Category Archives: war

Soviet Veterans and PTSD

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 5393-5420:

Though there was no nationwide study, individual regions, local veterans’ organisations, and local newspapers began to set up their own websites about their young men who had served in Afghanistan. The newspaper Voronezhskaya Gazeta reported there were 5,200 Afghan veterans in Voronezh. By the summer of 1996 seventy-five had died, half as a result of accidents, one-third had been struck down by illness, and one in seven had committed suicide. Twelve years later, more than five hundred had died – one-tenth of all those who had returned from the war. The paper claimed that the young men died not so much because of what they had been through in Afghanistan, but because no provision had been made for their psychological rehabilitation, because they had been unable to afford proper medical treatment, because many of them had been unable to find work or a decent place to live.

But the amount of psychological rehabilitation available for the soldiers was limited partly by the lack of resources and partly because the concept of trauma was alien. If the soldiers who fought against Hitler could survive without going to the shrink, why should the Afgantsy be different? ‘Trauma’ was an alien, perhaps an American idea.

Nevertheless, a thin but native Russian tradition did exist. The first work on soldiers suffering from psychological trauma was done in Russia after the Russo-Japanese war in 1904–5 by psychiatrists in the Academy of Military Medicine. The results were largely ignored in the Soviet period and the 40th Army took no psychiatrists with them when they went into Afghanistan. The first specialists went there in the mid-1980s. The symptoms they found among the Afgantsy were much the same as the Americans had identified after Vietnam: a sense of guilt at what they had done, a horror at what they had seen, the same self-reproach that they had survived while their comrades had died. Some specialists reckoned that as many as one in two Afghan veterans needed some sort of help. At first the symptoms were psychological: irritability, aggressiveness, insomnia, nightmares, thoughts of suicide. After five years many would be suffering from physical as well as psychological consequences: heart disease, ulcers, bronchial asthma, neurodermatitis.

The trouble was that, compared with the United States, there were nothing like the facilities available in Russia to treat the traumatised veterans. There were only six specialised rehabilitation centres for the whole of Russia, and these had to deal with people traumatised not only by Afghanistan, but by their experiences of dealing with the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986, and by the fighting in Chechnya, and other places of violent conflict.

One of those who tried to explain the phenomenon scientifically was Professor Mikhail Reshetnikov, the Rector of the East European Institute for Psychoanalysis in St Petersburg. He had himself been a professional military medical officer from 1972 and was posted to Afghanistan in 1986. He sent a paper to the General Staff, based on interviews with two thousand soldiers, which set out the problems from which the 40th Army was suffering: from the inadequacy of the army’s supply system to the moral and psychological training of the soldiers. The report had no effect, and he was asked by his superiors why he had deliberately set out to gather facts which brought shame on the Soviet Army. From 1988 to 1993 he directed several programmes for the Ministry of Defence on the behaviour of people affected by local wars, and man-made and natural catastrophes. After retiring from the military he became a member of the Association of Afghan Veterans.

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The Last Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan, 1989

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4897-4916:

At nine o’clock Gromov called in his adjutant to check that his uniform was in order and at nine thirty he gave the order to move. The battalion’s armoured personnel carriers passed before him on to the bridge. Some of the soldiers were weeping. At nine forty-five Gromov followed them in his command vehicle, carrying the banner of the 40th Army. It was the last vehicle across. The withdrawal was complete.

The other side of the river was crowded with local Party and government officials, hundreds of Soviet and foreign journalists, and the relatives of soldiers who had not returned, hoping against hope to get news that they had perhaps been found safe and well at the last minute. Among the crowd was Alexander Rozenbaum, a young journalist from Severny Komsomolets, the Archangel youth newspaper. Fifty-nine boys from Archangel had been killed in Afghanistan and Rozenbaum’s moving report of the ceremony at the bridge ended with the questions which everyone was now asking: Why did we go in? Who are the guilty men?

People embraced the soldiers, kissed them, threw flowers under the tracks of their vehicles. Gromov’s son Maksim was there, and ran to embrace him. Then there were speeches, a meal in a nearby café for the officers. Gromov phoned Yazov, who congratulated him unenthusiastically. And then, apart for the administrative chores, it was all over.

Even now the official press was still peddling the old myths. In those very last days Pravda wrote, ‘An orchestra played as the Nation welcomed the return of her sons. Our boys were coming home after fulfilling their international obligations. For 10 years Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan repaired, rebuilt, and constructed hundreds of schools, technical colleges, over 30 hospitals and a similar number of nursery schools, some 400 blocks of flats and 35 mosques. They sank dozens of wells and dug nearly 150 km of irrigation ditches and canals. They were also engaged in guarding military and civilian installations in trouble.’

