The Man Who Tried to Save the World (Scott Anderson)

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  Even UN peacekeepers couldn't make that place worse.

--Fred Cuny on Chechnya March 1995

To imagine this war and the way it was fought, it might be easiest first to try to forget what you know about war. Forget the massed formations of the Civil War, or the gruesome stalemate of trench warfare, or the beachheads of World War II, or even the jungle ambushes of Vietnam.

Imagine instead a bright still day, early afternoon. You are standing on a narrow farm road elevated above the surrounding land. To one horizon, the fields stretch away in plots of green and brown, neatly delineated by windbreaks of tall, thin trees. To the other, the fields gradually give over to gold-colored foothills, then pine forests and, in the farthest reaches, a massive wall of rugged, snow-capped peaks. Along the shoulder of the road are wildflowers.

A short distance from where you stand, maybe three miles away, there is a small village over which four helicopters perform an intricate aerial dance. While one of the helicopters hovers directly above the village center to fire rockets down into the houses, the others circle in a tight orbit, providing cover with cannon and machine-gun fire. When the first gunship is done, it slides away to join the circle and another moves in to take its place. They are so close, you feel the concussion of their rockets beneath your feet, smell the burning on the air, but even from this short distance the steady, high rattle of the machine guns sounds benign, rather like dice being shaken in a plastic cup.

Much closer in, not more than two hundred yards from where you stand, is a ruined farmhouse where a small unit of government soldiers are based. Because this is a "tripwire" outpost, tight on the invisible line between government- and rebel-held territory, the farmhouse is ringed with concertina wire and minefields, its soldiers living mostly underground in crude bunkers and trenches cut from the earth.

But on the elevated farm road you stand on the other side of that front, at the outermost limit of the rebels' "liberated zone." Here all is calm. Despite the nearby gunships and the enemy soldiers in full view at the farmhouse, none of the dozen or so rebels manning the position seem anxious to get into the foxhole they've dug beside the road. Instead, they saunter over the pitted asphalt, smoking cigarettes, chatting, admiring one another's weapons, only occasionally looking over at the now burning village.

At first you probably assumed the rebels were government soldiers, for they wear the same uniforms and carry the same weapons as their enemy--but it is those details that provide the essential clue. Where the soldiers are armed with twenty-year-old guns and clad in mere scraps of uniforms—picked out of some army surplus remnant pile or off the bodies of their dead comrades—the rebels' machine guns and grenade launchers are this year's models, many still glistening with original factory grease, their spotless army uniforms still showing the folds and creases of their shipping crate. If you stay at this place until dusk, you will see how this system works. Just at twilight, as the helicopter assault on the village gives over to an artillery barrage, three soldiers at the army tripwire post steal out of the farmhouse and, crouching low, scramble over the open fields to the rebel lines, bringing with them two more grenade launchers to be sold for drugs or food or liquor.

The timing of their visit is fitting, for this is a war waged in eternal twilight. On this eerie, apparitional landscape, nothing is ever quite what it seems, the lines of battle, of who is friend and who is foe, constantly changing in the murk. Yesterday the nearby village was in the "liberated zone," was safe; today it is dying. Perhaps it is because a regimental commander wanted to impress a general, or a gunship navigator made a mistake, or because a business deal went bad. Or perhaps there is no reason at all, simply because the village is there. You'll hear different theories if you ask around, but no one really knows why, and tomorrow it will be another village's turn, or maybe the strip of road you now stand on, or maybe the soldiers in the farmhouse, killed by their own grenade launchers, and tomorrow you won't know the reasons for those deaths either. That's the way it works here, the way it's worked through fifty or seventy or a hundred thousand deaths.

Of all the bad mistakes you can make in this place, this is the first one to ever imagine there is a pattern, a logic, to any of it. Instead, this is a land and a war where any terrible thing can happen at any moment, where trying to grasp its full range of lies and treacheries and contradictions strains the limits of the human imagination. This is a place, after all, in which the rebel leader has an army bounty on his head and lives as a hunted fugitive, yet this fugitive status does not prevent him from passing through army roadblocks seemingly at will. This is a place in which the army commander in chief lies in a coma, apparently carbombed by his own junior officers, but what no one can ascertain is which faction of officers tried to kill him: those who wanted him to sue for peace or those who were afraid he would. And this is a war in which the president of a nation stands before international television cameras to proudly proclaim that pacification has been achieved, even while other television cameras capture his army carrying out the most thorough annihilation of a city the world has witnessed in fifty years. Do not ever make the mistake of thinking you have it figured out here.

The second bad mistake you can make is to ever imagine that one side is better--more compassionate, less vicious--than the other. In this war, both sides have committed a stunning array of crimes. They have stormed into villages far away from the war front to take civilians hostage and then murder them. They have used prisoners as slave labor, as human minesweepers, as media ploys, and then killed them too. They have tortured, raped, burned, starved, mutilated, buried alive. For those waging this struggle, both the warriors in the field and the planners behind the lines, terror is now the first weapon of choice, as if they believe the other side might finally be shocked into submission simply by one's own greater capacity for cruelty. In their joint pursuit of this goal, no one is safe not the aged, not children, not doctors or priests or peace negotiators, and not you.

There is a third mistake you can make in this place, perhaps the deadliest one of all, the one Fred Cuny made. It is the belief that you can change things, bring an end to the madness, the awful mistake of imagining you might somehow save it.

