This is a great book. From cover to cover, it is filled with the realities and horrors of a war that barely touched the West. To read it is to have a soldier's-eye view of what some called the Russian Vietnam.
There were two wars fought over the breakaway Republic of Chechnya, the first in 1994 and a second in 1999. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechens led by General Dzhokhar Dudayev seized power in Grozny, the capital. The country quickly descended into anarchy, which was one of the reasons Russia felt it had to reassert its authority there. The second reason was to maintain Russian territorial integrity, to discourage other areas from seceding.
- One Soldier's War, by Arkady Babchenko, translated by Nick Allen, Grove Press, 395 pages, $27.50
Sent into this maelstrom of death were thousands of young, poorly led and equipped Russian conscripts. The author, a law student in Moscow, was conscripted into the army in 1995 and sent to Chechnya as what he and his fellow soldiers called "cannon fodder." Early in the book, you get a brutally honest look at life as a conscript inside the crumbling Russian army:
" 'Fucking hell, what is this place?' whispers Zelikman. 'Is this the army?' Zelikman is short-sighted and looks like a small cowering pony, so terrified is he of being knocked about: During the six months of training he hadn't got used to the beatings and his status of trash. And we were going to get beaten all right, well and truly; you could tell right away that the army practice of dedovshchina, the violent beating of new recruits by older soldiers, was ingrained here."
Demoralized, often drunken leaders brutalize and abuse these young soldiers before feeding them into the human meat-grinder battles around Grozny and the many nameless villages in the surrounding hills. Babchenko's time at the base prior to deploying into Chechnya is almost surreal. No controls are placed on the soldiers; their daily routine is focused on getting money to pay off the older soldiers so they won't get beaten. Reduced to begging and stealing, Babchenko and his mates are doomed. This is survival at its basest, and they are not even in the war zone yet. Over the ridge, in Chechnya, something awful is happening, and the fate of the soldiers here bothers no one. As one older soldier says to his young mates, "You may not have kissed let alone been intimate with a woman before meeting a horrible death in Chechnya."
The language of the book is 'soldier speak,' rarely heard by those who have not served in combat zones
You are kept waiting for the inevitable move into Chechnya, and when it comes, it's a bit of a relief because at least the young soldiers are free from their tormentors in the reinforcement camp. But one tormentor is replaced by another, the Chechen fighter, who has no mercy when it comes to the Russians. Added to the ever-present spectre of dying in battle is the fear of being captured, tortured and killed by the Chechens. Their lives are worthless; they are thrown into battle by drunken, inept leaders and they die by the hundreds. They look on with envy as the horribly wounded are evacuated, wishing it was them.
When they are not fighting Chechens, the soldiers are focused on finding food, cigarettes, alcohol and a safe place to sleep. As in wars before, they are always tired and hungry and living in primitive conditions; in the summer, they suffer from the heat, and for the rest of the year they are cold and wet. The misery of war is a constant, regardless of the era in which it is fought. Only the technology has changed since one man picked up a rock and killed another man.
The language of the book is "soldier speak," rarely heard by those who have not served in combat zones. There is nothing fancy to it, no great adjectives or adverbs, just simple, in-your-face honesty. These are the dirt people, grunts, the "poor bloody infantry" who - other than killing the enemy - have no purpose in life but to stay alive. Home is a dream from a past life; family and friends are shadows. Cloaked in fear and despair, they count the days until their lives can resume again some day.
However, the reality of war is that many soldiers die, some are horribly wounded, and some disappear, and most return home haunted, empty shells of their former selves.
To the uninitiated, it might seem strange that Babchenko, after serving his time as a conscript, re-enlists in the army and returns to fight in the second Chechen war. Like many soldiers returning from a war, he did not fit into the mundane day-to-day life of a civilian. He had become an adrenalin junkie. In the civilian world, there is a lot of grey between the black and white of living. In war, there is no grey; it's simply kill or be killed. Babchenko also misses the brotherhood of arms and the bonds that are formed in war, without which life can be lonely and pointless. So, like many, Babchenko returned to be with the men and the life he knew, and to continue to feed the beast of war.
I have only one criticism of the book, which may be the fault of the translation. I felt that at times that the dialogue of the soldiers was a little off the mark.
Regardless, this is a very powerful book, and Babchenko's words convey all there is to know about war from the pointy end: The death, maiming, cruelty, inhumanity, depravity, atrocities and rare flashes of compassion are finely woven into a great memoir of a faraway war, fought by someone else's sons and brothers.
Fred Doucette is a former soldier and the author of Empty Casing. He lives in Lincoln, N.B.