C.J. Chivers’ new book, The Gun, is topflight history and great journalism. Here, the definite article is the Avtomat Kalashnikova 47, the assault rifle* credited (somewhat unfairly, Chivers demonstrates) to Soviet soldier turned designer Mikhail Kalashnikov.
(Chivers also wrote one of the finest pieces of journalism I’ve ever read: “The School,” in the May 2007 Esquire Magazine, a dissection and analysis of the Chechen terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia. You can read it here here and you should.)
In The Gun, Chivers puts the object into its longitudinal historical context. We see how the world around it shaped the AK-47 and how the AK-47 shaped – and shapes – its world. He does more or less the same thing for the AK-47 that Mark Kurlansky did for salt.
As a former Marine Corps officer and a senior foreign correspondent for The New York Times, Chivers comes to the project honestly, and well prepared and – like all of us – with a context of his own. He writes about weapons of war, and one in particular, in a comprehensively authoritative way that leaves little room for cavil by less-well disposed analysts. The book is strongest when Chivers is writing about technical development, the human stories behind it, and the strategic and tactical impact of fully automatic small arms on the battlefield. I think he does a little less well when treating the object as an icon or a social force of its own. But this is a tremendously commendable book.
Trouble is, the folks who ought to read it won’t.
Because when it comes to guns, to paraphrase Chris Rock, people love to not know. Really, it’s worse than that. In contemporary American discourse, people pride themselves on knowing nearly nothing about firearms while holding the most ardent opinions, making the most impassioned arguments – and setting the most ridiculous policy. The emotional argument reigns supreme and facts are held in frank contempt.
It’s a case of ignorance not only as bliss, but as virtue.
Chivers book isn't about self-defense or tending the flock. But it's a good and important book that will be important, among other reasons, for the list of those who won't read it.
*The AK-47 is a true assault rifle in that it fires a rifle caliber in full automatic. (That is, one pull of the trigger results in continuous fire until one lets off on the trigger or the magazine empties out.) About 90 percent of the time anyone in American public life uses the phrase “assault rifle” they are referring to something that cosmetically resembles, but is not really, an assault rifle.