Dressed To Kill
From Kabul to Kandahar, It's Not Who You Are That Matters, but What You Shoot
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2001; Page C01
These days, we Americans fight our wars with weapons that seem to come from Industrial Light & Magic. Our planes are sleek and characterless, our professionals more cleanshaven technicians than warriors, their faces lit by the phosphors of a glowing screen, their language of battle techno-crisp and parsed.
It's all too Tom Clancy to be that interesting. Only a few of our thousands of men in and around Afghanistan even bother to carry rifles; the rest carry cell phones, Berettas and credit cards.
But the guys we are fighting are different.
They don't have night vision or missiles or even air power. Screens? They don't have no stinking screens. They have one thing: guns. And our few hundred Special Forces operators on the ground -- they're gunmen too. And that's why the front page of this or any other newspaper, or the richly detailed color sections of the newsmags, all look like photo spreads in Shooting Times. Guns are everywhere: knobby, wooden, all pipes and welded joints, ugly, oily, ungainly, battered, dusty, dinged and bent, festooned with straps and blades and bipods and scopes but somehow -- if you read the postures of the men who carry them -- totally comforting.
And not without meaning. Guns are like anything else; they don't exist in a vacuum but in a context -- historic, cultural, political, mechanical -- so if you know your guns and ammo, you can take a reading as any critic can from any art form, and learn some stuff.
American guns express America. They're not even guns anymore -- or rather, the gun part of them is only a small part of a larger system, with capabilities beyond the imagination of even the men who carried similar, but more primitive, implements as recently as during the war in Vietnam.
Our gun there was the M16; our gun now is the M4, a carbine variant of the M16, meaning the fourth modification of the weapon since it was initially adopted for jungle warfare back in the 1960s. (Yes -- guns are "edited"!) There's not much difference in the gun part: It's the same orchestration of bolt, chamber, barrel, magazine and stock; it has the same springs and levers and pins and the same plastic furniture. It exists because for about 200 years we've been able to machine metal to exacting tolerances and harden it to withstand great pressures without making it too brittle. And we have the chemistry to invent efficient powders, strong plastics and rustproof steel. But now it's smaller, its stock folds up, it's got a little nubby barrel and . . . it's got stuff.
So much stuff!
We in the West, we are our stuff, no? Who could disagree?
The M4, particularly as love-labored over by Special Forces and Navy Seal armorers, has tubes everywhere. It's a panoply of tubes. It's tubular magic. One tube, mounted atop the frame, is a red-dot sight. In its intimate recesses, a tiny laser emits a beam that strikes a lens. A red dot is captured on that lens, which may be accessed by the simple act of looking into the thing. Then the dot may be adjusted up or down, left or right, so that it coincides with the point of impact -- so that the gun will actually shoot where you think it will. One adjusts the red dot to the bullet, but it feels the other way: You see the red dot, that's where the bullet will go.
The point of all this engineering is to bypass the conscious and enter the soldier's subconscious. To shoot well, one has to look at the sights -- but to do that, one must de-concentrate on the target. Almost impossible when a guy in a turban is shooting at you. With a glowing red dot, the operator's eyes pick up the marker subconsciously and so no time is lost in that most annoying of human habits in close-quarter combat: thinking. If you're thinking, you're already behind the curve, which means you're dead. No, here's what happens: Look at the guy and when the red dot crosses him, your reptile brain instructs your reptile trigger finger to press. You haven't done it, your subconscious has. It's much faster that way.
But suppose it's night. Well, in front of the red dot tube there's a night vision tube, which has the alchemical capacity not to turn lead into gold, but something far more valuable: It turns dark into light. Or semi-light. By magnifying the ambient illumination, the night vision scope can render enough of a universe to shoot accurately.
