After several years, having cognized the war reality not through media or mediate evidence, and having at least some life and war experience, that could not be drunk away or bought in the corner stall, you start in a fully different way appreciating those feverishly timid body movements of young military officers who passed the Afghan war.
They like small puppies act blindfold seeking help from senior commanders, usually operatives, and trying to settle their further military service after two "trench-battle" years. They were only on the threshold of Soviet officers" life.
The great spaces of our Fatherland held its arms out for grey-headed youngsters who didn"t mean the concepts of honor, conscience, and duty as witticisms. They had already been disabled by the war truth, that"s why all the tales about the difficult life in the Soviet Union were dismissed at once. They considered the life itself as the main present. And the rest was just hollow vanities.
Company commanders and platoon leaders are draught animals during any war and they bear the main burden not only of this Afghan war, but also of all of them - previous, present, and unfortunately, future ones. And commanders and different seniors may say everything about their importance and irreplaceability in battles, moreover nobody is going to argue it (All professions are important, all professions are in need). But until the shoe plate of MY soldier on the frontline steps into a bullshit of the enemy who is "prostrated and beaten", no one from them will be able to "smile like a brewer"s horse" and bring up to speed on the completed mission.
Everyone having been "across the river" was fired by the flame of the Afghan war. Some soldiers were burnt to the ground, other ones got away with a black eye, the others warmed their fingers at the fire secured profits. Regardless of our wishes the fire colored our souls with such indelible reek that can neither be mopped nor washed.
Have you ever sat over the night fire? A humid night passed, a new day arose on the horizon, and the hearth that had warmed us with its heat was replaced by ash and firebrands. And here was the smell of smoke that had being inhaled by you during the whole night and reached the bottom of your lungs. It, this smell, enwound you with invisible threads of memory about the fire and the smoke. It was the life-length memory that warmed the soul in rheumatic days of daily life with unforgettable images of the youth.
With difficult? - Yes.
With hard? - Yes.
With pleasant? - Yes.
With contradictory? - Yes.
But only they, they, these contradictories make up the memory, which is cold soldier"s duty.
There is another way - oblivion. One can forget everything as a nightmare but it is alike to excise own lung. It is the other life, and is not even a life but only existence. Wretched existence! It is impossible to breathe deeply, one feels lack of air, and in any case - who likes to be an invalid fully without memory?
Memory or oblivion is our destiny. We do not need anything else.
At the high port the choice must be the memory.
The soul contained not only smoke and ash of the fire. It left the warmth that has been heating even now.
Estimating the past from a present-day perspective, it is thought that one can act in a different way, but it is the charm of the youth that one has to act only in all fairness.
But then it was only a clean sheet of paper with clear wear and tear of life that has not been thrown into a box near the end of the service as useless.
* * *
- Alexandr Stepanovich! - Dima Shesternin, a soldier of the conscription 1982, asked during the squadron meeting - Assuage my doubts: I was young then, I had only a half of a year of combat experience with you. More than thirty years have passed, but I still do not have the answer, and in addition have got a talking from our troop deputy commanders Vitya Osterov and Alexander Savin for my assumption. Why didn"t you join the squadron, even did not say goodbye? I recollect having said "Captain has made a mess in pants that"s why has not come!" and immediately rowed away from the paratroopers old-timers. Everyone was also surprised but they gave no sign, because the army is full of its surprises.
* * *
Tashkent. Airport. Day is breaking. I will board the plane that takes me away from the war in three hours. Now I am at the restaurant on the first floor. It is empty. Only me and the waiter, a young boy from Uzbekistan. He is nodding at a bar counter. His shift finished long ago but respect for older people is a law in the East.
"You must!" - the administrator said, former soldier of the home maintenance party, and he was like white on rice for me during the whole night. Education! Music and visitors were left in a deep night and we meet a new day. The first peaceful day in my officer life.
There was an opened but untouched bottle of vodka and a plate with a triple portion of devilled chicken, a longing desire of a foolish Soviet soldier. I have not even touched it, this chicken, though during these twenty-six months I dreamt of it, stuffed with parsnip and with brown crispy crust. Neither did I with the vodka that was in a crystal stem glass out of the fridge. Unfortunately, the dreams rarely correspond to facts.
Emptiness in the soul.
There is neither pleasure nor bitterness.
It will come later, and now...
Now it is due to draw the line.
A foreign passport is in my hands. The fingers are automatically stroking a red booklet that opens the outside world in other colors. These Afghan two years and two months have made me look at it in a completely different way. No - "my" romance has not disappeared from my short and curliest. It is still with me, but it has turned into more tangible forms. The life now has not only black and white, but also shadows.
