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Modern Senseless Wars

by Lana V Lynx 2 months ago in humanity
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What happens when declining empires refuse to die

Afghanistan mountainous desert

I was born and raised in a beautiful mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan, one of the fifteen former Soviet Union republics in Central Asia. I came of age in a bipolar world of the 1980s, with the USA and USSR leading the world on what the governments of both countries claimed was the path to happiness but with different ideologies and political-economic systems. It was a fierce battle between the capitalism and authoritarian socialism, and in 1979 Afghanistan became the battle ground where the systems finally faced off in a real hot combat for 10 years.

I was 16, in my last year of high school, when one autumn day my incredibly astute literature teacher gave me a name of a Soviet soldier serving in Afghanistan and asked me to write him a letter. “You are good with words,” she said, “and our poor boys are so lonely and miserable there, in the war from hell no one wants. I’m sure Alex [I’ve changed the soldier’s real name here] would appreciate a letter from an interesting smart girl.”

I sent my first letter telling Alex just that: my teacher asked me to write him. To give it legitimacy, I wrote that it’s a new program of moral support and other soldiers might start getting letters as well. I also asked what he’d like me to write him about, if at all. I got a response in about a week, wherein Alex assured me he was very happy to have received my letter and I could write him about anything I pleased. He explained that he missed peaceful life and would read about anything I’d write. He was only 19, even though a three-year difference seemed a major gap for a 16-year-old girl at the time. Alex had been conscripted into the army straight after high school and sent to Afghanistan in the second year of his two-year service.

So, I started writing. I could easily pen him 5-6 sheets of a handwritten letter, double-sided. I wrote him about my classes and books I read, sometimes citing whole passages from the books that made me think. Alex was from my hometown, so I had a lot of material, telling him about the city hangouts and happenings, how the city was changing, and which theater plays and movies I went to see. It was the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika, and the Soviet Union was slowly opening up for western literature and movies. I clearly remember how I attended with my aunt, who had to vouch that I was older than 16, an international film festival where we saw Bergman’s 1982 Fanny and Alexander, a 1980 sci-fi flick Hangar 18, 1971 Caligula, Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor, Some Like It Hot with Merilyn Monroe and a couple of other movies I don’t remember, all in the span of a couple of days. My aunt, who was only ten years older than me, made me swear I wouldn’t tell my mother what we’d seen, for the fear of being scolded for allowing me to watch something with so much gore, blood, and sex. But I happily wrote about the movies to Alex in such colorful details that he wrote back saying he’d read my letters out loud to his entire squad and they asked him to read them again and again.

We corresponded for several long months of the fall, winter, and early spring. A letter a week for sure, sometimes more than one in a week. Thankfully, the mail was delivered to Afghanistan and back regularly. Alex always wrote that he loved getting my letters and sharing passages from them with his service mates. He claimed to have looked forward to getting my long letters but never wrote back more than a full page. Mostly because, he wrote, there was not much going on there and their life was quite uneventful and boring. “Just sitting in the hot trenches, days on end, in the rural desert, waiting for the mujaheddins to show up,” he’d explain.

Sometimes he would write me how the military political officers (called “politruks”) would remind them why they were there, serving their international duty of helping a brotherly Afghan nation in desperate need of help and protection from American capitalists. Also, there were a couple of letters where he described how he befriended a little boy in the village near which they were stationed, sharing food and sweets with him, and teaching him some Russian. And only once Alex wrote something that stayed with me for life, where his politruk, while trying to increase their morale, told Alex’s unit, mostly consisting of the Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Turkmens, Koreans, and Russians from Central Asia, that they should be proud to have been serving there and holding up so well.

“Just imagine those weak pale-skinned Russians from the valley serving here in the mountainous desert,” the politruk said, “they would have burnt and died in no time.” They all laughed at that joke, Alex wrote. Given that the letter passed the military mail censorship, the politruk saw nothing wrong with it.

As it turned out, it was quite a deliberate mobilization policy: the Soviet Army indeed drafted young men mostly from the Central Asian republics rather than the European areas, apparently because they were more enduring and accustomed to the Afghanistan’s climate and harsh terrain. It was particularly heartbreaking when they returned dead, coded “Cargo 200,” a lot of times in closed caskets because their bodies were torn by mines. Two of my high school classmates lost their older brothers in Afghanistan, and attending their funerals as a teenager was an experience this now middle-aged woman would never forget. The number of casualties was never reported, but there were non-stop rumors and murmurs in the city, spreading from one neighborhood to another, that another one of “our boys was killed in Afghan.” Only after Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, the official number of Soviet casualties in all 10 years of the war was reported at over 15,000.

I became quite fond of Alex and his letters. I looked forward to receiving them and would get upset and worried if he missed a week. My mom once told me I was taking the whole thing too seriously and should not get so attached, “What if he doesn’t come back?” But I felt I was doing my part, corresponding with an active-duty soldier on an important international mission. At some point, he sent me a list of his buddies’ names and asked if I’d share them with my gal friends so that they could write them as well. I did, and some of them corresponded for quite some time.

