Greek Gods, Guns, and Tigers

“A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.”
— from Shane, 1953 film

Greco-Roman myths, Nordic legends, and Grimm’s fairy tales all have their grotesque features. Those stories endure because they reflect the grotesque aspects of human nature, and like other great literature and lore, provide insights to life.

The myth of Prometheus came to mind with a recent death and the continuing controversy surrounding the nature of the decedent’s accomplishment. Prometheus was the mythological titan who allegedly stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to the rest of mankind. For this transgression, Zeus, the chief god, condemned Prometheus to be chained to a rock where a vulture would attack and devour the titan’s liver each day, only for his liver to re-grow overnight so the vulture could feed on it again, day after day. The versions vary as to whether Prometheus was ever released from his torment.

The Greek gods, of course, were not conceptually the same as the Judeo-Christian, or for that matter Islamic, God. They were essentially superhuman, elite beings that manifested various qualities of human and other natural characteristics. They all had human passions and were often in conflict with one another, and waged wars – like the Trojan War – through human and demi-god surrogates. Most of them had the morals of a typical Hollywood celebrity. Fire, to the ancients, was a force and had utility that could control nature and be a source of power for humans. Being able to create fire, control it, and use it for one’s purposes made a human being one with the gods in important respects, so giving the secret of fire to man, was a treasonous act. Thus, Prometheus, a god of the titan class, was duly punished.

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov died at the age of 93 on December 23, 2013 in Russia. He invented the well-known and technically regarded AK-47 automatic rifle. His purpose was to provide a common soldier of the Russian (then Soviet) Army with sufficient firepower to meet that of the invading Germans in World War II. The weapon designed was not produced until after that was over, but it became a mainstay for the Soviets, their client states during the Cold War, even nations not in the Soviet orbit, and numerous guerrillas and insurgents throughout the world. The virtues of the AK-47 include its being chambered for the 7.62mm round that was made standard in NATO countries which made its ammunition supply plentiful and ubiquitous. The rifle’s primary virtue was its rugged reliability and low-maintenance requirements. It could function in Arctic tundra, steamy jungles, and arid deserts alike with minimal failures.

Kalashnikov’s death, predictably, has become the occasion of much angst and hand wringing among those who are inclined to blame the Thing and the inventor or author for misuse of an object or idea they created. During his life, Kalashnikov was occasionally asked by various reporters or a certain bent if he regretted inventing such a “murderous” weapon. His answer appears to have always been that he accepted no responsibility for its misuse, though he might condemn those who did unwarranted harm with his invention, or anyone else’s.

If Kalashnikov is worthy of vilification, what about Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite; or Hiram Maxim, on whose machine gun the AK-47 was a refinement. Surely Albert Einstein, who worked out the theoretical basis for nuclear weapons, and Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, who put them into practical form, would be likewise deserving of condemnation. There is hardly a product that is not misused, often with catastrophic effect. I nominate the motor vehicle for first place among those.

Though they punished Prometheus severely, the gods were unable to take fire back from mankind, nor could the ills of the world all be put back into Pandora’s Box or Aladdin’s genie returned into the lamp. Along with the great benefits the use of fire can bestow upon humankind, its misuse can do great harm. The same is true with weapons.

But aren’t weapons, especially firearms, of a different quality? After all, their purpose is to kill another creature. All creatures do not have good intentions, however. Many are predators, and among human beings, the most serious predators are other humans. There are those who use firearms for predatory purposes; there are those who misuse firearms because they have a mental defect or disease. The purpose of inventing and producing arms to be able to defend against such predators, as was Kalashnikov’s purpose.

T. R. Fehrenbach, the Texas historian who served in combat in Korea (where he presumably faced Kalashnikov’s invention), also passed away in December. He wrote a history of that war first published in 1963. A chapter entitled “Proud Legions” in This Kind of War, is Fehrenbach’s analysis of the necessity for defensive means, even when our ideal might be foreign and domestic peace and tranquility. To paraphrase his succinct conclusion: “The liberal [he uses the word in its classic sense] society has no use or need for weapons – as its prophets have long proclaimed. Except in this world there are tigers.”

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