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The AK-47: 'The Gun' That Changed The Battlefield
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In his work covering war zones for the New York Times, my guest, C.J. Chivers,
has been ambushed too many times by Taliban fighters and others carrying
This automatic rifle, whose first incarnation was the AK-47, was designed by
the Soviets after World War II. It's since become the weapon of choice for the
insurgent, the terrorist and the child soldier, not to mention many armies
around the world.
Chivers has just written a history of the Kalashnikov, how it became the
world's most dominant automatic weapon and how it's changed warfare. His book
"The Gun" is not only based on historical research, it's based on the weapons
he's found covering war zones.
Chivers shared a Pulitzer Prize for his Times coverage of the war in
Afghanistan. He's also covered fighting in Iraq and Chechnya and served as the
Times' Moscow bureau chief from 2004 to 2008. You can also find his writing in
the New York Times blog, At War. Chivers served in the Marines from 1988 to
C.J. Chivers, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you've been ambushed by people
carrying AKs. So that's certainly helped you understand how the weapons work
and the significance of them. So tell us a little bit about the circumstances
that you were ambushed with AKs and what that taught you about the weapons.
Mr. C.J. CHIVERS (Correspondent, New York Times; Author, "The Gun"): Well, what
it teaches you is really two different things. The first is it tells you
something about their abundance.
It's pretty hard at this point, many parts of the world, particularly in
Afghanistan, to go out into territory under insurgent control and not be
ambushed by Kalashnikovs. Their numbers are just so outsized that this is quite
a common experience.
The other thing that it tells you is that notwithstanding the legends about the
Kalashnikov that in some ways it's a mediocre weapon. It's not especially
accurate, and it's used often by people who are not especially skilled. So
there's a lot of people, I'm one of them, but there's many, many more who have
been ambushed by Kalashnikovs and not been shot.
GROSS: You mean because they missed you?
Mr. CHIVERS: Because they miss you. And there's reasons they miss you that are
rooted in the weapon's own design and also in the training of the people who
But the weapon is designed with a relatively short barrel, and it's designed
with a relatively loose fit of its parts, and it's got a heavy operating
system, and it shoots a medium-powered ammunition.
So like I said, notwithstanding the legends that this is a ferocious machine, a
killing tool, at longer ranges, it's actually not especially effective. At
shorter ranges, it's a terrible weapon. But at longer ranges, which is pretty
common for the ambushes in the arid places such as Afghanistan and Iraq where
there's not a lot of vegetation, they often miss.
GROSS: It's still, though, probably a pretty good weapon for terrifying people?
Mr. CHIVERS: There's a lot of measures of a weapon, and one of them is how they
work against a conventional foe, like the United States military. That's not
the best measure. The better measure is how they work against a larger set of
victims: how they work against civilians, how they work at checkpoints, how
they work in the commission of crimes. For all of these things, it's a terrible
GROSS: A terrible weapon?
Mr. CHIVERS: A terrible weapon in that it's very, very effective at shorter
ranges because the people who use it, the people who carry it, have a lot of
options for its use.
It's very concealable. Most of the weapons out there now have a folding stock
or have the stock removed. So you can hide it under a blanket or inside a coat.
At short ranges, it can be used on single shot, known as semi-automatic fire,
where one trigger pull results in one round going downrange. Or it can be used
automatically. And on automatic fire at short ranges, it has a blistering
effect. It fires in bursts, a great number of rounds in a very tight space.
GROSS: Give us an example of a time that you were ambushed with Kalashnikovs,
and they tried to shoot you and missed.
Mr. CHIVERS: They tend to shoot at a patrol, into a cluster of people who are
walking or a bunch of people who are standing around, you know, at a checkpoint
or the like. And in this sense, they sort of shoot often offhand, without the
sites up to the eyes. And they fire a burst towards the group. Now, the weapon
tends to have its barrel rise upward as more bullets leave in a burst. So as it
climbs, the elevation of the bullets leaving it climb, and they tend to fire
over your head a lot.
GROSS: Does that give you any confidence when you're fired on?
Mr. CHIVERS: Confidence probably isn't the right word. I mean, but it â it
still scares you very much, and you react to it. And, you know, you get down,
or you get behind something.
Afterwards, when you're around people who have been fired at by Kalashnikovs a
lot, many people will chuckle because they miss and because they've missed
But I'd like to remind you that's not necessarily the best measure of the
weapon, how it performs against sort of a modern, well-drilled, experienced,
savvy, Western infantry patrol, because that's not the only place this weapon
GROSS: It gets used in other places like...
