Thursday, August 31, 2006

Book Report

Last week I finished Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile. An excellent read and an important book. It's a little repetitive and the chronology is a little screwy, but all together it's still very good. I was a little surprised at how it wasn't exactly filled with direct correlations between the Afghan-Soviet war and recent history. Yes, there are references and characters whose names are common today play roles in the early 80s, but it's not a book about "how we got here" like I might've been expecting. But it's good for what it is.

One particular passage caught my eye. I'm not exactly a military historian, so I didn't know this. It was about the Katyusha rockets. The USA bought a large allotment of them from Egypt and funnelled them through Pakistan to the Mujahideen. The point was that the mujahideen could only use weapons that could be traced back to the Soviet Union. The Katyushas made headlines all summer for the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict - Hezbollah fired these Katyushas, obtained via Syria or Iran, constantly and causing fear in Israel. I wasn't exactly sure why the Katyushas were so important to the conflict this year, but then I read this passage (pp 319-20) dated in the fall of 1984 on a weapons-buying junket to Egypt:

The agency had been looking for a rocket with a range of over 10 KM that could not be traceable to the US or NATO, and they found it in one of Mohammed [Abu-Ghazala, Egypt's Defense Minister]'s warehouses - the Katyusha. During World War II, at the siege of Stalingrad, this 122mm rocket had made the difference. A huge, screaming artillery round, it chilled the Wehrmacht with its terrible noise and striking power and had been immortalized in such Soviet patriotic songs as the "Staling Organ." "We didn't think we could ever find the fucking thing," says Gust [Avrakotos, CIA agent, star of the book and a tremendous badass]. But after spotting 54 of them in a warehouse, he had the Egyptians test fire one, and he still remembers the terror. "If you've ever heard one of these come at you, there's no way you wouldn't crap in your pants. I was three miles away from where it hit and I was scared. It was a frightening experience, like being in a minor earthquake. You just can't imagine what it would be like to be within 50 feet of one of those things."

Gust bought every one of Mohammed's Katyushas at tens of thousands each, and soon the Mujahideen were blasting away at the airport near Kabul, creating holes the size of football fields as far away as the city's outskirts. The French ambassador reported that although the rocket had landed 17 blocks away, it had cracked the foundations of his Kabul embassy. The Russians were mortified. Ultimately, terrorizing the Soviets and making them leave was the name of Avrakotos's game. The discovery of the Katyusha at that point in the war was just what the doctor ordered. Gust didn't care that the rocket wasn't accurate. He wanted to frighten and demoralize the 40th Army, the KGB, and all those Communist Party bastards ruling the roost in Kabul. The Agency had already started trying to "turn the lights out" in the occupied capital by having the Mujahideen blow up electricity pylons. The night always belonged to the Mujahideen, but particularly when there was no light. And if a screaming Katyusha could be added to the mix, well, that was just the perfect twist of the psychological danger.

[The CIA then got Egypt to start producing the Katyushas]

One last quote: "They sound like thirty freight trains coming in all at once."

Just a strange, somewhat ironic history of this weapon. You have a weapon that got its start at perhaps the most pivotal battle in turning back Nazism, a battle that in some ways led directly to the creation of Israel. That same rocket is then later used by those who would wish to destroy the state of Israel. And what are the chances that Hezbollah fighters firing the rockets from Lebanon may have first used a form of Katyusha in Afghanistan, as a Mujahideen from abroad? If nothing else, now I have a better idea of why those rockets were so terrible - not necessarily for the destructive nature and despite the inaccuracy, but because of the terror created.

In any event, it's a very good read and I recommend it.