The AK-47 Era

Gaza solidarity demo. Brussels, July 2014.

The AK-47 assault rifle and the state of Israel are almost exactly the same age. Although this is purely a coincidence, it provides a useful opportunity to ponder their relationship. Throughout the Cold War, the AK-47 signified resistance to the hegemony of the free-market West, both during the final decades of traditional colonialism and the confusing post-colonial period that followed it.

The weapon became an icon and remains one to this day, as the photos here attest. But what about Israel? For some, the nation’s survival also represented a break with the colonial powers of Europe. For others, though, its very existence testified to a new kind of imperialism. While there are many reasons for the special relationship between the United States and Israel, this contradictory status has clearly been a factor. No matter how many deaths Americans are responsible for worldwide, the majority of them remain convinced that this violence is a last resort. And the same holds true for Israelis, as polls taken in the wake of the IDF’s latest operation in Gaza make clear.

The expansion of the United States and Israel into territories already occupied by other peoples was — and, to some extent, continues to be — sustained by these ideological convictions. Their citizens demonstrated a remarkable capacity to believe that these acts of dispossession were undertaken in self-defense. In both cases, imperialism was turned inside out to make it look almost benevolent. No matter the ulterior motives that may have undergirded these territorial ambitions — the desire to access natural resources, for example — they still wore the self-righteous mask of defending a superior yet beleaguered ideal.

That’s why resisting this post-colonial imperialism has proven so difficult. While some military and political leaders might acknowledge the Realpolitik concealed beneath this ideal, ordinary citizens mostly believed that their country was acting with the best intentions. Even now, this self-understanding still shapes life in the United States and Israel to such a degree that combating their government policies with words is rarely successful.

AK-47 tag, Berlin
Berlin, February 2014.

As an icon, the AK-47 testifies to this frustration. Obviously, the rifle has been used with great success in military struggles against these regimes, from Vietnam to Gaza. But its importance extends far beyond this literal significance. In the context of posters, pamphlets and T-shirts, the weapon’s instantly recognizable silhouette indicates the failure of language as a tool for, to borrow from the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, “communication oriented towards understanding.”

And yet, when deployed in this manner, the AK-47 never wholly escapes the domain of metaphor. While the icon may stand for actual AK-47s being used in armed struggle, it nevertheless signals the possibility of an alternative. If you spray paint its name on a wall or wear its image on a T-shirt to a demonstration, you are simultaneously demonstrating a desire to replace words with deeds and a reluctance to commit yourself fully to purely strategic action.

Because this ambiguity has characterized so many of the long-term conflicts around the world since 1945, in which war is only partially waged, the AK-47 might justifiably be regarded as the perfect emblem for the period as a whole. The more dated the rifle’s actual technology becomes, the more promising this argument seems. The pinpoint accuracy that can be achieved by a drone strike orchestrated from thousands of miles away, through a kind of “reverse guerrilla” action, makes the distinctly not smart simplicity of the rifle seem practically quaint, like a cavalryman’s saber at the start of World War I.

But that very datedness is what defines the AK-47’s staying power. It is the instrument of the impoverished and backward, those who have neither the time nor money to invest in newer equipment. As an icon, then, it redirects us back to the beginning of its history, looping our present-day consciousness all the way back through the immediate aftermath of World War II. For someone protesting Israel’s brutality in Gaza, there couldn’t be a more appropriate symbol.

One of the stranger things about cultural history is the way it defines the contemporary. Intuitively, the term seems to delimit the “narrow now” that we are living through. But within academic circles, it frequently refers to the entire post-World War II era, as if we had somehow lost the ability to break new ground. To the extent that the AK-47 is both sixty-some years old and still au courant as an icon of resistance, it is perhaps the most apt way of expressing that we will not be able to move forward until we finally put the late 1940s behind us.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.

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