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, fill in the blank, I mean, pretty much everywhere outside of
Western democracies and stable countries. The Kalashnikov is the most common
weapon you will see. It's virtually everywhere that it's not safe. And it gets
used in those places in the commissions of crimes, in the commission of human
rights violations. It is often used by governments as a tool of repression.
It's the weapon of the crackdown and has been for more than half a century.
And in these circumstances, like I said, it's a terrible weapon because if you
don't have something that can push back against it, and most people don't, then
the imbalance clearly goes to the person who's carrying it, and in these types
of situations, its technical flaws are really sort of overcome by the
circumstances of one side having them and the other side not.
GROSS: And so it's a weapon often used by child soldiers in, for instance,
African conflicts. Why is it an effective weapon for child soldiers?
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, it often gets used by child soldiers for two reasons. Again,
we go back to abundance. It's out there, and the weapon that's out there is the
weapon that tends to get used. But the other reason is it's very simple in its
design, very, very simple. It's almost intuitive. You can take it apart very
quickly and put it back together just as quickly. It's simple to clean. It's
simple to maintain.
It has â not - getting away from its design features, into its manufacturing
standards, most of the Kalashnikovs out there have been very well made for the
actual conditions of war. It has an excellent protective finish. It's chromed
on the inside of its barrel and its chamber. All of these things mean that if
you're not particularly skilled or attentive to caring for it, it's still going
to last, and it's still going to work.
These things, in the hands of any number of people, the dimwitted, the ill-
trained, the ill-disciplined or children, make it a kind of weapon that they
can use very effectively for a very long period of time, and not all weapons
are this way.
Other weapons â you know, the M-16 line has a couple of very small components,
and you can take the weapon apart and put it together a few times. But
eventually, you're probably, if you're not really paying attention, if you're
not really well-trained, going to lose one of those parts of misplace it. And
at that point, the weapon is rendered almost useless.
The Kalashnikov is not this way. This Kalashnikov has very few parts in its
main operating system, and they're big, and they're bulky, and their
relationship to each other is pretty clear. Without instruction, you could
figure it out inside of an hour. With instruction, I could show you how to use
it inside of five minutes.
GROSS: Now, the AK was created by the Soviets under Stalin just after World War
II. And this was about the same time as the first Soviet nuclear explosion,
which everybody noticed, and as you point out, no one thought much then about
how the AK would change the world. What was the AK invented to do?
Mr. CHIVERS: It was, in the simplest sense, a weapon that was designed to be
issued to the communist conscripted forces. It was going to be the standard
shoulder-fired arm. And the Soviet Union was really quite brilliant at copying
its enemies' patterns.
It over the years had in, for instance, developing the atomic bomb, relied on
espionage to advance its own weapons programs forward. And the AK-47 was
basically a conceptual knockoff, a copy of a German idea, which was to take a
cartridge that would be midway, roughly, in size, between those used by pistols
and those used by the traditional rifles of the time, and to take this medium-
powered, intermediate cartridge and build a weapon around it.
And this brought several technical advantages. With a lighter-weight cartridge,
you could carry more rounds of ammunition, which meant each solider could be
more effective and could last longer in a fight because he would have more
ammunition in his pack or on his kit.
The smaller ammunition also came with other technical benefits. It produced
less heat and less recoil, and this meant that the gun could be smaller and
lighter and consume less resources in order to manage firing each round in
rapid succession. And this drove down the costs of producing the rifle, and it
made training a little bit easier because it was easier to fire the rifle.
The Soviet Union wanted a rifle that would do all of these things, and it got
GROSS: What did it replace?
Mr. CHIVERS: It replaced a sort of mishmash of arms that Stalin's army - that
the Soviet Red Army, had been carrying in the great patriotic war. These
included submachine guns, a few automatic rifles that didn't work especially
well and a number of bolt-action rifles that had roots back to czarist times in
GROSS: So the Soviet propaganda machine touted the AK-47 as the gun of
liberation. You say it ended up being the gun of repression.
Mr. CHIVERS: The Soviet Union assigned a lot of sort of stock fables to the
Kalashnikov line, and one of them is exactly that, that the weapon is used as a
tool for liberating oppressed people, and the subtext there is people under the
Western yoke, under the capitalists' hand, if you will.
This is largely untrue. The initial uses of this weapon, the first time that we
know that it drew blood was as a tool for the crackdown against people who were
protesting against the Soviet Union.
GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers. His new book about the
history of the Kalashnikov is called "The Gun." More after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers, who is a war
correspondent for the New York Times, and he's the author of the new book
called "The Gun," which is a history of the AK-47 and the AKs that followed
How did the Kalashnikov become the most abundant firearm on Earth? And you say
that there's about one Kalashnikov for every 70 people on the face of the
Earth. That's an amazing number of guns.
