Commentary Magazine


Inside the Soviet Army, by Viktor Suvorov; The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine, by Andrew Cockburn

The Red Army—and Us

Inside the Soviet Army.
by Viktor Suvorov.
Macmillan. 304 pp. $15.95.

The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine.
by Andrew Cockburn.
Random House. 338 pp. $16.95.

S.L.A. Marshall, the great combat historian of the United States Army, once wrote that “The basic study in all warfare is the mind and nature of the probable enemy, compared to which a technical competence in the handling of weapons and engines of destruction is of minor importance.” According to Marshall, what needs to be known is not only the quantity and technical characteristics of an opponent’s military apparatus—his “order of battle,” in military jargon—but his culture and psychology, the mind, the logic, and the ethos that shape his military organization.

These two books, both of which attempt to describe Soviet weapons, military organization, and doctrine, must be measured by the extent to which they also succeed in describing and explaining Soviet military culture. This task is an exceptionally difficult one, for the Soviet Army by design and historical accident has swaddled itself in wraps of myth, secrecy, and disinformation.

The author of Inside the Soviet Army is identified as a former Soviet Army officer, a veteran of fifteen years’ service with troops and staffs, who fled to the West and now writes under a pseudonym. In his introduction to the book, Sir John Hackett, the eminent retired British general, assures us of the author’s credentials and experience, including participation as a young company commander in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Although General Hackett expresses reservations about some of Suvorov’s conclusions, he gives the book high praise, recommending it to all who “wonder about the makeup and outlook of the armed forces in the free world’s main adversary.”

The book is uneven. It contains long, dull stretches of interest only to the specialist, in which Suvorov describes the structure of the Soviet high command, the military district system, and the rivalries among the various Soviet military services. But Suvorov more than redeems these tedious passages with his description of the Soviet approach to war, of how Soviet officers and soldiers live and think.

To take material matters first: Suvorov describes an army devoted to a rigorous simplicity of equipment, and offers a number of intriguing examples. Thus, the Soviets vary the calibers of most of their projectile weapons by a few millimeters, a practice of which Suvorov approves since it bespeaks a high degree of military realism. In one passage he evokes the likely consequences in 1941 when, before this policy was adopted, the Soviets introduced a 7.62 mm pistol into an arsenal already containing a 7.62 mm rifle:

In wartime when everything is collapsing, when whole armies and groups of armies find themselves encircled, when Guderian and his tank army are charging around behind your own lines, when one division is fighting to the death for a small patch of ground, and others are taking to their heels at the first shot, when deafened switchboard operators, who have not slept for several nights, have to shout someone else’s incomprehensible orders into telephones—in this sort of situation absolutely anything can happen. Imagine that, at a moment such as this, a division receives ten truckloads of 7.62 mm cartridges. Suddenly, to his horror, the commander realizes that the consignment consists entirely of pistol ammunition. There is nothing for his division’s thousands of rifles and machine guns and a quite unbelievable amount of ammunition for the few hundred pistols with which his officers are armed.

Or take a grimmer piece of Soviet military logic: according to Suvorov, the Soviet forces on the front lines in Eastern Europe do not get the most modern Soviet equipment. This may seem odd to Americans and other Westerners, who tend to assume that the units most likely to enter battle first ought, in fairness, to receive the best equipment. The Soviets, however, reason that their first echelon will probably suffer near destruction in the opening battles of a campaign; hence the most modern equipment should go to the follow-on troops, who will win the war. It was this policy, argues Suvorov, which enabled the Soviets to absorb the German Blitzkieg in 1941 and then surprise the invaders with masses of troops equipped with T-34 tanks, at the time the best in the world.

In short, Suvorov shows how thoroughly the Soviets have absorbed the bitter lessons of the Eastern front in World War II. They favor mass and simplicity over quality and technical refinement (which does not mean that they are incapable of producing sophisticated weapons). They favor weight of fire over accuracy, which is why they possess thousands of easily operated heavy mortars, weapons as destructive as they are simple. They design their weapons in the knowledge that most of their users will perish in battle; their aim is not to enhance a soldier’s chances for survival, but to maximize the brief utility of his equipment and himself.

Soviet tactical doctrine reflects this same, brutally pragmatic approach to war. Suvorov recounts a tactical problem that he has often posed to Western officers. Suppose three Soviet motor-rifle companies are advancing: one has fallen apart under fire, the second is advancing slowly but suffering heavy losses, and the third has endured a counterattack and, having lost its officers, is retreating. The regimental commander has three tank companies and three artillery batteries to deal with the situation. What does he do? Never, according to Suvorov, has his audience given the correct reply, which is to throw all resources behind the second, advancing company, and the devil take the other two. “My audience smiles,” writes Suvorov, “they believe they have found the Achilles heel of Soviet tactics. But I am always irritated—for this is not weakness, but strength.”

