In 218 BC the mighty Carthaginian army led by Hannibal, one of history’s greatest generals, crossed the Alps and invaded Italy.
Rome’s army was weaker, her navy practically nonexistent, and yet Carthage didn’t stand a chance. For Rome’s was a proto-Western civilisation, already displaying many aspects of its glorious successor: inchoate liberty, individualism, rationalism, free expression, private initiative.
Carthage, by contrast, was what we today would describe as a totalitarian society. Moreover, it practised human sacrifice, which Romans regarded as monstrous.
Hence they preferred death to submission, for defeat spelled a triumph of evil, not just of a hostile power. And the head of Hannibal’s superior talents smashed against the stone wall of a superior civilisation and superior motivation.
That scenario has been played out many times throughout history. As it’s being played out now, in the Ukraine, with the Russian army displaying – and magnifying – every evil of Russian society.
The other day I listened to the tape of an intercepted phone conversation between a Russian soldier on the front line and his wife. We have nothing to eat, complained the grunt. Those who have any money manage to sneak out into town and buy some food. Others can only eat raw wheat they pick in the fields.
That little exchange suggested certain logistic problems in supplying the troops, which is by no means new in the history of Russian warfare. During the Second World War, for example, the Soviet army marched on American Spam and condensed milk, without which it would have starved. But this time around Western allies support the other side, which explains the diet of raw wheat.
Another throwback to that war, however, is more telling. In the same intercepted conversation, the Russian soldier says that his comrades are deployed in three lines, with him part of the second one.
Those in the first line are mostly convicts enlisted in prisons and raw recruits, there to provide a steady supply of cannon fodder. Since their commitment to acting in that capacity is apparently less than wholehearted, the soldiers in the second line have been ordered to “whack” (Putin’s favourite word) stragglers, deserters and simply those fleeing combat.
And, added the soldier, “there’s a third line behind us”, with the same orders. “So it’s impossible to run away,” he said. “We shoot our own.” He then used the word zagriadotriady, blocking detachments, and the ghost of the Second World War came wafting in.
For the term is familiar to any Russian who knows anything at all about the big war. At the beginning of it, Red Army soldiers felt reluctant to die for communism, the same regime that had murdered and imprisoned their families, robbed them of even meagre possessions, turned them into slaves. So they would desert, vanish in the vast forests and surrender en masse.
During the first four months of the war the Germans took 4,000,000 POWs (my father among them), which would have spelled a humanitarian disaster even for a civilised nation, never mind the Nazis.
No nation in the world would have been able to feed and house such throngs of humanity, especially since the Germans were under no obligation to do so: the USSR wasn’t a signatory to the Geneva Convention. As a result, 2.5 million Soviet POWs died in German captivity, and some 1.5 million switched sides to fight against Stalin – a pandemic of treason unprecedented in Russian or any other history.
Meanwhile, the Soviets had to suppress what was in fact a rebellion against their evil rule. They did so by relying on their default expedient: unrestricted violence. Military tribunals went into high gear passing verdicts, 2.5 million of them during the war. Of those convicted, 157,000 were shot – that’s 10 full divisions (by contrast, the Nazis executed just over 8,000 of their own soldiers during the war).
And then there were the zagriadotriady, NKVD troops deployed behind the front line to encourage martial valour with machinegun bursts aimed at anyone daring to retreat. How many were killed that way?
No one bothered to count. Definitely at least as many as those 157,000 executed by the documented verdicts of military tribunals. All in all, the Soviets inflicted greater losses on their own troops than the US suffered altogether when standing up to the combined might of Japan and Germany.
Both Japan and Germany have since divested themselves of the worst aspects of their civilisations. The Russians haven’t, and by using the term zagriadotriady that young soldier served a useful reminder.
Nor is it just the custom of mowing down their own retreating troops. After the regular Red Army was wiped out by the lightning strike of the Wehrmacht, the personnel holes thus formed were plugged by mobilising men of all ages and throwing them under the Nazi tanks untrained and practically unarmed.
Exactly the same is going on now, if on a smaller scale and with a modern twist. Over the past few weeks the Russians have mobilised about 300,000 recruits, some 85,000 of whom have already been thrown into the meat mincer of the frontline.
Reviving a feudal practice of centuries ago, many of them have to buy their own kit, including body armour, night vision scopes and supplies of tinned food. And, according to Putin himself, the recruits are thrown into battle after just a few days’ training. Many haven’t even had the chance to test fire their weapons before facing a well-trained and highly motivated Ukrainian army.
So far the Russians have suffered 210,750 casualties, 70 250 of them killed. Yet most of them happened before the current intake of ill-trained and ill-equipped recruits. It’s anyone’s guess how many of them will go back home in body bags, or how many will be killed by the zagriadotriady. Whatever that number will be, Putin and his henchmen won’t care.
They keep banging on about reviving “traditional values”, and for once they aren’t lying. For contempt for individual lives is one traditional value of the Russian civilisation, lovingly upheld even in peacetime.
As for war, burying the enemy under a mountain of Russian corpses is a time-honoured strategy, and Putin’s regime is true to its word. Russian tradition is in safe hands.