The last page of passport is done: "Afghanistan. Leaving till October 9, 1983." I do not need it any more.
What was in the past? What waits for me in the future?
How many dreams and plans about the day there were!
All my friends are there. New ones are absent. Now I know exactly what a friend is, and what a companion is. Here in the Soviet Union I will have both companions and workfellows. Real friends including the most hopeless "clowns" of the squadron stayed there.
I need not any more to get a "saber" at every given opportunity and "swish" heads, and I alone do not risk: thanks to my "Afghan teachers" from the first company captain till the squadron commander. I was forced to adopt from them everything on board. Not demonstrative eagerness of peaceful life, but their wisdom of many military years. Disproportion in age was only three-five years - but I was as a 6-year boy in comparison with them.
The college that I finished has turned to be only a kindergarten with enhanced studying of main subjects. My "own" ten-year school was finished during these two years with one month counted as three. Here it was impossible to cheat off and snoop. Combat performance started immediately from check points and exams. There was no time for "shakedown" in "academic programs."
Afghanistan is "my" life exam. Everyone learned there "something and somehow". But this studying was graded not by senior commanders and inspectors, like it was in the Soviet Union, but mothers and fathers of those who performed their combat missions with us. I think that I wasn"t the worst student in this school. Honors on the chest and opinion of the others weren"t the main thing for me.
The main thing is inside.
Only personally I could grade myself, while digging in my soul, hot from Afghan heat and stresses. The grade that will accompany my entire life. The grade that could be given only by those guys, which are long dead...
Everything will be later - celebrations and disappointments, wedding and kids, joys and sorrows. But all this will be later, in a peaceful life. But at that pre-dawn morning I concluded that I would never rise above the given grade.
The life divided into "then" and "now", and between them there is a bloody line.
Afghanistan! How scary this word is!
But how to forget it, not to cite,
When the war today once more
Threatens to break the Earth apart.
It is from the ashes of fire and blood,
From the widows" tears,
How many scars and deaths
Are in this beautiful word.
You don"t need to say it a lot.
Leaning on the edge of the table and propping my head with fists, I met my first peaceful dawn...
Rotation. Do you know what it is? It doesn"t mean the rotation of galactic system or stars, rotation of an engine. Rotation is a state of mind, euphoria of the worldview. Everything is singing, heart is beating so fast that it can fly out of the chest, birds are twitting happily. And this rotation comes under the mask of that special someone, well, maybe little less dear than "the most" one. No, I"m lying: at the moment when the body of the substitute appears from the depths of a helicopter and his boots touch the corrugated metal of a runaway, everything is brushed aside and even the image of the dearest person.
Here it is, my dear. Dearest. Oh, there is a speck of dust on his shoulder! Uh-oh, his cap was blown by the wind from the running helicopter engines on the mine field!
Damn this cap!
Get used to this. "No sweat, no sweet" - sings the song.
Pf-f-f-t, pf-f-f-t, - I blow off the invisible dust from the epaulet. Carefully and gently, God forbid, to hurt or to scratch. "Briefcase!" Give it to me, if you stay alive, you won"t need it for at least a year. Fuck, are there bricks in it? I suppose you"ve brought a lot of vodka. Put your leg in here, go here, don"t look over there... And there you also can"t go... you"ll see it later.
Well, come on. Well, tell me. What is going on in the Union? We"ve been waiting for you here! And I will order to lay the dinner table for the dear guest. All the anger, hate and thoughts, like "where this bitch and douchebag is slacking and why "it" is not here yet?" which were eating my brains 5 minutes ago, go by the wayside. And while touching him, I fall into the state of nirvana: this is my substitute!
My God! His eyes! Eyes! Did I have eyes like this during my first days here? That"s hilarious! No, there is no fear in them. There is no emptiness; there is a full mis-un-der-stan-ding. First impressions last a lifetime, and they are the most faithful and correct.
All of the above is classic. As it should be.
And that"s how it goes.
During July-September of 1983 the squadron lives the life of a long lost weekend, because a planned officer rotation began. Substitutes arrive one by one, representation of one is replaced by the departure of another person from the Union, and between all this - the fulfillment of combat tasks.
The soldiers in the squadron, the back bone, are almost all from the same conscription, although they are slightly diluted by the "experts" from educational institutions; they also prepare to discharge and everyone has experienced at least a year and a half of the Logar being (province Logar).