Mr. CHIVERS: As far as we know, there's about one for every 70 people have been
made. The number may be a little bit smaller because some of them obviously
have been broken or destroyed over time. But the way that it became near-
ubiquitous in combat zones is kind of misunderstood.
You often hear that the weapon is very reliable, it's very easy to use.
Therefore, it's very abundant. And this makes a couple of assumptions, as if
market forces drove the production of this weapon, and that's exactly not the
The weapon was made in planned economies. It was made in a host of different
socialist countries, according to the dictates of their government. They were
made essentially whether anyone paid for them or not. That's why there's so
many of them.
They got stockpiled and put away along all the anticipated fronts for World War
III, which never or as yet has not happened, in tens of millions. And they got
made in ways that no other weapon, no other rifle, anyhow, has ever been made.
I'll give you an example: The second most abundant rifle of our time is the M-
16 line, including a few different variants in the M-4 carbine, which is the
shortened version, which is pretty abundant today in American troops' hands.
About 10 million of these have been made. That's about one-tenth of the number
of Kalashnikovs we think that have been made, and there's a reason for that.
The primary manufacturer is Colt. They made about 10 million of them. Why?
Because they don't make rifles unless they have an order. They cannot afford to
pay for the labor and for the commodities and for the electricity and
everything else, to stockpile rifles by the tens of millions. They make orders
of a few thousand here or 10,000 there, based on an order from a government.
The Kalashnikov was made by an utterly different set of rules. It was given a
priority of resources, priority of labor, access to the steel. Some of the
sharper minds from the engineering schools ended up in the design bureaus and
out on the assembly lines, helping to manufacture this according to the rules
of the socialist state.
This outsize production is why there are so many of them everywhere. Had it
been made like the M-16, you wouldn't see it everywhere because it wouldn't
exist in the numbers that it does now.
GROSS: And the Soviets gave those weapons to its allies, to its proxy forces,
and it ended up in â give us an example of some of the countries that
Kalashnikovs ended up in.
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, I would have to think you couldn't find a country that does
not have Kalashnikovs. But where did it end up in huge numbers? Pretty much
anywhere there's war. And initially, it moved by a process that was driven by
the centralized state. I mean, the Kremlin, under Khrushchev, moved its
Kalashnikovs around in order to curry favor and to win friends or to equip
people who might harass the West.
And this followed a sort of rational line of thought. In this case, the
Kalashnikov was a tool. But once it broke out of the centralized system, market
forces did take over, and then it moved according to the way any other product
would move. It was sold. It was stolen. It was pilfered.
It was â it would move from war to war, conflict to conflict, person to person,
region of the country to region of the country, just like any other product. It
would be collected in one place, and it would be transported to another and
resold through - sometimes through a series of middlemen, sometimes by the same
people. It became a very liquid object.
And one of the things that's made it such an influential tool is once it broke
out, its technical characteristics ensured that it stayed out and stayed
useful. It's so well-made, it's so well-designed, and it's manufactured in such
a way to endure that they last for decades.
I find them in Afghanistan pretty much on every trip that date to the 1950s.
These were some of the very earliest Kalashnikovs made and they're still in
active use, something like 60 years later in some of the harshest environments
GROSS: When you say you find them, is it just that you notice them with
fighters, or do you find them in the Afghan army? Like, how do you notice them?
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, I'm going to â you're going to laugh at me, so go ahead.
Mr. CHIVERS: Kalashnikov â if you know what you're looking for in the various
Kalashnikovs, you become almost like a birdwatcher who can, you know, at a
glance into the bushes tell you that there's three or four different types of
warblers there or off their song.
And the Kalashnikov is kind of similar. If you know how to look for it, you
can, at a glance, at 50 feet or a little more, a little less, tell exactly the
variety that you're looking at, based on slightly different features.
I mean, the Kalashnikov is a platform. It's kind of like, you know, the Chevy
Nova and the Buick Skylark were basically identical cars, but they had a couple
different features besides the placard, and you could tell them apart. And it's
the same thing.
And so when I'm wandering around Afghanistan, I look at the guns. I look at
them for a couple of reasons. I like to see who has them on safe and who has
them on semi-automatic or automatic fire because that tells you who not to
stand next to or maybe who to stand next to, depending on the situation. But I
also look for guns that tell me something about how weapons move and how they
endure in the field, and they have slightly different characteristics that you
And so when I see an unusual gun, one of the older guns, and they're
distinguishable because they have a solid steel receiver, which is sort of the
central part of the weapon, you know, roughly between the barrel and the stock.