Afterward, no one could quite explain why the attack took place. One popular theory was that it had been intended as a kind of New Year's Eve present to the Russian people and their President, that they might ring in the new year of 1995 with the gladdening news that the troublesome little rebellion on their southern frontier had finally been put to rest. In one bold stroke, the bickering and gloomy self-doubts that had beset the nation in recent weeks would be rendered moot, and all could once again be confident that Russia would endure, its future brighter than just the day before. Another theory, at least as popular, was that the Russian Defense Minister ordered the assault amid a drunken birthday party.

It had been nearly three weeks since some 40,000 Russian troops had crossed into the tiny breakaway republic of Chechnya to disband "criminal formations." The mission had gone awry almost immediately. On one front, a Russian general had found his path blocked by civilian demonstrators and had simply refused to advance further, while other units closing on the capital city of Grozny came under sporadic sniper fire. By the end of December the army was bogged down in the Grozny suburbs, had already taken dozens of casualties, and the flag of independent Chechnya still flew defiantly atop the nine-story Presidential Palace in the heart of downtown. Someone somewhere--in the Kremlin, in the Russian military high command--apparently came up with a plan to change all that on New Year's Eve.

In the predawn hours the Russian army opened up with a tremendous air and artillery bombardment of central Grozny. At midmorning the shelling eased as two massive columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers—some 6,000 troops in all—left the Russian lines and began a slow, methodical advance on the city center from the north and west.

For a time all seemed to go like clockwork, the closing columns encountering little rebel resistance, their steady progress down main boulevards calmly observed by residents from apartment building balconies. By early afternoon the 131st Battalion of the Maikop Brigade had taken control of Grozny's main railway station; they parked their tanks and personnel carriers in tight rows in the station square as they awaited orders to move on to the Presidential Palace a quarter-mile away. So successful did the mission appear that the press office at the Russian Defense Ministry got a little ahead of itself, announcing that the palace had been seized and the troublesome separatists who had made it their headquarters sent fleeing for their lives. It was just about then, with the early dusk of winter approaching, that Russian soldiers discovered they had lumbered blindly into a horrific trap.

As the first tanks and APCs of the northern column neared the broad open square before the Presidential Palace, they were blown apart by rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades from the surrounding buildings. As the entire half-mile-long column came under attack, all semblance of order collapsed. Hemmed in by burning vehicles in front and back, whole sections of the column became cut off and exposed to a murderous fire. To escape, tanks and personnel carriers began scatter ing up side streets, only to discover more RPG-toting rebels waiting for them on balconies and rooftops.

As bad as the situation was for the troops in the northern column, they could at least be thankful they weren't at the railway station. There, the 131St Battalion was completely stranded, and by evening was taking fire from every direction. The battle raged throughout the night, the neatly parked Russian tanks and APCs methodically turned into pyres by rebels firing grenades from the surrounding high-rises. By New Year's Day the stunned survivors were holed up in the railway terminal, being picked off one by one as their commander desperately radioed for reinforcements.

"The whole batallion is wounded and lying in the station," he radioed shortly after 3 P.M. "We are all dying, we need help, do you understand?"

That help would never come, and over the next two days the 1,000-man 131st Batallion would be virtually wiped out.

By nightfall of New Year's Day--and even as the Russian Defense Ministry continued to proclaim the Grozny operation a success--the 6,000-man assault force had completely disintegrated, no longer an army but dozens of isolated bands of disoriented and terrified men, each frantically trying to find some way out of the trap they had stumbled into or waiting for reinforcements that would not come. Their odds for escape were not aided by the fact that the planning of the operation had been incompetent to the point of criminal.

Rather than use their crack Spetsnaz units for the assault, Russian commanders had relied almost exclusively on seventeen-and eighteen year-old conscripts, some of whom had only been in uniform for a month and barely learned how to fire a weapon. Most of the tank and APC drivers couldn't communicate with one another, their radios only linked to headquarters, and few had even been given maps of the city; in the darkness and fire and thick fog, the fleeing units turned in circles and were soon shooting on each other. Most inexplicable of all, no infantry units had been dispatched to cover the advance, affording the rebels in their high perches all the time they needed to train their rocket-propelled grenades on the lightly armored "sweet spot" of the slow-moving vehicles passing below. When the last few survivors managed to fight their way back to Russian lines four days later, fully one third of the attack force had been wiped out, and the streets of downtown Grozny were littered with the bodies of hundreds of young Russian conscripts. In the coming days some of their corpses would be ripped apart by scavenging animals, others mutilated beyond recognition by marauding Chechen rebels with their "avenging knives," but others would remain untouched for weeks, their skin slowly blackening under the gray sky of winter.

Instead of its prowess, then, the New Year's Eve assault would come to symbolize something quite different about the Russian army. In less than four years one of the most powerful militaries ever assembled had so degenerated that it had been soundly routed by a ragtag band of lightly armed rebels, its commanders so callously indifferent to the fate of their own men that they would leave their bodies behind to be eaten by dogs and carrion birds.

After the New Year's Eve fiasco, the Russian commanders apparently decided a change of tactics was in order. Now, having been humiliated in the streets of Grozny, they would "liberate" the city by turning it to ash.

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Excerpted from The Man Who Tried to Save the World by Scott Anderson. Copyright © 1998 by Scott Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.