To organize a convoy is "easy as pissing" for the old-timers, to check the intelligence information - there is nothing easier. The ambush? Easy as nibbling seeds. But for the "young" everything is a wonder.
The other day there was a call from Kabul that a gratuity was signed for us, i.e. for our brigade, and in this gratuity there are three quarters of our squadron; only the names were transferred by phone. The owner of this secret, the squadron commander, thinks that only he knows about it while mumbling the names of the awardees in the morning squadron forming-ups: today he says only one name, tomorrow - the other. He does it because he doesn"t want us to drink all the home brew in one day.
But hell no! We have the communication platoon on the hook, and we know everything. And mistakes of half-drunk officers and warrant officers smoothly flow from one unit to another, from one barrack to another. To the next representation.
Don"t you think anything bad, just this word has military sense: "Comrades officers! So-and-so, recommended on the occasion!" and then - what someone deserves. A person for the post, a person for a rank, a person for reward, for the departure or, conversely, for arrival.
Traditions are traditions.
My first award I drank in celebration with the pure alcohol which I exchanged for Spanish "Astra" from the operators. This "Astra" was voluntary presented to me by one of the rookies. I don"t lie. He gave it to me. When I put my leg in a mountain boot on his hand with a chrome gun, he immediately said: "Here, take it, please. I don"t need it. And..." This flask was waiting for the suitable time to come.
The officers' quarters. The tables placed end to end, covered with district newspaper "Frunzevets", have everything from the "menu-layout": tinned meat, a pot of fried potato, condensed milk, fresh Baraki muffins (from the town name Baraki), cheese, "si-si" - new cans with lemonade, a couple of special dry rations, a serviette from a local "Cantina", chopped with a knife expropriated from rookies, "discharge" fried pies, onion, greens, oranges. Under the table there is a 56-gallon container of home brew, everything as it should be.
The first "visitors" sit on the beds shoulder to shoulder, and, smoothing out the awkwardness of an early arrival, pull their necks to the right and left, looking for familiar letters in newspapers spread out on the tables. In the center of the table there is a mug with alcohol, and I put the award inside - blorp! - and it is on the bottom, playing a ruby color in the light of 40-watt light bulb.
To start with, everyone is proposed one drink of pure alcohol.
Typically, such procedures in the troop were held after dinner and before... the pot was empty.
It so happened that the entire command structure of the squadron appeared there in any case, besides those who were on duty. Control officers of the squadron, who allegedly "don"t know" about the upcoming event, were invited personally - subordination.
Clearing my throat, I, being the hero of the occasion, stand up, shorten my arm, and say that I"m representing because of the award. In my right hand I have a mug, in my left hand there is a bottle with pickle. I swigged the alcohol on a single breath, but the award stuck to the bottom of the mug - that"s because of the physics. Adhesion-attraction forces, etc. I shake the mug, but nothing happens. Then I do it again, while my eyes popped out of their sockets because of the alcohol. And then the award (which is a quite heavy shit) falls on my lips.
There is blood on my face, but the wound is simultaneously disinfected by the alcohol I drank. And I still have to say the cherished words and listen to the approval of senior colleagues, who are immensely pleased to welcome a new member in their cohort of admirers. Only then I can drink the pickle in my left hand in a single gulp.
Modestly and accurately they"ll kick my body with a silly and happy fixed smile on the face right to the corner and lean against the wall. "Troop hasn't noticed the soldier missing". And what"s up with it: "The Moor has done his duty, let him go. Moor...". Sleep, darling, rotation is fatal as the crash of imperialism!
The richer top-ranking officers can afford to buy vodka from the pilots, but usually - only beloved home brew, which, if we wish, is distilled. Therefore, such sit-round gatherings witnessed rare guggle sounds of vodka brought by the substitutes from the USSR, which was mixed with the drumly liquid. It was quite popular in the squadron, especially when they got some awards from Homeland. Though the first variant is much more pleasant.
There is always one rotten apple in the bunch.
As a rule, the event always begins wisely: grandly, nobly and then, on the final act always the falsetto will put its sound in amicable chorus of close-knit team, usually in shooting, or in a foolish competitive and wrestling form. And now you need to keep both eyes open to prevent an incident. Firearms are almost under our control: here they are, on backs of our beds are hanging.
At this stage all tricks, arrangements and even threats of the executive officer of the squadron, pale and hoarse from abuse, persuading to stop "just another disgrace", were met with laugh and kicking him to the curb (without using vulgar words, of course). Especially after the commander having announced the list of winners, and his surname was also mentioned. And he had no way out, staying constantly "on base" as the senior peacekeeping soldier. Probably, it was also the heroic feat in his understanding. But we, young and brave, didn't want to understand this.
