From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Afghanistan Veteran Once Removed

By Dave Curry (Reviewer)

Afghanistan: A Russian Soldier's Story
By Vladislav Tamarov (Ten Speed Press, 2001)


The aftermath of 9-11 saw the return to print of the 1992 photoessay "Afghanistan: A Soviet Vietnam." In it the author, Vladislav Tamarov, recounts his experience as a combat soldier in Afghanistan from 1984 to 1986. Tamarov's words and photographs provide one young man's taste of war. Together the narrative and the illustrations produce a totality that exceeds the sum of the two media.

Having grown up in Leningrad, Tamarov was drafted into military service in 1984 at age eighteen. After three months of training in parachuting (a military specialty that he would never use again), he was stationed in Afghanistan serving as a minesweeper (a military specialty in which he received on-the-job training). The parachute training was a ritual for serving in the commandos: the Blue Berets. Minesweeping was essential for staying alive in Afghanistan. Tamarov's selection as a minesweeper was simply that an officer "with a smiling face and sad eyes" pointed him out and said, "A ha! I see a minesweeper."

In ten days, Tamarov was on a combat mission. As the author notes, "In Afghanistan, one of the most respected professions among the soldiers was that of minesweeper." A photograph of the first mine found and disarmed by Tamarov ("An English anti-transport mine, an MK- 7") is provided. "Some twenty meters away ... I found a second mine, and a short distance away a third mine. ... These were Italian mines, 'TS6-1s'. ... These were the first mines I found and disarmed." As noted earlier, he didn't learn how to do this in boot camp; he learned to do it on the spot. He tells how once he was asked if a minesweeper was "the one who lays the mines." He reportedly answered, "No, he's the one who gets blown away by them."

Tamarov recalls that in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s there were mines "everywhere": many different kinds of mines from many different countries. Before the Soviet soldiers returned home, they supplemented the mines that they didn't have to disarm with their own mines for which only they knew the location. The factions of Mujahadeen have continued in the years since to plant mines where they felt they needed them. One can only imagine what it's like to maneuver in the Afghanistan of 2002.

The first printing of the book in 1992, with the subtitle "A Soviet Vietnam," is supported by comparisons of Tamarov's encounter with war to those of U.S. Vietnam veterans. Obvious are the short-timer calendars, the alienation of Soviet Afghan veterans (referred to as Afghantsi) from friends and family upon returning home, and the hospitals filled with veterans disabled physically and mentally by the war. Tamarov credits much of his and other Afghantsi healing to interaction with Vietnam veterans from the United States.

There are some differences noted between service in Vietnam and service in Afghanistan. Tamarov's reference to "terribly secret" veterans' hospitals in Russia may not be as different as he thinks from the terribly forgotten veterans' hospitals in the United States. The secrecy of casualty rates and the blackout in the Soviet press about the nature of the war in Afghanistan reported by Tamarov don't compare to the televising of the Vietnam War in the States and the public knowledge of the identities of casualties. American support for the Mujahadeen played a special role for the Soviets fighting in Afghanistan. The Mujahadeen were armed with American stingers and M-16s. Mujahadeen were routinely paid well for each Soviet soldier proven killed. Tamarov notes that the Soviet and later the Russian governments have officially declared their involvement in Afghanistan to have been a "mistake." No one actually in power has ever officially declared Vietnam a mistake.

Most involved concede that Afghanistan is as timeless as the massive column near Kabul built by Alexander the Great and photographed by Tamarov. Tamarov quotes Alexander: "One can occupy Afghanistan, but one cannot vanquish her." The similarities and differences to Vietnam that resulted in the 1992 printing may now be overshadowed with a newfound value of Tamarov's knowledge. The current U.S. war in Afghanistan is being carried out with very little firsthand coverage by the American press. How different can the experience of combat in Afghanistan fifteen years ago be from combat there today? This may be the only firsthand account of combat in Afghanistan we'll get until our own new vets begin returning.


David Curry is a staff member of the national office of VVAW, an associate professor at the University of Missouri,
and author of Sunshine Patriots: Punishment and the Vietnam Offender
and co-author of Confronting Gangs: Crime and Community.

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