Apocalypse Now? The guys on the boat had it easy, as this memoir from the Chechnya front demonstrates within a few sentences.
Drafted into the military at 18 during the regime of Boris Yeltsin, “a despotic leader [who] couldn’t have cared less about individuals,” Babchenko was quickly shipped off to the Northern Caucasus, not long after the war there began. His introduction to the hells of war came in the form of having to drink corpse-tainted water—no surprise, however, given the way the corpses were piling up. As Babchenko notes, in a single engagement, the Battle of Grozny, nearly 5,000 Russians died, while the Chechen losses were beyond counting. The water was the least of his problems, for as a draftee he was regularly beaten and robbed, if less so than a Jewish comrade, “puny, cultured Zyuzik . . . [who] takes the beatings particularly badly…he still can’t get used to the fact that he is a non-person, a lowlife, a dumb animal, and every punch sends him into a depression.” Forced to raid civilians and each other for food, Babchenko’s unit lacked any visible structure. Weeks passed before he was even aware that he had a commanding officer, and all around him his fellow soldiers were being picked off by guerrillas or running away in the hope of making it alive to Russia again. “Even our lieutenant, who was called up for two years after he graduated from college, did a runner,” writes Babchenko. The indignities and ironies continued to mount. Only after they had been in combat for months did the army get around to issuing dog tags to identify the Russian dead, thin little pieces of aluminum that disintegrate in no time: “If you roast in a carrier they’ll just melt and no one will be able to identify you.” Consequently, there evolved a thriving black-market trade in iron dog tags—and pot, trying to score some of which leads Babchenko into a dangerous misadventure.
“War always smells the same—diesel oil and dust tinged with sadness,” Babchenko reflects. A harrowing, masterfully written tale that, like Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead and Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, bears promise of becoming a classic of modern war reportage.