The Soviets in Afghanistan

I just finished listening to the audio version of Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble which covers the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.  It’s not in the pantheon of great books but it’s still pretty good and the dearth of material on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan makes this a solid contribution.

The book tries to cover the whole canvas of the conflict from the activities within the Politburo to individual soldiers and so the book does suffer from a general lack of focus.  Feifer’s writing is so good though, and the subject matter so interesting that rather than wanting to edit this down to a slim volume I’d prefer if he bulked it up so he could discuss the activities at these various levels in more depth.

I suspect the publishers, in an effort to make this work more ‘sellable’ to the public, tried to make the case that learning about the Soviet experience could provide America with lessons for our own war there.  I (and the NY Times) don’t think he pulls it off, but, in his defense, he doesn’t really even seem to try expect for the epilogue.  Of more importance is the fact that the book doesn’t need it and so doesn’t suffer for the lack of explicit ‘lessons learned’ for America.

I thought I heard a couple of minor errors in the audio version that I’m not sure are in the printed version (I thought they said Kabul was west of Herat, for example) but it only caused a moment of mental dissonance.

The brutality of the Soviets to their own troops remains shocking to read even though it’s been public knowledge for quite some time.  The practice of dedovshchina is completely foreign to me both as a soldier and a leader.  In what world would someone think that’s good for unit cohesion?  But, that wasn’t the extent of the problem.  A broken logistical system (even if it wasn’t riddled with corruption) meant that soldiers could not consistently count on being supplied the food, equipment or weapons that they were needed.  Discipline, training and standards were lax among many units forcing command to continually put the few good units in heavy rotation for combat missions.

One of the striking parts of the book was the recounting of the battle of hill 3234 which sounds like it deserves a book length treatment in its own right, in which a company of the 345th Independent Guards Airborne Regiment (about 40 men) fought off an attack by a force 5-10 times larger.  The mujaheddin made 12 assaults upon the Soviet position before eventually retiring.  The Soviets were almost out of ammunition and 34 of their 39 men were either wounded or dead.

In 2005, the Russians made a movie loosely based upon the battle called the 9th Company which I also just finished watching.  It’s not a great war film, but it’s not bad either and given the paucity of films about war in Afghanistan (yet again, Iraq gets all the attention) it’s worth watching.

I’m not sure if it’s the movie or a cultural thing but it’s interesting to compare this with American war films and the differences are striking.  Even in conflicts where we haven’t done well there’s an obligatory ‘hooah’ scene (usually with a hard rock track) and the movie end with a ‘we’ll never be defeated’ message.  Not here.  The music is orchestral soundtrack and disturbingly dirge like.  There’s not a lot of redemption or hope at the end (although there seems to be an attempt to do so that might resonate more with a Russian audience).

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