Wednesday, January 03, 2007

boys in zinc

There is a moving book called Boys in Zinc that Svetlana Alexiyevich wrote about the Soviet war in Afghanistan. "I was trying to present a history of feelings, not the history of the war itself," she says in its opening. The feeling she captures through small details, like the one shared by a private soldier who recalled having to scrape his men off armor plates with spoons after a mortar attack, is haunting. The work is essentially a collection of oral histories broken into small pieces, accounts by various people who were in or effected by the war. I decided to reproduce one account, that of the nurse, because what she says seems to have contemporary parallels.

A Nurse
Every day I was there I told myself I was a fool to come. Especially at night, when I had no work to do. All I thought during the day was 'How can I help them all?' I couldn't believe anybody would make the bullets they were using. Whose idea were they? The point of entry was small, b ut inside, their intestines, their liver, their spleen were all ripped and torn apart. As if it wasn't enough to kill or wound them, they had to be put through that kind of agony as well. They always cried for their mothers when they were in pain, or frightened. I never heard them acll for anyone else.

They told us it was a just war. We were helping the Afghan people to put an end to feudalism and build a socialist society. Somehow they didn't get round to mentioning that our men were being killed. For the whole of the first month I was there they just dumped the amputated arms and legs of our soldiers and officers, even their bodies, right next to the tents. It was something I would hardly have believed if I had seen it in films about the Civil War. There were no zinc coffins then: they hadn't got round to manufacturing them.

Twice a week we had political indoctrination. They went on about our sacred duty, and how the border must be inviolable. Our superior ordered us to inform on every wounded soldier, every patient. It was called monitoring the state of morale: the army must be healthy! We weren't to feel compassion. But we did feel compassion: it was the only thing that held everything together.

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