And there was a cut made in that weapon. It looks like it was made in a
grinder. And they all, all of the original Kalashnikovs have this cut, and it's
quite distinctive. And when I see that at 50 feet or 60 feet, I tend to wander
over to the person who's carrying it and ask them if I can make a record of it.
And I'll come in tight with a small camera, and I'll record its stamps and
figure out where and when it was made off of that. And that has told me, or
shown me over the last, you know, nine years or so in Afghanistan, that these
original Kalashnikovs from the early 1950s are still in active use.
GROSS: Now although your book is a history of the Kalashnikov, there's a
fascinating section on the history of the M-16, which was basically the
Pentagon's answer to the Kalashnikov.
You say that, like, during the whole missile-gap era, when the Pentagon was
obsessed with not letting the Soviets stockpile more missiles than the U.S.
had, there was really a gun gap that wasn't being very well dealt with and that
when the Pentagon realized it needed a gun in answer to the Kalashnikov, it
came up with something that wasn't as good, the M-16. Why do you think the
Pentagon didn't realize what it was up against with the Kalashnikov?
Mr. CHIVERS: There's a lot of reasons for that. First and foremost, there's the
Pentagon's thinking coming out of World War II - going into and coming out of
World War II and throughout the early years of the Cold War. It was rooted in
sort of a traditional understanding of what they wanted their rifles to do.
They wanted a heavyweight by our standards today, flat-shooting, far-reaching
battle rifle that could shoot someone at many hundred yards away, maybe 600,
700 yards, even. They wanted this weapon in part because they had old ideas of
what a rifle was supposed to do and in part because they were rooted in sort of
the frontier mythology, the fantasy of the far-seeing, far-shooting eagle-eyed
American marksman. And this wasn't really quite the case.
Marksmanship is a lot more pedestrian than people think it is in combat. The
way people shoot on the rifle range typically is not how they shoot in a battle
or in a firefight. And enemy combatants don't present themselves quite as
targets do on the rifle range.
And often when the fighting is on, the people who are shooting are out of
breath, or it's nighttime, or it's raining, or the other side's in camouflage
or in a very good, concealed position, and you donât even see them or barely
do, or you see them only fleetingly. So what's the point of having a rifle that
can shoot reliably out to 600 or 700 yards, when realistically, almost nobody,
except the very best shots, the snipers for instance, can be expected to hit
somebody out there?
Nonetheless, the idea of this rifle drove the Pentagon's thinking about what
it's wanted its rifles to do, and there's a cost with that. All rifles are
compromises in design. If you want a heavy cartridge, if you want a powerful
rifle, your rifle needs to be heavier to handle it, and you can carry fewer
rounds of ammunition.
And the rifles that the Pentagon were making used these larger rounds, and
these made it almost impossible when the American troops arrived in Vietnam,
and the ranges were short because the vegetation was thick, and the other side
had Kalashnikovs, which gave them a very effective short-range rifle that could
fire on automatic. It made it almost impossible for the American troops out on
patrol to counter this effectively in the typical engagements of Vietnam.
GROSS: C.J. Chivers will be back in the second half of the show. His new book
about the history of the AK-47 is called "The Gun." Chivers covers the fighting
in Afghanistan for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. We're talking about the Kalashnikov
and how this automatic assault rifle changed warfare and became the weapon of
choice for insurgents, terrorists and child soldiers, not to mention many
armies around the world.
My guest, C.J. Chivers, is the author of the new book "The Gun," about the
history of the AK-47, which was created by the Soviets after World War II.
Chivers has covered fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya for The New York
Times. When we left off we were talking about how the U.S. developed the M-16
in response to the Kalashnikov.
You tell a story that I'm not sure if it was told before, about how the M-16
was tested and how that testing was covered up. Tell us about some of the very
odd, maybe even bizarre ways that the M-16 was tested.
Mr. CHIVERS: In the 1960s at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, on very short notice
and with very little supervision, a group of scientists in this - what was
known as the biophysics division, set to work on a number of tests to determine
which rifle, the AR-15, the M-14 or the Kalashnikov, was the most lethal. Now,
measuring lethality is not easy, right? I mean itâs kind of a concept that is
very, very hard to replicate without killing things. And so they set about
They got a bunch of goats and shot them at different ranges and then they tried
to observe the way that the goats died. But they also wanted to figure out how
these different weapons would have an effect on the human body. That's a little
trickier. So they got a bunch of cadavers, they got them from India, and then
shot them at different ranges. They also shot human heads - 27 in all. Now,
these tests didnât tell them much. They kind of expected it wouldnât tell you
much. They shot them at fairly short ranges and every bone that was struck by
every bullet, no matter which rifle fired it, no matter which range, shattered,
and every head that was struck broke into pieces. So there really wasnât much
practical difference between these tests.
