The Russian Military Is Brutal

That and incompetence are their actual competencies

Sometimes during the middle of major events what one remembers best are the small moments. Perhaps that’s because small individual gestures best reveal who we actually are as people — and, in a larger sense, as a people.

In March of 1991, I was commanding an American artillery unit that had been part of the main attack against the Iraqi army during Operation Desert Storm — as described in my piece last year. After the four-day ground war, we were occupying southern Iraq while the diplomats worked out the post-war modalities. I was in my tent working on reports near noon one day when one of my young soldiers knocked on the tent pole. A junior soldier interrupting his battalion commander was a rare event, and I could see the soldier was a bit uneasy at having done so.

“Sir, sorry…but might I ask a question?” he somewhat nervously asked.

“Of course,” I replied, curious as to what had motivated him to bypass his captain and first sergeant and come straight to me.

“Sir,” he continued after a pause, “there’s an Iraqi family at our entry gate and they don’t have any food. They sent the kids up to ask if we could spare some. Would it be OK to give them a couple of boxes of MREs?”

He was referring, of course, to the army’s now well-known field ration, the “Meal Ready to Eat.” The MREs were a remarkable development. They had a long shelf life; could be eaten hot or cold; were packed with nutrition; and came in twelve different meal types — from “beans and franks” to “chicken a la king.” But after several weeks, they did get monotonous.

I’m sure I smiled. Very proud to have this young man in my unit. But I asked a question to make sure he understood what he was suggesting. “We’re at the far end of the supply line, you know,” I pointed out. “We might not get our own re-supply for a few days. If we give away MREs, we might have to skip a few meals a day until the next supply trucks arrive.”

The young soldier did not disappoint. “That’s OK, sir. It’s OK with the other guys too. We’ve been eating MREs for weeks. We could use the break.” I nodded and we both chuckled. He then smartly saluted and took off to get the two MRE cases and give them to the Iraqi family.

The US soldier who cared, photo courtesy of the author

I believe the sentiment expressed by that soldier is characteristic of our armed forces and those of our major allies. They know that when the war tocsin sounds, they have a job to do. But they also know that when the job is over, it’s time to return to being a caring human.

Long ago a senior officer had told me that in the US Army, we require our soldiers to shave every day for three reasons. One, is operational — so the gas mask will properly seal against the face. Second, is simply hygienic — field life can invite disease. But third, is to provide a daily reminder that despite the brutality of the missions we sometimes have, when we are told to stop fighting, we do — and immediately revert to what we always are: civilized people. My young soldier showed that he fully understood that duality; our job as soldiers was over, and it was time to be civilized people.

The recent reports and images from Bucha, Ukraine, clearly show that this duality is absent from the Russian army. As I have mentioned before, along with many others, the Russian soldiers sent into Ukraine are not only incompetent as soldiers, but disgustingly deficient as human beings. They don’t give food to the civilians caught in their path, they take it from them. They don’t try to minimize the damage to schools and hospitals, they seek to maximize it. They believe in indiscriminate barrages rather than precision fires.

In the US military, we make a great effort to ensure that everyone understands the law of warfare, that they understand the rules of engagement, that the professional corps of sergeants will provide an immediate reminder as well as — if needed — a firm hand on the shoulder or a kick in the ass. And officers will step in when needed, and enforce the right thing if required.

That is the current expectation and the established standard in the US Army, one born of some past failures. The most notable, and longest remembered, is the shameful incident that occurred in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai in March 1968. That appalling story was the result of a poorly disciplined unit with weak leadership. Even though some 500 Vietnamese civilians were killed by US troops, the full story of My Lai was even worse than was reported at the time. How do we know? Because despite the embarrassment and pain of doing so, the Army conducted a thorough investigation that was courageously directed by widely respected senior officer Lieutenant General William Peers.

The Peers report was harsh in every regard: the details of what happened; the painful revelation that the contemporary Army culture was seriously flawed; and the revelation that legally little could be done about it. Little could legally be done because nearly all the soldiers involved were junior enlisted or conscripts who had served their enlistments and had been discharged. At the time, there was no way to recall them to active duty for court-martial. Hence there was no American legal jurisdiction.

But after the Peers report sank in, action was taken. Two officers still on active duty were court-martialed, most notably the platoon leader, First Lieutenant William Calley. The Army strengthened its standards for officer accession, greatly improved its professional development process for sergeants, and shifted (albeit reluctantly) to an all-volunteer force. Some senior officers were disciplined, one being reduced in rank. And a recall to duty to face court-martial was added by Congress to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The purpose of briefly detailing this tragic episode is to highlight two major factors distinguishing American from Russian behavior. First, although the US Army may have been somewhat slow to address the My Lai issue after it was uncovered — mainly by the media, once the facts came in it acted. Second, there was universal agreement that My Lai was unacceptable, that it was offensive to American values, and that it was in no way excused because “war is hell.”

The Russians, by contrast, despite the overwhelming visual evidence seen around the world, vehemently deny that anything has happened in Ukraine, and cling to the outrage that if anything has happened the Ukrainians deserved it. This behavior is not only outside acceptable standards; it is outside recognizable rationality. They do not acknowledge the obvious distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and seemingly do not accept that simple humanity should exclude targeting certain facilities such as hospitals and schools, much less the cold-blooded murder of civilians. In a word, Russian views and actions are “outrageous.” They should be strongly condemned by civilized countries, decent people, and professional militaries.

War is indisputably the most awful human activity. Nonetheless, it often can bring out the best in human behavior — courage, self-sacrifice, heroism; but it can also bring out the worst — cowardice, brutality, murder. Bringing out the best requires discipline and strong leadership, as well as an institutional commitment to basic human values.

Failures occur. But decent people and great institutions admit the failures, examine them, seek to minimize reoccurrence, and when discovered assess responsibility and assign accountability. Russian leaders and the institutions they oversee have shown no interest in such responsibility or accountability. That is why the global community will be obligated, in some manner at some time, to do it for them.

What is obvious at the moment is this: Russian soldiers steal food from the Ukrainians, they don’t give it to them, and their senior leaders could care less. That sets the stage for even greater outrages.

And they are happening.



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Tom Davis

Tom Davis

Tom Davis is a 1972 West Point graduate with a Master’s degree from Harvard University. He is author of the Cold War novels “Conclave” and “Empty Quiver”.