Luise White

Mao Zedong may actually not have coined the phrase, "Political power flows from the barrel of a gun." It appears in a 1938 text he wrote, but he says that every communist should know the dictum, so it’s possible that it did not originate with him. But he does deserve credit for linking revolution and guns, so much so that with only the slightest elisions of time and space, one particular automatic weapon became synonymous with revolutions in Africa. That was the AK-47, the automatic Kalashnikov designed in 1947 (and hence unavailable to Mao’s army between 1947-49), that was later refined to the AKM (for modern) but still called by the ubiquitous term, AK. Everyone knows what it means and everyone knows what it looks like: the curved magazine is the dead giveaway. The AK is an insignia of revolutionary regimes. The flag of Mozambique has an AK-47 on it (Wikipedia says it’s the only national flag to feature a modern rifle) and the now-banned Nando’s commercial shows Ghaddafi frolicking in a garden with a water gun in the shape of AK. And somewhere between the Mozambique flag and Nando’s advertisements, Zimbabweans have been told that no ballot should be able to undo what a bullet did.

However you cut it, that’s a lot of gun imagery. Why is one specific gun such a big deal in the lives of regimes that attest to revolutionary credentials?  For reactionary regimes, every AK was evidence of a direct line to Moscow or Beijing, even though the gun itself was the creation of an injured Soviet infantryman who was put to work designing weapons during his convalescence. It was not licensed or patented, and thus replicated in the factories of Eastern Europe and China. What was considered the genius behind the design was its simplicity:  It was lightweight, it had very few moving parts, it required minimal upkeep, and, if it had a plastic stock, it could be cached underground for years. Indeed, part of the horror of AKs in contemporary African conflicts is that the weapon is so simple even a child can use it. To put a fine point on it, why is so a simple weapon memorialized on flags, in fiction, and in TV commercials?  

I’ll write mainly about Zimbabwe’s liberation war, since I know that best. After the 1970s, what I’ve read in official Rhodesian army reports, and what one might call "settler fiction," claims that African guerrillas, whether they were trained in Moscow or Tanzania, were excellent shots while the Africans who fought for the Rhodesian cause – the Rhodesian African Rifles, by 1970 far and away the most experienced infantry regiment in the country – were poor shots. This didn’t seem to be true at all, but such a binary had been in place in Southern Africa since the 19th century:  The enemies of European encroachment were excellent warriors and crack shots, while its allies were all but cowardly and terrible shots (there’s a lot of literature on this, but the movie Zulu is a good example). Rhodesian novels – the trashier they are, the more closely I’ve read them – are filled with guerrillas and their brand new AKs guarding “tons” of ammunition, radios and explosives. There was the urban legend of how a white reservist discovered his gardener was a guerrilla: He cleaned his lawnmower exactly the way one cleaned a gun, laying out the parts in sequence.  He called the police, who found the servants’ quarters filled with AKs. And there was the white farmer who told the correspondent from the Daily Telegraph that “these chaps are using sophisticated weapons…more like Mao Mao than Mau Mau.” Rhodesian Army situation reports – written reports from the field after every contact in which shots were fired  – often praised the accuracy of guerrilla patrols.

Really? Guerrillas in these novels are often distracted by their memories of Russia or China, where they were smitten with their invariably female weapons instructors, but that’s fiction and it makes for a good story. Accurate fire from an AK is also a fiction, however: Even though the AK had a single shot switch, the whole point of automatic weapons is that they don’t aim at a specific place on a specific target. Automatic weapon fire is area fire, bullets fired over a wide space to keep the enemy from advancing or to cover cadres while they advance or as they withdraw. Area fire is effective in the extreme; accuracy is not really the appropriate concept. Or, as one former guerrilla told me, “we had no snipers…” Yet Rhodesian Army officers praised the shooting of ZIPRA and ZANLA, and were in awe - no other word applies - of ZANLA’s skill at withdrawing, of two men laying down cover fire as the others slowly retreated.    