The test did have one value, which was that there had been a previous field
report of the M-16 or the AR-15, as it was called at the time, that seemed to
report that the M-16 had a spectacular effect on struck Vietnamese guerrillas
and that it would cause traumatic amputations, literally tear off limbs that
The value, if there was any, to this secret test that was conducted at the
Aberdeen Proving Ground, is it pretty much demonstrated that that field report
was false. They could not replicate that in the laboratory no matter how they
shot, no matter what range. Even if they took soft tip bullets and shaved the
bullet tips further to try to create more dramatic wounds, they were unable to
create these traumatic amputations. That might have helped in the conversation
happening in the Pentagon about whether the M-16 was really all it was built up
to be. But there was a problem, which was that the Pentagon became so ashamed
that it had held these tests, so embarrassed and so worried about the
repercussions, you know, the sensationalism, as they called it, in their secret
memoranda of the time, that they covered the whole test up and it was hidden
for just about 50 years.
GROSS: So the M-16 was rushed into production because it was needed for the
Mr. CHIVERS: The M-16 was rushed into production because first McNamara and
then General Westmoreland understood that the United States military was
outmatched on the ground, rifle for rifle, with what the Viet Cong and the NVA
were carrying, and so this was hurried out of its prototype phase, rushed into
production and handed out to troops overseas with very little training. And it
was really an incomplete understanding of how the weapon worked.
I mean weapons that have been handed out in the past, you know, issued to
American soldiers, typically go through a very rigorous design cycle and
testing cycle. And this one, in the simplest sense, it didnât. It was rushed
out. It was a reaction and it was a bungled reaction and it cost people their
GROSS: What were the problems the soldiers in Vietnam had with the M-16s?
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, there were several different types of problems that all came
together in the same phenomena, which is that the rifle would stop to work - it
would jam. And there was a particular species of jam that was really the
biggest problem of all. And you know, itâs one thing to say my rifle jammed,
you know, which mean, what does it mean? It means it stops firing. It means
that youâve got a magazine inserted and you think youâre firing on automatic
and it just stops, right? Click, it's over, and you have to get the thing to
But the M-16's most damning problem was that it didnât just jam, but the round
- the last round of fire - would often leave its cartridge behind wedged inside
the chamber of the rifle and that would prevent a new round from being seated,
but it gave an infantryman under fire a really odious, difficult, potentially
terrifying task, which is to get that stuck round out of the chamber, often
while under fire or while his friends were under fire.
GROSS: Now, the M-16 has been improved since then, right?
Mr. CHIVERS: Oh, sure. It's not really a fair conversation at all to compare
the M-16 today to the M-16 of say, 1966 or 1967 or early 1968. There were some
specific problems with the weapon's manufacturing standards - you know, it had
not been chromed inside. That was one of the main things. And these were in the
main fixed with a series of upgrades, changes to the assembly line, slight
changes to the design that had occurred by the end of the 1960s. Now, the M-16
is still a controversial weapon and there still are many critics, and there are
reports of problems with it that persist from Afghanistan and Iraq, but they're
not on the same order at all.
GROSS: So if youâre just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers. He's a Pulitzer
Prize-winning correspondent for The New York Times. He's covered wars in
several places. Lately he's been covering the war in Afghanistan. He's a former
Moscow bureau chief. His new book, "The Gun," is a history of the Kalashnikov
and its impact on wars of all sorts and terrorism.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers. He's a Pulitzer Prize-
winning reporter. He's been covering wars in several places, including
Afghanistan. He's a former Moscow bureau chief. His new book, "The Gun," is a
history of the Kalashnikov and how it's has affected wars of all sorts and
Youâve spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. Youâve been studying who has which
weapon and what model, what year of the Kalashnikov they have. Youâve been
studying, you know, where the guns are coming from. So having done all of that
analysis, what would you say about the guns that the Taliban have, where
they're from, what level, you know, what grade of Kalashnikov they are?
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, the Kalashnikov, wherever you see it in the hands of
guerrillas, you almost always will find that they're carrying many forms. And
this is true with the Taliban too. There's been a number of times where I've
been able to inventory weapons that have been carried by the Taliban. They turn
up when, you know, Americans or Western soldiers or Afghan soldiers get them
after a firefight from, you know, dead insurgents or they get them, you know,
when they sweep buildings and they find, you know, sort of, you know, weapons
caches. And most of the Kalashnikovs in the hands of the Taliban that I've seen
are pretty old and they're in pretty rugged shape, at least externally.