But suppose you've got five targets and only one of 'em is a bad guy. Then you go to Tube No. 3, which is a Sure-Fire brand flashlight locked neatly to the barrel with an on-off switch up in the trigger housing. You separate the fellow with the AK from the three kids and the veiled gal he's using as hostages. Then you double-tap him and move on.
But suppose . . . all five of them are bad guys? Then you go to tube No. 4, which is an M203 grenade launcher. You go 40mm on them. Pay no attention, ladies and gentlemen, to the sound of two ounces of TNT detonating as they send about 10,000 shards of white-hot steel into a very small area formerly occupied by five human beings.
You won't see guns like that carried by the Taliban, no sir. Look at Osama bin Laden's gun. It's visible in any of a dozen pictures and it's tubeless, screenless and grenade-launcherless. But it, too, is not only a gun. It's a gun with a coded message; you can read this guy like a book.
He's certainly no Captain Winters from HBO's "Band of Brothers," who, despite his natural genius for soldiering, insisted on carrying the line soldier's prosaic M1 all the way to Berchtesgarten. No, bin Laden's narcissism -- dead giveaway to a fake tough guy -- mandates that he make a fashion statement.
Any idiot knows that was an AK-47 leaning against the cave wall behind bin Laden during his videotaped response to the American bombing. Yes, the AK-47, the most famous of the liberation firearms distributed globally by the Soviet Union and its client states during the Cold War. There may be 50 million of them floating around the globe today.
Except it wasn't. But if you're one of the idiots, don't feel bad; you belong with the other 99.9 percent of the population that doesn't know anything about guns. Bin Laden's rifle wasn't an AK-47 at all, but one of its descendants, an AK-74, and of a particular modification that included, for portability and ease of handling, a very short barrel and a folding skeletonized stock and a flash suppressor. It's called a Krinkov.
It's actually a hybrid. If you crossed a classic 7.62mm x 39 Soviet AK-47 with an American 5.56mm NATO M4, its natural antagonist in about a million firefights in about 75 wars, insurrections and special-ops tiffs, you'd get the AK-74, which is the AK-47 mechanism reconfigured to fire the smaller-caliber, high-velocity round. Then you trick it up; by cutting the barrel and adding that folding stock, you get a Krinkov, which is the current hot lick among people who want to be noticed. It was designed for airborne troops. If you're not going to be jumping out of airplanes, it doesn't do anything for you that the 47 won't.
Bin Laden knows this: For him the gun isn't just a weapon, it's a symbol. He's making a statement, as with the curved ceremonial dagger that hangs from his belt when he's all duded-up in his white finery. He is making a claim: I am of the elite. In other words, he is saying something so Western it suggests the soul-deep depth of his hypocrisy. He is saying: I am so cool.
A fellow who favors posing with a Krinkov has delusions of grandeur, and he'll try to take over no matter the venue.
Bin Laden wouldn't be caught dead with a regular old AK, but his men are, all over the place. In a funny way, I like it better that he has this little vanity. I don't think he's a good enough man for an AK-47 and what it stands for. This is the true symbol of the war, for both sides seem to have it in the thousands, and no matter where the war blows next, you can bet that most of the close-in killing will be done with that old war horse. That cold wind you just felt, that was the chill of history.
Remember, folks, in the bad old days, a thing called the Soviet Union, run by a principle called communism? The AK-47 was at once its tool, its icon, its manifesto.
The AK-47 was to the Russian empire what the short sword was to the Roman Empire. It dwelt at the centurion's right hand. It was the cutting edge of a cynical philosophy that disguised conquest under the bogus banner of liberation. It was so simple that even the most undeveloped nations could fabricate it from Russian plans with Russian guidance and a few lathes and stamping machines. You could probably build one in your basement if you wanted. Crude, derivative, simple, powerful, robust, tough as hell.
Can a gun be great? If you don't think so, you probably shouldn't be reading this piece, but the AK-47 was great. It was invented by a peasant sergeant, and it was manufactured in a tractor factory. What could be more Red?
