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The Soviet Vietnam

A USSR war reporter describes his country's Afghanistan debacle


I ONCE asked a prominent Afghan guerrilla commander what he made of the Soviet soldiers hapless enough to fall into his hands. There was little of rage or revenge in what he had to say, not that there wasn't plenty of both in the mujahideen's treatment of Red Army prisoners.

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Simple curiosity took their place. Who, he wanted to know, who were these blond unbelievers crashing around in the mountains and valleys of his homeland, inside their tanks, helicopters, and MIGs? They bombed refugee caravans, shot up flocks and herds from gunships, put the torch to almond groves, poisoned wells. Why did they do these stupid and terrible things? Who were these people?

Good questions, rhetorical or otherwise, and haven't we heard their like before, in Vietnam? In each sad place, a superpower cast about destructively year after year to its shame and great cost, for reasons almost no one understood or even remembered for long, only to be chased home by a supposedly lesser people.

There are differences, though, and they are not to be trifled away. The Soviet debacle in Afghanistan began in outright invasion, but it would be careless to apply that word to Washington's equally misbegotten undertaking in Vietnam. They were different propositions at bottom, though of course the devastated farmers on the ground in each war might not sort out the fine distinctions.

Still, there remain remarkable, eerie, and in the end instructive parallels between the two wars. It is one of Artyom Borovik's several high achievements in ``The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan'' that they are so well drawn, even if just in passing.

Posted to Afghanistan as a war correspondent by Ogonyok, the glasnost-and-perestroika-thumping Communist Party newsweekly magazine, which today employs him as foreign editor, Borovik had seen, by his 30th birthday, two longish tours of the fighting. He lived with ground troops and went with commando units on heliborne assaults. In the snows of February 1989, Borovik took part in the ignominious, if orderly, retreat north along the Salang highway toward the Soviet bord er and witnessed on that d'emarche the last Red Army fatality in Afghanistan.

Borovik is forthright in tracing the stages of his own disillusionment with the aims and conduct of the war. For his troubles, he made enemies of generals and colonels (and friends of privates and noncoms). The Writers' Union of the USSR refused Borovik membership for bringing into disrepute the corps of generals in his later, unblinking reports. His assignment was to write of Soviet servicemen on their own terms, off in Afghanistan performing their ``internationalist duty'' and, at least in the early going, to keep faith with the expansionist potherings of the Brezhnev generation.

What became, instead, a wholly demoralized expeditionary force is anatomized in ``The Hidden War'' with great reportorial skill. The time-server, the bootlicker, the numbed-out lifer, the self-promoter, the dope fiend, the war-loving ``Rambovik,'' the frightened city boy, the grief-stricken poetaster, the defector in his San Francisco flat boohooing about the motherland, the fire-fight athlete, the shirker, the quadriplegic, the afghantsi ``back in the world'' with his veteran's estrangement - all sit long enough for strong individual portraiture, and so too do a few Soviet diplomats, brother journalists piping the party tune of war, bizarre female camp followers, and an odd Afghan or two.

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My mujahideen commander friend, should he someday have the chance to read ``The Hidden War'' in Pashto, would not be surprised to learn that almost everyone and everything Soviet was drenched in vodka, in and out of the field, pretty much round the clock. He would, I suspect, be nonplused to discover that depressingly ordinary, good, and even prayerful people were involved up to their campaign ribbons in the ruination of Afghanistan, that many of the 500,000 despoilers who for nine years - ` `fully an eighth of Soviet history'' - served Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko-Gorbachev in the doomed imperial exercise felt remorse and the tugs of religious conscience.

``We thought that we were civilizing a backward country by exposing it to television, to modern bombers, to schools, to the latest models of tanks, to books, to long-range artillery, to newspapers, to new types of weapons, to economic aid, to AK-47s ..,'' Borovik says.

Most Western journalists with much experience of the jihad will acknowledge the bonds tying them in weird, unwished-for ways to the foot soldiers of the erstwhile Evil Empire. Some of my colleagues would guardedly admit to attacks of fellow-feeling for Red Army conscripts after reporting trips to Kabul, where it was not much of a trick to see that, at least in sensibility, they had far more in common with the Soviet fighters than with the ``freedom fighters'' in the hills, regardless of the larger rights and wrongs of the Afghan conflict.

Borovik did some of his growing up in the United States. It was time well spent, for he is a most hip young Soviet. While his employer, audience, subjects, and point of view are Soviet, he knows how to get an American's attention - mine, for certain - with echoes of Vietnam that either chill the blood or warm the heart, depending on your mood.

It is the rare war that is not accompanied by the spectacle of governments, armies and whole nations lying to themselves, at least at the start. Borovic relates the Soviet fantasies about purpose and progress in Afghanistan, which are absurdly faithful to the American model in Vietnam. Much talk of a quick war! The pre-glasnost press was cheerleading all the way.

Bucking for promotion, field commanders and Soviet diplomats serving in the Kabul embassy supplied Moscow with foolish light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel, progress-on-all-fronts reports on the war, even well after the truth was apparent to all.

For 35 years, the Red Army beavered away at preparations for general war on the plains of Central Europe, only to be brought low in the mountains of Afghanistan. The Soviets ``hot tested'' gaudy new weapons systems, indifferent to the overwhelming evidence that they brought the wrong shooting irons to the wrong war at the wrong time.

If one's parents had blat (clout), there was little to worry about when it came to Afghanistan, even if, freakishly, you wound up in that dreadful locale. The children of the nomenclatura sat out Afghanistan in the best universities, or otherwise wrangled military deferments and exemptions.

Borovic says that as in Vietnam, frustrated, embittered, and cynical soldiers turned for relief to hard drugs and strong drink, and as the war went really bad, routinely set off for combat stoned on hashish and vodka.

As in Vietnam, the intoxicants included air power, especially travel by helicopter, which entranced predatory crewmen and journalists alike with its witch's brew of mobility and beauty.

In Afghanistan, Soviet troops played low-brow cultural catchup with GI counterparts who fought America's first rock 'n' roll war in Vietnam. I was appalled to learn that Soviet ``grunts,'' at firebases and bivouacs, could not get their fill of Rambo and Bruce Lee karate videos.

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