Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Chechnya Diary

The masses are illogical; they only use logic for window dressing. What they really let themselves be guided by is simply and solely suggestion! Give me the newspapers, the radio, the film industry and maybe a few other avenues of cultural communication, and within a few years—as my friend Ulrich once said—I promise I’ll turn people into cannibals!

Robert Musil The Man Without Qualities

"Novosti" spouted body counts. He listened to the latest Russian troop deployments to Chechnya. He remembered the Hagakure “a samurai makes his decisions in the span of seven breaths”. His greatcoat in hand, he stood before his wife. Inhale.

“there is something I must do”.

“what now?”

“I am going to Chechnya to fight the Russians”. Exhale.

“I thought you came to Moscow to discover your roots, have you discovered that you are a blond haired, blue-eyed Chechen?”

“Vadim is whiter than me and that’s not the point, you think Hemingway searched his family tree for Spanish blood before he left?”

“Hemingway was a writer, you are an out of work bartender.”

“We both drank a lot.”

“Your attempts at heroism are pathetic, you are truly a product of your culture, Americans are always trying to save the world.”

“.....and we were both Americans”.

“The America that Hemingway left has been dead for 70 years, you are no more in that world than Putin is in the world of Trotsky”.

“I am enfeebled by my American education so to attempt to match you in historical analogies is futile, guess I’ll see you when I get back”.

“We both know you aren’t coming back, with your shield or on it”.

If war was supposed to look like a chessboard, Chechnya was a huge disappointment. The Russians were the enemy, not lined up neatly on their side but everywhere present, mixed in, dirty. Is this what Vietnam was like? The natives were the gooks in Vietnam, does that make me a gook or a gook sympathizer.

They talk about Afghanistan and Iraq in brash tones, the mujahadeen victory over the infidel, etc. I wonder if Vadim and I can be mujahadeen. I was raised Presbyterian, Vadim Russian Orthodox. All the Muslims at the table have their vodka glasses raised, splitting hairs about the Koran is not going to happen at this table. I make a mental note to consult an imam later about virgins in paradise for drunken ex-protestants who die on the battlefield.

The Shia taught me to really pray. To pray hard, to feel pain and longing in a prayer, feel it pour out of you like water on the ground before God. Nothing like stale Presbytarian prayers. The tears came as if from God himself while we spoke his words. Infidel means unbeliever. I believe, I am just not sure in what. Not much talk of Shia and Sunni here. No theological debates, just strategy, tactics, weapons, and missions.

I would fight the Russians even if I was an atheist. Maybe I already am, I just need the prayers for sanity. The call of the muzzein is a built in coffee break, sometimes we pray, sometimes we just stop what we are doing for a minute or two. But not if some Russian patrol is getting fucked up, Aries before Allah in those moments.

I can't figure out what I believe. I know what I am against. Military muscle crushing belief. There is a statue of Ho Chi Minh in Moscow. My admiration for the Vietnamese is boundless. That makes me a lunatic in America. Patriotism is the real religion in America. Its one thing to say that Jesus was overrated, quite another to tout the virtues of Mao and Castro.

We learn a lot from our brothers in Iraq. The roadside bombs in Iraq follow the basic Vietnamese design. Most cells in Iraq buy their explosives. In Viet Nam it was all do it yourself. The VC used hacksaws to cut open unexploded American ordinance and packed the gunpowder into a cake. Those cakes were strong enough to flip over a tank. The detonators were bamboo shoots. Like the ones in our Asian food back in Georgetown, not quite as tender.

Little people squatting in the mountains making gunpowder cakes, toddlers carrying bombs in their home made wagons back to mom and dad's bakery, each according to his ability…. The Vietnamese model works better here, lots of unexploded Russian ordinance, Chinese plastic for detonators instead of bamboo, still Asian.

