by then picked up a regional nickname that gave it jihadist cachet: “the Osama.” Bin Laden’s selection of this design (it is less than twenty inches long and weighs not quite six pounds) was on technical merits a strange endorsement. An AKSU-74 is inaccurate and fires rounds with less muzzle velocity than an AK-74, making it potentially less useful and lethal than many available choices. But people who regard themselves as warriors inhabit worlds in which symbols matter. And in the particular history of bin Laden’s martial surroundings—western Pakistan and Afghanistan of the last three decades—a short-barreled Kalashnikov emanated a trophy’s distinction. Relatively new, the AKSU-74 had been carried in the Soviet-Afghan War by specialized soldiers, including helicopter and armor crews, for whom a smaller weapon was useful in the tight confines of their transit. For an Afghan fighter, possession of one of these rifles signified bravery and action. It implied that the holder had participated in destroying an armored vehicle or aircraft; the rifle was akin to a scalp. By choosing it, bin Laden silently signaled to his followers: I am authentic, even if his actual combat experience was not what his prop suggested.

Symbolic power has been harnessed by owners of assault rifles since assault rifles became available. After Salvador Allende rose to the presidency of Chile in 1970, becoming the Western Hemisphere’s first elected socialist head of state, Fidel Castro presented him with a folding-stock Kalashnikov bearing an inscription on a golden plate: “To my good friend Salvador from Fidel, who by different means tries to achieve the same goals.”59 The rifle served as 1970s leftist bling, though a golden plate was more Saddam Hussein than Karl Marx. Like so many other men with a Kalashnikov, like József Tibor Fejes with his captured AK-47 in Budapest, Allende could not resist a pose. He was photographed at least once playing with his keepsake rifle, looking down the barrel while pointing it into the air. If the most widely circulated accounts are to be believed, Castro’s gift had a role in the final palace act, in which Allende, besieged in September 1973 during a CIA-backed coup, sat on a couch, placed his Kalashnikov between his knees, aligned the muzzle beneath his chin, and fired.60 (Allende would not be the last head of state to die by Kalashnikov fire; the list would grow.)

The darker symbolism eluded those who maintained the celebration. Mozambique chose in 1983 to allow a Kalashnikov to adorn its national flag. At roughly the same time, Hezbollah formed in Lebanon, and its yellow flag bore the image of an assault rifle with features resembling those of a Kalashnikov.ix Other groups have made the selection explicit. The Kalashnikov decorates the crest of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the South Asian Islamic terrorist group, and appears on flags and murals used by the New People’s Army in the Philippines and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. In Iraq after the American invasion, the rifle became part of the murals and flags of Jaish al-Islami, the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades, the Mujahideen Shura Council, Jaish al-Taifa al-Mansoura, and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat.

The Kalashnikov, while by far the most common choice for recent martial art, was not alone in conveying political ideas. Fighters often choose weapons that broadcast messages. Palestinian insurgents often preferred to carry an M-16 or their carbine descendant, the M-4—the weapons of the Israel Defense Forces. Possession of an American rifle signified either Israeli corruption or Palestinian battlefield success; in either case, grounds to boost a Palestinian fighter’s morale.61 For these reasons, M-16s appear in the logo of Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades and are sometimes superimposed on the emblem of Hamas, though the bulk of these organizations’ fighters carry Kalashnikovs, which long ago entered the movements’ symbols, lyrics, and slogans, too. One fedayeen song revered the “Klashin,” local shorthand for the Kalashnikov line.

Klashin makes the blood run out in torrents

Haifa and Jaffa are calling us

Commando, go ahead and do not worry

Open fire and break the silence of the night.62

But other weapons manage to have their moment, even as a pointed counterpoint. In the Caucasus, Ruslan Kuchbarov, leader of the Chechen and Ingush terrorist gang that seized more than eleven hundred hostages at School No. 1 in Beslan in 2004, strutted through the school’s corridors and surveyed his captives while swinging a VSS—a silenced sniper rifle almost exclusively used by Russian spetsnaz.x His message was an underground staple. Those men you sent to kill me? I’ve got their guns. President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, who cast himself as a post-Soviet Westernizer, initiated a program to replace his nation’s stocks of Kalashnikovs with M-4s, choosing the rifle as if thumbing his nose at the Kremlin. The Kalashnikov, he said, was a symbol of communism, of centralization, of the Soviet Union, of the KGB-run government that rose on its remains, of an old and inhumane world he wanted Georgia to forget.63 “Goodbye old weapon!” he shouted to formations of his country’s soldiers as he personally handed out an early shipment of M-4s. “Long live the new one!”64 Saakashvili was excitable, a president who knew more about symbols and speeches than about how wars were fought. On a Thursday night several months later, he ordered an attack on Russian-backed South Ossetia. His army was scattered by the weekend. It fled. The Russian soldiers who defeated them showed almost no interest in the M-4s the retreating Georgians abandoned, other than as trophies to be carried home. “Ours are better,” one Russian soldier said, frowning over a captured American rifle in the briefly occupied city of Gori.xi65

For most of those who seek assault rifles, these seesawing meanings are unnecessary. A pedestrian AKM or knock-off will do. For these buyers one fact is irrefutable. The Kalashnikov, while more expensive than a chicken, has been an inexpensive choice. A record on the hard drive of a computer used by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, showed that in fall 2001, as the Taliban priced out the costs of arming two thousand fighters, it anticipated spending about $202xii per Kalashnikov.66 The comparisons on the ledger were useful—the rifle would cost twenty times as much as a uniform, and more than thirteen times as much as a pair of the shoes to be issued to each talib for the mullah’s jihad. Another comparison was useful as well. Georgia, when it sought to replace M-4s lost in the war, accepted a price of $870 per weapon for thirteen thousand rifles67—more than four times the price the Taliban was to pay for its primary arms. The United States military, by 2009, was paying roughly $1,100 for each M-4 issued to its soldiers, more than five times the cost per rifle borne by its enemies in Afghanistan, if the Taliban’s sources remained the same.xiii68

The United States government recognized this difference early in its engagement with the nascent Afghan and Iraqi armed forces, to which it provided hundreds of thousands of small arms. Mullah Omar’s prospective cost—$202 per Kalashnikov—was only slightly more than what the United States often paid on the way to becoming the world’s largest publicly known purchaser of AKM knock-offs.