Youth is not only fervor and daring, but also sentimentality with nonsense and, if it is out of control, it is hand in gloves with crimes, as eyes are floating in cheap wine. So we are everything, sacks full of blood, and every one is a super duper trooper. Tomorrow, of course, it will be a shame for someone. All right, that is only a shame.
Having read all the above things, you, our dear reader, may think that the "half-drunk" squadron conducted warfare in just the same way.
No, and again no.
There were strict rules, and for two years I"ve never seen at least a half-drunk officer from the troop section or squadron on the battlefield.
The mountains don"t forgive laxity and disregard of them, so says one of the mountains laws. And we personally treated such rogues without any politeness.
Do you need any examples?
Let them remain memorable.
* * *
I don't know why, but for two week the squadron has been run by the commander deputy, captain Yuriy Kostenko.
I am the senior conscript in the squadron. Two years and two months...as a "rowdy" on military service. Everyone is changed as in guard: Roger that! I hereby surrender my post! And my relief hasn"t even come out of the guardroom, and God knows, if it exists in the guard report.
HOW AGGRAVATING! ALL AND EVERYTHING! With three huge bruises across my chest caused by machine pistol firing from the foliage, I can't sigh deeply, and thank God, the body armor has saved from fractures in my "shkeleton". I go to the deputy commander with only one purpose: let me go and seek my substitute. How much time they need to "master the greens"?! They have been here for a month, it is a high time to work. And my substitute has got lost in the annals of our bureaucratic army machinery. A couple of such combat missions and I won"t need any substitute.
And, shortly before the rotation I and my company commander got into a fine mess during the mission. We stayed in the Kabul hospital, and later, Nikolaich (my company commander) was sent back to the Union, because his gunshot wound had not healed. And me...after the blast injury the nurse helped to recall letters by the ABC-book.
In that particular time, my substitute was enticed, being promised, probably, something somewhere, and he drugged with pleasure. Also I was waiting for my dear substitute day and dark. And the squadron commander ordered to train and train the fledglings.
- You owe me a drink! - said Yury Aleksandrovich with a smile. He was also waiting for his substitute.
- It"s a deal! Sure!
- First surgeon! - I rush into the barracks. - Quickly bring my discharge uniform from the depot. Helicopters will be in an hour, the deputy commander let me go to the headquarters of the army for a couple of days!
- Igor, drink to the company commander! - I shout to Igor Chernevsky, the commander of the second platoon, he is a bit deaf after blasting. - Here under the bed all my goodies are in a parachute bag. The executive is responsible for them. Mishka Vareniev prepared the home brew and it has fermented for several days already for alcohol strength.
Mishka Vareniev is a commander of an administrative platoon, but also my fellow countryman. He made the wish-wash by his own special recipe. I had secured it with trip wires for no one (I forgot, how women of pleasure are called) could even glance the tank. I personally drink little, aftereffect of hepatitis, but I know customs of our squadron pretty well. "We drink everything that burns! And if it doesn't burn" - further explanations in the text.
- San"ka, - I say to the technician of our company, - moonshine is your responsibility, do not screw us, it should burn everything inside. Once it is distilled, give several bottles for dinner and stash the rest. If I return and learn about the dent, - I will bury you alive! Don"t forget to give Kostenko one bottle!
We know the norms of distillation and product quality as one knows the ABC - constant practicing is a great thing.
I take the documents, party membership card out of the metal box which serves as a safe. The quartermaster sergeant runs in with a new sweatshirt. I dress up and look like a shiny new penny, then I lace up my army boots - that"s all! What is alarm for us? Three whistles - and I am ready!
In the new creaking "shoes" I"m strolling along the central pass in the barracks, waiting for helicopters to Kabul. The moral officer Dmitriy stands nearby. We went out to the porch and sat down, discussing the latest news. We have been in rank and file for two years.
- You know, Dima, - I start talking about our company executive officer, whose substitute joined our company two weeks ago, - Mischa is in Kabul, rewriting the assignment. Perhaps I should also take up a couple of guns or daggers with me? He is lucky, he has taken his masterpieces along and makes presents to everyone. Remember, even the headquarters of the army ordered him such handicrafts.
Our company executive officer was a gifted woodcarver, and he brought graving tools along. He engraves the panels which are worth exhibiting at art shows. Everybody tries to get trophies during the tour of duty, and Misha also brings planks and lumbers under his arms.