Why weren’t there any international volunteers in Viet Nam? Franco had every bleeding heart liberal on the planet thirsting after his blood. Al-Qaeda has a never ending supply of international volunteers in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one wanted to help the VC? Maybe they didn’t want any help. They sure as fuck didn’t need any. Maybe we just never heard about them. Maybe they were the Chinese and Korean ‘regulars’ that popped up every once in a while in the news.

Chechnya. You would have thought the Russians would have learned their lesson in Afghanistan. Or perhaps by watching the US bleed out in Vietnam. When we were kids the battle of the super heroes was Superman vs. Batman, not mujahadeen vs. Viet Cong. I wonder if there are any Vietnamese military advisors in Chechnya, there fucking should be.

Putin is a shifty bastard. A domestic conflict he says. The Chechen issue is an internal Russian affair. Wasn’t Tolstoy fighting in the Caucuses before he'd even thought about writing War and Peace? You dumb asses never learn.

Tolstoy had to make Napoleon the bad guy in his book. The Anti-Christ. Skirmishing in the Caucuses was short story material, can't very well make the Motherland the bad guy in your opus.

The U.S. military programmed me to die on a battlefield. Parades and football, martial arts and war movies. I was ready to find a battlefield by 14 or so. The problem with a war culture is that war comes first. The need to fight takes precedence over all the ideology and morality.

When the Cold War fizzled out without a fight I was only 19. I got to see a real battle. I missed Hungary in '56 and Czechoslovakia in '68 but I got to see this one. Between the citizens of Moscow and a couple armored divisions the Soviets sent in to quell the streets.

Moscow in '91 was like Kent State without the shooting. A variation on Kent State where the soldiers looked around and saw people they knew and decided that it wasn’t worth it. Had the Russians had made a fatal error deploying local troops? Local ethnic Russian troops were deployed to Moscow to control the crowds. Bad move. I chalked up the soldiers unwillingness to fire to the loyalty a native has for his country and people. Then I remembered that the ones that did the shooting at Kent State were native Ohioans. Ohio National Guardsmen. Brainwashing wasn't too effective under the Soviets, but it worked OK in Ohio.

I thought I knew brave? The guy holding his bicycle over his head staring down a Soviet T-72 takes bravery to a whole new level. They could have ran his ass over and called it an accident. He had to know that, he put his life on the line for what he believed, all over the city, same thing, unarmed civilians shouting down soldiers, slapping guns, old ladies shaming them, no fear, none. They didn't know the soldiers wouldn’t shoot. American soldiers would have, of that I have no doubt.

Dead gook babies. That phrase repeated itself like a mantra in my head. Drove me to Russia, to Mexico, to Canada, to suicide. Now the Caucuses. I wondered how the math worked out. If the average B-52 pilot flew x sorties and dropped y bombs and z gook babies were killed per bomb and the lifetime pension and medical care for a bomber pilot cost the US taxpayer P then how much of my tax money was paying for dead gook babies? x times y divided by z was the per baby bounty. What about the interest on the debt incurred to kill the gook babies in the first place. My food clothing and shelter for 17+ years were paid for by the bounty on dead gook babies. Then the U.S. Air Force paid for me to study engineering. Trying to pay some of that back maybe.

I guess since the VC had three year olds carrying ammunition they could be considered enemy combatants. Strange that a child fighting a foreign invader is classified as an enemy combatant and is outside the protection of any legal system. A pilot who kills civilians on a daily basis comes home and is made a Senator.

It’s impolite to call them gooks now, less polite to acknowledge that their babies were massacred.

No one went to Viet Nam to fight the Americans? Jane Fonda...that’s it. We weren’t allowed to watch Jane Fonda movies when I was a kid. My mom used to love Danny Glover, guess he’s out now. Saw him on TV with Chavez once, guess Lethal Weapon is going in the trash along with Agnes of God and Barbarella.

Even though the Soviets were dad’s enemies for his entire military career he would be disappointed to know I was fighting them in Chechnya. I can hear the way he would phrase it: "It is a departure from the acceptable social order for a national of a third country to engage in combat in a foreign war"…something like that.