This isn't unsurprising. I mean they have to hide them. They have to bury them;
they may toss them into canals. So they tend to often be pitted and worn. They
also tend to be at times a mish-mash. You'll see that the rifle kind of like,
you know, Mr. Potato Head, has got different parts on it. You know, the
receiver cover maybe have made in one factory and the bolt may have been made
in another, and sometimes the stock may have been made in a third place, and
theyâve been modified often.
The Taliban has figured out, unsurprisingly again, the Western rules of
engagement and they know that one of the surest ways to get shot is to be seen
carrying a rifle, so they're often not seen carrying a rifle. And one way to do
that is to remove the stock. And if you remove the stock, if itâs a wooden
stock, it's just - itâs a pretty simple thing, just a couple of screws that
have to come out - you reduce the rifle's length significantly, and then you
can hide it under the blanket that youâre wearing over your shoulders or inside
of your coat. You also ride with it on a motorcycle, which is a way a lot of
the Taliban fighters move around. And so what you tend to see, if you get your
hands on the, you know, the Taliban member's Kalashnikov, is that it'll be old,
that it'll be shortened and that it'll be in poor shape.
Poor shape again, is relative. It doesnât look good. It may work just fine but
it doesnât look good. The inner guts - I took apart a Kalashnikov this spring
in Marja that looked like it had spent a long time at a canal and it was in
very rugged shape on the outside. But inside, the guts of the weapon, the bolt
and the operating system, had been freshly oiled. It would've worked just fine.
GROSS: Youâve traveled with the Afghan military and with the U.S. military in
Afghanistan. And one of the things youâve noticed is that the Taliban will fire
on the Army with Kalashnikovs, and of course the soldiers try to take cover but
they can't really because there's IEDs where they are, so you risk taking cover
and exploding an IED. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to be in a
circumstance like that?
Mr. CHIVERS: Itâs very interesting you put it that way because that's exactly
how weapons can be used in ways that you donât necessarily measure their direct
effects and yet they're very effective. So the Kalashnikov, as I've told you,
might not be the most accurate weapon system, but having a direct effect and
having a terrible effect are not necessarily the same thing. You can use a
Kalashnikov or any other type of weapon to perhaps herd a group of combatants
into a place where you have something else waiting for them. And that's how the
Kalashnikov often will get used. And some of the initial patrols that the
Marines were sending out when they first arrived in Helmand Province would
encounter almost no resistance.
And then what would happen after a few patrols is the Marines would take a
stray shot or two and whoever had fired that shot was apparently working in
concert with a bunch of spotters and they would watch the Marines drill. The
Marines have a number of ways that they react to coming under fire. They're
called immediate action drills and there's some for immediate action drill
left, immediate action drill right, immediate action drill for a short range
ambush, for a long range ambush, but they involve a number of responses. And
these were studied by the Taliban and the people working with them, and they
would watch where the Marines went to. A couple of Marines would go to this
wall, a couple of Marines would go to that tree, a few would go to that paddy
dike, and they would kind of take note of the natural places in a given ambush
zone where human beings are going to gravitate under fire.
And if you were under fire, Terry, you would naturally end up, you wouldnât
probably even know how you got there, in a ditch or behind a wall. It just
happens. And then you'd probably be cursing the buttons on your blouse that
were holding you up off the ground, that extra bit of height. You try to get
low. And the spots that let you get low are pretty apparent when youâre under
fire. And what would then happen, sometime later, a Marine patrol would be
moving through that same area and a few more shots would be taken at it and a
similar drill would follow, and many of the Marines would end up in the exact
same spot that the previous Marines had been, only this time there would be an
GROSS: That is so diabolically clever.
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, you know, one of the first rules of war is that itâs a very
good teacher. The survivors learn. I remember when I was in Iraq in 2006, a
Marine captain pulled me aside and said, you know why itâs tough here now - we
were out in the Anbar Province - he says because the junior varsity's all dead.
We're fighting the varsity. These are the guys who survived. They know a few
things. And that's the same thing you see in Afghanistan at this point. They
might not have the ideal rifle for shooting four, five, six hundred yards
against a materially superior Western foe who has got great body armor and a
good helmet and air support and GPS and a whole sort of suite of weapons and
support that makes it so formidable. But they're still people and they still
know how to fight and they're adaptive, and those who are still doing it have
been doing it for a long time.