Suvorov does not minimize the weaknesses of the Soviet Army. He questions its ability to conduct a sustained war (despite the Soviet capacity for industrial and civic mobilization) and he has no illusions about the average soldier’s commitment to the regime. He predicts that in a lengthy war, Soviet troops would desert in the millions—assuming, of course, that they could safely find their way to enemy lines. He describes in considerable detail the inefficiency of a military-service system which allows senior recruits to bully and rob the younger ones, a system (unlike that of virtually all Western armies) which possesses no seasoned cadre of professional noncommissioned officers to train, discipline, and set standards for the rank and file. Nonetheless, he makes clear his belief that the Soviet military machine, because of its brutal realism (which extends to training with real, if diluted, nerve gas), makes a formidable opponent.

_____________

 

Such is not the view of Andrew Cockburn, whose book offers a sustained case for the fragility of the Soviet military system. Selecting bits of evidence from Suvorov and other writers, he argues that the Soviet threat is far smaller than we have been led to believe. In four sets of essays—on Soviet personnel, land power, nuclear and chemical weaponry, and sea power—Cock-burn hammers at the theme that Soviet bureaucrats and soldiers are incompetent and dispirited, their weapons ill-constructed and obsolete, their nuclear and chemical strength chimerical, their Navy fatally constricted by geography and inferior equipment.

Some of his points are valid. If the American Army finds it difficult to cope with Spanish-speaking soldiers, imagine the perplexities of the polyglot Soviet Army, made up of antagonistic and mutually incomprehensible ethnic groups. American generals worry about the morale of the armed forces when only a third of all enlisted men sign up for a second tour: in the Soviet Union, the comparable figure is 1 percent.

Never, however, does Cockburn wrestle with the Soviet Union’s military successes and strengths. He does not confront the brute fact that the Soviets did, after all, beat the Wehrmacht, probably the most efficient military machine of the 20th century. And this occurred, it should be remembered, only a few years after the Russo-Finnish war had supposedly demonstrated the incurable military incompetence of Communist regimes. Cockburn asserts that the recent battles beween Israelis and Syrians in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon prove the complete superiority of American over Russian equipment, but he neglects to point out that on the one side there was first-line and improved American weaponry operated by a superb army and on the other Soviet export models (of a kind discussed by Viktor Suvorov) operated by a stolid but third-rate Arab force.

Cockburn does not adequately examine—and cannot conjure away—the staggering numerical advantages of the Soviet Army, particularly in such key items as tanks and artillery pieces. As American campaigns in northwest Europe in 1944 and 1945 demonstrated, superior numbers of inferior tanks (in our case, Shermans) backed by vast quantities of artillery, can provide victory—perhaps not elegant or easy victory, but victory nonetheless. He ignores completely the advantages of geographical location and the existence of subservient client states which further enhance Soviet military power. Not to mention the pervasive secrecy which in 1941, for example, enabled the Soviets to surprise the invading Germans with a force almost twice as large as that estimated by German intelligence.

Most important of all, Cockburn fails to weigh adequately the military advantages of Soviet ruthlessness. In quality of organization, equipment, and training, the Soviet armed forces are indeed the inferior of some of those in the West. Nonetheless, the Soviets are increasingly willing to project force and to sustain long-term and bloody military commitments abroad. The steadily accumulating proof of the use of chemical and biological weapons in Afghanistan and Laos indicates that the Soviets’ callousness toward their own troops is more than matched by a willingness to destroy their enemies by any means available. As Viktor Suvorov’s book suggests, in war a complete lack of scruple confers advantages as substantial as they are chilling, advantages which can out-weigh deficiencies in tactics or equipment.

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Cockburn’s undisguised disdain for the Soviet armed forces is both excessive and reckless. Indeed, he finds the Soviet military apparatus so ludicrously hollow that he must take pains to explain why anyone in the West should regard it seriously. He comes, up with two contradictory answers: first, the Soviet threat is a sham, concocted by self-interested American bureaucrats and generals who knowingly and deliberately distort the truth in order to win power and money from an intimidated Congress; second, the Soviet threat is the hallucination of stupid and credulous soldiers and analysts, gulled by Soviet propagandists. Thus, throughout the book, Cockburn alternates between frissons of horror at the bellicosity of Western generals and a genial contempt for their competence. He pursues the latter theme so far that he undercuts his own argument, claiming at one point that American generals cannot even devise workable weapons for their own troops. According to this view, the next war will take place between two armies of incompetents equipped with unusable arms.

In fact, the real agenda of this book is an attack not on the Soviet but on the American military establishment. On the penultimate page Cockburn writes: “Today we see militarism in the ascendant both in the Soviet Union and in the United States. . . . Only by understanding the true motivations and actions of the military bureaucrats, both in the East and at home, can we hope to frustrate them. . . .” Presumably the person who wrote these words knows that few Soviet citizens will read his book, and none will act on its message. One must therefore conclude that his aim is less to analyze the outlook and methods of Soviet military men than to discredit those of their Western counterparts.

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