In those deals, brokers in Eastern Europe arranged purchases from stockpiles at bulk prices, often less than $100 per assault rifle. By one example, Romanian surplus was initially sold at $93 to $98 each for a fixed-stock rifle, or $115 for a rifle with a folding stock.69 These prices were roughly comparable to the price of an M-16 rifle—in 1966.70 The brokers then flipped the rifles at higher prices to the American companies awarded the Pentagon contracts, which in turn charged the Pentagon more—in the range of $150 to $165 a rifle, including air-freight delivery costs to Baghdad or Kabul. The rifles had typically been manufactured during the Warsaw Pact years and had sat unused in the decades since; they were considered new. Some vendors passed off used rifles to the Pentagon by reconditioning them with new finishes and lacquers. Newly manufactured rifles would cost significantly more, because of the increased costs of labor, energy, and commodities required to make them. The point, well-known among purchasers, is this: Because of the glut of rifles from Cold War–era stockpiles, it costs very little to outfit fighters with Kalashnikovs. The expense is small enough that many governments hand them out to those who might serve their bidding, as Egypt and Libya and other Arab states did with the Palestinians, as the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq, and as Sudan did to the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose commanders fought for years without worrying about running short of guns, or seeking funds to buy more. At the bottom of the hierarchy, where the fighting and killing and many of the crimes take place, those involved were armed almost effortlessly, and free of the burden of attending to the details. “The thing you get for free,” one amnestied LRA commander said, “you don’t bother to ask the price.”71

Almost a century and a half after Dr. Richard J. Gatling developed a workable design for a rapid-fire arm, the armaments world had reached that stage. After decades of assault-rifle production in planned economies, eight-pound automatic rifles could be issued to child soldiers at no cost to their commanders, jihadist movements pitted against the world’s most powerful and modern military force could arm fighters for about two hundred dollars a man, and the opening class in terrorist training camps was an introduction to the AKM. Outside the West, the rifle was at the very center of war and preparations for it. By 2001, when Mullah Omar received his price list, the United Nations had attempted a rough tally of the human costs to those in places where the rifles are used most. It found that small arms had been the principal weapons in forty-six of the forty-nine major conflicts in the 1990s, in which 4 million people died, roughly 90 percent of them civilians.72 For most of these wars and most of these young conscripts, Kalashnikovs were the primary rifle. If the United Nations’ numbers were accurate and hundreds of thousands of people were being killed by small arms each year—in wars, crimes, acts of state repression, or acts of terror—then it would never be possible to document, person by person, the Kalashnikov’s role in what it all meant. Case studies would have to do, offering insights into the experiences of a victim here, or a victim there, serving as representatives of an enormous class. Each war provides new casualties. Each day the tally climbs. But it is possible to slow down and to examine what the weapons can do to an individual victim, a man like Karzan Mahmoud.

Mahmoud was shot in spring 2002 in northern Iraq, a region that had been an all-but-forgotten seam in the wars in the Middle East. No one much noticed that day, though a new war was gathering. The American military had chased the Taliban from Kabul several months before, and President George W. Bush’s administration had switched focus. The northern portion of Iraq, loosely protected by a no-fly zone, was a semiautonomous Kurdish enclave, a statelet within a state, where Washington was quietly renewing engagement with the Kurds, seeking allies for the war ahead. Ryan Crocker, an American diplomat, had come to Sulaimaniya, capital of the eastern portion of the Kurdish zone, to meet with the officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, one of two principal Kurdish parties. The PUK ruled Iraq’s northeast, mixing promises of democracy with old-time cronyism and centralized party power. It had descended from a guerrilla force—the peshmerga, those who face death—that waged mountain war against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq. But the party’s surviving military leaders were now older and mostly softer, interested in politics and business more than in fighting a lonely war. Its military formations were small, inadequately equipped, and unevenly led. And they had outright enemies—Hussein to the south and an Islamic fundamental movement in their midst. This was the territory in which Karzan Mahmoud operated, as a bodyguard, in a land of hidden danger and treachery.

The three assassins arrived near the home of Prime Minister Barham Salih at 3:45 P.M. on April 2, wearing a mix of traditional peshmerga dress and modern camouflage uniforms. It was a chilly spring afternoon. A light rain shower was falling. The assassins had shaved their beards and looked neat, resembling officers from the local Ministry of the Interior. For their approach, they had bought a local white-and-orange Volks-wagen taxi so that they might blend in. The prime minister’s residence, a two-story house, was located several lots from the corner, set back several yards from the road. As the taxi neared, Salih was finishing a meeting with the city’s director of intelligence and preparing to drive to meet Crocker. The security teams of both men waited outside. The taxi stopped at the corner. The assassins stepped out. They wore Kalashnikovs on slings. They moved casually toward the officials’ bodyguards, who suffered the confidence of numbers. The guards, after all, were twelve.

Mahmoud was Salih’s driver that day. Moments before, he had left his white Nissan Patrol, and was walking through the drizzle toward the taxi when it pulled up. He was wearing a blue suit and red tie. He had intended to visit a market at the corner, but the taxi diverted his attention. Mahmoud was twenty-four, a peshmerga for six years. A polite man, he emanated decency, respect, and kindness of an order that could seem a fault. He approached the three men to tell them that they should move their car down the street. No one was allowed to park here. He was drilled in manners and protocol. It showed.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

The lead man had a question. “Is Dr. Barham home?”

“Yes,” Mahmoud answered. “What do you need?”

About fifteen feet separated the two men. The man stepped forward, swung his Kalashnikov up to level, and fired a burst at Mahmoud’s face.

Mahmoud was small statured, the sort of athlete whom larger and more powerful men misjudge. He had spent five years in intensive tae kwon do training, which had left him limber and loose and equipped him with dodges that could look instinctive. He sensed the shift—from routine traffic encounter to terrible danger—in the instant the assassin’s face changed. The Kalashnikov muzzle rose. Mahmoud fell. He bent his knees, forcing his shins forward toward the ground. As his lower body dipped in that direction, he pushed off the balls of his feet and threw his shoulders in the other, backward, while raising his chin and arching his spine. His hands rose and extended, to protect his face. It was a blind rearward snap-dive, a desperate juke that risked slamming the back of his head onto asphalt. It saved him from the first blast. As Mahmoud arched while falling, his combined movements changed the angle his face presented as a target. Two bullets hit him in the head. They did not strike squarely. Both grazed him, each slicing a groove from his lower forehead, by his eyebrows, to his hairline. Then came more. He had pushed his hands up into the space between the muzzle and his face, directly into the path of a long automatic burst. Several bullets tore through Mahmoud’s right elbow and forearm. At least two hit his left hand, shattering fine bones. An instant had passed. Mahmoud slammed onto the street, his right arm useless, his left hand ruined, his brow about to pour blood. He was alive.

He heard gunshots. The three attackers were striding forward and firing. He was at their feet. Mahmoud had a thought: pistol. The bodyguards kept a pistol in the map pocket of the door of his vehicle, which was running, doors closed, about twenty feet away. He needed this gun. He could visualize the weapon—a 9-millimeter semiautomatic with its magazine and fourteen rounds inserted. If he could reach it he could fight. The assassins must have thought they had killed him, because they were firing toward other bodyguards. Adrenaline had put Mahmoud in an extreme state of alertness. Now it propelled his will. He rolled onto his side, spun from his young legs to his feet, and bounded in his suit toward his SUV. His shattered right arm dangled in its sleeve. His face was wet with blood. His revival must have startled the assassins: The dead man rose. He reached the car in several wild, zigzagging lunges, each turn meant to frustrate attempts to shoot him in the back.

One of the gunmen zeroed in on Mahmoud a second time. He fired a burst. As with Mahmoud’s first dodge, the zigs and zags kept him alive. They were not enough to spare him. A round hit his lower left back. Mahmoud reached the Patrol nonetheless. He was a lean young man, a martial-arts expert rippling with adrenaline and purpose, fired by the cornered animal’s will to live, but without working fingers or hands. He swung his right hand at the door. The pistol was right there. There. His hand had no grip. He could not make it lift the handle. Karzan Mahmoud had performed his last act in the service of Prime Minister Salih’s security detail. The assassin fired again. The burst rode up Mahmoud’s left leg, shattering the femur and the hip, reducing to fragments the main load-bearing bones and joint on his left side.