GROSS: So the arms that the U.S. has given to the police and to the military in
Afghanistan, do you worry about what's going to happen to these arms when the
U.S. pulls out?
Mr. CHIVERS: I think not just I worry about it, I think pretty much any
reasonable person does, including the people who are handing them out. History
tells us, and hopefully history can be proven wrong, but the track record has
been that when you hand out weapons in Afghanistan, they go to uses to which
you donât intend. All of the previous efforts to make an Afghan military have
ended badly, and the members of those Afghan military units have become the
clay for future militias and their weapons have re-circulated in and around the
region. The U.S. is trying to buck history here. They're trying to create an
Afghan military that will actually endure, that will last and that hopefully
will maintain custody over its arms.
In many cases, the United States has issued weapons that it's already lost
track of, though. In the early years there wasnât any inventory or there was an
inadequate amount of inventory and so the weapons were being handed out without
being recorded by serial number, and a lot of these weapons have changed hands
already. You know, in Pakistan they're selling weapons that the Americans had
issued in Afghanistan in the arms bazaars in the frontier provinces.
Similarly, there's types of ammunition that didnât exist in Afghanistan until
the United States started issuing it and ammunition has very distinctive stamps
on the bottom of the cartridge. And you can also, when you manage to get your
hands on the Taliban's magazines, you'll often find that they're packed with
ammunition that the American taxpayers have bought.
GROSS: Now you served in the military, in the Marines from - was it '88 to '94?
Mr. CHIVERS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: When you are reporting from a war zone and youâre getting shot at, do
you ever wish you had a gun like you did in the military when you were in the
Mr. CHIVERS: You know, I got over that a long time ago. We make our choices and
I made mine. And I'm not a combatant. I donât carry weapons and I donât want
GROSS: Can you tell us a little bit about how you made the decision to go from
being in the military to being a reporter and eventually covering war?
Mr. CHIVERS: You know, I'd like to tell you it was more linear than it was. I
got out of the Marines in '94. I enjoyed the Marine Corps for the most part
and, you know, I did about six and a half years on active duty and I was a
platoon commander and company commander and, you know, I served in the infantry
and I got a lot out of it. But by 1994 there wasnât much going on. I mean the
American military by my measure was, you know, intellectually adrift and the
Cold War had ended. But the new doctrine was, what the new mission was, was not
apparent and I didnât want to spend, you know, much more of my time in a big
government bureaucracy, which I had picked up captain and that's what I could
kind of see where my life might be heading.
I wasnât real comfortable with rank either. I liked it down at the bottom
better and I liked having sort of the independence of, you know, being a
lieutenant and, you know, the license to make mistakes that went with it were
sort of gone. And so I had the decision to leave while I still could and, you
know, feeling good about the time I'd spent there, so I walked.
When I walked, I had no idea that what we're in now was coming. I mean who
would've seen it? I went to graduate school and became a reporter and was
covering crime and corruption and politics, you know, and sort of this, many of
the standard beats that new reporters at newspapers cover across the land. I
didnât see myself being a war correspondent. I, in many ways, thought I was
done with all of this. And then came 2001 and, you know, weâve been running
GROSS: Do you think being a former Marine has helped you as a war
Mr. CHIVERS: How could it not? Of course, it does. It helps on a lot of levels.
I mean some of it's obvious, I mean packed into my head. There's a lot of stuff
I picked up by osmosis in the Marine Corps. I mean, I understand small unit
tactics and I studied a lot of military history, and so that obviously helps
day by day. And it helps socially because I still know some of the people in
uniform and I understand a lot of the people in uniform. I know, in the largest
sense, in many cases who they are and why they're there, and that helps. But
other times it just helps physically.
I mean, I spent a bunch of years on the ground in the Marine Corps and grew
pretty comfortable with hardship. I donât have a lot of high expectations for
comfort out there. I donât look for it. I donât need it. I'm comfortable in a
wide range of climates and circumstances. In maybe a sort of sick way, I like
being out there. Itâs in some ways simpler than working in the office.
And so all of these things come together and they make it so that when I'm out
there I can work pretty effectively and probably more effectively than I would
if I didnât have the background I do.
GROSS: You probably know how to be safe too, or safer than you would have.
Mr. CHIVERS: I like to say I know how to work the margins. I wouldnât say that
makes you safe.
GROSS: Hardly anything really makes you safe in a war zone, but...
Mr. CHIVERS: Yeah, there's a lot of luck.
Mr. CHIVERS: I understand how much luck is involved and I do have a sense of
how to work the margins and maybe manage the risk a little bit. But I also work
with a really excellent reporting partner and he and I have been together a
bunch of years and we look out for each and this is just as valuable as my
GROSS: This is Tyler Hicks youâre taking about, the photographer?
