ONCE AGAIN THE DRY Afghan air, the Afghan light in the most delicate shades of copper and brass. This dusky yellowness is everywhere -- on faces, on the heat-baked earthen buildings, on the azure tiles, on the tides of sand in the desert, through which thin arrows of camel caravans pass to all the corners of the world. A green helicopter flies over a steep slope swaying its fuselage to deceive the infrared sight of an antiaircraft missile. The village beneath its propellers, the checkered fields of wheat, the barrels of Kalashnikov (assault rifles) on the soldiers' backs, the pages of your notebook -- all are covered by the thinnest layer of brass-colored dust. A cannon cartridge, crushed by caterpillar tracks, gleams yellow on the road.

Those who have been to Afghanistan will understand this sensation after Moscow and Tashkent, after leaving behind fountains and squares, subway trains, well-dressed crowds, large bright windows, the problems of everyday work, shopping, family-related domestic cares, all the familiar bustle, confusion and confidence in the future; they will understand the sensation that arises as the airplane, the mountain ridges overcome, begins its descent into the rocky bowl of the Kabul Valley, into a different land, with different languages, a different measure of time, different expressions on the faces of people, all rearing the scarcely perceptible metallic reflection of the brass of war.

A struggle is being waged amidst the marketplaces, bazaars, mosques, pomegranate orchards and country roads gashed by steel. Fierce, extreme clashes of passions and ideals have drawn in many lives: they clash in the ravines, on the paths, in meetings and in attacks, in mosques and universities, at funerals and festivals.

Here, at the close of the 20th century, there is revolution. Here -- there is Islam. Here -- there are large-caliber machine guns from China. Tribal elders who have come to Kabul as arbitrators. Caravan routes from Karachi to Jalalabad, to Kandahar, into the bloody Panjshir Valley.

A light-haired commando from the Ryazan town of Spas-Klepiki is passing a multicolored (Afghan) truck onto a bridge. It is covered with patches and spangles. And you sense that your life and destiny are on the extreme fine edge of today's menacing world, and that the edge is sparking and melting, and that the Afghan driver in his turban and the light-haired commando and you yourself are all but small sparks in that fierce, terrible struggle. Those who have been to Afghanistan will understand.

For five years I have been seeing the faded green headgear of motorized infantrymen on the embankment of the dark yellow river under the canopy of leaning minarets, in the red dunes of the desert, in the white snows of the Salang mountain tunnel. Our limited contingent arrived in Afghanistan five years ago; it came when the mosques and schools were already burning, when foreign arms were arriving in huge quantities from Pakistan and an "undeclared war" had been declared and a young friendly republic asked us for assistance.

Five years is not a short time. We have come to understand a great deal. We have lived through a great deal. We have learned a great deal. Various illusions have disappeared. We have accumulated knowledge. Not solely military knowledge. That is not what I have in mind. All those who have served in Afghanistan, soldiers and civilians alike, are united in spirit and in character in a a special "Afghan brotherhood."

Their service or their work in Afghanistan completed, they returned to their homeland and dissolved into cities and villages, into the countless masses, and yet they remain a "limited contingent," as it were. They recognize one another at once, through some special indefinable "Afghan" habit, look, gesture, expression. That experience is already part of us. We find it among the strollers in the well-dressed crowd on Tverskoy Boulevard, smelting steel in Zaporozhya, sowing grain in Kazakhstan, gazing through a mother's steady, unseeing eyes in some peasant cottage near Kaluga.

Here, in the Soviet Union, I always look for that brass reflection on people's faces. I find it unerringly. I approach without hesitation. I know that I will be able to listen and talk to my heart's content and that I will be understood.

I recall how we came to this unfamiliar land that first year, how we gazed around at the mountain ridges and deserts, at the white turbans and veils. The provincial authorities assigned us encampment locations. Not in the cultivated fields, not in inhabited settlements, where for a thousand years the farmer's hoe has battled for the survival of cereal crops and the glass streams of irrigation ditches.

Our soldiers pitched their tents and formed their squares of green army vehicles, already scarred by the first bullets, on the bare rocks, in the parched steppe. We cherished every drop of moisture. We choked on the lethal wind that seared our lungs. In the season of bad roads, after the cold rains, the steppe was transformed into black, squelchy mire. I remember how our long- legged jeep sank in to its belly and stuck in front of the commander's tent and a tank, squeezing out a viscous furrow, dragged us some hundred meters to the helicopter landing pad.

(Afghanistan has produced) its own way of life. Its own daily routine. Its own allotment of struggle and responsibility. Its own heroes. Its own folklore -- extensive, naive, affecting, painful, defiant. Songs are now being made up that are reminiscent in some ways of ancient soldier and Cossack songs about the homeland, mothers, sweethearts, the evil bullet. Only instead of a horse, the songs speak of the armored personnel carrier, instead of a saber and spear -- of the Kalashnikov.