The long arc of the history of automatic small arms was almost complete. From the days of Fieschi and Puckle, to the work of Gatling, Gardner, and Nobel, through the marvels of Maxim, who conceived the most important steps, rapid-fire infantry arms, at first a dream and then expensive, had become ordinary and available to almost anyone. At first, when few combatants had them, they were instruments of imperialism, state power, and army-meets-army international war. Now they empowered disorder and crime. In Iraqi Kurdistan, as in large tracts of the developing world, every party had assault rifles, and the assault rifles were almost all patterned on the original Kalashnikov. They had come here from many sources: from Iran, Romania, Russia, Egypt, Poland, the former Yugoslavia, and China. They had arrived to markets by many means: shipped across borders from outside, looted from state arsenals, handed out by neighboring governments hoping those who used them would frustrate Baathist rule. Some had been made in a factory that the Baathists had built for themselves. And now they were so locally abundant that buying one was only a matter of a young man’s asking where to shop. Created in the race among nations to develop weapons that might ensure national security and improve soldiers’ chances in war, they had been imitated, replicated, miniaturized, and fine-tuned, cycle after cycle, design by design, shipment by shipment, until something like parity among riflemen had been reached. Parity, it turned out, meant not just that any modern fighter could be well equipped. It meant that almost anyone could be shot. Parity looked like this: Karzan Mahmoud toppled and fell, landing in a puddle of cold standing water. There he lay, on his back, blinking up into raindrops peppering his face. He had no idea how many times he had been hit. His body was broken; his mind, for the moment, was strangely detached. His blood stained the puddle red. He thought he heard thunder.

Only a few seconds had passed. He did not have much time. Over the decades the men and women who studied the effects of modern military rifle bullets on the so-called human frame had documented the physical processes now playing out within Mahmoud. They knew the ways that different bullets fired at different ranges cut through human skin, human muscle, and all forms of human flesh. They understood how these bullets snap and shatter human bone, and how the knifelike shards of bullet jackets and ruptured bone intermingle and radiate outward, cutting more tissue as they scatter. Those scientists, and pseudoscientists, with their thawed human limbs and severed human heads filled with pseudo-brains, had documented and described how the parts that make up a man can be made to break. Many of their tests had been on cadavers. Karzan Mahmoud was not a cadaver. Not yet. He panted, moaned, struggled for comprehension, blinked through blood and gritted teeth. What was he to do? His wounds outmatched him. If the puddle were a bathtub, he would drown. He had reached incapacitation, that hard-to-measure but you-know-it-when-you-see-it performance state that ballistics scientists had tried to ascertain and guarantee. Theory was theory. Laboratory work was laboratory work. Forensic autopsies were forensic autopsies. From these pursuits, the physical processes happening within Mahmoud—who was suffering from a form of violence common in our time—were almost precisely sketched in the books and the minds of those who knew what firearms do to men. Technical studies did not sketch this: what it looked and felt like when military rifle bullets smacked human life, when incapacitation meant not just preventing action but summoning death, when rifles and gunfights were stripped of engineering, politics, romance, or any whiff of fable.

Gatling spoke of sparing men the horrors of battle, so that their lives might be saved for their country. Was Mahmoud lucky that those two early shots had grazed his forehead and not blasted his cranium into chunks, as the experts knew they could? He remained alive, spared not because the machinery of war had made his services obsolete, but because an angle of impact, twice, had been oblique. He was a leaking mess of holes, many of them limned with bullet fragments and the broken bits of bones that had given him his shape. His blood was flowing out and time had become excruciating, if short. Was this better? Not youth, not will, not fitness, neither training nor hard-won knowledge could bring a man broken in this way back to what he had been, seconds before. Slogans and money meant nothing here and now. Even ideas were few. Karzan Mahmoud was not a cadaver. Not yet. He was a man who wanted to stand and feel the handle of a pistol wrapped within his shooting hand. He could not. Instead, he was fighting sleep.

And the gunfight raged. The three attackers were all firing. The battle flowed around him. Mahmoud wanted to participate. But nothing worked. He felt cold.

“Yunis,” he called to another driver. “I’m hurting.”

“Yunis,” he said. “Yunis?”

Time slowed for Mahmoud. For others, it raced. The street where Salih lived was an alley with the contours of a vertical-sided irrigation canal. In such a place, the members of a group could not readily disperse to fight, or even get out of one another’s way. The guards returned fire. Mahmoud looked over and saw one of the attackers slumped on the ground nearby. A bodyguard had shot him. The man looked dead.

The two remaining attackers were charging, firing their Kalashnikovs on automatic as they came, sweeping the street with lead. Ramazan Hama-Raheem, one of the intelligence chief’s guards, had been between the taxi and the gate. As Mahmoud was hit, he spun to face the fight. He had an instant to react. He fired his Kalashnikov, and thought he hit one of them in the leg. As he fired he was struck. A bullet blew apart his right shin, another broke his right hip. He twisted, falling, and was raked by more. A burst hit him in the back. Another shredded his left thigh. One round hit his upper left arm. Another grazed the top of his skull. He landed on the ground with one working limb: his right arm. His assault rifle was useless to him now. He could not lift it. But with a right arm, he had a chance. He drew his Makarov semiautomatic pistol. He fired and fired, but he struggled for aim and after seven shots was out of ammunition. With only one working arm, he had no way to reload.

Another guard, Balan Faraj Karim, who had been inside a guard hut when the attack commenced, joined the fight. He had not seen the taxi arrive, or the three assassins advance. He stepped into a shootout midway through its course. There had been two groups of bodyguards on the street. The attackers had charged into their midst, splitting and confusing them. Karim scanned the bedlam. He had only seconds to figure it out. It was not clear who was who. He saw a man trotting in his direction—a stranger in peshmerga dress. Karim decided: foe. He raised his weapon. The other man fired first, a long rippling burst. Karim felt the bullets splatter through him. They seemed to hit him everywhere. He collapsed. The man rushed by.

Gasping, Karim looked himself over. He had been shot in the stomach, the left shoulder, the right thigh, and multiple times in the left leg, including through the ankle and the calf. Another bullet had hit the back of his neck, probably as he spun and fell. It had passed through meat without hitting spine. He was helpless; a heap. He could do little more than watch, at least until his own time ran out. He looked around. He saw the collapsed forms of other guards, and that of the prime minister’s secretary, Amanj Khadir, who had also rushed outside and been shot. He watched another friend from the prime minister’s security detail, Shwan Khzar, firing his assault rifle. But Khzar’s Kalashnikov ran out of bullets. As he tried switching to a pistol, the man who had shot Karim opened fire with another burst. Khzar fell. The attacker limped down the street, away from the gate, stepped around a corner of a cinder-block wall, and was out of sight.

This surviving gunman, Qais Ibrahim Khadir, had decided to forgo entering the prime minister’s compound. His two accomplices were dead. He was alone now; there seemed little chance to press further. He hobbled across a vacant lot. He had a few seconds to think. A bullet had passed through his lower left leg, but missed bone. He could walk, and his uniform could help him. Passersby might not suspect him of his crimes. He reached the road and hailed a taxi. When it pulled over, he stepped in and gave an address. Soon he was moving away from the mess of bodies he had left behind, enveloped by city traffic.

