cover image One Soldier's War

One Soldier's War

Arkady Babchenko, , trans. from the Russian by Nick Allen. . Grove, $25 (395pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1860-8

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.)