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Review: The Gun by C. J. Chivers

I haven't done a book review in a while, but Aerindel on the Beretta Forum suggested this book to me. I picked the book up a while ago and I read through it quickly. It's not the sort of book that I usually add to my collection (my normal being spiritual non-fiction and High/Urban Fantasy novels). However, at his recommendation, i felt like it would be a worth addition to my collection. It turns out he was right. I promised I would give my thoughts on the book. As is normal for this blog and my own style, I am not going to be particularly organized in how I present this, but will spend some time letting myself wander through the ideas as they seem fitting.

My first thoughts on the book as a whole having some time of distance and reflection on hand to consider the book as a whole are generally positive, with the particular observation that it is clearly written from the perspective and style of someone who is used to journalistic writing. Indeed, I cannot help but note that this particular bias and stylistic undertaking permeates the entire work.

Allow me to explain a little bit. Coming from the background that I do, there are two major forms of writing that I generally work with, academic writing and fiction writing. In these two cases one can find the opposite styles of work.

Academic writing should generally be exceptionally dense, concise, to the point, and, IMO, should omit unnecessary detail and statements made in academic writing should be sound, clear, and self-evident. By self-evident I mean that either the words should be obviously true, or their claims should be obviously defended by clear references and localized supporting evidence. This does not mean that everything should be spelled out, but at the very least, what is implied and hinted and spoken of in the writing but not said should be consistent and sound. This leaves little room for opinions (none actually) and while not everyone has the same academic writing tastes as I do, we can generally note that academic writing is usually held to a fairly high standard of peer review, which tends to require that the writing can "back up its claims."

Fictional writing, on the other hand, is not just imaginary, but if it were not filled with the opinions and flavors of the author, it would in fact be rather dull and few people, I think, would enjoy reading it. In fictional writing you pain a picture and evoke the mind of the reader to experience a world and a story that allows them to viscerally engage with the content, even if only in their mind. There are no supported claims, only a world that is seen and, if the writing is good, understood.

The writing by C. J. Chivers in "The Gun" follows neither pattern, and as such was a rather different experience for me. The book deals with a historical topic, and as such might generally be expected to stay away from the fictional. And yet, it is clear that Chivers hopes not to report on observable fact, but instead to tell a story. He presents facts, but these facts are not so much in and of themselves important, as they are meant to provide weight and authority to the story that is laid out before the reader.

the picture painted by Chivers is a good one. His facts provide compelling support for the narrative. The detail is rich, and the content varied and ranging. Nonetheless, the academic in me must acknowledge that the materials presented, while they help to provide weight to the story, do not in themselves justify the story entirely. As such, the book is neither encyclopedic nor rigorously academic. And for anyone wishing simply to engage with the facts of the gun, Chivers method and style will seem long winded and inadequate. Nonetheless, Chivers does not hesitate to provide a wide variety of details and facts related to the the gun, hidden as they are behind his human and political narrative.

And therein lies both the attraction and the distraction of Chivers work. Chivers is writing about the AK-47. One might be inclined to think then, that his writing would be, well, about the AK-47. In truth however, this is a book not about the AK-47 so much as it is about the world and, particularly, the people which paved the way to making the AK-47 a reality and the effect of the AK-47 on the world after its introduction. In some ways the AK-47 is incidental to the entire work.

Readers hoping simply to have a detailed and rich documentation of the surrounding tactics, theory, history, and analysis of the AK-47 will be disappointed; Chivers has precious little detail about the AK-47 itself that would truly be considered interesting or valuable to someone of an engineering or mechanical bent. The journalistic style of the book begins to show itself here, since the writing focuses very heavily on the humanity surrounding the AK platform, and not the platform itself.

On the one hand, this makes the story very interesting to those who are interested in people and societies. Every detail about the gun, which might otherwise bore a person, is surrounded with myth, speculation, history, and story of the people and places that surrounded that feature or detail. Chivers goes through a good deal of effort to paint a human picture of the AK-47 and to give people a glimpse or a view (through whatever lens he may be using) of the life of the times, in Russia and abroad.

