One Soldier’s War in Chechnya

It was with some pleasurable anticipation that I awaited this book from the Frontline’s Books Editor. He wanted “a soldier to review a soldier’s book.” When it arrived, I did what I do with all books before starting to read it in earnest: examine the cover, look at the photos, check for maps. This volume had one small map and no photos – bad sign in a book about warfare. When I started to read it, I felt a sense of déjà vu and thought, as I worked through the first chapters, that I had read this before. But that was not possible.

One Soldier’s War in Chechnya has just been published in English translation from Russian. I don’t speak or read Russian, so could not have read the original. Then it dawned on me.  The increasingly tedious takes of brutality, excess, drunkenness and incompetence reminded me of the dog-eared copies of the Sven Hassel books about the Nazi Penal Battalion on the Russian Front in World War II that were passed from hand to hand at prep school.  They were about a group of conscripts fighting in a vicious war, poorly equipped, and badly-led, with their only seeming motivators being the brutality of their officers and NCOs. Here it all was again, in Chechnya.

What a disappointment this book is.  It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know about the Chechen wars. It confirmed my worst fears about a demoralized conscript army; and it was boring, repetitive and exhausting to read. Unfortunately, much of it rings true. It is always depressing to read of young soldiers thrown into a war without proper leadership by an uncaring government and with inadequate equipment.  The war in Chechnya was hallmarked by extreme brutality on both sides.  Reading this book, I’m not surprised. It is a pitiful indictment of the Russian Army at the time: “all this bollocks as if our lives depended on it.  But no one explained to us how to staunch blood, or pinpoint a sniper in night fighting.” It gets worse: “… the Kombat [Company Commander] was not popular in the Battalion. He treated us as cattle, talked down to us and used his fists a lot; he thought of us merely as cannon fodder…” Inspiring stuff.

One Soldier’s War in Chechnya is not one of the great classics of military history. Nor, unfortunately, was it a particularly enlightening account of life on the front lines.  I did not buy extra copies for presents at Christmas. Nor should you in the new year.

Reviewer:  Tim Spicer, OBE, is a British former soldier and CEO of Aegis Defence Services.