THE THREAT: Inside the Soviet Military Machine by Andrew Cockburn
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THE THREAT: Inside the Soviet Military Machine

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KIRKUS REVIEW

When you know that Soviet troops get lost on maneuvers in Eastern Europe because they can't read the road signs, the Soviet military bear looks less threatening. The fact that Russia employs a different alphabet is only one of many problems that writer and documentary-filmmaker Cockburn exposes. Soviet soldiers, mostly conscripts, are housed in open dormitory-type barracks (where each has slightly more than a coffin's-worth of personal space), are paid and fed miserably (kasha is the staple, spruced up with dried fish or salt pork), are stationed far from home to dispel Soviet troubles with ethnic minorities, and are subject to informal authority patterns based on age, with the senior conscripts getting more than their share of the pitiful goodies available. They are also consumed with the idea of getting something alcoholic to drink, even if it kills them (which it sometimes does); and since the invasion of Afghanistan, they have taken up drugs. It's no wonder that Cockburn calls these soldiers ""the Unfortunates."" An officer's life is better, but not much. Cockburn shoots down the idea that the Soviet military brass is an elite on a par with government, party, and scientific and cultural elites. The officers are, in fact, the only well-trained soldiers the Soviet army has; but the ÉmigrÉs Cockburn interviewed (shrewdly, since all Soviet males serve) were unanimous in characterizing the officers as ""boorish,"" ""stupid,"" and ""drunken."" They spend most of their careers in dreary, far-flung military posts and show little regard for their troops. Not the image of a combat-effective army. This army purchases weapons, like the American army (if more secretively), from bureaucratic entities that are extensions of the state's military establishment. The tendency for a weapon system, once in production, to stay in production, is similar too--whether it's our overly expensive and technically flawed F-18 bomber, or the Soviet MiG-25, originally developed to counter American plans for a high-altitude bomber that was never deployed. And the real threat lies, according to Cockburn, in the mutual dependency of the two superpowers--who inflate the abilities of their opponents in order to increase their own power. The MiG-25, for example, was highly touted by the US military, who then developed the F-15 as a countermove; when a Soviet pilot defected and took his MiG with him, the Pentagon was embarrassed by the technical inferiority of the MiG. The unreliability of all these weapons becomes a major threat when the logic is extended to nuclear weapons, but this is only the top of a spiral of militarism tied to weapons acquisition in both countries. Written with wit and style: a fine counterpart to James Fallows' National Defense.

Pub Date: June 14th, 1983
Publisher: Random House