But there was no one from Moscow to greet the soldiers at the bridge – no one from the Party, no one from the government, no one from the Ministry of Defence, no one from the Kremlin. Years later their excuse was that it had been a dirty war, that to have made the journey to Termez would have been in effect to endorse a crime. It was an extraordinary omission – very bad politics, as well as very bad behaviour. The soldiers never forgot or forgave the insult.

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From Soviet Soldier to Muslim Convert

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4326-4349:

Aleksei Olenin, who was serving in a transport battalion, was kidnapped as he was relieving himself by the Salang Pass. He was beaten up, tried to escape, tried to hang himself, and was finally incorporated into a mujahedin detachment led by a greybeard called Sufi Puainda Mokhmad. After two months in the mountains, Olenin converted to Islam: ‘No one made me do it. I simply realised that since I was still alive I must have been preserved by some power … I would have adopted any faith that was available: after all, up to then I had been a Young Pioneer, a Komsomol, and was preparing to join the Party.’ He was given the Muslim name Rakhmatula.

In the course of the next six years four other Russian soldiers were brought into the detachment. One of them was Yuri Stepanov, who was renamed Mukhibullo. He too had been captured on the Salang Pass when his zastava was attacked.

Then the news came through that the 40th Army was leaving Afghanistan. The members of the detachment returned to their farms, and Olenin went with them: ‘In those days we grew wheat. The poppies only came with the Taliban.’ Sufi Puainda, who still regarded the Russians as his property, decided that they should all take wives. The Afghan fathers were reluctant to surrender their daughters, because the Russians could not afford the bride price, and because they feared that the girls would be dishonoured when the Russians eventually abandoned them and went home. But one poor man was willing to give Olenin his daughter Nargez. By now Olenin thought that his chances of returning home were in any case at an end.

He was wrong. Before the marriage could take place, the Russian government had successfully negotiated for the return of prisoners. General Dostum (1954–), the Uzbek commander in the north of the country, was anxious to strengthen his relations with the Russians and arranged for Olenin and Stepanov to travel home. He first brought their mothers to meet them in his stronghold of Mazar-i Sharif. Olenin’s mother fainted when she saw him. The prisoners then left via Pakistan, where they were received by Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007): one story was that she had provided the money for their ransom. Olenin arrived back in Otradnoe in May 1994, to find a country transformed beyond his recognition by the collapse of the Soviet Union. His mother paraded the local girls before him in the hope that he would marry one of them and settle down. But his conscience weighed on him and after six months he went back to Afghanistan to find and marry Nargez. He intended to take her back to Russia. But the arrival of the Taliban in power meant that he was once again trapped in Afghanistan. His small business profited, his wife bore him a daughter, and it was not until 2004 that he finally returned again to Otradnoe, this time with his family. He remained a Muslim and the women of the village noticed that he worked harder and drank less than the other men in the village. Musulmanin (The Muslim), a film made in 1995, explores just such a theme: the contrast between the orderly piety of a Russian Muslim convert from Afghanistan and the disorderly and dysfunctional life of the family and village he left behind him.

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Initial Soviet Goals in Afghanistan, 1979

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1386-1394, 2000-2025:

In 1968 the Soviet Union had deployed eighteen divisions, backed by eight Warsaw Pact divisions – some five hundred thousand men – to invade Czechoslovakia, a country with a much more forgiving terrain and no tradition of armed resistance to foreigners; a country moreover where, unlike Afghanistan, there was not already a civil war in progress. The government and the KGB initially believed that the job could be done with some 35–40,000 soldiers. The generals naturally wanted more. During the planning phase, under pressure from General Magometov in Kabul and others, the number was increased, and the force which crossed the frontier at the end of December consisted of some eighty thousand soldiers. Even this was nothing like the number that the soldiers believed would be necessary: Russian military experts later calculated that they would have needed between thirty and thirty-five divisions to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan, close the frontiers, secure the cities, road networks, and passes, and eliminate the possibility of armed resistance.

The task before the 40th Army and its commanders as they swept into Afghanistan may have seemed simple, clear, and limited. The Russians had intervened to put an end to the vicious feuding within the PDPA, and to force a radical change in the extreme and brutally counterproductive policies of the Communist government. The aim was not to take over or occupy the country. It was to secure the towns and the roads between them, and to withdraw as soon as the Afghan government and its armed forces were in a state to take over the responsibility for themselves.

This may have looked like a strategy, but it turned out to be little more than an impractical aspiration. The Russians understood well enough that the problems of Afghanistan could only be solved by political means: Andropov had after all argued right at the beginning that the regime could not be sustained with Soviet bayonets. But they also hoped that the Afghan people would in the end welcome the benefits they promised to bring: stable government, law and order, health, agricultural reform, development, education for women as well as men.

