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One Soldier's War Paperback – February 3, 2009

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; Tra Rep edition (February 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802144039
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802144034
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #522,146 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

If you haven't yet learned that war is hell, this memoir by a young Russian recruit in his country's battle with the breakaway republic of Chechnya, should easily convince you. And yet Babchenko, who was drafted in 1995 as a second-year law student for the first Chechnya campaign, actually volunteered for the second one in 1999 for reasons even he is hard put to explain. Written shortly after his discharge from the army, the book burns with the need to tell of his personal ordeal and that of his fellows as young, innocent and woefully inexperienced grunts condemned to a miserable life ruled by shell-shocked superiors and perpetual threats. Here there are no good guys or moral high purpose—No one, from the regimental commander to the rank and file soldier, Babchenko assures us, understands why he is here; one fights only for the fellow soldier next to him. Babchenko, now a journalist, demonstrates genuine literary ability, especially in the earlier vignette-like chapters, but readers will glean little about the conflict's political and historical context. Redundancy weakens a narrative that otherwise would have benefited from brevity. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The Washington Post

Reviewed by Thomas de Waal

All wars pervert language and our sense of reality, but Russia's war in Chechnya was especially grotesque.

In 1994, in the most opportunistic fashion, President Boris Yeltsin sent the Russian army to crush a secessionist government in the southern province of Chechnya. Ostensibly, the army's task was to "restore constitutional order" and "disarm bandits." But to correspondents covering the conflict, it was obvious that Yeltsin's decision would be a catastrophe, for one reason above all others: The Russian armed forces were a frightening rabble of unruly men.

Far from restoring constitutional order, the soldiers abused every article of Russia's young constitution, looting, raping and killing in what was supposed to be part of their own country. One day in 1995, I met a young Chechen businessman who explained how the armed forces were fulfilling the second part of Yeltsin's orders, the "disarming" of the populace. He rummaged through a wardrobe in his house and pulled out a wad of $100 bills -- $5,000 in all -- that he said he had agreed to pay two soldiers for a consignment of Russian army snipers' rifles, grenade-launchers and ammunition (which would, of course, pass quickly into the hands of Chechen insurgents).

In One Soldier's War, his memoir of Russian army life, Arkady Babchenko confirms that this kind of sale was rife. He describes how two new recruits were beaten, tortured and expelled from his unit for selling ammunition through the fence of their base to buy vodka. But their real mistake was not that they traded with the enemy. It was that they were new:

"We don't watch the beating. We have been beaten ourselves and it has long ceased to be of any interest. Nor do we feel particularly sorry for the gunners. They shouldn't have gotten caught. . . . They have seen too little of the war to sell bullets -- only we are entitled to do that. We know death, we've heard it whistling over our heads and seen how it mangles bodies, and we have the right to bring it upon others. And these two haven't. What's more, the new recruits are strangers in our battalion, not yet soldiers, not one of us. But most of all we are upset that we can no longer use the gap in the fence."

At moments like this, One Soldier's War evokes Catch-22 or, closer to the source, the savage ironies of Isaac Babel's tales of the 1919-21 Russian-Polish war, Red Cavalry.

Babchenko went to war having learned Morse code but not how to use a gun. He and his fellow conscripts were systematically hazed and humiliated by senior soldiers; they sold their boots for cabbage pies and treated a stray dog as a lucky feast; they were filled with hatred and nihilism:

"We stopped caring for ourselves, no longer washed, shaved or brushed our teeth. After a week without soap and water our hands cracked and bled continually, blighted by eczema in the cold. We hadn't warmed ourselves by a fire for a whole week because the damp reeds wouldn't burn and there was nowhere to gather firewood in the steppe. We began to turn wild as the cold and wet and filth drove from us all feelings apart from hatred, and we hated everything on earth, including ourselves."

The memoir, by turns horrific, sad and funny, fills a big gap by providing us with the first-person experiences of an articulate Russian soldier. As one tale of savagery follows another, however, the story becomes increasingly frustrating to the reader who knows the Russian political context. The end of one war, a two-year interlude and the start of a second war are barely registered as the narrative becomes war-without-end, totally enclosed within a soldier's helmet and a company of men.

We never learn why Babchenko, a conscript in the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, volunteered to fight again in 1999. And there are even more troubling omissions. One is President Vladimir Putin, who -- in contrast to his predecessor, the bumbling Boris Yeltsin -- never is mentioned by name. The other is the civilian population of Chechnya. The soldiers routinely used the word "Chechens" to mean rebel fighters, the enemy. Babchenko suffered mental torment when it became clear he ordered artillery fire that killed an 8-year-old girl and her grandfather, but usually he sounds strangely uninterested in the suffering of the Chechen civilians, the main victims of Yeltsin's and Putin's wars.

War is not just an existential experience for young men. It is the ultimate test for a society, forcing its citizens to ask if they can trust their government to dispense death in their name. That is a question Babchenko never addresses in this harrowing but rather self-absorbed memoir.

Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

Worth a close read.
H. Feifs
The hardships are probably overcome by fear, love of mother Russia, and personal comradeship.
D. D. Runnells
Unfortunately, the book seems more self therapy than work of literature.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Alexander F. Remington on January 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Arkady Babchenko is a journalist, but he came to that career after having served 7 years in both Chechen campaigns. In his introduction, he explains that he has changed some names, reported some events he only heard about but didn't see, created composite characters out of several, and changed the timeline of certain events in the telling of the stories, as he tried to bring all the stories together to form a book. As it is, the stories are disjointed and disconnected, some incredibly short and some extremely long, each an interlude in an interminable conflict. Yet they come together to sketch a frightening, hauntingly fractured portrait of a war that is otherwise not well known in the West.

Babchenko's episodic style seems to recall, perhaps quite consciously, the greatest Russian novel by a war journalist, Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry. Both are unflinchingly brutal in their descriptions of human decay, moral and physical, of the blood and filth that attaches to bodies in conflict, and the corrupt souls that flock to it. He says multiple times that no one can be made to understand war if they haven't seen it, and that every soldier who served in Chechnya left their life there; the book is a personal catharsis for a man who cannot leave behind what he took from the battlefield.

For anyone who reads it, it's a profoundly moving attempt to explain why.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Mike H on March 3, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've been reading about wars and memoirs about war for 39 years. This book stands alone at the top. It is impossible to put down. It's not just a rare look inside the Russian armed forces, it is a window through which to view the world and its ongoing problems today. As one character said, "It's all one war." There will be one billion Muslims who hate this book, along with countless others who still look at Russians the way they did during the Cold War. Well, that's their problem. If you buy only one book about war and current affairs (even though this takes place in 1996 and 1999-2000), this is the one to buy. From the mundane to the profane, from the gruesome realties of war to the psychology of the individual, this book has all of its shocking components. Soldier/journalist Arkady Babchenko gives you an evocative window into not only his soul, but every man whose put on military gear and gone away to fight for his country. Any former soldier will find this book to be 100-percent truth. It's also yet another reminder of how politicians and corrupt officers can screw up any war and how the common man always bears the burden and scars for the rest of his life. If you are of the opinion that Russia was doing a little ethnic cleansing, read this book. You'll get a look at some real animals that shout and write in dead soldier's blood "Allahu Akbar"and commit the worst crimes you'll ever read. It's going on in Afghanistan, Yemen and everywhere there is a Muslim with a gun. Connect the dots. Being politically correct and having Rules of Engagement and showing concern for public sensibilities doesn't win wars, nor will they save humanity from these beasts. You'll never look at soldiers, Russians, or Muslims the same way again. Guaranteed.
One final note to reviewers who don't recognize quality when they see it: This book is written very well and its translation and use of American slang is a boon to an already one-of-a-kind find. Seriously, buy it. You won't regret it.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Timothy J. Bazzett on May 14, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Arkady Babchenko went to war in Chechnya twice - once as a conscript and once as a volunteer. Perhaps one of the best ways to describe his experiences would be to say, "oh, the horror." Because there are some vividly horrific descriptions of combat in the war torn city of Grozny and other environs. There is also much here about the lack of effective leadership in the Russian army, as well as the eternal hazing, torture and general mistreatment of new recruits by the old-timers. While Babchenko writes well enough, the narrative is perhaps too long, long enough that all the "awfulness" simply becomes tedious.

But another theme which continually rises to the surface here is the anger that veterans of the Chechen war felt, an anger, bitterness and frustration at how the people back home just go on with their lives, pretty much oblivious to the sacrifices being made every day by soldiers just a couple hours plane ride away. As a crippled veteran in a Moscow subway tells the author -

"I don't understand this world. These people. Why are they alive? What for? ... They want to rip everyone off, stash away as much money as they can, and that's it. So many boys died, real kids, these people here fritter their lives away ... Pointless people. A whole world full of pointless people ..."

Babchenko also talks about the "addictiveness" of war and combat, the rush it can bring. Much of these same sentiments were voiced by British officer, Patrick Hennessey, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, in his book, The Junior Officers' Reading Club. Because these feelings are universal. War is indeed hell, whether it's in Chechnya, Afghanistan, or Iraq, and regardless of when it happens. Babchenko's "One Soldier's War" is perhaps in truth every soldier's war. This book is one soldier's attempt to expiate the demons he carried back home with him. - Tim Bazzett, author of SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By PH NY on October 5, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Before I continue: The tale told is unique and compelling; and I would read it again if I hadn't already read it. It's well worth reading, and recommended.

But this is a spot for reviews, so some critical words are justified.

Some reviewers have questioned how accurate the account really is (what is described in the book is indeed colloquially speaking 'unbelievable'). The author admits that some characters are composites, etc, but insists that everything described happened. Not having been there one cannot really know for sure - I share the skepticism, but am inclined to believe the author. This was a dysfunctional army, in a dysfunctional country, in a dysfunctional war.

The manner of the telling leaves something to be desired. The style is quite laconic at times - leaving partsof the account almost lifeless. The account is also rather blinkered - very little peripheral or broader context is ever provided. If nothing else, one wishes for a clearer sense of the timeline of this 'one soldier's war', or some sense of progression in his experience. This may all be inherent and intentional style - a mirror of the soldiers situation and psychology. But there's a hint at a pulse e.g. when describing the draw back to the army, and the book would be livelier read if it was evident more often. Perhaps something is lost in the translation.

But although perhaps an imperfect work, a compelling read well worth picking up.
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