But that's the 1987-vintage Borovik. Borovik did one thing most war correspondents never do: he took a second look, learned better, and changed his mind. By 1989, when he went back to Afghanistan, so much had changed at home that changing one's perspective on the Afghan war was relatively easy. The Soviet verities were gone or going, and Borovik took advantage of his new room to write to metamorphose into a very stylish author of war porn. When he goes back to Afghanistan, he finds a hollow Soviet Army concerned mainly with getting through the Salang Tunnel alive, doing deals with Dostum, Massood and any other dukhi ("ghosts," Soviet-army slang for the Afghan rebels) they can find.
This second section, which comprises the latter two-thirds of Borovik's account, is far more interesting than the first. If the first section is like the work of a Reader's Digest writer in Vietnam, this latter, cooler, blacker work is like Michael Herr in Kabul. In fact, some of Borovik's writing so closely echoes dissident American writing on Vietnam that you wonder if there's direct influence. Here, for instance, is Borovik quoting an ensign who volunteered for a second tour in Afghanistan:
"'You see, old man, I'm sick to hell of everything back there [in the USSR]. Sometimes I even had a physical, almost lovelike, craving for this godforsaken land. At night I'd dream about Afghanistan. In the morning I'd laugh, during the day I'd cry, and in the evenings I'd get drunk to the gills. I remember once at some party this middle-aged woman sat down next to me and said, 'Tell me about the war.' 'What do you want to know?' I asked. 'Well, for instance,' she said, 'did you ever kill people? What did it feel like?' I lost it. I went crazy and yelled, 'Do you understand what you're asking me? No, I mean it, do you understand what you just asked me?' The next morning I woke up with a definite decision to go back [to Afghanistan] again. And that night I dreamed about Russian Orthodox churches in Moscow, but with Islamic symbols -- crescents on top of the domes."
Does this passage sound familiar to anybody else? I could swear I read one exactly like it in Al Santoli's Everything We Had, a collection of Vietnam reminiscences. Of course, one could argue that the civilian's eagerness to ask the forbidden question is a commonplace of martial memoirs, but this Afghan vet's reaction isn't standard at all for a SA veteran. It's a Vietnam reaction. So who's borrowing from whom? Is the vet, with his Walkman and his tapes, borrowing a cool Vietnam stance? Or is Borovik borrowing the cool, bleak tone of latter-day Vietnam journalism?
There are some differences from American oral memoirs of Vietnam -- the diction level seems artificially high, and the mat has been omitted. (I found this to be a relief, by the way. There's no cheaper, duller way of faking authenticity than having the grunts you interview say "fuck" every second word.) The most interesting difference is the soldier's symbolic dream, with the Islamic crescent replacing the Orthodox cross. This was a common dream in the 1990's, and not just for Russians. (Anybody remember the first five minutes of Coppola's Dracula, with the Hagia Sophia's cross falling in the dust, replaced by a crescent?)
Vietnam produced similar terrified dreams in some of America's best writers -- check out Philip K. Dick's wonderful short story, "Faith of Our Fathers" for one example -- but the terror was short-lived, as it quickly became clear that the Vietnamese really did want Vietnam and nothing more. (And damn lucky for us, too. Jesus, with that infantry they could've taken Oregon, and they settled for some of the grimiest malarial scrubland in the world, poor naive bastards!)
Afghanistan finally meant something other, more dire, for Russia. If there's one unspoken truth of the twentieth century, it's that Birthrate Wins; and with the grand Soviet apparatus gone, Russia fled from Afghanistan as a shrinking old country without babies or faith. Whether from Chinese drive and industry or Islamic birthrate, the end was coming, and in Borovik's typical late-fascist loving description of the falling outposts, abandoned materiel, and fleeing BMPs, the reader feels the tang of pleasure at an Imperial adventure to a people who have had very few, and who will not get to experience these strange pleasures again. When the Russians fight next, it will be at home -- and in this Big Game, it's the visiting team which has all the fun.