Soviet Army's Flawed Foundations

Like all the best military histories, William E. Odom's book, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, provides a thoroughly clear social and political history of the period it covers.

It also gives a fascinating, painstaking and well-paced examination of the mighty Soviet military from the ground zero of its founding Leninist ideology through to the dreadful squalor that more and more Soviet soldiers were forced to endure in the 1980s. Along the way, the origins of the dedovshchina system of brutal hazing that still exists today are also explored.

Lenin's ideology, as Odom makes brutally clear, not only created and sustained the Soviet military system, it also generated the impossible goals and inevitable flaws that were to open the way to its destruction and that of the society that spawned it.

Although his own conclusions downplay the risks, Odom also provides a perhaps unwitting look at just how close that doctrine came to destroying other societies and how grateful the rest of the world should be that Mikhail Gorbachev, Eduard Shevardnadze and others were sane enough to see what needed to be done.

Their motives may not have been always the purest - Gorbachev in particular, Odom implies, was driven largely by his paranoia in the face of the army.

The collapse of the Red Army was made all the more tragically brutal by the increasing alienation that Gorbachev felt toward it. The first general secretary not to have served in the armed forces, Gorbachev's uneasy relations with his generals were decisively soured on May 28, 1987, when Mathis Rust landed his tiny Cessna near St. Basil's Cathedral. Gorbachev, who had been in Berlin at the time, was furious. He reportedly became convinced that the army had deliberately staged the affair to embarrass him.

Odom quotes Gorbachev chief of staff Valery Boldin as saying that Gorbachev had previously "viewed the military with some misgivings, but now he was filled with savage hatred for them ... in public and private he did his utmost to denounce the military, creating an atmosphere of animosity and feeding them [the military] to the media and the parliamentarians."

As a military man himself, with the kind of army experience that can desensitize even the most humane individuals, Odom at times seemingly fails fully to comprehend the magnitude of the nightmare world he exposes. Instead of evincing relief that this ticking time bomb was dismantled, his sympathies often lie with the generals.

All armies are of course predicated on the need to be prepared for bloodshed, and the extremely high probability that blood will need to be shed. However, the Soviet system was rare for post-Hiroshima states in its basic certainty that conflict was not merely likely, but inevitable and eternally immanent.

Step by frighteningly convincing step, Odom lays out for his readers the Leninist logic behind the Soviet mind set: that a violent, class-based confrontation between the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist West was the inevitable conclusion to the dialectic forces of history and that the inherently superior communist side would win provided it prepared properly.

This devil's logic led Soviet military planners to think what for most Westerners was unthinkable - that a nuclear war could be won.

The West - itself not short of mad military thinkers - contented itself with creating sufficient forces to effectively defend against attack in Europe and elsewhere. Vietnam, Korea and other conflicts were, it should be noted, strategically defensive operation on the part of the United States and its allies.

But the Soviets planned for a war to conquer the West. In pursuit of this, they created, Odon writes, the most massive military forces the world has seen, "in manpower, in numbers of weapons, in varieties of weapons, in mobilization potential, and in the size of their military-industrial base."

With the loving detail of a man who spent much of his life studying this fearsome animal, Odom, who retired in 1988 as a U.S. Army lieutenant general and director of the National Security Agency, takes us on a guided tour of the Soviet army in all its ultimately futile glory. He lucidly outlines the array of forces and the combined arms doctrines that glued them together, before progressing to an examination of the conscription system and then to two of the most important "actors" in the drama that Odom unfolds as he tells the tale of how this astonishingly puissant entity went "complaining but passively into the dustbin of history."

These are the military-industrial complex and the marriage between the Communist Party and the Soviet army. The military-industrial sector was the rock on which the armed forces were built, but it had grown so disproportionately massive and unwieldy that the remainder of Soviet society could no longer support its weight. As it became ever clearer that this increasingly impossible burden was also failing to achieve its aims, the groaning need for a change in political and strategic course provided the impetus for Gorbachev's reforms.

When those reforms led to the unraveling of the Soviet Union and its military, it was the visceral interweaving of party and armed forces that made it impossible for the military to make any effective attempts to save itself. Without the party, the military was nothing, so the generals found it inconceivable to act against or outside of the party. When factions within the party gave them the chance to openly oppose Gorbachev, many did so, but independent action on the part of the soldiers was simply not an option for the Soviet army.

While these conditions were necessary to the gradual and mostly peaceful disintegration of the Soviet armed forces, they were not in and of themselves sufficient.

That is where Gorbachev comes in. Odom is as unsure as most observers have been as to how to judge the last leader of the Soviet Union. Although Odom casts a more critical eye than most on his actions in the dying days of the Soviet Empire - as Gorbachev squirms around the issue of whether or not to use the army in its traditional role as internal peacekeeper - he also makes it clear just how enormous a step Gorbachev took in deciding to change course.

Perhaps fortunately, he failed to realize that the eminently reasonable moves to switch to a defensive doctrine and try to convert some of the huge resources of the military-industrial complex to peaceful means were almost certain to cause the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"The Collapse of the Soviet Military" by William E. Odom. Yale University Press. 523 pages.