The universality of war propaganda

A soldier with the Russian army in Afghanistan recounts what they believed about their mission

By Glenn Greenwald
Published October 28, 2009 7:29PM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II - Update III)

I'm traveling still today, but I wanted to note an amazing Op-Ed that was referenced in a book I'm reading:  the Op-Ed is by Nikolai Lanine, published in The Toronto Globe and Mail in November, 2006.  Lanine was drafted into the Russian Army at the age of 18 and spent several years as part of the Russian occupying force in Afghanistan.  Thereafter, he moved to Canada, and in 2006, his wife's first cousin, a medic in the Canadian Army, was killed in Afghanistan.  Lanine wrote this column after attending his funeral, and recounted what he and his comrades in the Russian Army believed they were doing in Afghanistan:


I identified with the Canadian soldiers at the funeral mourning the loss of their friend. Like them, I went to Afghanistan believing in "fighting terrorism" and "liberating Afghans." During my first mission, we were protecting refugees escaping an area that was under attack by the mujahedeen. I was deeply affected by their misery, and by the poverty and suffering of the Afghan people in general. In my mind, our presence was "helping Afghans," particularly with educating women and children. My combat unit participated in "humanitarian aid" - accompanying doctors and delivering food, fuel, clothing, school and other supplies to Afghan villages.

It was only later that I began to wonder: Did that aid justify our aggression ?

Exactly the same quandaries arose which the U.S. confronts today, and the same justifications were concocted to dismiss them:

It is hard to kill people without demonizing them. In 1988, my unit accidentally hit an Afghan wedding party. My friend, whose mortar shells had killed innocent people, was shocked when he learned of it. Some soldiers, however, were indifferent. "That village supports the resistance, anyway," they said. Like NATO now, we didn't count "their" casualties.  As another friend, Alexander, would later write : "We thought that all of them - old and young - were insurgents." Alexander, to save his unit, had called in artillery that destroyed a village from which the mujahedeen were attacking. People of the villages hit by our air strikes became hostile and turned to the resistance. More attacks by insurgents led to more Soviet strikes.

After 10 years of such a tragic cycle, more than a million Afghans were dead and millions more had fled their devastated country. Also, ignored by many, a powerful religious force of militant Islamic movements grew under the pressure of foreign aggression. In 1989, during negotiations between my regiment and the most radical militants from the area, a mujahed told my friend : "We’ll take our revenge to your country." And they did. The backlash spilled out and hit not only the former Soviet Union and Afghans themselves in the 1990s, but also America on 9/11. The vicious cycle I witnessed in the 1980s - violence causing violence - is still continuing.

At Andrew’s funeral, the shock and disbelief on the faces of his military friends were all too familiar. So were the official speeches. And the Canadian media coverage seemed like an echo of the Soviet press. "Positive changes are evident. However, it would be premature to say that Kandahar is not a ’hot spot’ any more," the Soviets said in the 1980s. "Things have improved," one Canadian newspaper said now, yet "significant problems" remain. "Development is occurring" in Kandahar, the paper added, just like a Soviet journalist had observed in 1988.

Of course, back then it was Russia who was fighting -- and the U.S. which was funding and arming -- the very religious extremists who, today, we insist are such an existential threat that we must fight endless wars to extinguish them.  That's what is most striking about war propaganda:  no matter how many times it's re-cycled, regardless of by whom and for which wildly divergent ends, it never loses its efficacy. 



UPDATE:  One can't help but contrast these two news articles, both appearing in the last few days:

The Washington Post, Saturday:

A U.S. military hit list of about 50 suspected drug kingpins is drawing fierce opposition from Afghan officials, who say it could undermine their fragile justice system and trigger a backlash against foreign troops.

The U.S. military and NATO officials have authorized their forces to kill or capture individuals on the list, which was drafted within the past year as part of NATO's new strategy to combat drug operations that finance the Taliban. The list is thought to include people with close ties to the Afghan government and others who have served as intelligence assets for the CIA and the U.S. military, according to current and former U.S. and Afghan officials.

The New York Times, today:

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials.

The agency pays Mr. Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the C.I.A.’s direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai’s home.

So we're so intent on exterminating Afghan drug "kingpins" that we're compiling secret lists of the ones we will murder on sight -- except perhaps for those we've been keeping on our payroll and who have been organizing private militias for us, though perhaps we'll kill them, too.  What an excellent war.


And for those who have become convinced that we're there to help Afghan women -- just as Soviet troops believed -- read this, from Balkin's Brian Tamanaha, on the fate of women under the Afghan warlords we've been empowering.


UPDATE II:  Whether you believe that the Soviets were Evil Communists while we are Kind-Hearted Freedom-Spreaders -- or whether you believe that the Soviet Army intentionally targeted Afghan civilians while we desperately seek to avoid that and feel deep remorse when it happens -- is absolutely irrelevant to the points being made here.  Debates about "equivalency" between the Soviet and U.S. occupations of Afghanistan have nothing to do with anything I've written.  That said, that cartoon distinction seems rather inconsistent with Lanine's account, to say nothing of things like Shock and Awe and our fun new Hit List (and, needless to say, it's a universal rule of humanity that our wars and invasions and occupations are always better and kinder and more noble than theirs -- regardless of who the "Ours" and "Theirs" are).



UPDATE III:  Tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m., I'll be on Dylan Ratigan's MSNBC show -- in studio -- debating these various issues with Dan Senor, former Bush spokesman in Iraq. I'm also taping a segment with Bill Moyers tomorrow afternoon about many of these issues that will be available online this weekend.  More details once I know them.

And tonight at 9:00 p.m., I'll be on The Rachel Maddow Show, talking about Joe Lieberman, among other things.

Glenn Greenwald

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