ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Pop quiz. This weapon appears on the flags of Mozambique and Hezbollah, as well as the coat of arms of Burkina Faso. Rap musicians glorify it.
(Soundbite of song "Today Was Good Day")
ICE CUBE (Rapper): (Singing) Today I didn't have to use my AK...
SEABROOK: As do movie gangsters...
(Soundbite of movie "Jackie Brown")
Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON (Actor): (As Ordell Robbie) AK-47, the very best there is.
SEABROOK: And video game Thug. It is the Automat Kalashnikova 1947, better known as the AK-47, and few weapons have achieved its level of recognition. There are somewhere between 70 and 100 million of these machine guns in the world and they've been at the bloody center of almost every modern armed conflict: the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia.
Joining us now is Larry Kahaner, author of "AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War."
Welcome to the show.
Mr. LARRY KAHANER (Author): Thanks for having me, Andrea.
SEABROOK: We're going to talk about the history of the AK-47 and its place in popular culture. But first, explain why this machine gun is so prevalent.
Mr. KAHANER: It's so prevalent because it works. It just simply works. You can drag it through the mud. You can step on it. You can put it under water and it will work every single time. It's very inexpensive, so anybody who feels like they want to start a war can start a war or continue a small war. It never jams. And because anybody can use it, you can have all different kinds of level of soldiers, including child soldiers, which is one of the sad outcomes of having this weapon available.
SEABROOK: The weapon's inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has expressed mixed feelings about his creation.
Mr. MIKHAIL KALASHNIKOV (AK-47 Inventor): (Through translator) I never imagined my guns would be used in international conflicts. I repeat, I designed them to defend my country's borders.
SEABROOK: How did he come to invent this weapon?
Mr. KAHANER: It was during World War II, and the Germans had invented an absolutely new form of warfare that no one had ever seen before called the blitzkrieg. You hit the enemy very fast, very hard, and you overwhelm them. And the way they did it was they had these machine pistols. The only problem is that they don't go very far and they don't really penetrate very well. On the other side of that you have the machine gun, which you can't really carry around but is so deadly.
Somewhere in the middle would be the perfect weapon for blitzkrieg and that weapon is the assault rifle, and that's what Mikhail Kalashnikov invented. Because it's light, it can carry so many bullets. It fires every time and you can carry a lot of bullets with you. You can become a totally mobile soldier. And that's why it's such an effective weapon for our modern warfare.
SEABROOK: But Kalashnikov himself hasn't really received any money from making this oh-so-popular weapon.
Mr. KAHANER: As a citizen of the Soviet Union, he did it for the glory of the Motherland and did not make one ruble off the whole thing. But he is getting his money now. He is trotted out to arms fairs. He's like a celebrity and he signs photographs and so forth and so on, because the Soviet Union would like to sell more weapons. And he also has started a line of vodka, which now will come to the United States next year. It's already in Europe and the Middle East. It's called General Kalashnikov's Vodka and it has a picture of him on the bottle.
SEABROOK: In your book, you say that the AK-47 changed the face of modern warfare as much as the atomic bomb did. Explain to me how the AK-47 did this as opposed to just guns or automatic weapons.
Mr. KAHANER: As I mentioned, you know, we found a new kind of warfare after World War II called blitzkrieg. And now we have a different kind of war called asymmetric warfare. Because the United States is the only superpower left in the world, there's no more nuclear issues. And so as a result, the only kinds of wars that the United States will fight now is what's called a small war. And once you've bombed the place with all of your smart weapons, what's left except going house-to-house, as we see sometimes on television. And that's where the weapon shines. Anyone can have them. Anyone can own them. And that's what's changed warfare, is that anybody can be a soldier.
Now, the U.S. has the best-disciplined, best-trained soldiers in the world, I believe. But you can put anybody in a Toyota pickup truck and give them AK-47's and they can go out and give U.S. soldiers a hard time.
SEABROOK: Did you write this book because you're just interested in AK-47's, or is there another reason why you wrote this book?
Mr. KAHANER: I wrote this book mainly because I saw this weapon everywhere. I saw it on TV. I saw it in newspapers, magazines, and it's got a distinctive shape that we all know of. It's that banana shaped magazine that comes out the bottom and you see it, you know, being held over the heads of terrorists. Osama bin Laden always carries it. Saddam Hussein was found with two of them in his little hidey-hole. And you say to yourself, what is it about this weapon that it's so ubiquitous? And as I got into it, I realize it's a fascinating story.
SEABROOK: What is it that makes it so ubiquitous? It seems like the AK-47 is, like you said, everywhere in popular culture. Movies like "Jackie Brown." TV shows like "The Sopranos." Videogames, rap music. What accounts for this?
Mr. KAHANER: Basically, it's the anti-Western cache of it. And we all sort want to be a little bit outside but not too far outside, so it reminds us of terrorists. And you know, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, so we all sort of think, oh boy, we've got a little bit of Che Guevara in us. And this accounts for the popularity of the weapon.
Plus I think that in the United States it's considered counterculture, which is always something that citizens in this country always kind of like. We see it in out t-shirts, we see it in our greeting cards, we see it on our TV programs. It's kind of sticking a finger in the eye of the man, if you will.
SEABROOK: You know, it's so interesting, Mr. Kahaner, because you're so able to separate the weapon from its inevitably lethal power. Is this because you approach it as a journalistic subject?
Mr. KAHANER: That's absolutely correct. I approach it as a journalist. I don't have strong feelings about guns, believe it or not. I believe if you want to own a gun, go ahead and own a gun, and do it according to the laws. And actually, the United States is a fairly peaceful country, considering how many guns we have. The only thing that I do feel passion about, the only thing that does really bother me, is how many people sell these weapons just for the point of making money.
It's not about ideology. It's not about patriotism. It's just all about the money, and that's the part that I have an issue with.
SEABROOK: Larry Kahaner is the author of "AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War."
Thank you so much.
Mr. KAHANER: Thanks for having me.
SEABROOK: You can learn more about his book at our website, npr.org.
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