Any dust-covered ensign who has traveled with a column from Khairaton to Bagram, through ambushes mined by bandits, will sing to you of the Salang route. A tired officer in an unbuttoned shirt, plucking at strings anywhere in the sweltering steppe, will sing to you of the Asian stars. And unseasoned recruits, who have yet to smell gunpowder, will sing to you earnestly and passionately of how they repulsed a dushman (the Persian word for enemy, used by the Soviet press to refer to the Afghan insurgents) attack and how "our Kalashnikovs fiercely roared."

These songs have soared over the mountains of Asia and now resound in our homes. Our youth, our high- school seniors, who until quite recently spun (the songs of the Soviet Union's most popular social-comment singer, roughly comparable to Bob Dylan, Vladimir) Vysotsky without end, now, silently, attentive, listen gravely to these "ballads."

I feel as if Afghanistan had cleaved, disjointed our age in half, leaving behind it the life of comfort and abundance, guaranteed personal and social well-being and guaranteed peace, and ushering in terrible days and years that entail acute danger, struggle, defense, personal sacrifice, renunciation of personal welfare for the benefit of the common cause of the state and call for a collective sense of resistance and an intensified civil consciousness.

This turning point is especially evident in the lives of those who have been to warring Afghanistan, be it the chemist who worked in Mazar-i-Sharif, or the archaeologist in Tyula-Tepe, or the housebuilder in Kabul, or the soldier taking cover under armor from the fire of the enemy's dashakas (heavy machine- guns in Afghan parlance).

The officers, the older commanders, have earned high rank in a peacetime army, which 40 years ago smashed the enemy in a terriblewar, won a victory, gained experience in mighty battles and for 40 years has been maintaining stability in the world with tremendous military effort. This army flies, sails, reconnoiters with the radar's eye, masters the use of new technology, engages in field exercises simulating possible conflicts and exerts itself to the utmost in a supreme defense effort.

It does all this to the limits of the possible. But it has not done one thing: it has spilt no blood -- neither its own nor that of others. Its cannons have not exploded real targets. Real machine-gun bullets have not struck bullet-proof vests, bruising the breast. They were not fired. They did not strike. Until Afghanistan.

Commanders with gray on their temples found themselves under enemy fire for the first time in the foothills of Afghanistan. For the first time they saw wounded. For the first time they had to send soldiers not into drill attacks, but at the firing positions of the enemy, who were setting fire to our fuel-truck convoys. And only here, in the Hindu Kush, did these commanders, some with academic records, become full-fledged military men.

I understand these officers, these heads of families, who have lived the better part of their lives in garrisons, in well-furnished city apartments, and who are now choking on yellow dust in dried-out irrigation ditches and river beds, leading armed columns in the burning hell of the foothills, through ambushes and minefields, far away from their nearest and dearest.

I remember an older commander who had just joined his unit. He rushed into the midst of enemy fire, losing no time to test himself in the face of mortar shelling, to show himself under fire to his subordinates and thus win the right to send them into battle. He wanted to understand what infantrymen feel as they walk along a mined path, while the machine guns of the dushmans pepper them with bullets from rocky caves on the steep slopes. And he did understand. From then on, his orders were the orders of a man who has known and overcome the fear of death and who values the life of a soldier.

'Sonny" -- that is what the older commanders call their men. And they really are like sons to them -- because of their age, shared experience, the complex emotion of tenderness, concern and distress, common in times of war, that older officers feel for their men. They cherish them greatly. They do their best to protect them.

"Sons," soldiers. The grandsons of those who won the Great Patriotic War, whose attacks, wounds and common graves won peace for the Fatherland. Who gave us beautiful new cities, who gave us the cosmos, who gave us our postwar culture. Who made possible the birth of a new generation that has not witnessed war. And now, because of the dismal, harsh process that is endangering the world and bringing disaster, war and ruin closer to our borders, this generation of "sons," hitherto ignorant of war, rides in compartments of commando carriers, listens to the rattle of bullets on armor, walks cautiously over mined mountain paths, sits at the steering wheels of burning fuel trucks.

Who are they, these soldiers of the '80s, who grew up in a time of peace, these pampered "mama's boys," so often the target of criticism from our moralizing pedagogues, from the zealous defenders of our morals and our way of life? How do they act behind the wheel of an armored personnel carrier and on the mine fields, these young boys?

Speeding in a personnel carrier through the steppe to a village with an urgent assignment, the driver of the vehicle came upon a green field of wheat. He could not bring himself to drive over the grain. He did not burst into the field, even though he was in a hurry to perform his orders. Instead, in order to save the grain, he began to circle the peasant plot along a country road. And on that dusty road the vehicle hit a mine.

When the alarm sounded, the sergeant and his platoon embarked on their mission. But the mountain path concealed a land mine, and so the sergeant did not allow the novices to go in first; he advanced ahead of them, alone, cautious and keen, protecting his comrades.