Indeed, this becomes evident from the first page of the book, as Chivers does not, as some might expect, start at the beginning of the AK-47, but instead, he starts at the beginning of the repeating arm, the Gatling gun. Any book about the AK-47 that begins with the Civil War is taking a different approach than simply reporting on the facts.

There is a danger in this approach. As I read the book, I found myself constantly wondering, "Do I care?" For someone from a strong academic background and a serious interest in the abstract over what some might consider the "nitty gritty," Chivers style and method had a tendency to belabor the points he made sometimes. I mean by this that Chivers tends to take a good deal of time to paint a picture of people and places, even going so far as to discuss the daily life of those living near or around the factories that might have developed the AK-47. Unfortunately, the facts to back up these competently painted word pictures are not so strongly referenced, and as such, the writing begins at times to step into the world of journalistic padding, where a given point is made "more real" by surrounding it with incidental information that is usually irrelevant to any real facts, but that attempts to create a connection between a reader and the people described in the writing.

Some people may enjoy this, and it will undoubtedly lend a more compelling spin on the material compared to the more encyclopedic approach that I might have taken. On the other hand, however, it can also tend to weigh heavily on the reader if they are already "sold," and it begins to come off a little heavy handed at that point.

Now, that being said, this approach has the advantage of giving a wide and complete picture of things. I have read other reviews of this book that suggest that Chivers should have dropped the first half of the book and just moved right into the AK-47. In my opinion, that would have been a mistake. By going back to the Civil War and proceeding chronologically through the development of weapons, by the time we reach the AK-47 we, the readers, are primed and ready to see the sociocultural effects bringing about the shifts in how the world works. Moreover, we are able to gain critical insights into the psychology of the Russian environment leading up to the development of the AK-47.

This perspective also helps us to gain further insights into our own governmental development programs and the development of the M16, which is also highlighted in this book. I don't think the value of this approach should be under-estimated in favor of a limited or narrow scope treatment of the AK-47. Far too often readers are interested only in getting what they want from a book, rather than being open to learning and reading through a book to gain new knowledge, rather than reinforcing their own desires.

Fortunately for the research aficionado that I am, there are some references and content in "The Gun" that give me something more to work with and help to give me a head start on doing my own research or pursuing the topic further if I want to do. However, the narrative provided by Chivers is very compelling and a very thoughtful one, with a good deal of potential insight into the roles of small arms technology on the conflicts of the world. It is interesting to note that despite my own significant studies into the World Wars and such, the unique doctrinal and cultural contexts which lead to decisions by various powers in how to fight wars often escape notice of the history books or other materials one might often read on the subject. For focusing on this aspect of warfare, I thank Chivers.

I do not wish to spoil too much of Chivers work, though that would be hard to do, I think. AS to his specific claims of psychological impact and general approach, I will not speak of them specifically in any great depth. I would encourage those interested in hearing Chivers thoughts to get them straight from the book and to judge for themselves what they think of them.

I do however, want to speak a little bit to the ramifications that may be considered from the book on some of my own work, which is that of computing and martial arts. A common theme that emerges from Chivers work, in my own interpretation, is the dangers of excessive doctrine and of that doctrine leading to stagnation in the minds of those with power. Bureaucracy weighs things down, and makes things less effective, despite the value of organization.

To that end, we can take away some interesting lessons on this in computing and martial arts. Stay flexible, adapt, and rather than trying to erect arrogant structures which make dogmatic claims on the way the world should be, instead, we can focus on value, needs, and the end goal, remaining dynamic and flexible, so that we can quickly adapt and adjust to situations without depending too much on prescribed strategies. Intuitive and immediate insights into a situation may be more valuable. Continuous evaluation and testing to constrain improvement and push it further makes sense.

In this sense, a striving for simplicity, agility, and dynamic capacity to evolve and respond may be better than any attempt to prescribe a priori the "techniques" or strategies to be used for any given situation. In essence, humility, dispassion, intuition, and decisive action are effective and scalable. Legalistic frameworks that seek to subsume or account for everything are not.