They discovered instead that most Afghans preferred their own ways, and were not going to change them at the behest of a bunch of godless foreigners and home-grown infidels. The Russians did not, and could not, address this fundamental strategic issue. The vicious civil war which greeted them had started well before they arrived and continued for seven years after they left, until it ended with the victory of the Taliban in 1996. It was a war in which loyalties were fluid and divided. Individuals and whole groups switched sides in both directions, or negotiated with one another for a ceasefire or a trade deal when the opportunity arose. Fighting and bloodshed erupted within each of the Afghan parties to the war as leaders and groupings struggled for advantage. The Russians found themselves fighting the worst kind of war, a war against an insurgency which they had not expected and for which they were not equipped or trained. All sides behaved with great brutality. There were executions, torture, and the indiscriminate destruction of civilians, their villages, and their livelihood on all sides. Like others who had entered Afghanistan before and since, the Russians were appalled at the violence and effectiveness of the opposition which faced them almost immediately and which made a mockery of their hopes.

One day, both the Russians and the Afghans knew, the Soviets would go home. The Afghans would have to go on living in the country and with one another, long after the last Russian had left. Even those Afghans who supported the Kabul government and acquiesced in the Soviet presence, or perhaps even welcomed it, had always to calculate where they would find themselves once the Soviets had departed.

And there was another fundamental weakness in the strategic thinking of the Soviet government. They had underestimated – maybe they had not even considered – the eventual unwillingness of their own people to sustain a long and apparently pointless war in a far-off country. They were never of course faced by the massive popular movement in America which opposed the war in Vietnam. But a growing disillusion inside and outside government sapped the will of the leadership to continue a war that was brutal, costly, and pointless.

These two misjudgements were sufficient to nullify the military successes of the 40th Army.

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Soviet Reluctance to Invade Afghanistan, 1979

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 793-810, 980-992:

The legal basis for any Soviet military intervention was shaky. Under the UN Charter, a country could ask for external assistance if it had been the victim of aggression. But there had been no such aggression. What was going on was an internal struggle, a fight within the revolution, of one group of the population against another.

Andropov weighed in forcefully. If Soviet forces went in, they would find themselves fighting against the people, suppressing the people, firing upon the people. The Soviet Union would look like aggressors. That was unacceptable. Kosygin and Ustinov agreed. Ustinov went on to report that the Soviet military were already doing some prudent contingency planning. Two divisions were being formed in the Turkestan Military District and another in the Central Asian Military District. Three regiments could be sent into Afghanistan at short notice. The 105th Airborne Division and a regiment of motorised infantry could be sent at twenty-four hours’ notice. Ustinov asked for permission to deploy troops to the Afghan frontier and carry out tactical exercises there to underline that Soviet forces were at high readiness. He was, he nevertheless reassured his listeners, as much against the idea of sending troops into Afghanistan as everyone else. Anyway, the Afghans had ten divisions of troops, and that should be quite enough to deal with the rebels.

As for the Afghans’ demand for Soviet troops, the more the Soviet leaders thought about it, the less they liked it. No one had entirely ruled it out. But when they put the arguments to Brezhnev, he made it clear that he was opposed to intervention, remarking sourly that the Afghan army was falling to bits and that the Afghans expected the Soviets to fight their war for them.

And so the final conclusion was that the Soviet Union should send military supplies and some small units to ‘assist the Afghan army to overcome its difficulties’. Five hundred specialists from the Ministry of Defence and the KGB would reinforce the five hundred and fifty who were already in Afghanistan. The Russians would supply 100,000 tons of grain, increase the price paid for Afghan gas, and waive interest payments on existing loans. They would protest to the Pakistani government about its interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Two divisions should go down to the border. But no Soviet troops should be sent to Afghanistan itself.

The KGB had long experience of dealing with Afghanistan, many covert contacts there, and its own ideas of how things should be handled: it was in many ways the lead department. It had invested much of its capital in the Parcham faction, and tended to reflect their views, even though these were a comparatively small proportion of the membership of the PDPA – fifteen hundred out of fifteen thousand.

The rest of the membership was from Khalq. That was also the faction to which most of the Communist officers in the army belonged, men whom Amin had made a special effort to cultivate. The result was a growing contradiction between the views of the KGB, who came to favour intervention and the replacement of Amin by their man, the Parcham leader Babrak Karmal, and the views of the Soviet military, who were prepared to live with Amin because they believed that the main thing was to retain the support of the Khalq officers in the army, many of whom had been trained in the Soviet Union and had good professional relations with their Soviet military colleagues. These disagreements were exacerbated by poor personal relations between senior KGB and army officers, and by rivalries between the KGB and the army’s own intelligence organisation, the GRU.

All this had an increasingly negative effect on the formulation and execution of policy, including the decision to invade Afghanistan in the first place, and the management of policy in the nine years after the invasion took place. Afghan government leaders naturally took advantage of these differences to play one faction off against the other.

