Soviet reporter's account of Afghan war is all too familiar


January 16, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"The Hidden War: A Russian journalist's account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan," by Artyom Borovik, 288 pages, The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, N.Y., $19.95.

THE HIDDEN War" in Afghanistan that Artyom Borovik writes about was the Soviet Union's Vietnam. And many of the voices that arise from his book sound very much like the voices of the Americans who fought in Vietnam.

The Afghan war is collapsing and the Soviet Army is withdrawing when Borovik encounters a lieutenant colonel putting two wounded men on a plane for medical evacuation. He gives one his "bushlat," a sort of pea jacket Soviets were issued in Afghanistan. It's cold in the Afghani hills.

"This is an outrage," he says. "All the headquarters have been given sweaters, but there aren't enough for the soldiers."

The wounded men will be back in Russia in a day, Borovik reports.

"Poor guys," the colonel says. "No one -- not their girlfriend nor their country -- wants them. While we fight here our names are being dragged through the mud. It's disgusting."

He sounds like a Vietnam veteran recalling his return to the States.

"I wasn't the one who started the war, was I?" he says. "What did I need it for? The government said go, so we went. And now they're blaming us for it."

The two wounded men had extended their tour in Afghanistan as rTC did many Americans in Vietnam: "So the army here wouldn't have consisted entirely of new kids who hadn't even had a taste of war.

"So they stayed," the colonel tells Borovik. "Now they'll come home and be harassed -- 'murderers, assassins!'

"We have a brotherhood here," he says, "maybe the only good thing to have come out of the war. . .

"For what did we bury 15,000 of our boys here. If the military had been allowed to conduct the war as it saw fit, we would have eliminated all this so-called armed opposition a long time ago."

Borovik's colonel sounds exactly like many American Vietnam vets who come to The Wall in Washington to mourn their dead and to find again the understanding that binds them to their old comrades in arms.

Borovik went several times to Afghanistan for Ogonyok, the weekly news and features magazine of the Soviet communist party. He's foreign editor now. The very popular and aggressive Ogonyok was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost. Borovik has often been in the United States, once on an exchange with Regardie's magazine in Washington.

In one of the most poignant episodes in "The Hidden War," Borovik interviews an unhappy Soviet deserter in San Francisco. The deserter accuses him of being a KGB plant. In Moscow, the man's parents think their son's letters are written by the CIA.

Borovik was born in 1960, and he's the same age as the men he's writing about on his first trips to Afghanistan. When he's writing about the withdrawal in 1989, the soldiers all seem about 10 years younger them he is. And he has already developed his own nightmares.

He's divided his book into two sections: The first is essentially his account of a trip in 1987 when he's still somewhat gung ho. He calls the Afghan rebels "counterrevolutionaries," which of course they were. But the revolution turns out to be harder to locate.

He goes on an operation during which 20 Afghanis are killed. They've really become dukhi, ghosts, as the Russians call their enemies. It's a slightly less contemptuous term, perhaps, than "dinks," one American term for Vietnamese.

Borovik carried a weapon. Some American correspondents liked to join the war in Vietnam, but not many.

"Was I shooting at the dukhi with an assault rifle to attack or defend? Did I want to destroy them or protect my own life?"

He's eloquent and lyrical in his description of a dead Afghan: "His narrow, dark-skinned forehead is still covered by tiny drops of sweat. Each of them shines in the moonlight, which now suggests the fluorescent light in a morgue."

The second half of the book is about the withdrawal.

General V.I. Varennik, the last commander in Afghanistan, a veteran of Stalingrad, the liberation of the Ukraine from the Nazis, and the battles of Warsaw and Berlin, reflects on the 10-year war as he tries to extract the last of his men down a long narrow mountain road controlled by a legendary leader.

He talks like a somewhat more frank General William C. Westmoreland, the American commander most closely identified with Vietnam. The rebel bands -- "the armed opposition" of 1987 -- could have been crushed perhaps by massive military force.

"Unfortunately," the general says, "the rebel bands don't constitute the overwhelming majority of the opposition. . .

"The kishlak dwellers resisted us at every turn," he says. A kishlak is an Afghan village. "Military units were used to maintain the 'people's' power and certain comrades were eager to report that 'yet another district has been liberated from the dushmani'."

The dushmani were the Afghanis, the people.

"It sounds absurd, doesn't it?"

Yes, and it sounded equally absurd when American officials reported pacified villages in Vietnam in places where crossing the street after dark was dangerous.

The world's two mightiest military powers were forced to withdraw from Vietnam and Afghanistan with great losses and little glory. It's perhaps something to think about as we wait for war with Iraq.

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