Though they won't acknowledge it -- just as they won't acknowledge that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane -- the Russians must know deep in their hearts that the AK family of weapons was influenced heavily by a German creation from late in World War II called the Sturmgewehr-44. Yes, folks: Sturmgewehr decrypts perfectly into . . . assault rifle.
The Stg-44 represents what might be called the "base of fire" approach to military doctrine, something the Russians, who were machine-gun nuts, agreed with enthusiastically. The Russians, in fact, armed whole battalions with the PPSh-41 submachine gun in World War II -- that's the real clunky-looking one with a ventilated barrel, no handgrips and a giant drum to hold 71 9mm rounds. They just sprayed out blizzards of lead and marched in behind them. But late in the war, one story has it, the Russians ran into an SS unit armed with the new Stg-44s, and the result was a slaughter. The submachine guns fired that 9mm pistol round and their effective range was about 50 yards. The assault rifle fired a shortened rifle round just as fast, but its range was about 200 yards. Simple reality: 200 is farther than 50 by 150. So as they advanced, the Russians were in a 150-yard kill zone and couldn't even bring fire to bear on the hidden Germans who mowed them down from so far out. Ultimately, the Russians simply called in air support and dumped white phosphorus on the Germans.
But they learned: In the small physics-driven universe of terminal ballistics, the faster round beats the slower round, and the rifle round always beats the pistol round. If you can fire it fast and accurately, you will win.
Thus, the AK-47, officially adapted by the Soviet Army in 1949 -- when our men were still carrying the M1, which had been designed in the early '30s. Later, in Vietnam, the AK-47 so outperformed the Army's M14 (a sort of super M1), we hastily adapted, as a countermeasure, the M16. The AK-47 is what might be called a rough masterpiece, with its weird choreography of slants and curves, the bluntness of its receiver. It looks like a tommy gun designed by Mr. Moto, after reading Dostoyevsky and a favorable history of Peter the Great. The curved magazine is necessary for technical reasons, but it provides an aesthetic: It gives the rifle an Orientalized sensibility. Then there's the peasant thickness of the gas tube over the barrel like a Siberian pipeline, and that wicked high front sight that just keeps on going. It has no elegance whatsoever, and no wit. Its cleverness lies in its contempt for cleverness. It's a tractor of a rifle, a serious piece of work.
The genius behind this was one Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov, a senior tank sergeant who, wounded in the battle of Bryansk in 1941, conceived of the weapon's design while in sick bay. Later he fabricated early prototypes "with the help of the leadership and comrades," according to the official Kalashnikov Web site. (Yes -- it's at kalashnikov.guns.ru/!) For his efforts he was ultimately awarded the Hero of Socialist Labour (twice), the Stalin Prize and the Lenin Prize Laureate, as well as a chestful of other cheesy Red doohickeys.
Look at his face; he's got that bluff-peasant look of utter placidity, those cold gray eyes that suggest the steppes in winter, that sheathing of flesh, the surprisingly luxuriant hair, but somehow a sense of the orthodox to him.
He's as Russian as vodka, and his masterpiece reflects his culture brilliantly. It is not fancy or high tech. It answers one question so useful to empires: How do you kill a lot of people fast, simply and without spending too much money?
Because of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the country is awash in Russian pieces. You see as well the ever-present PK machine gun on its bipod, the former squad automatic weapon of the Soviet army; it looks like it was designed by drunken plumbers in an Odessa hotel room while waiting for the hookers to arrive. But still, like the other Russian weapons, it just keeps on working, even after being packed in mud.
That is why, when you look at the small arms the Taliban and the Northern Alliance use, and the sleeker things our soldiers carry, you can see not just things and stuff but ideas and metaphors: the drift of violent history over the dusty hills of that raw land. You can feel shadows of a past never forgotten. When it is over and history has moved elsewhere, only the bones and the guns, one whitening, the other rusting, will remain.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company