Arkady Babchenko’s “One Soldier’s War”

Reviewed by Robert Buckeye

Image of Arkady Babchenko’s “One Soldier’s War”

For Arkady Babchenko, there is no way out. Drafted in 1995 to fight in the first Chechen war, he re-upped in 1999 to fight in the second one. There would never be any life again but the war. "Yesterday's soldiers no longer belong to their parents," he writes of his experience in Chechnya. "They belong to war, and only their body returns from war. Their soul stays there." One Soldier's War is his effort to understand why.

The soldiers feel no allegiance to the state, whose lies and half-truths sicken them ("the restoration of constitutional order"). Nor do they feel allegiances to those at home who will never understand. "Half-truths everywhere," one soldier says. "Half-sincerity, half-friendship. I can't accept that. Here in civilian life they have only half-truths. And the small measure of truth we had in war was a big lie." Not a single monument exists in Russia to soldiers killed in Chechnya.

It was not possible to write poetry after Auschwitz, Theodor Adorno argued, but if poetry cannot answer Auschwitz, it can at least not turn its gaze away. Babchenko has no choice. He cannot escape Russian soldiers nailed up by their hands, crucified, castrated. A Russian soldier stabbed in the throat bleeding to death while his fellow soldiers can only watch, pinned down by Chechen snipers. One day he sees a Chechen girl, no more than fifteen years old, serene, he says, "as if she is asleep," until he sees "a hole the size of a fist in the side of her head where a stone hit her, driving her brain out of her skull like a piston. I can't tear my eyes away from that round, dry hole in her head."

Horror follows horror and survival is never more than an accident, a joke of fate one cannot laugh at but, sometimes, does. "You survive as you are born," Anna Politkovskaya writes of her experience as a reporter in the Chechen war. "Alone.... one with a world that does not want you." Better not to be noticed is the mantra soldiers follow. Put yourself in my place, soldiers tell Michael Herr in Vietnam.

Politics can never be absent from any war, but Babchenko ignores any discussion of the politics of Chechnya. (Putin is never mentioned.) Instead, his interest and sympathies lie with the dispossessed and downtrodden who are asked to fight the wars of their betters ("You won't find any smart handsome boys in these tents") and fight only for each other ("For those who clung to the ground next to me"). History, if you will, from below.

After he returns from Chechnya, Babchenko sees three Chechnya vets in the Moscow subway. "They have five medals between them," he writes, "six crutches, two artificial limbs and one leg. And a common hatred for the whole world." One of them says, "I don't understand this world. These people.... Do they want to invent a cure for AIDS and build the world's most beautiful bridge, or make everyone happy? No. They want to rip everyone off, stash away as much money as they can.... It's not we who are the lost generation, it's them, those who didn't fight."

Babchenko leaves the man cigarettes, matches and vodka, understanding that the vet considers him one of those who speak half-truths. Those who have not been there—civilians who cling to the half-truths that enable them to live—treat Babchenko more savagely. "Babchenko is scum," one Russian reviewer writes. "He's never been there, he sold himself to the West and wants to slander the glorious Russian army." There is no way this story can be told. You cannot tell it to those who cannot understand. Those who understand it don't want to hear it. In this silence there is only a deeper silence.

Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case, and has written on film and art as well as literature.