Our correspondence was completely innocent and at times silly, until once Alex asked for my photo, “to put a face on these beautiful words and elegant handwriting.” I sent him a photo I just had taken (it was quite a feat in the Soviet Union, you had to go to what was called a photo salon as hardly anyone could afford a camera). In it, I was sitting next to my handsome uncle-brother who was my mom’s youngest brother, only two years my senior and about to be drafted into the army as well. In his next letter, Alex thanked me for the photo and wrote that he’d been thinking about me all the time and dreamed of meeting me in person when he got back. That was one of the few things that kept him going, he wrote, along with the desire to see his parents. I didn’t know if he wrote that because he liked my photo. Neither did I know what to respond to that, suddenly paralyzed with the fear of committing to something so grown-up and unknown. Luckily, almost the next day I received a follow-up letter where Alex apologized and explained that he’d written the previous letter under the pressure from his buddy who thought we should commit to at least meeting in person. It was a childish trick, but it was a way out for both of us. I wrote back that everything was perfectly fine, I understood, and asked Alex for his photo “in the spirit of reciprocity.” He never sent it, saying that they had no access to photographers in the field and he took none of his earlier pictures with him. That should have been a warning sign: other girls received photos when asked.

In the spring I was graduating from high school, Alex was to be discharged and return home. I believe it was in mid-April that he wrote to me asking for my phone number as he’d be home soon and would like to call me. I sent him the number.

The phone rang in a couple of weeks, almost right after Alex returned. I could tell by his voice he was nervous. I tried to be calm and composed, even though I was nervous as well. We agreed to meet at a café in the central park of the city, called the Oak Park, a couple of days later on a Saturday.

“How will I recognize you?” I asked.

“I’ll come up to you,” he laughed heartily, “Remember I have your photo? So, I know what you look like, unless you sent me someone else’s picture.”

Right. We both laughed at his joke.

Breathe.

On the Saturday of our “date,” I put on my best dress and showed up about five minutes late, like any lady would. I immediately spotted a young military man with a rose moving toward me. Alex was wearing his discharge uniform, which I didn’t take as a good sign. I think he felt it.

“I’m not showing off,” he explained shyly, giving me the rose, and rubbing palms on his thighs, “It’s just that I grew bigger in the army and had no time yet to buy civilian clothes.”

He was a brunet about half a head taller than me, well-built and strong. I immediately noticed the contrast between his deep soft blue eyes and brown hair. And something else…

We got some ice cream and started to walk in the park. I wanted to walk, talking non-stop because every time we sat down on some park bench, Alex would attempt to hold my hand and look straight into my eyes. I just couldn’t face him. I should have concentrated on his beautiful eyes, but instead I stared at… a huge black mole sitting slightly to the right off the tip of his nose.

It took me a huge effort not to stare. That thing was so mesmerizingly big I kept thinking, “What if he tries to kiss me? Would it be in the way?” And I’d almost gag. I know now it was shallow and superficial of me, but for a teenage girl it did matter. I just couldn’t get over it, in my mind working through the options for having it removed if this were to grow into a relationship.

I think Alex felt my hesitation. He behaved naturally, after all he probably walked around with that thing for a major part of his life. But every time someone passed us, I could swear they stared at Alex’s mole as well, and I felt embarrassed. I pulled my hand away from his when he tried to take it and stepped away to keep a larger distance when he leaned in. I could feel his growing frustration. I tried compensating by telling him stories, sometimes upon his request, from the letters I wrote to him. And sometimes those were new stories, which I had no shortage of as a history and literature buff.

During that long walk, I realized that Alex was not too smart. He listened to my stories with his mouth open, hanging on to every word, but he couldn’t support our conversation meaningfully. He admitted just as much, that he knew little compared to me, had never done well in school and was fascinated with smart girls (I was on track to finish school with the Gold Medal, an equivalent of the Valedictorian). “Tell me more of your stories, my beautiful Scheherazade,” he would say jokingly, and I didn’t know what threw me off more – the word “my” or “beautiful,” which I never considered myself to be. Good-looking at best, and yes, always a good storyteller. So I’d just continue with my stories.

During that conversation, I also realized that Alex was well-raised, attentive, and incredibly kind. He told me a little more about the Afghan boy he befriended and how they both cried when Alex was leaving, “It was like leaving behind my little brother.” He described, mostly by answering my questions, the plight of Afghan women who lived in the rural desert without basic conveniences and support of their warring husbands. Alex also told me about the many friends he made in Afghanistan among the conscripts, like it was a brotherhood whose members were ready to give their lives for each other. Finally, he quietly told me that he’d been discharged a week earlier because they needed someone to accompany an officer delivering “Cargo 200” to the parents. He sounded broken when he said that. That nearly broke my heart, too, but I lacked the maturity and vocabulary to express my admiration for his honesty, integrity, and kindness.

We parted well after that long walk around the park. I said, keeping my head down and digging the earth with my right foot in embarrassment, “You still have my number.” Suggesting he was free to call me.

