First you get beaten up, then you beat up others

John Lloyd

Among the many thoughts which this sad, sometimes unreadably sad book suggests is this: did the Afghan war mark the beginning of the most dramatic military event of our time, the dissolution of the Soviet Armed Forces? Did the crumbling of belief and will which Zinky Boys documents erode the imperial reflexes of a militarised state to the extent that no strategy – whether sticking to the forms of orthodoxy or Communist reformism – could pull it out of the crisis?

In form, Zinky Boys – the name given to those shipped home dead from the war in Afghanistan because they were always shipped in zinc coffins – is familiar enough in the West, but less so in the former Soviet Union. It consists of a series of interviews presented as short narratives, without interpolations from the author. People speak for themselves, in other words, which was neither a Soviet nor a pre-Soviet literary practice. Svetlana Alexievich, a young Belorussian journalist, has managed to escape from the leaden disciplines of Soviet journalism in which she must have been trained, to discover this mode of presenting her material, and has used it well, if at times repetitiously.

With very few and very partial exceptions, the evidence is of veterans of the war who are deeply scarred, irredeemably cynical, full of tension and of hatreds that can’t be assuaged. These people, officers, enlisted men, medical personnel, civilian employees (mainly women), even political instructors, all speak of a struggle which changed them utterly, and always for the worst. Not only has war lost any ‘nobility’ but, because of the reception the veterans got when they returned home, it has lost the power to produce, in time, its own antidotes. All that the Afgantsi have is their comradeship with each other; many of them find it almost intolerable to speak to anyone other than their own kind.

There is an obvious comparison here with the Vietnam War: a comparison which has suggested itself to others before now, and which was sealed by the visit of Vietnam veterans to their Afgantsi counterparts two years ago. In both cases, the young citizens of a superpower were sucked into a war against guerrilla forces who fought with a ferocity and cruelty with which they were unable to cope and to which they could only ‘successfully’ respond with their own higher-tech brutality. Startlingly, the fable with which the Colonel Kurtz character in the film Apocalypse Now justifies his sadism – his witnessing of Vietcong chopping off the arms of Vietnamese children who had received US medical injections – is reproduced here exactly, causing the Soviet narrator to come to the same conclusion: namely, that the Soviets could not match the dedicated indifference to suffering which their enemies demonstrated.

At first, the Soviet soldiers, no less than the Americans, were at a loss to understand why the people they were told they were helping were so ‘ungrateful’, and why they responded with hatred to tenderness and aggression alike. And in both cases, those who returned, wounded or unwounded, found it impossible to forgive those who had never served in the war – especially if they said that their service had been in vain, or even malign. ‘We believed we were there to defend the motherland and our way of life,’ one soldier said to Alexievich:

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