"Anyone who stayed in Afghanistan for a long period of time...typically went through four phases. The first stage...went something like this: 'The war is proceeding on a normal course....' Several months later, the second stage: 'Since we've already gotten ourselves into this mess, we should get the fighting over with as quickly as possible....' Five or six months later, the third stage: 'There is something desperately wrong here. What a mess!' Then, half a year or so later, the final stage: 'We'd be wise to get the hell out of here -- and the sooner the better.' I went through all of these stages, too. A reader [of The Hidden War] will easily see that."
The sudden changes of tone which correspond to these "stages" make The Hidden War a bizarre read. The first section, which was written when Borovik was covering the war for Ogonyok in 1987, is high-grade standard Soviet journalism: sentimental and "earthy," full of conversations with humble, well-meaning Soviet soldiers and officers who are doing their best in a difficult situation. It's typical Imperial propaganda of the sort churned out by war reporters from Kipling to Blitzer: the Imperial troops simply find themselves in some alien, godforsaken landscape by an unexplained act of God, and their struggle to survive becomes the basis of the story. There may be hints that the higher-ups made a mistake (much more rarely, a morally wrong decision) in sending them there, but that's an aside; the focus is on the group of ordinary guys trying to make it, the ethnically-balanced platoon familiar to everyone who's ever watched a WW II movie, Russian or American.
Borovik was good at it. He had the knack for finding the perfect metonymic detail in a chaotic scene. In a tour-de-force, he catalogues the gear he found in a field jacket he'd inherited from a dead SA Captain: British pipe tobacco, hepatitis tablets, dried wildflowers. Hidden in the bottom of the pocket containing the wildflowers, Borovik claims to have found a letter written by the dead captain, a classic of the gruff-yet-softhearted tone favored by animators of dead soldiers: "'...My position is pretty stupid, to be crazy in love with my own wife. Especially stupid if I take into account the fact that we have known each other for more than fifteen years.'"
Ah, the dead Captain was a romantic hero after all! That's what they want to hear on the home front: that though the landscape may have changed, the new war is producing the standard blubbery screenplays, and never mind all the unsettling rumors. Nobody likes to remember it now, but that's how Vietnam reporting went for many years: interviewing "the guys" on a defoliated hilltop, telling them about the wretched "national game" and taking their picture holding big Thanksgiving turkeys.
It's a durable rhetorical template -- it held up to the very end for most American correspondents in Vietnam. Even in 1975, as the spooks were elbowing each other out of the way on the stairwells leading to the Embassy helipad, dozens of well-paid liars were telling millions of gullible readers that every day in every way, ARVN was getting better and better. And, as the first part of Borovik's book demonstrates, it's a rhetorical model the Soviets were more than willing to borrow. Interviewing Muhammed Yasin, an idealistic officer of KHAD, the local KGB clone, Borovik gets answers that could have come straight out of the Mekong Delta:
[Borovik]: "'Tell me, how are things with national reconciliation in your province?'
"Yasin doesn't beat around the bush. 'Complicated....[but] 290 out of 433 kishlaks [villages] are under our control. Local elections were held in 143 kishlaks. In the district of Habbad, more than 200 rebels are ready to form a [pro-government] tribal battalion.'"
Change a few consonants, muddy up the prose style a bit, and you've got an ARVN PR rep telling some fat, sweating Reader's Digest correspondent exactly what he wants to hear about the pacification of the Delta, even as he's sending his gold to Zurich and getting in touch with his cousin in the VC.