Military leaders repeat their Afghanistan mistakes

January 21, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Despite having begun only six weeks ago, the Chechen war has tormented Russians and seared the national psyche in ways that the 10-year war in Afghanistan never managed to do.

The two military operations have some similarities: Both have been fought against irregular forces, and in both cases the battlefield includes mountainous terrain. But the Afghan war was forgotten in a way that seems impossible in the case of Chechnya.

The military had so thoroughly forgotten the Afghan war, which ended only in 1989, that the generals are repeating their mistakes. The army roared into the city of Grozny in tanks, apparently forgetting that such strategies failed in Afghanistan. It bombed civilians, as if commanders had never heard that the bombardments in Afghanistan unified the guerrillas.

But this time the army's mistakes are not closely held secrets -- all of Russia knows about them from television and newspapers. And critics, from generals to street sweepers, are saying Russia can no longer afford to forget its past and repeat its blunders.

"From my experience in Afghanistan, I know: The most fearless and daring soldiers grow out of peaceful farmers," wrote Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed, a hero from the Afghan war and now one of the most vocal critics of the Chechen assault, in an article in MoscowNews.

A bomb would demolish the farmer's house and kill his family. "He takes up a submachine gun and goes to war," the general said. "What is the hallmark of such a fighting man? He does not care a bit for his own life. Fighting out of vengeance, he will tear and slash at the enemy as long as he is alive."

And if this was true in Afghanistan, the general's article asked, why wouldn't it be true in Chechnya? What was the army command thinking?

As public opinion turns against leaders of the assault, ordinary people are vowing that the Chechen war, and the soldiers who have fought in it, will not be forgotten.

"They won't be ignored. This won't be like Afghanistan," said Tatyana Osin, the mother of a wounded soldier.

Some military officers said at least 1,500 have been killed in Chechnya. The government gives a much lower figure. Critics say the government has failed to retrieve many bodies, and thus will not have to admit how many have died.

Leaders of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers say that many of the dead have been labeled as deserters, again to conceal the numbers and to relieve the authorities of the difficult job of finding and identifying the dead. Under army regulations, if a soldier is listed as dead his body must be returned to his parents in a zinc coffin.

While Afghan veterans weren't reviled as Vietnam veterans sometimes were in America, they were quickly forgotten.

They were awarded privileges for their service: They could jump to the head of many lines (a great privilege indeed in Soviet times), and those veterans still travel free on Moscow's public transportation. But it's difficult to find monuments to their service.

Some of the soldiers remember their service almost affectionately. The other night, Nikolai Golovin, a 35-year-old Afghan war veteran, showed some home movies he made while serving in Afghanistan.

"It was another time," Mr. Golovin said. Colorful images flickered across a white wall he used for a screen as his ancient projector spun reels of film. "It was a time of a very strong state. The propaganda machine was very powerful. Boys went to Afghanistan ready to fight. And they were more or less heroes."

Now, those state controls are gone. Government propaganda has not entirely disappeared, but most Russians recognize it when they see it.

Russians now can watch television footage of suffering soldiers, read newspaper headlines that say "Blood Is Flowing in the Streets," and see photographs of dead Russian boys on the front page.

"Now you can turn on the radio and hear all sorts of criticism," Mr. Golovin said. "So can the soldiers."

In Afghanistan, he said, the soldiers weren't allowed to have radios. In camp, they were shown Russian television, where they saw reports of how gloriously they were performing against the imperialist forces trying to capture the world.

Mr. Golovin, a translator, was assigned as an adviser to the Afghan army. He was officially in it; he wore its uniform.

Unlike most of the other Russians, he lived among Afghan people and quickly understood that it was not the glorious war of liberation he had been told it was. But he accepted it. "You had no choice," he said. "You could only do what the state expected."

So he served, and he returned, and he went to work for a Moscow radio station where he helped to spread the Afghan propaganda he didn't believe.

He says he returned largely unchanged by his experience. He was paid in a scrip that he was able to redeem at special shops when he returned home. As a result of his service, he was able to buy a television and could have bought a car when other men his age could not.

But Chechnya has done what Afghanistan could not, to Mr. Golovin and so many other Russians.

Now he loathes what he sees happening. He's not afraid to say so. And he won't lie any longer.

"I hate my government," he said. "They're thinking only about their intrigues, not about people.

"It's an ugly and very dirty war, and absolutely crazy."

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