The survivors in front of Salih’s house stirred. The prime minister had by luck been kept from harm. He had been seconds from stepping outside, but a telephone had rung. An aide called him back, and he had not entered the kill zone. At the sound of gunfire his aides rushed him deeper inside. On the asphalt, Balan Faraj Karim, immobilized by his wounds but one of the few men outside still conscious, scanned the street. He did not see the prime minister. This was the only good sign. His eyes settled on Mahmoud. Karim called to him.

“Karzan?” he said. “Karzan?”

There was no answer. He knew that Mahmoud was dead.

Karzan Mahmoud was not dead. He was sliding back and forth between sleep and consciousness. Soon he was aware of being jostled. A white Land Cruiser was beside him. Hands lifted him and put him in the back. A shopkeeper’s face was above Mahmoud, consoling.

“What happened?” Mahmoud asked. “Who shot us?”

The shopkeeper shushed him. “Don’t talk,” he said. “Don’t talk. You’re okay.”

At the hospital, Mahmoud overheard that the prime minister’s secretary had died. The staff cut away his blood-soaked suit and dress shirt. The doctors worked. Mahmoud was naked and sedated: the wrecked remains of a young man. He saw gloved hands pull fragments of bullet and bone from his arms. A policeman questioned him.

“What is your name?” he asked.

Mahmoud answered.

“What is your phone number?”

Mahmoud answered again, but now he had a headache. He was wheeled off for X-rays. Before surgery, he saw the prime minister at his side.

“You helped me,” Salih said.

“You are okay?” Mahmoud asked.


“Be careful, Dr. Barham,” he said. “Be careful.”

The surgeons worked on Mahmoud, the first time, until 2:00 A.M. They tallied wounds from twenty-three bullets. None had hit his spine or vital organs. The bullet that entered his back had cut only muscle and flesh. The head grazes had not fractured his skull. Twenty-three bullets, the doctors said. While Mahmoud was asleep, and the anesthesia was wearing off, he heard his mother’s voice.

“Karzan,” she said.

He woke. The doctors, he learned through a haze, had quarreled over whether they should amputate his right arm and left leg. For now he retained them. He asked questions about the attack. No one wanted to answer. On the third day, he read a newspaper and learned that five of his friends had been killed. Three others, besides himself, had been crippled. Elsewhere in the hospital, Balan Faraj Karim woke to doctors who explained why they had amputated his left leg. He misunderstood. “No,” he cried. “You do not need to cut my leg.” He argued. “Send me somewhere,” he said. “To Europe,” he suggested. “A different doctor can keep my leg.” But his leg was already gone.

The surviving attacker, Qais Ibrahim Khadir, did not make it far. He was captured while hiding in a house in the city. In the months that followed, Khadir occupied a solitary-confinement cell on the second floor of the city’s jail, in conditions that might drive a sane man mad. His room was a concrete closet, chilly and unlit, accessible through a small steel door. There, before Kurdish security officials led him away and executed him, he sat in the darkness, his skin growing paler and his flesh growing softer, passing hours praying to his understanding of his god. He expressed no regret. When the opportunity presented itself, he voiced satisfaction, even pleasure, at what he had done. Conversations with Khadir did not follow linear thought, and his ruminations were prone to militant tautology. Doe-eyed and eager for company, he talked openly, but kept his history neat and free of gray. He had been born in Erbil in the mid-1970s and claimed to have left Iraq for study in a religious school in Yemen. He was cagey on the question of whether he met jihadists while abroad. He denied that he had. He also punctuated the denials with laughter and self-satisfied smirks. “I am very clever,” he was given to saying. This confirmed something self-evident: I lie.

Khadir’s militancy had wide-reaching roots. He had lived for a while with the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, or PKK, on Mount Qandil, the high-elevation base in Iraq near the border with Iran. But he felt little affinity for the PKK’s fighters, whom he considered apostates. By 2001 he had come down off the mountain and taken up with Taweed, an armed Islamic movement. In a series of mergers with other local Islamic groups, Taweed became part of Ansar al-Islam, the Supporters of Islam, a confederation of armed Islamic parties that was emerging as a regional threat and demanded that the region be ruled by its interpretation of shariah law. It declared jihad against the PUK.

By 2002, Ansar al-Islam was large enough to field a visible guerrilla force of at least several hundred fighters, to run at least two jihadist training camps, and to control territory and several villages along the Iranian border. Its turf was a mountainous region, not the date-palm Iraq of the lower Tigris and Euphrates, but a zone of rolling foothills set against snowcapped peaks. There its fighters occupied trenches remaining from the Iran-Iraq War, augmenting them with bunkers and road checkpoints to create a statelet within a statelet that it governed its own way. The group closed a girls’ school, forbade shaving, and desecrated a Sufi cemetery and mosque. It was northern Iraq’s neo-Taliban.

Qais Ibrahim Khadir had taken an oath only to Taweed. But as Taweed evolved he changed with it. He rejoiced at the attacks on the World Trade Center and admired Osama bin Laden. “What does al Qaeda mean?” he asked, rhetorically. He had his own answer. “Al Qaeda,” he said, “is a state of mind.” Sitting in handcuffs in a room near his cell, Khadir gave himself high grades. Action, in his view, equaled accomplishment. Though he had failed to kill Barham Salih, he considered the operation an achievement. “We succeeded,” he said. “According to our beliefs, any operation we do is a success when you do it.”

Outside the prison, his victims suffered. The mother of one victim had died upon hearing of her son’s death; she collapsed with a heart attack. Ramazan Hama-Raheem was handicapped, barely able to walk. “Only I know my pain,” he said. “If you look at me now—look—my face, it is beautiful and calm. But inside, pain.” He entertained a dark fantasy, which became a regular vision: He was alone and holding a pistol to his head. His depression was almost total. He was too strong to kill himself, not strong enough not to consider it every day. “My life,” he said, is “jail, and I can’t get out.” Balan Faraj Karim had no fantasy whatsoever, not even the despairing fantasy of relief through suicide. He found sanctuary in sleep, which provided him with a dream. In this dream, he said, “I am sleeping in a bed in an American hospital and they have just finished the surgery to my shoulder and two legs.” But always he would wake and find himself as Khadir had made him—a one-legged, disfigured man, unemployed, stuck in Iraq. He had two young children. His wife would later tell him that she did not know, hour by hour, what to do: to take care of their children, or to take care of him. Karim passed long days crying.

Karzan Mahmoud at first fared little better. He had lived to be reassembled, put back into the shape of a man with metal rods and screws. The shape of a man was not enough. Mahmoud had form, not function. His left leg and hip could barely support his weight, and his wounds, which had been soaked in a dirty puddle after he was shot, were contaminated. By late in 2002 his upper thigh was swollen, purple, and oozing; a deep and festering infection had settled in. His right arm did not bend. His left hand could not open and close. He was stooped and slowly weakening. His youth and the remains of his vigor kept him alive, though the infection and its fevers had such a hold on him that it seemed likely to finish his pain soon. Fortune and friendship intervened. Several months before he had been shot, Mahmoud had hired out as a driver for Kevin McKiernan, a reporter for ABC News. The two men became friends. McKiernan returned to Iraq in fall 2002. In the rush of work during the run-up to the American invasion, the two men met many times. Mahmoud brought McKiernan his medical records, and McKiernan taped the X-rays to a window, photographed them, and emailed them to a friend from high school, Dr. Michael Brabeck, who worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Brookline, Massachusetts McKiernan and Brabeck, half a world apart, made Mahmoud their project.