“Sure,” he replied, smiling shyly, and I knew in my heart he wouldn’t call.

I never saw Alex again. I only hope that at some point he had that mole removed, married a good woman, and had a couple of kids. He deserves a good life.

***

I remembered this story recently when I was preparing for a presentation on the current Russian war in Ukraine. While catching up with media coverage of Putin’s “partial mobilization,” I was struck by the differences between how the sides reported casualties.

Both sides underestimate the number of their dead and wounded in combat, which is understandable while the war is still going on. However, Ukraine at least reports estimated brackets somewhat accurately and is committed to fully reporting the actual numbers when the war is over. Besides, Ukrainians know about their big losses and share their grief for the fallen openly on social media, processing the collective trauma together.

In sharp contrast, Russians hide everything, creating a huge discrepancy between the reality and what is reported. Russia does not deny that it keeps about 200,000 of its regular army troops in the Ukrainian “special military operation,” rotating them in and out. As of early October of 2022, after seven months of the war and with the Ukrainian offensive at full force, Ukrainians are reporting over 58,000 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. However, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu claimed it was a little over 5,900 in an interview explaining the “partial mobilization.” Ten times lower! The Ukrainian sources reported that they’d killed about that number of Russian soldiers (5,800) just in the first five days of the war, between February 24-28, 2022. Either way, that number is more than one-third of all officially reported Soviet casualties in ten years (!) of the Afghanistan war.

In the same interview, meant to calm down the Russian populace and drum up their support for the “special military operation,” re-framed as “preventative,” to prevent the collective West from destroying Russia, Shoigu claimed that Ukraine (the West’s proxy) had 100,000 soldiers in the war, and Russians killed more than half of them in combat. In contrast, the Pentagon published some data on Ukrainian losses which state that Ukraine has lost about 9,000 troops since the beginning of war through September 2022.

To explain why a 200,000-strong army, allegedly second best in the world, could not defeat the army half its size, and with half of them killed already, Russian politicians simply say that Ukrainians are Nazis driven by evil itself and supplied with the best technologies, equipment, and ammunition from the West. The reality is that the demoralized Russian army, poorly equipped and under-supplied by the corrupt Russian generals who siphon its resources into their own pockets, is at this point facing probably the best-trained European continental army, which is learning right on the job, in real combat. Ukrainians are defending their lands, fully aware that they are on the right side of history. No one can beat that kind of motivation. The only thing Putin can do is continue shelling Ukrainian cities with rockets, terrorizing civilians with Iranian drones, and hoping to exhaust Ukrainian collective will to fight.

He also announced “partial mobilization” on September 21, stating that the Ministry of Defense asked him to do so, preventing questions about his promise not to conduct any type of mobilization of reservists and conscripts, ever, for the Ukrainian “special operation.” As always, on the ready to shift his responsibility for the military failures onto his generals. Putin also re-framed the operation as “preventative” and again claimed that Ukraine is the proxy of “America and the collective West” in this war, the true goal of which is to destroy Russia with Ukraine’s hands. “What happened to your regular 200,000-strong second-best-in-the-world army, Vladimir Vladimirovich? Why do you need mobilization, partial or universal, or of any kind? Where are your professional soldiers?” – are the questions no Russian will ever dare ask of him.

Instead, they vote with their feet: Between February 21 when mobilization was announced and February 26 when the Russian borders were closed to trap everyone inside, estimated 300,000 Russian men of military age left the country. In an ironic twist of fate, many of them ended up in Central Asia. “Ponayehavshie” (a condescending slur Russians hurl at labor migrants from Central Asia, roughly meaning “parasites coming in large numbers”) is now the word Central Asians can rightfully throw back at Russians seeking shelter from “mogilization” (play on the Russian word “mogila” – “grave,” see some of the memes in the photo below) in their lands. What goes around, truly comes around.

Political cartoons turned into popular Internet memes on Putin's mobilization

As I was comparing the numbers and contexts, I couldn’t stop thinking about Russia’s tendency to under-report its losses in personnel and equipment, at about ten times lower than the real numbers. As Putin’s Russia is a proud heiress and longing wannabe of the Soviet Union, I now have strong reasons to suspect that the Soviet Union lost not 15,000, but 150,000 soldiers in the 10-year war in Afghanistan. Given the number of graves in Central Asian cemeteries of young men killed between 1979-1989, it would make more sense.

Finally, another parallel with the Soviet war in Afghanistan: Russia sends minorities and Russians from the depressed regions to fight Ukrainians. Contract soldiers and now “partially mobilized reservists” from Buryatia, Tuva, Dagestan and other poor minority lands are in today’s Russia’s war what Central Asian conscripts were in the Soviet Afghan war – meat, cannon fodder. The difference is that you can’t really throw the meat onto HIMARS and Bairaktars to shut them down.

humanity

About the author

Lana V Lynx

Avid reader and occasional writer of satire and dystopia under a pen name of my favorite wild cat.

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