Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Russian Soldiers/Mothers/Wives Talk About Afghan War

I left the U.S. Army in November of 1979, discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey, after 6-1/2 years of active duty service.  From 1976 to 1979 I was a tank commander in West Germany, waiting for a war that never happened in Cold War Europe.

Less than a month after I got out, the Cold War got hotter when all NATO forces in Europe went on high alert because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. There were worries at the time that this invasion was a feint and the Soviets were about to invade western Europe.  Neither the Soviets or NATO could know the Afghan War would help to bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet War in Afghanistan lasted ten years and became their Vietnam War.  After ten long years, 50,000 dead and hundreds of thousands more wounded the Soviet Union lost that war, as we did the Vietnam War.

The similarities go sadly further.  In her book Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghan War, Svetlana Alexievich publishes interviews with soldiers, mothers, wives, civilian employees, doctors and nurses who served in that horrible war.

"Zinky" refers to the sealed zinc-coated coffins that dead soldiers came home in.  For years the Soviets denied their was a war. Coffins were buried sealed and families were not told how their soldier died.

Alexievich chronicles their experience of war and their return to civilian life.  The "Afghansi" like Vietnam War veterans here were shunned by many people.  They were not consider "worthy" by some veterans organizations, just as Vietnam veterans were considered something different than World War II vets.

Despite everything that was wrong with the war, some of the veterans said, "If I did not go someone else would have to go in my place."  This statement occurred several times in the words of mothers remembering their sons saying this to try to explain why they were going--to their death. According to Alexievich, some men accepted the draft, some were eager to go, some celebrated when a medical problem made them unfit, some bought their way out.  But over and over again were the words, "someone else would have to go."

The book is painful to read.  In fact it is sad even among Russian books.  But it is refreshingly honest. Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in literature last year for the kind of reporting in this book.  She is most famous for interviewing hundreds of victims of Chernobyl.

The nine presidents from Colonel Harry S. Truman, Army artillery officer, to Lt. JG George H.W. Bush, fighter pilot, were all veterans.  John Kennedy and Bush, decorated veterans of direct combat, and Dwight Eisenhower with a long military career culminating in the liberation of western Europe.  No veterans since Bush 41.

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