By spring 2003, as the American war in Iraq began, Mahmoud was living in Dr. Brabeck’s house in Massachusetts and receiving pro bono care that few victims of Kalashnikov bullets receive. By the summer, three surgeries later, his right arm had been reset with a ninety-degree bend at the elbow. His left hand was functional. His infection was defeated and his femur partially repaired, enough so that he was on a trajectory to walk without a cane.73 His grimace subsided. His eyes brightened. By early in 2006, with Saddam Hussein ousted and the PUK’s leader serving as Iraq’s president, Mahmoud was working in Canada, at the Iraqi embassy in Ottawa. He was not, by any of the typical measures of mobility for a twenty-seven-year-old man, healthy and fit. He limped visibly, his right arm was almost useless, his right hand had little grip. And the former wiry bodyguard, adept at tae kwon do, was gaining weight, a consequence of his inability to exercise as he had before. But he was free from infection, able to dress and feed himself, and bathe, and shuffle up and down steps, and drive on the highway, and work at office tasks. He was blessed to be alive. He knew it. “My God helped me,” he said one night in Ottawa. “I like my God.” He had been helped, but not healed. He knew he never would be. And he found, when considering the rifle that had altered his body and diminished his life, that he wondered about Mikhail Kalashnikov, who lent his name to the weapon. He had a question for the man who proudly insisted he was the inventor of this device. “Why did you make this machine?” Mahmoud asked. “You don’t like living people? You are smart. Why not make something to help people, not make them dead?”

Mahmoud was sipping tea, pinching the small warm glass with a mangled hand, furrowing his bullet-scarred brow. “Are you not afraid to see the judge?”xiv74

Mikhail Kalashnikov, in winter, adapted yet again.

The collapse of the Soviet Union both harmed and benefited him, and his world changed repeatedly. Financially, the end of the Soviet Union upended Izhevsk and the firearms industry. Defense budgets dried up. Assembly lines fell quiet, and many workers, their salaries unpaid, left in search of work. Much of the labor force that remained was furloughed, called to work when orders needed to be filled but often told to stay home. Conditions on production days were gritty; sections of the factories were lit only by skylights, many workers had no protective clothing, and the ventilation was so poor that the air on days when weapons were assembled had a yellowish, particle-laden cast.75

Russia sought customers for its weapons. But its introduction to free markets was jarring. With so many assault rifles stockpiled, and other manufacturers competing—Arsenal in Bulgaria, Radom in Poland, Romtechnica in Romania, Norinco in China, F.E.G. in Hungary (now closed), Zastava in Serbia, and others—Izhmash and Izhmech, the paired companies in Izhevsk responsible for Kalashnikov production, struggled to make sales. Part of the problem was in management. The former communists who ran the companies knew much about their factories and almost nothing about marketing or service. They conducted business opaquely, and with patterns of patronage and nepotism not far beneath the varnish. But even sound managers might not have stopped the gun lines from stalling. Further Kalashnikov production fed a glut. The Russian arms-manufacturing sector was suffering from another of the varied ailments of the post-Soviet hangover. Several decades of mass production of the Kalashnikov line, which had once fit foreign-policy objectives and notions of national security, had destroyed business opportunities. Customers could always find other sellers. Those sellers undercut Russian prices.76

To keep workers employed and prevent the full erosion of the skill base, Izhmash produced a line of sporting rifles and shotguns, many of them using the underlying Kalashnikov design and some of them nodding to older gunsmithing traditions, with handsome wooden stocks and engraving. These were bourgeois guns. “We had to live on something,” Kalashnikov said. “So we began to think about how to try, using our knowledge base and military-fighting designs, to create weapons for hunting.”77 The line was a limited success. Markets for sporting arms were similarly crowded, and Izhmash competed against established brands. In 2009 the company, its finances and behavior largely impenetrable to outsiders, entered Russian bankruptcy proceedings. Its operations were limited and its prospects for large orders grim. It seemed unlikely to shut down entirely, though its security rested not in its performance as a private enterprise but in a political fact: For the Russian military, the plants that produced the rifles remained a strategic enterprise. Similar problems manifested themselves throughout the firearms sector. Another Russian Kalashnikov manufacturer, the Molot joint stock company in Kirov, which complemented the production at Izhevsk, was so cash-strapped that in late 2008 it stopped paying wages to many employees. By 2009 it compensated workers not with rubles, but with food. This was, literally, subsistence labor.78

As the workers struggled, Mikhail Kalashnikov’s stature spared him from both material suffering and idleness. He fared, if not well, at least better than many of his generation. Though there was little work, he retained the title of chief designer of the Izhmash gun works and consultant to the general director of Rosoboronexport, the state arms-export agency.79 He also served as the informal ambassador of the sprawling Russian arms industry. Both the government and the factory had reason to ensure that he did not slide into the penury that enveloped Izhevsk’s workforce. His ceremonial ascension from former noncommissioned officer to lieutenant general served him especially well. Because of it he received two payments a month from the government: a salary of about $575 from Izhmash and a general’s pension from the military, too.xv80 His payments as consultant to the export agency were never disclosed. There was no doubt he was provided for—not lavishly, but far better than most.

The opening of borders and the loosening of restrictions also allowed Kalashnikov to travel, and beginning in the 1990s he was flying from place to place and seeing a world that for decades had been forbidden. Many trips followed invitations to military museums or gun clubs, whose members crowded around him at the chance to meet the face of the AK-47. He visited, among other nations, China, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States, where he was a minor celebrity for many firearm owners: the aging Soviet general, hard of hearing, who had given the world its best-known gun. He seemed to enjoy these trips most of all. Kalashnikov, after a career as a state hero, was a man who liked being toasted as a genius. Other trips were part of his duties as Russia’s ceremonial arms ambassador. The state arms-export agency shuttled him to arms shows to greet potential customers at the Russian booth. He claimed to have made more than fifty trips abroad, a pace of several expositions a year. In this way, he lived like Chekhov’s wedding general—an elderly and avuncular officer whose presence lent weight to gatherings otherwise routine. Sometimes he arrived in a sport coat or suit, which he adorned with a diamond-studded tie clip in the shape of an AK-47—a touch as paradoxical as post-Soviet Russia itself.

In performing his public duties, Kalashnikov was often earnest. He could seem sincere. Yet his official appearances were sometimes accompanied by an undercurrent of shabbiness, of a geriatric man being used. His assignment was to be the embodiment and caretaker of an idea—the notion, welcomed after the Soviet Union’s collapse, of Russian excellence. Post-Soviet Russia developed around him into an extraction state, an exporter of hydrocarbons, lumber, minerals, and people. It manufactured few commercial products widely recognized or sought beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. In its lists of companies and exports, Russia had no Sony, Panasonic, or Samsung; no Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, or Nissan; no Vanguard, Lloyd’s of London, or Sotheby’s; no Gucci, Tag Heuer, or Cartier; no Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé, or Kraft; no Nokia, Black-Berry, Apple, or Microsoft. Russian fashions were not coveted, Russian popular music was scarcely listened to outside the former Soviet Union. But Russia had invented one commercial product that had overtaken much of the world: the AK-47 line. The paired Kalashnikovs, man and weapon, became secular icons and subjects of enforced celebration. Sometimes the celebratory nods took on an air that conflicted with Kalashnikov’s talk of peace. For several years, the Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow displayed a Kalashnikov that the museum claimed was used to kill seventy-eight American servicemen in Vietnam on a single spring day in the Tet Offensive of 1968.81 The tale felt apocryphal. And the museum’s presentation (the director of the museum pointed the rifle out proudly to an American newspaper reporter in 1997) seemed both gleeful and odd.