- See, It won"t hurt. Mishka is fait accompli, a write off. His substitute is already on the spot and he is no coward, I saw him. And you should gain a reputation in the Records Office, they like presents very much. Remember gifts to the superiors... I am sure our surnames were never named, but our brigade is familiar to everybody. Now you should be more specific and mention that it is you, but not brigade 56, who want to "thank" for the good assignment.
- I can"t but agree, Dima. Bring me anything interesting, maybe it"ll really help.
With a smile on my face I "kindly" remembered all the people who were presented with our findings: a yataghan, an inlaid "sacred pipe" ... - Dima trotted short to his secret place.
The commander of the first platoon came up. My namesake is blond and curly like me. He's on duty in the squadron today. Though he is supposed to rest until one p.m, he is not sleeping. Our life is scheduled, from one task to another. Knowing that the helicopter is arriving he cannot sleep and is looking for his substitute. And besides, last night we made builder"s tea - a package of tea per a three-litter jar, and we won"t sleep a wink.
The stash was kept at the moral officer"s. Only we - the commanders could have claims of any kind, ambiguous hints and smirk from the regulatory bodies, but nobody has ever had an issue with him. He is responsible for political affairs in the squadron! And we take advantage of this fact. Dimych ia a rock of a man! He"d better be our commander, but not a moral officer. His adequate principle of education of subordinates was accepted as a model in some cases: two punches in the pit of the stomach by a boxing glove on the ring instead of two hours of studying political affairs.
In ten minutes, "gifts" move into my commander's bag, and I push a pack of "Astra" into my empty holsters.
In the south-east we heard the noise of the approaching helicopters.
Taking off in Gardez they fly at the maximum altitude to Terra mountains, and then they descend and perform a contour fly across the desert. And then, at the Barakinskiy hills they soar upwards and come in for landing one by one. At this moment everybody in our squadron rushes outside and looks upwards.
If a glance were a bullet, the helicopter would land riddled through like a sieve, nothing to say about squirts from the eyes of the discharged and their substitutes...
Helicopters are high-days for us: they bring news, mail, leave men and the recovered, stretchers with the wounded and the sick, the commissions and inspections. Alas, armored vehicles don"t deliver any guests. But they should, and all "smart" issues would disappear at once. Convoys are for us, local "aborigines".
Only the officers are allowed to pass through the passage in the wall, and further along the path to the take-off strip, and the commanders - closer, to the landing helicopter. With the battalion commander"s permission begins the "Brownian" movement - back and forth.
- Well, come on! Good luck to you! - says Sashka, adjusting his arm band.
I sling my Kalashnikov gun over the shoulder and get aboard. The ladder is removed and with gestures I am ordered to put my gun into the box. I feel wretched without my gun, it always warms, and here - like in the bathhouse: I feel like sitting down on the bench only with a fig-leaf on. Immediately we move upwards, and then another helicopter comes in for landing. A couple of minutes - and a pair of helicopters disappear, bearing left and trying to avoid flying above our "favourite foliage".
I"m thinking where to go first, whom to ask.
I know how to get to the Personnel Department of the Army. There was my schoolmate, who served in the guard squadron just up the road from the headquarters of the rear, but he was discharged in July - nothing. To "special forces"? They are also newly recruited. To my sweetheart? But she can help only in love affairs. To the signals regiment? There one of the company commanders is Vovka, a neighbor of my parents. Oh! I"ll pay him a visit, he has already been there for a year, and he is likely to mature. We went to a bar crawl on vacation. Oh, how we celebrated! Once during our tour on duty he allowed me to call my parents - "receiver to receiver". I was sitting on the hill with my company and speaking to my mom - thirty-three and one pleasure at once, thousands of miles away. It"s a deal: the signals regiment! My thoughts are broken by the overbank of the pilots - Our helicopter turns out to be fired on the cities fringes.
Nose to the ground - and machineguns and free flied rockets shake the inside of the helicopter. That all I needed! To burn alive at the end of my international duty! "Gobies in tomato sauce" (preserves) have the same thoughts, however, it makes no difference to them, but I still want to run across lawns and make a wreath with daisies and cornflowers for my future wife.
Oh, I hate this tin can! If God had meant us to crawl, he hadn"t given us wings!
Hail of bullets, another bank - and we pull out of a dive... And then - sneeze-puff, sneeze-puff - we come in for landing. And dot all the i"s, a duty pair of "crocodiles" meet us in that not good place.