Sunday, March 27, 2011

Finished: "One Soldier's War" by Arkady Babchenko

Finished: One Soldier's War by Arkady Babchenko, 2007 (for translation, 2006 for Russian), 9780802118608.

Very good. A veteran's memoir of life in the Russian Army during both Chechen wars.

This is much different than most war memoirs because Babchenko does not write about combat. He refers to the terror of mountain fighting and the many dead friends and comrades but never writes blow-by-blow accounts of attacks, and defenses, and shooting the enemy. Maybe Babchenko's memoir is more "Russian" with it's focus on friends and his experiences in barracks. Maybe the brutality of the conflict is so well known to Russians that he sees no need to rehash the events.

Babchenko's book is chronological but, due to his refusal to write about time in combat, has many gaps. Babchenko was drafted in '95 or '96 and after six months "training" was sent to Chechnya, assigned to a rear area, then assigned to a combat unit. He was demobilised but signed up again in '99 or '00 to fight in the Second Chechen War. Through both campaigns he ended up serving in rear areas, Grozny, the mountains, "the gorge", and elsewhere.

1. Never, ever, ever join the Russian Army. The daily brutality of hazing, bullying, and beatings is incredible. Babchenko was at an airfield in his first tour and his face was constantly swollen from beatings. Many conscripts would just walk away from base and risk the Chechens and inevitable arrest than accept the treatment of soldiers with more time in service. I knew about the brutality of Army hazings, dedovschina, but did not know how bad it could get. Suicides and murders are probably much more common then reported. Cruelty for cruelty's sake paired with starvation and humiliation.
2. Babchenko received little to no training. After six months of basic training he was sent to Chechny after having fired a rifle two times.
3. Babchenko's PTSD is the same as any other soldier in any other conflict. Survivor guilt, sorrow, unable to walk without checking for traps, walking scrunched over to avoid enemy fire, unable to sleep, etc. Babchenko's last essay tells how he slowly recovers to civilian life and how once he stats to write about his experiences all the terror and sounds of war fill his head again. How many veterans try to put down their history and stop so they can rebury the memories and sensations that burst out?
4. There are so many passages worthy of quotation. I'll try and pick just one that occurred at the end and is therefore most fresh in my mind. Babchenko is writing about how irrevocably he is changed from the war:

The you start to get drawn into life. You get interested in this game, which isn't for real. You pass yourself off as a fully fledged member of society, and the mask of a normal person grows onto you, no longer rejected by your body. And those around you think you are just the same as everyone else.
But no one knows your real face, and no one knows you are no longer a person. Happy, laughing people walk around you, accepting you as one of their ow, and no one knows where you have been.
You hear bad things about all armies. The U.S. Army seems very well run. No beatings, paid on time, food to eat, proper gear (aside from hillbilly armor in Iraq), and lots of training and organization.

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