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German Military Changes after 20 July 1944

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 3557-59, 3575-95:

The purge of the Wehrmacht began immediately [the attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July]. On 22 July, centuries of tradition were brushed aside. The military salute was abolished, replaced by the deutsche Gruss – the Hitler salute – ‘as an outward token of gratitude for his miraculous escape’….

And then came the final act of surrender. On 29 July, Heinz Guderian abandoned centuries of impartiality at a stroke. The German Army would no longer remain aloof from politics. In future, the German Army would be Hitler’s Army. That day he ordered:

Every General Staff officer must be a National Socialist Leadership Officer, namely he must demonstrate that he is one of the ‘best of the best’ not merely in the realms of strategy and tactics, but also in the political realm through his exemplary attitude and active guidance and instruction of younger comrades in the Führer’s ideas.

I expect every General Staff officer to accept and convert to my views immediately – and to do so publicly. Anyone who cannot do so should ask to leave the General Staff.

The humiliation continued. Staff officers attending situation conferences before Hitler were forcibly searched to see if they were carrying weapons or explosives. Political commissars – National Socialist Leadership Officers – began appearing at front-line units in increasing numbers to imbue the German Army with the spirit of National Socialism. ‘If a commander failed to follow orders to fight to the last man, his political officer would report this to the Nazi Party,’ infantry officer Siegfried Knappe wrote. The Party, in turn, ‘would take action to have the commander relieved of his command’. On 1 August, Himmler introduced the Sippenhaftung – the arrest not merely of all the suspected conspirators, but their entire families, their homes, all their worldly possessions. ‘This man is a traitor, the blood is bad,’ the Reichsführer SS declared, ‘there is bad blood in them, that will be eradicated.’ The Stauffenberg family would be eliminated ‘to the last member’. Three days later, a specially convened ‘Court of Honour’ was set up to expel members of the Wehrmacht from military service so they could be tried in civilian courts for their involvement in the putsch. It was a formality. Each man was dismissed in ‘only a few minutes’. Gerd von Rundstedt was wheeled out of retirement to preside over affairs. The elderly field marshal had his doubts, but passed judgment anyway. The leading conspirators, including Hoepner and Witzleben, were led before the People’s Court set up to try them on 7 August. The verdict was swiftly delivered: guilty; the penalty, death by hanging the following day at Plötzensee prison in Berlin’s north-western suburbs.

The Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine fared no better as a National Socialist broom swept through all three branches of the Wehrmacht in the aftermath of 20 July.

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Useless German Navy and Air Force on D-Day

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 4146-67:

Frustration on land was mirrored by frustration at sea and in the skies. Across France in the first week of August there was a growing realization in the mind of the Landser [soldier], Matrose [sailor] and Flieger [airman] that the house of cards was about to collapse, that the efforts of the summer of 1944 had been in vain. The Kriegsmarine’s campaign against the invasion armada had been an unmitigated disaster, despite Karl Dönitz’s attempt to hide the fact with his continued exhortations:

Two years ago it was fair to say that Norway had to be defended in American waters where we could sink the most shipping. Such a concept is no longer applicable. Today it is more important to sink one landing ship in the invasion area than it is to sink one Liberty ship in the Atlantic, for example.

The problem was that Dönitz’s U-boats could get nowhere near the invasion fleet. The Allied defensive blockade was impenetrable. ‘The very strong defences encountered in the Seine Bay are striking,’ the admiral complained. ‘U309 had to return after only six days’ operations in the invasion area because of the utter exhaustion of her crew.’ Herbert Werner’s U415 too lasted just six days, another victim of enemy counter-measures – an aerial mine dropped outside the imposing U-boat pens at Brest. Werner had sunk no enemy vessels. In return, he lost his boat and two of his crew. Its loss, Werner bemoaned, ‘became just another statistic in the dismal obliteration of our U-boat force’. In the first fortnight of July, thirteen U-boats had been lost, leaving just six submarines to challenge the invasion fleet. ‘During these disastrous two weeks, no more than three or four U-boats at a time were attacking the convoys ferrying invasion supplies,’ Werner wrote. ‘New Allied divisions, fully equipped and with thousands of tanks and vehicles, poured ashore.’ As he buried his dead in the cemetery of a Brest suburb, Werner found himself pondering his fate. ‘What could I say to parents who, if their sons must die, wanted them to die as heroes in combat?’ he asked himself. ‘I was still struggling with my sentences long after midnight.’

Karl Dönitz had made no rash promises on behalf of his navy in the event of invasion. His men would do their duty, but he had never assured Hitler they could halt an enemy armada. Hermann Goering, on the other hand, had pledged his Luftwaffe would give its all, that it would fight itself to death in achieving victory in the west. And now, two months after the invasion, the Allies had a firm foothold on French soil while the German air force was heading for oblivion. It could not make good its leader’s promises.

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