One Soldier's War tells of Arkady Babchenko's experiences having been conscripted into the Russian army to fight in the Chechen wars. He spent the first war on a barracks on the Chechen border and the second war fighting in the country itself.
I found it a little shocking that such a bitterly contested regional conflict should have passed me by as did this one. I like to think that I follow world affairs - not particularly closely, I admit - and yes I was aware that there had been a bit of a scrap in Chechnya, but I had no idea that it was more than a simple, low level "police action".
Babchenko's book was also a revelation to me in another way. I am of a certain age that remembers the cold war (of the '80's at least) well - a period when we feared the might and power of the USSR and stood in awe of their military. Reading "One Soldier's War" makes me wonder whether that respect was truly justified. Babchenko paints a picture of an army populated by a corrupt and incompetent officer corps and a cowed, brutalised soldiery, where drunkenness and bullying of the most vicious sort reigns. Any respect I ever had for the Soviet military evaporates as each page turns and the only point of admiration is that they managed to function at all in the demanding environment of a military conflict.
Perhaps the most telling passage of the book is where Babchenko discusses the soldier's dogtags. These were made of aluminium and, if the wearer was caught in an APC or tank fire, would melt beyond recognition, making the identification of the bodies impossible. To remedy this, the soldiers would craft their own tags from spoons and ladles stolen from the cookhouse. Babchenko notes that, eventually, the cookhouse ran out of cutlery and replaced it all... with aluminium implements. That says it all really.
The other stand-out observation is the institutionalised bullying ("dedovschina") of the less experienced conscripts ("spirits"). It is hard to believe that Babchenko's descriptions are not in some way exaggerated and similarly unbelievable that he doesn't log more deaths, such is the appaling intensity of the violence done by the older soldiers. He even claims that this was flowed down from the higher ranks, with Colonels beating up Majors, Majors beating up Captains, Captains - Lieutenants, and so-on down the chain of command.
Content aside, "One Soldier's War" reads well - a searing account (a literary cliche that applies better here than to any other book that I have read), written by an intelligent, sensitive author who is unafraid to recount the depths to which his military service took him. Written originally in Russian, the prose has a naiive, slightly poetic feel to it that one associates with translations from that language and it has been translated beautifully. It has been mentioned that the book is disjointed and out of sequence (not entirely a fair criticism) and provides none of the background to the conflict. This is hardly surprising, given Babchenko's position in the war and it doesn't detract from the book. If you want a coherent historical account, go elsewhere (I have Allah's Mountains on order). All in all, the book reads very much like Michael Herr's Dispatches and I don't think I am exaggerating if I say that Babchenko comes out better in the comparison. I always disliked Dispatches for it's pretentious, post-modernist, "coolspeak" style. By contrast, the humility and humanity of "One Soldier's War" is what makes it the great book that it is - one that should stand along side All Quiet on the Western Front, Chickenhawk and The Cruel Sea.