These Chechens can drink. Most of the Muslims I have known have drank. Vadim was born in Baku, Rueben in Tblisi. Both half Russian, don't speak but 25 words of Georgian and Azeri between them. Their Russian is pure Muscovite, but they hate the Russians as much as the Poles and the Czechs did when it was their countries under attack. The Azeri's and the Georgians. They should be enemies, Georgia's been Christian as long as Armenia, both tiny countries trying to hold on against the Caliphate, then the Ottoman Turks, then all the Muslim Soviet republics squeezing them on every side. But hatred of the empire always supersedes religious differences, just like when they were fighting the Nazis.

Vadim's dad was taken prisoner by the Afgan mujahadeen, eleven days after he deployed there with the Soviet Army in 1979. Spent his entire adult life as a POW, least that's how they spun it back in Moscow. Too embarrassing to admit he'd deserted, married an Afghan, converted to Islam and taught the mujahadeen how to drop rocks on Hind helicopter blades as they swooped low through the Pamir valleys.

Vadim was born in an Afghan poppy field, gunfire soundtracking in the background in the middle of the war against the atheist empire. At 8 years old he had already spent his entire life fighting the Soviets. Carrying munitions back to the bomb bakeries in the highlands. The CIA gave them rocket launchers, taught them the tricks of their Vietnamese enemies. When he was 16 he went to Pakistan to study engineering. He was closing in on a Phd when twin towers came down. He knew their would be another infidel army in his homeland before long.

Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and now the U.S.. Afghanistan: where empires go to die.

Do these Russians have any idea what they are up against in Chechnya? Battle hardened children who studied metallurgy and military history in foreign universities. Fearless, tech savvy strategists. No wonder the CIA advised against a second Iraq invasion. Spook field agents had seen the mujahadeen on the battlefield, watched an army of grandmothers and children gut the Soviet war machine and bankrupt the government back home.

When we were kids mom told us that if a Soviet citizen disagreed with the government then the Communist Party would say he was crazy and lock him up. Then they pumped him full of drugs until he went crazy. Solzhenitsyn never talked about the drug part. He lives in Vermont now.

The Russian insane asylum I lived in was called Skalifasovskaya. Mom was right about the drugs, but not because I disagreed with the government. I was crazy for real. The Soviet doctors said my madness was caused by my consciousness not adjusting to life in Russia, that because I was used to a normal easy life in the west, my mind snapped after three years in the dark gulag of post-Soviet Moscow.

But it was simpler than that. I was trained in mathematics, I did a simple calculation. Seven years in a cholera-infested Russian jail was worse than death. So I chose death. If I had known that a few simple bribes could have made my legal problems disappear I wouldn’t have opened up my femoral arteries and jugular vein. Because I believed the system was incorruptible I chose to take my own life. Now I know that knowledge of the truth can be a life or death question and I am resolved to ....what... teach my children the truth? What is the appropriate age to talk about collateral damage?

Classifying dissenters as mentally ill and locking them up was a strictly American experience for me. Whether you are locked up or not marginalization awaits those who consistently question the status quo. There is really no need to lock you up, they simply make sure that you are outside. Being pushed to the fringes of society was not enough to drive me batty right away. But as the decades wore on, I sincerely began to question the validity of dissent. Was I just a trouble maker, was I afraid of success, maladjusted, resentful of peers, sexually deviant?

My stance was ludicrous. Why fight a juggernaut? "You have so much talent, you can be anything you want, rich, powerful secure". Would I have wanted to succeed in Nazi Germany, or Stalin’s Russia? If the system is an embodiment of evil, what choice is there but violent opposition? Should one collaborate out of convenience or expediency? Do the French who conspired with the Nazis look back and think about their levelheadedness and practicality. Or does the sight of a mirror sicken them?

Chechnya is easier, there are no illusions that the Russians are a benevolent society hoping to shepherd us through troubled times. I am honorary Chechen now, I have drawn my first blood.

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