Zimbabwe guerrillas who were interrogated by security forces, or who wrote novels or memoirs, were not so enamored with their training. Only a few - and only then in the early 1980s – believed they were turned into agile, capable fighting machines in months in the camps of Mozambique or Tanzania. The rest complained of first being made to fashion a replica of an AK in wood, and then practicing with that replica, of having to memorize the parts of the weapon by rote, and of watching demonstrations of hand-to-hand combat that they soon realized were designed to keep them from being bored. Target practice was sporadic: Well into the 1970s, ZANLA training camps in Tanzania had real guns, but Tanzanians kept ammunition in their armories overnight so actual opportunities to shoot were occasional. In Mozambique, cadres trained with wooden replicas. FRELIMO did not allow them to carry guns until they crossed the border. When women cadres were given guns they were told this did not mean they were equal to men, but only that they now had the opportunity to shoot fascists and racists.  

Gender notwithstanding, how important was it to train with an actual gun and not a wooden facsilime? If accurate fire is not the issue with automatic weapons, target practice may not be all that important, but having experience with the weight of the weapon (about 5kg with a thirty round magazine) is: Experience with a gun’s weight allows a shooter to keep it low when firing, and thus spray the intended area with bullets.  Becoming accustomed to the weight and heft of a weapon makes it less likely that a shooter will be startled by the sound of shooting.  The Rhodesian police – who finished in the top five in international pistol shooting contests long after Rhodesia was banned from most such competitions - practiced shooting with flashlights, timing the speed at which they could turn on a torch. The goal was not just to save ammunition – although Rhodesia was to make much of its shortage of ordinance – but to establish a patterned reflex that would not be disrupted by the noise of firing.

Still, the Rhodesian Army, more often than not, insisted that guerrillas were well armed and well trained. Many were, of course, but that’s not my issue: The question was not just one of having a worthy enemy but of having an enemy you could only best with smarts, not weapons or numbers (again, see the movie Zulu). Mind you, this is not some silence I’ve gleaned by reading archives against the grain; this is something that appears over and over again in a variety of sources. When one of the guerrillas captured in Wankie in 1968 admitted that he was only allowed to fire three rounds during target practice in the USSR, his interrogator did not believe him. Clearly the man was ashamed of his shooting ability and did not care to admit how many rounds he had actually fired in weapons training. By 1977 recruits for the all-white (and over-praised) Rhodesian Light Infantry heard lectures in which they were reminded not to sunbathe while in the bush (white skin was visible from a great distance) and that the enemy was “neither invisible nor invincible.” For all the interrogations conducted with captured guerrillas in the 1970s, no one seems to have believed that cadres trained with wooden guns. A senior intelligence officer told me that it was only after the raid on Chimoio that the Rhodesian Army understood that cadres trained with wooden replicas of AKs. To be fair, this view of guerrilla shooting may not have been shared by white Rhodesian troops. A few years ago I published an article about these ideas and received an email from a former RLI: “Dear Professor,” it began, “this is just to inform you that I am only alive today because of ZANLA shooting.”

What’s going on here? Why was the Rhodesian Army so eager to praise guerrilla shooting; or, if you are positioned somewhat differently, why were they so clueless about it? Yes, it’s that worthy foe thing, but it’s also something much more, I think - something that has to do with the very nature of this particular weapon. It all does get back to Mao. The AK was tethered to Moscow and Beijing the way no other weapon, including a range of Czech-made guns in regular use in the liberation struggle, and certainly not the Belgian made FN used by Rhodesian forces, were linked to their place or manufacture. The AK may be unique in the linkage of the gun to its place of origin. Maxim guns may have received great poetic praise for winning colonial wars, but who knows where they were made? In the 19th century US, the Winchester rifle was “the gun that won the west” (although before I googled the phrase I thought it was the Colt-45 pistol), but I have no idea where the Winchester factory or factories were. AKs, however, are a link to communist countries. An AK-47 in the hands of a guerrilla was demonstrable proof of skill and sophistication, spoken of in vocabularies of accurate shooting and thorough training, but really about communism and its ideologues, thought to require some serious thought and study. This wasn’t always the case, of course, and guerrillas’ own description of weapons training was remarkably unromantic. Whatever they thought about automatic weapons in general, and the AK in particular, guerrillas understood the meaning and use of the weapon to be intensely local.

Luise White teaches African history at the University of Florida. Her more recent book is The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe (2003).