THE HIDDEN WAR A Russian Journalist's Account Of the Soviet War in Afghanistan By Artyom Borovik Atlantic Monthly Press. 288 pp. $19.95
WHEN RUSSIAN soldiers share a bottle of vodka, the third toast traditionally is offered in solemn silence, without the clinking of glasses, as a tribute to comrades killed in battle. This book by a young Soviet journalist is a kind of third toast, a dark elegy for the 15,000 Red Army soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. Artyom Borovik, a writer for the iconoclastic magazine Ogonyuk, begins his account by indicting a Soviet society that "watched obediently as an entire generation of 18-year-olds perished in the Afghan bloodbath."
In seeking to understand how his country could get itself into such a quagmire, Borovik diagnoses the same sort of fatal hubris that led the United States into Vietnam, as Neil Sheehan best describes in A Bright Shining Lie. "We were obsessed with our messianic mission and blinded by arrogance," Borovik writes. "In reality we were exporting stagnation rather than revolution." Searching for a redemptive silver lining to the Afghan catastrophe, the author quotes a Soviet general: "All of the wars that Russia lost led to social reforms, while all the wars it won led to the strengthening of totalitarianism."
But The Hidden War is not so much a comprehensive history of the Afghan war as a succession of vignettes about terror, brutality and, as William Broyles once described combat, "the awesome beauty, the haunting romance of a timeless nightmare." Clearly influenced by Michael Herr's Dispatches, Borovik has a fine eye for the telling, authentic detail. A sign on the door of the Kabul morgue warns, "Enjoy your youth. But remember -- this, too, is vanity." Soldiers open cigarette packs from the bottoms to avoid contaminating the filters with their filthy fingers. After nine years of war, Afghan rugs are no longer embroidered with camels and traditional scenes, but with tanks and bombers. An enemy rocket screeches overhead, "howling like a second rate opera star."
Borovik also has an excellent ear for soldiers' slang. The Afghan rebels are dukhi, Russian for ghosts. A black tulip is a military plane used to transport casualties -- and the dead in their zinc coffins -- back to the Soviet Union. A deathnik is a kind of Soviet dog tag, an empty cartridge shell kept in the breast pocket with a scrap of paper inside listing a conscript's name, patronymic, identification number, unit and date of induction. To "squint" is to avoid combat. "Yogurt" is diesel fuel, an "elephant" is a tank, a "bumblebee" is a helicopter gunship, "milk" is kerosene and "canned food" is a land mine.
A month spent in the combat zone toward the end of the Soviet occupation enables Borovik to write effectively about the obscenity of war. A soldier terribly burned in a helicopter crash gets a shot of morphine every two hours and tells the nurse he has no regrets about serving in Afghanistan. "He made it through the day," the author adds, "but spent the night in the morgue." A battalion surgeon, with dreadful precision, notes that he performed 264 amputations in 1985, though "naturally these numbers do not include the Afghan wounded." An Afghan mother refuses to surrender her dead infant, whose "tiny body has stiffened and turned blue." A soldier named Sorokin, who is nearing the end of his two-year hitch, observes, "At the beginning it was hard because I didn't know or understand anything, and now it's hard because I know and understand everything." THE HIDDEN WAR has no real story line or character development. Rather, it's a pastiche of scenes, observations and dialogue. Such a fragmented structure can be effective, even devastating, as a metaphor for combat. But Borovik lacks the lyrical wherewithal as a writer to make the transcendent vault into the sort of prose narrative that can get by without a plot or strongly developed characters. "Show me a hero," F. Scott Fitzgerald once proclaimed, "and I'll write you a tragedy." Borovik has no heroes -- the characters flash past us and are gone, much like the dukhi, without leaving much of an impression -- and therefore the book never rises to the level of true tragedy.
At times, it is irritatingly banal. Borovik introduces us to a suicidal soldier in a military psychiatric ward who is convinced he has no shadow and who "proved to me, by means of excellent logic, that a man without a shadow cannot -- and must not -- live." But this intriguing snippet is spoiled by the gratuitous and belabored observation that "what happened in Afghanistan outside the psychiatric wards was the true insanity. The psych ward, in fact, was only a way out of the insanity called war."
Moreover, Borovik occasionally undermines one of his strongest attributes -- the authenticity of his descriptions -- with suspiciously tidy dialogue. For example, the author spends several pages reconstructing his conversation in San Francisco with Aleksey Peresleni, a former Soviet sergeant who has defected. Recounting his arrival in New York, Peresleni is quoted as saying, "This austere city, shimmering with the cold neon of advertisements, really overwhelmed me. It was as if a shroud of numbness descended upon my mind. As I walked around New York, I didn't know whether I should feel blessed or cursed."
Not even Dostoyevsky's more tortured characters talk like this. After being interviewed by Borovik, Peresleni caused a minor flap in February 1989 by accusing the author, without any evidence, of being a KGB agent. In defending himself, Borovik mentioned that he accidentally had lost all but one of the Peresleni interview tapes. Some of this dialogue would seem to confirm that.
Despite its flaws, The Hidden War is perhaps the best account, at least in English, that we've got about the conflict in Afghanistan. Many of our best books about war -- The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, Catch-22 and A Bright Shining Lie come to mind -- were written years after the shooting stopped in, respectively, the Civil War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam. The Afghan war is such a wondrously rich subject that it deserves a richer book; perhaps, given a little more time and distance, Borovik or another Russian author someday will write it for us. Rick Atkinson, who covers the Pentagon for The Washington Post, is the author of "The Long Gray Line."