Part of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s performances for the republic required more shading of the truth, including recirculating exaggerations about the degree of secrecy that had surrounded him during Soviet times. Kalashnikov and his handlers made it seem as if he had been locked off from the world and isolated even from his fellow citizens, a closely guarded national security asset who was prohibited from mentioning his work.

In the mid-1980s I went to my birth place in the Kuryinsky district of the Altai region for the unveiling of my own bust at the central square near the district library. My countrymen wanted to know how I became twice a Hero of the Soviet Union, they wanted details. But speaking about my work was not allowed.82

This was not exactly true. While some secrecy attended all Soviet arms enterprises, Kalashnikov’s existence and work were openly acknowledged, and he was interviewed for a foreign publication as early as 1967.83 Such remarks were a type, a feeding of a legend. Some of his statements were more boldly out of line with the record.

It was a complete secret. I wasn’t allowed to speak to my family or have any contact with foreigners. Even after seven years of production, the gun was still secret: it had to be carried in a special case; there could be no specifications published; even the cartridge cases had to be picked up after shooting.84

These statements were laden with falsehoods. His assertion that no specifications had been published after seven years of production was demonstrably untrue. By 1955, the United States Ordnance Technical Intelligence Service had obtained and translated the 121-page Soviet Ministry of War’s AK-47 manual, which, according to the date stamp on the original Soviet document, had been published in 1952—three years after mass production of the early AK-47s began in Izhevsk. The United States military began circulating the manual in its commands.85

The act had its purposes. To some, the general’s appearances in his official capacities—as design virtuoso, lubricator of arms sales, a state secret emerging into the postcommunist light to dispense wisdom by the pearl—spoke to his commitment to the state. Others detected his discomfort, his fatigue, and a sense that he was performing services scripted by others.

He goes, frankly, as a bauble, a banquet boy in the rolling Russian hospitality suite, to lend the peddling of planes and tanks some historical gravitas. He helps get the checks written… it is a special torture custom-made for him in a special capitalist hell.86

And yet he appeared, again and again. For his participation, he was commended. The state piled prizes upon him with inventiveness and marked his birthday as an official holiday. Wearing his medals and carrying bouquets, which he often waved triumphantly above his head, the loyal veteran was a one-man advertisement for Russian arms and Soviet greatness. On his holidays he fulfilled roles that in latter-day Russia passed for news: state hero, grateful servant, living example of the talented Russian mind. In 2007, at the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the AK-47, President Vladimir V. Putin issued a decree noting that Kalashnikov’s “name is associated with the legendary pages of the history of Russian gun-making.”87 In November 2009, Putin’s protégé, Dmitri A. Medvedev, followed the pattern. For Kalashnikov’s ninetieth birthday, Medvedev awarded him the Hero of Russia medal—the highest honorary designation in the Russian Federation. Like Kalashnikov’s accumulation of military ranks, each new award served to boost both the designer’s stature and the stature of the state. This was a mutually supporting public-relations loop.

Publicly, Kalashnikov’s standing remained large. Privately, his luck was fair. The end of the Soviet Union allowed challenges to the official Soviet story of his arms-design genius. Abroad, and in Rosoboronexport’s sales kiosks and on state-controlled Russian television, Kalashnikov was lionized. But with prohibitions on free speech loosened, he faced criticism as strong and personal as when he had been accused in Khrushchev’s time of being the center of a personality cult. Skeptics raised the possibility that Kalashnikov, like Aleksei Stakhanov, the celebrity miner who had supposedly mined fourteen times his quota of coal in a single shift, was a Soviet put-on, a heroic creation of a cynical state. Much of this line of inquiry was muted by the government’s muzzling of journalists, but it was robust enough that credible counterclaims to the AK-47’s parentage, and fuller explanations of the design process, emerged in Russian-language sources.

Kalashnikov, the man, pushed on. He slowed in his eighties and yet remained active, even spry—a case of will and Cossack hardiness besting advanced age. In the weeks and months between trips, he split time between his apartment in Izhevsk’s center and a rustic but modern two-story dacha outside the city on a lake. He passed time with guests, often writing or listening to classical music; Tchaikovsky, he said, was a favorite.

His luck never quite turned. Many people tried to make money off him, and he became involved in private ventures, none of which proved lucrative. Local businessmen, backed by the government, borrowed his last name for a brand of vodka. But the Russian vodka market was as crowded as the international assault-rifle trade. The brand never captured market share. It filled store shelves in Izhevsk, but was almost unseen outside Udmurtia or the occasional duty-free shop, where it was packaged as overpriced kitsch. (One vodka offering at Sheremetevo Airport in Moscow, in a bottle shaped like an AK-47, carried a price tag of 150 euros. The vodka inside was worth a few dollars, at most.)88 Kalashnikov’s family groused about business arrangements that provided small returns for Kalashnikov and profits for the vodka producers; ill feelings lurked beneath the surface. The designer himself all but sighed when discussing his experiences in business—a concept foreign to an elderly worker from a state enterprise. “I do it very poorly,” he said. “Private commercial interests were never realistic options for us.”xvi89 In interviews, he often downplayed the importance of money. “I am told sometimes, ‘If you had lived in the West, you would have been a millionaire long ago.’ Well, they value everything in that green stuff. But there are other values. Why don’t they see these values?”90 At other times, disappointment emerged. “Stoner has his own aircraft,” he said of the inventor of the M-16. “I can’t even afford my own plane ticket.”91

If his own security was precarious, that of the rifles was not. The Kalashnikov line retained its place in Russian military life and in larger society. Preconscription training in public schools did not fade away with the Soviet Union, though the Kremlin, first under Putin and again under Medvedev, insisted the nation was shifting to a volunteer military force. The old pattern became the new. Russian students continued to study the Kalashnikov at school, including gaining hands-on experience with the assault rifles as tenth and eleventh graders.92 By 2010, virtually every adult male in the nation less than seventy years old had handled Kalashnikov’s rifle and knew the designer’s storied name and official history.

What of his legacy? One element was beyond dispute. Whatever notoriety the AK-47 and its knock-offs realized, Kalashnikov the man would be sure to defend to the end his nostalgic ideas of Soviet days. He was fastidious, proud of labor, and attuned to the rituals of Slavic collegiality. In formal settings, he would drink small glasses of cognac and vodka, shot by shot, gamely making toasts and wishing his many well-wishers well. Russia might have suffered its many deteriorations. He would not let that be said of him. He insisted on neatness. In public he often produced a comb and fussed his white hair into place. In his home, he offered pickles and fresh kvass. He could be a bewitching host, a man with a smile alternately warm and mischievous, if at times he grew evasive or combative on the central subjects of his life.