Mr. CHIVERS: This is Tyler Hicks. Yeah. Yeah. I mean we really look out for
each other and we have a sense of what the other one's thinking without words.
Just like, you know, a really good, you know, Army or Marine infantry squad or,
for that matter, a really good bunch of guerrillas. They all know each other
and they all kind of fill in each other's gaps. And we have that same sort of
rhythm and without it I probably wouldnât be out there as much as I am.
GROSS: Well, C.J. Chivers, I want to thank you very much for talking with us
about your book "The Gun." And I also want to thank you for the risks that you
take from war zones to report the story for us. Thank you so much.
Mr. CHIVERS: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: C.J. Chivers is the author of the new book "The Gun." He covers the
fighting in Afghanistan for The New York Times. You can read an excerpt of his
book and find links to his recent articles on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "Great House" by Nicole
Krauss who wrote the bestseller "The History of Love."
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Narratives Of Grief Fill Krauss' 'Great House'
TERRY GROSS, host:
Nicole Krauss's 2005 novel "The History of Love" received the kind of
widespread critical acclaim that most young novelists only dream about. Krauss
has just brought out a new novel called "Great House."
Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Krauss's literary winning streak
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Nicole Krauss's latest novel, "Great House," is precisely the
kind of work of art for which the phrase oddly compelling was invented. Like
her celebrated bestseller, "The History of Love," this new novel contemplates
love, loss and the oppressive weight of memory on those left behind. The plot
here, though, is even murkier than it was in "The History of Love." Through the
overcast cloud cover, we're shown scenes that take place in a hospital room in
Jerusalem; Freud's house in London; a castle filled with dead people's
furniture; and a surrealistic shark suspended in a tank, wired with electrodes
to absorb the brunt of human emotions.
I'm not sure what it all adds up to. I'm not even sure that "Great House" has
one cohesive theme. But I'm willing to tolerate this confusion because of the
isolated moments of psychological illumination that Krauss provides through her
startling language. Reading "Great House" is like being lost in a pitch black
room, an image that Krauss gives us more than once here, and then suddenly
having a dusty corner of that room brilliantly lit up and exposed.
The bewildering tales told by the four narrators in this novel all have
something to do with a massive antique desk that's passed through various homes
ever since it was separated from its original owner in the Holocaust. One of
the desk's first onlookers describes it as more like a ship than a desk, and
says it bullied the other pathetic bits of furniture in the room to the far
The sinister desk seems to cast a spell on all who come into contact with it. A
woman named Nadia inherits the desk from a young poet who was tortured and put
to death in Chile during the 1970s. Nadia sits metaphorically chained to the
desk for years, only gradually awakening to the fact that she's turned her back
on life in order to produce books that nobody reads. Another character, a
cynical antiques dealer, works to reunite Holocaust survivors with missing
pieces of furniture. Unlike people, he comments, the inanimate doesn't simply
disappear. The desk is his Maltese Falcon, the ultimate object of his obsessive
questing. Yet another one of Krauss's narrators, an elderly widower named
Arthur, comes to regard the desk, which belonged for a time to his late wife,
Lotte, as a representation of her essential remoteness. Here's a snippet of
Arthur's stark soliloquy on the tragic unknowability of other people.
I thought of our life together, Lotte's and mine, and how everything in it was
designed to give a sense of permanence, the chair against the wall that was
there when we went to sleep and there again when we awoke. Though in truth, it
was all just an illusion, just as our bodies are an illusion, pretending to be
one thing when really they are millions upon millions of atoms coming and
going, as if each of us were only a great train station - no, it was worse than
that, more like a giant empty field where every day a circus erected and
dismantled itself, the whole thing from top to bottom, but never the same
circus. So what hope did we really have of ever making sense of ourselves, let
alone one another?
The desk is the motivating cause for many of the similarly harsh epiphanies in
this novel, but it doesn't - in the way of midcult sentimental fiction - unify
the fragmented narratives here into one master plot. Given that so many of the
tales in "Great House" are concerned with devastating loneliness, it wouldn't
make sense for them to be ultimately stitched together.
Despite its deep sadness, however, "Great House" is also an exhilarating read
because of Krauss's unconventional style of storytelling. Although most of her
characters are prisoners of the past, Krauss herself is a fiction pioneer,
toying with fresh ways of rendering experience and emotion, giving us readers
the thrill of seeing the novel stretched into amorphous new shapes.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Great House" by Nicole Krauss.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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