From behind the clay fence, snipers opened fire on the passing vehicle. They wounded the company favorite, a fun-loving young fellow, the company jester. The soldiers rushed into the village behind the fences and in a short battle destroyed the enemy ambush. And when the terrified, timid inhabitants -- old men in turbans and a white- bearded mullah -- came out to meet the soldiers, explaining that the village was not to blame, that the bandits had appeared at night, and asking that the shurawi (Soviet troops) not harbor ill feeling toward the villagers, the shurawi did not harbor ill feeling.

Exhausted and wearing bloodstained bandages, they dispatched their wounded comrade to the medical unit and shared their rations with the impoverished peasants, distributed sweetened condensed milk to the children. They knew that the bandits who fired the shot and the terrified, poverty-stricken farmers were not one and the same. They shared their bread with the dekhkany (peasants).

There are countless such examples. Forty years after the fighting generation of his grandfathers, our soldier, finding himself in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, is, as in the old days, courageous, able, enduring, good-natured, ready to sacrifice himself for his friend; he understands what he is fighting for here.

Cast into the harsh conditions of a soldier's life, into an exhausting and dangerous struggle, he, nevertheless, reserves a place in his heart for dreaming and for pondering higher things -- the meaning of life, the history of his native land, in which it is his lot to play a role in armor.

We brought in our contingent at the request of a friendly neighboring country under attack from abroad by an enemy that is also our enemy. The formula that justifies our temporary military presence in Afghanistan is the performance of (our) international, allied mission and the defense of our southern borders.

I am not a general staff officer. I merely recall our recent history. Several times in the prewar years, Soviet servicemen had to unsheathe their weapons on foreign territory.

In Mongolia, on the Khalkhin Gol (river), we clashed with the samurai. We waged tank and bayonet attacks. We perished. Our graves lie on Mongolian land. Those graves, those tank and bayonet attacks, prevented the Japanese Kwantung army from invading. They saved our people thousands of lives. They saved the Siberian divisions for Moscow, enabling them to defeat the fascists at Volokolamsk and Klin. Of course, it was not those graves alone, but they too, they too!

Our volunteers -- fliers, tankmen, riflemen -- fought in Spain. They fought against Franco, they fought against Hitler. We did not win then. The Spanish Republic fell. It is difficult to conjecture today, but let us imagine for a moment what would have happened had the Republic survived, if by 1941 Spain had been a strong state that was friendly to us, linked to us by bonds of brotherhood, remembering our military assistance.

Undoubtedly, it would have been easier for us during that first, bitterest summer of the war. It would have been easier for us at Sevastopol, Yelnya, Smolensk. Fewer of us would have perished in enemy encirclements. There would have been fewer death notices. The question of a second front would have looked different.

All of this is pure conjecture, of course. I merely want to state that in Spain, at Guadalajara and Madrid, we also fought for Brest, for Kiev and for the Volga.

That is how it was then, on the eve of the Second World War, when there were no nuclear bombs, no missiles, no atomic submarines, when entire "peaceful zones" remained in the warring world, untouched by hostilities.

Today "theaters of military action" merge instantaneously. The enemy is preparing a strike against the Fatherland simultaneously from all corners of the world. From Europe -- with Pershings and cruise missiles. From the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf -- from their aircraft carrier formations. From the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia and over the North Pole -- with their strategic bombers. From the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans -- from their floating aircraft bases and underwater launching platforms that vomit lethal megatons from the deep.

Our defense is global; it passes over the poles and over the equator, through the skies and across the bottom of the ocean. In peacetime, in a time of no war, the enemy is seeking to create for himself a convenient staging area for future strikes; he is striving to break apart our military alliances, to embroil us in quarrels with our neighbors, to violate the balance of global space, which today is the equivalent of the flight time needed to reach the distance from which to launch a strike, the equivalent of the military patrolling areas of aircraft carriers and submarines, capable of launching strikes from the ocean.

And the violation of this balance of space constitutes a violation of parity, no less a breach of strategic balance than the production of the MX, the B1 or of "Star Wars."

We are not utopians; nor are we crazy. We are those who yesterday crossed a flaming Europe and Asia. Those who today hold the enemy in check in the compartments of submarines, out on long patrol. Those who sit in the hot interiors of armored personnel carriers. Those who are performing our state's centuries-old task.

The helicopter is making its landing approach under the brass sky. It will soon touch the ground of the land, where every step is won only with difficulty and courage, where bread and ammunition lie alongside, where one takes along a mine detector when going for water to the stream near the road.

The mountain optics here are quite singular. They make objects appear nearer. That pile of rocks on the crest up there, where yesterday some dushmans hid and fired upon our column. That small gulley yonder, where a charred, shot-up truck lies in the stream, damming up the current. That village over there, reminiscent of a potter's creation, where the girl in the crimson dress is standing on the flat roof.

The mountain optics here are quite singular. Everything that until recently, beyond the mountains, seemed agonizingly important, your personal, immediate concerns with offenses, with pride, all suddenly disappear and are forgotten here. A different vision emerges instead. Of the world -- as a whole. Of the people -- as a whole. Of the Homeland -- as a whole.

A soldier in tropical headgear leans against the dust-covered armor of the personnel carrier, his blue eyes gazing into the yellow sky.