And he could confound. In one interview, he suggested that it was a compliment for his family to have been selected by party commissars in Kurya for exile during collectivization. As Kalashnikov framed it, Stalin knew which families were hardy and resourceful enough to tame Siberia. He chose the Kalashnikovs to help build a greater Soviet Union.93 It was a sign of the dictator’s wisdom, in this view, that he had chosen so well.

In his Russian-language writing, Kalashnikov stood in many different places at once. He wrote of his desire for peace and communal friendship, and of the perspectives of common soldiers. He wrote of international bonds between people and of his respect for, and relationships with, foreign arms designers. He also expressed disdain for American craftsmanship and American consumer attitudes, and gave voice to his satisfaction that his weapons had stymied American military operations—a roundabout way of expressing satisfaction that his weapons had killed American troops.

Americans like to think that everything that is best is “Made in USA” and they would like very much that the period after World War Two would pass under the sign of their achievements and that “according to the law of the markets their American products would fly like a swarm.” Unfortunately, everything was the opposite. The second half of the twentieth century is marked by the fact that the Americans could not feel themselves absolutely unpunished either in Cuba or in Korea or in Vietnam or in tens of other places, which they believed were their zone of vital interests. And everywhere it was the AK that had a sobering effect on them.94

His zigzagging statements were unsurprising. He had lived a complicated life. With a complicated life came a complicated file—that of a survivor in a dystopia that first tormented his family, then championed him as a national hero. He presented a mass of ideas that cannot be squared.

Ultimately, Kalashnikov was left, by both his circumstances and his decisions, atop his contradictions. He clung to his mixed accounts of the rifle’s origins and insisted upon respect while speaking of his own humility. To one interviewer he said: “As for the star sickness, I do not have it.”95Yet when a museum was built in his honor in Izhevsk,xvii it compared him, with seriousness, to Galileo, and in his dacha, on the stair landing leading to the second floor, he hung a large Central Asian carpet bearing an image of himself. These were not marks of modesty. Kalashnikov also claimed to have bitterly told President Boris N. Yeltsin in writing that a pistol Yeltsin had presented him was a “mediocre decoration” that “humiliated the President of Russia even more than it did me.”96 This in spite of the fact that Yeltsin had made an exception to army personnel policies that forbade the appointment of a general in peacetime and elevated Kalashnikov from the rank of colonel to general grade.97

The references to Galileo and the outbursts were significant. They underscored the most consistent qualities of Kalashnikov’s innumerable comments after the Communist Party’s fall: his pride of association with the AK-47 and his sense of extraordinary accomplishment. This was his real position. It sometimes flashed itself in starkly unconventional terms. “With arms you have to understand it is like the idea of a woman who bears children,” he said. “For months she carries a baby and thinks about it. The design work is similar. I felt like a mother—always happy when her baby achieves something.”98 He added: “I have always tried to knock down that annoying stereotype: if you are a weapons designer, you are a murderer.… For people in my profession, all that comes down to one notion: Motherland.”99 Ultimately, in the service of this position, he assembled carefully disconnected lines of thought. He sought credit for the rifle when it was put to uses he liked. He rejected the notion that he was in any way responsible for problems the rifles caused.

These positions made him much different from another renowned figure in Soviet arms design: Andrei D. Sakharov. Sakharov, one of the physicists who led the Soviet nuclear-arms program, had contributed to the successful detonation of RDS-1 outside Semipalatinsk in 1949 while Kalashnikov was involved in outfitting the gun works in Izhevsk. His later work was a cornerstone of the development of the hydrogen bomb. He was a giant in Soviet weapons programs, a three-time Hero of Socialist Labor—one of the rare Soviet men more decorated than Kalashnikov. By the mid-1960s, burdened by the moral responsibilities of his work, he urged an end to the arms race that had been the center of his professional and intellectual life. Sakharov dared to question the entire socialist world. In doing so he rejected its rewards and brought upon himself its wrath. He called for rapprochement with the West and the development of a pluralistic society rooted in human rights and free expression. The Soviet Union ordered him into internal exile and restricted his travels and his writing. In 1973, Yuri Andropov, the chairman of the KGB, who had been the Soviet ambassador to Hungary during the crackdowns in 1956, labeled him “a person involved in anti-social activity.”100 The world saw Sakharov differently. In 1975, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mikhail Kalashnikov was no Sakharov. But expectations of a Sakharov-style reorientation, implicit in the many questions he fielded over the years about what the AK-47 had become, were diversionary. For just as Kalashnikov was not the sole creator of the original AK-47, he was not responsible for the manufacture, distribution, or illicit use of the long line of derivative rifles that followed it. He was a midlevel player in a large system, and never its engine. The larger processes, globally and within Stalin’s military complex, were in motion long before he participated in them, and the Soviet Union was determined to produce, and would have produced, a simple and reliable assault rifle for mass production whether or not Kalashnikov had lent his energies to the pursuit. This was a far simpler task than creating an atomic bomb. And once this new rifle was made, it would have been standardized throughout the communist bloc, as were many other martial products of Soviet provenance.

For all of Kalashnikov’s unyielding insistence that he was accountable for nothing beyond being a gifted inventor, and for all of his moments of nationalism, he occasionally expressed remorse—at least at the rifle’s association with atrocity, crime, ethnic war, and terror. His regret at times sounded tactical. A prepared statement about the perils of illicit small-arms proliferation read in part like a capitalist’s complaint that other manufacturers had cut into Russia’s business. At other times his misgivings sounded genuine. “Do you think it’s pleasant seeing all of these hoodlums using your gun?” he once said, and then pointed to the post-Soviet war for Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed territory along the border between the two former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. “Armenians and Azeris killing each other. We all lived so peacefully before.” His memoirs touched difficult themes. “Arms makers have strange destinies!” he wrote. “They are saluted with shots they never expected, and it is not orations or music that remind one of jubilees but moans and screams.”101 These were hints at private pain. But almost always, after allowing such a tantalizing glimpse, he turned back to his fuller answers, the jumbled medley of a man whose name was attached to the world’s most common rifle, and a killing machine.

The constructor is not the owner of the weapon—it is the state. It does of course feel good when I know that many states used the arm. That something very worthy had been created… they spread the weapon not because I wanted them to. Not at my choice. I made it to protect the Motherland. Then it was like a genie out of the bottle and began to walk on its own in directions that I did not want. The positives have outweighed [the negatives] because many use it to defend their countries. The negative side is that sometimes it is beyond your control—terrorists also want to use simple and reliable arms.102

To this, on a summer day late in life, he added an answer to the victims, to men like Karzan Mahmoud, crippled by a terrorist carrying everyman’s gun. “I sleep soundly,” Kalashnikov said.

i In May 1972, three members of the Japanese Red Army, a left-wing terrorist group, opened fire with Czech assault rifles on the crowd inside the terminal of Israel’s international airport. They shot more than one hundred people, and killed twenty-four. They had smuggled their rifles in violin cases on a flight from France.

ii In one famous image, the cover of Life magazine displayed a young Israeli soldier, soaked and grinning, as he frolicked in the Suez Canal with a captured Kalashnikov.

iii This rifle was slightly longer than the AKM, but almost exactly the same weight, and the bullets it fired traveled at a higher velocity (more than twenty-nine hundred feet per second, as opposed to less than twenty-four hundred with the AKM).

iv Its place was so complete that at times it was absurdly overstated. By one rumor, macaroni in Soviet pasta plants was required to be manufactured to a thickness of 7.62 millimeters; this, the story went, was because the machinery that produced pasta was ready, under secret decree, to be convertible to manufacturing cartridges. Nonsense, but a sign. Soviet priorities were such that a joke like this had currency.

v The remainder included 6 heavy machine guns, 54 general-purpose machine guns or squad automatic weapons, 182 carbines, 123 submachine guns, and a mix of grenade launchers and surface-to-air missiles.

vi The FAL originated in Belgium, but over the years was manufactured in several nations, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Argentina, and India.

vii This for an army that by 2007 would report having fewer than seventy-five thousand soldiers and rarely had any soldiers abroad, aside from small contingents working under the auspices of other organizations—such as the multinational force in Iraq or peacekeeping force in Kosovo—that provided much of their logistics.

viii These two lines—it takes only a week and the boy soldiers were not good shots—serve as a departure point for further discussion about one element of Kalashnikov proliferation. The Kalashnikov is a very effective firearm at short and medium ranges. But its ease of use should not be confused with a user’s ability to master marksmanship. Most anyone can load, carry, and fire a Kalashnikov, and so most anyone does. And often the poorly disciplined or the poorly trained use them ineffectively in fights. Any extensive reconstruction of the ways that warfighting has changed since handheld automatic firearms became prevalent in conflict zones will invariably turn up accounts of gunmen who fire wild bursts and hit nothing at all, even at close range. Such observations align with a school of thought that says that since assault rifles displaced bolt-action rifles, marksmanship skills in many fighting forces have declined. Why? Because of a reliance on automatic shooting, often without aiming. This behavior, combined with the trajectory of the medium-powered M1943 cartridge, limits the effective range of the weapon as commonly used. In the hands of unskilled gunmen, Kalashnikovs are effective for crime and for action against the unarmed, and for destabilizing regions not under tight government control. (The villagers in Acholiland are almost defenseless against them, and have suffered terribly.) But in the years since most well-off conventional armies developed or procured their own assault rifles, and often mounted optical sights to their updated arms, Kalashnikovs in such hands have proven at times to be less effective in fighting conventional forces with sophisticated training and modern equipment.

Sometimes the differences between a lightly trained Kalashnikov-wielding gunman and a modern Western soldier can be stark. In one example, from November 2005, a small convoy of American soldiers stopped outside the police station of the Afghan National Police, or ANP, in Zormat in Paktia province. The American patrol leader, from Charlie Company, First Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, had planned to talk with the Afghan police chief. The soldiers, with the air force noncommissioned officers who coordinated the company’s air support, waited outside, standing beside their vehicles and among the milling police officers. One of the Afghan officers leveled his Kalashnikov at the Americans and started shooting. The officer, according to one of the men who was attacked, “came toward our vehicles from the opposite side, maybe forty or fifty feet away before we noticed him and, without warning, raised his AK-47 to his hip and opened fire, yelling. He had wrapped the hand guard in red plastic and wasn’t disciplined with his firing, shooting on full auto. We immediately took cover and none of his rounds hit anyone, but they did chew through the hood of the HMMWV [a military vehicle] I was standing beside, spraying fiberglass into the face of the sergeant standing beside me. Before anyone else had a chance really to react beyond taking cover, the gunner in the turret simply turned his M249 SAW [Squad Automatic Weapon, a light machine gun] and pretty much cut the ANP in half. After searching through his pockets, they found something along the lines of six months of pay which indicated he was likely paid off.” (Personal communication from Staff Sergeant Bertrand Fitzpatrick, United States Air Force, who was present at the attack.)

ix The oft-repeated conventional wisdom is that the rifle on the Hezbollah flag is a Kalashnikov. The rifle’s magazine resembles that of a Kalashnikov, as does its stock. The front sight post does not, and a case could be made that the image more closely resembles the G3 rifle, a widely circulated product of Heckler & Koch and another descendant of the sturmgewehr, which was designed in a Spanish–West German collaboration in the 1950s. Or it might simply be sloppy political art. Similar uncertainty surrounds the emblem of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, which included the image of an assault rifle that is often called a Kalashnikov. The common assertion about Hezbollah’s choice is not the most glaring error in the legends of Kalashnikov symbols. That distinction perhaps falls to the frequent claim that the logo of the Red Army Faction, the now-defunct left-wing German terrorist organization, bore the image of a Kalashnikov. The weapon on the group’s red-star logo is an MP-5 submachine gun, also a product of Heckler & Koch.

x Special Forces soldiers.

xi Saakashvili and his military leadership also seemed not to know much about choosing its rifles—it bought thousands of Bushmaster M-4s, knockoffs that resemble the American military’s standard Colt carbines but are not made to the same certified manufacturing standards. This was a strange choice, given that for roughly the same price, the Georgian military could have purchased the more combat-tested design. Military rifle choices have long confounded political and military leaders. This was another such case.

xii The precise figure given was twelve thousand Pakistani rupees.

xiii Government purchasers can buy military-standard M-4s for about $800 a rifle. The American military pays more because its M-4s include an after-market rail system to which accessories can be mounted. This pushes up the price.

xiv In an email later, Mahmoud expanded upon his question that night. The email read, in part: “I would like to ask Mr. Kalashnikov, what made you think about making such a horrible machine? What were you thinking about? Helping people or destroying their lives? I’m sure that you are a smart guy. Why didn’t you go for finding a way to bring peace to life again? What we had—all those kind of guns through history—wasn’t enough to make a man think about something more useful for people’s lives rather than finding another killing machine? Why? I know that sometimes that piece of metal was helping nations to survive. But how about if there were no guns at all, not for attack and not for protection. What would happen? . . . It is not just me, and it is not only thousands who got injured or killed by your ideal machine. I’m wondering—how about if you tried it on yourself, one bullet into your feet before sending it out to the market. That might change your mind?”

xv His factory salary was roughly three times that of a typical worker at the plant, when the workers were paid at all.

xvi A second try at the vodka market, this time through a British businessman who took the Kalashnikov name up-market with a brand to compete with Grey Goose, flopped, too. The designer’s surname brought no magic; it might as well have been Scud. For several years, one of the general’s grandsons labored to capitalize on it too, marketing a line of Kalashnikov pocketknives, snowboards, thermoses, sunglasses, and umbrellas. Brochures with the products were abundant at trade shows. Sales appeared negligible. By 2004, Mikhail Kalashnikov expected no turnabout. “For now I haven’t experienced any financial benefit,” he said. “There aren’t yet any results.” The ventures all suffered in part from their organizers’ misunderstanding of the meaning of the Kalashnikov line. They insisted that the word Kalashnikov rang with the many admirable traits they saw in the rifle or the man: quality, reliability, fidelity to nation, and the rest. They did not grasp that among many would-be customers, away from the catechisms of Soviet propaganda, it might mean something else.

xvii The museum, which struggled for years to raise money for its construction, provides a series of stories within a story. Kalashnikov derided the men who dismantled the Soviet Union and profited from the looting of state assets afterward. The museum in Izhevsk that is dedicated to him was built with donations from Anatoly B. Chubais, one of the main architects of the privatization of state assets, who profited handsomely in the process. The ironies only get richer. Chubais was nearly assassinated in 2005 by at least two men who ambushed his armored BMW on a road outside Moscow, spraying it with Kalashnikov fire.

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