Design a site like this with
Get started

All Along the Watchtower: The Soviet Vietnam

In the 1980s the Soviet Union found itself caught in a box reminiscent of the U.S. in the early 70s with Vietnam, except this time it was over the mountains of Afghanistan. The Soviets came to Afghanistan for a variety of reasons, the clearest of which is geography. Afghanistan is a central part of the silk road and is conveniently placed in the dead center of the Asia, allowing the Soviets unlimited access to every corner of the continent. One key lesson the U.S.S.R. forgot however, Afghanistan is where empires go to die, something the Persians and British found out longer before. The Soviets quickly discovered that their campaign in the decentralized territory had no coherent or well-thought-out plan and this lead to some of the same lessons the U.S. faced in Vietnam where the concept of a front-line was eradicated. Soviet troops would move into provinces inly to quickly find themselves encircled by an elusive enemy and for every Mujahideen fighter they killed, more would take his place.

Afghan guerrillas known as mujahideen, have lunch near a Soviet helicopter shot down during a rebel attack in Nuristan, Afghanistan. REUTERS/John O’Brien

From the onset Soviet leadership wouldn’t acknowledge the situation on the ground and refused to alter their strategy and instead pursued a brutal campaign of wack-a-mole where civilians and enemy fighters were killed indiscriminately by use of airborne troops in attack helicopters. Soviet supply lines were frequently attacked and the lack of local support and success led to a dive in morale where being sent to Afghanistan quickly became known as a death sentence in the U.S.S.R.. Unlike the heroes of the Great Patriotic War that was World War Two where the sacrifices of Soviet troops were eternally glorified, Soviet troops faced a completely desperate situation with no support from home, their commanders, or the locals they were trying to help, similar to the U.S. troops in Vietnam. As a result a similar culture of glum negligence and rebellion against the system emerged .

The Afghan war did produce arguably one of the greatest eras in Soviet music and culture, while the U.S. got Jimi Hendrix out of Vietnam, the war gave rise to groups such as DDT and songs such as Умирали Пацаны (The boys died) and Афганистан (Afghanistan) as well as songs written on the front by troops to express their desolate situation, in addition to popular films such at 9th Company. In many ways this culture came home with the soldiers as they returned from the front and it carried forward to how the Soviet people viewed their own situation regarding the Soviet government and crackdowns on free speech through Perestroika.

Soviet magazine depicting Soviet airborne troops of the VDV titled “When the Soldiers Sing: how soldiers coming from the front discuss their most intimate moments” published in 1988.

As a result its not a far stretch to assume that the same way the hippie movement, depicted by the classic rock period of the 70s and 80s, led to reforms in the U.S. political system, the culture born out of the war in Afghanistan led to a massive social movement that built up momentum, eventually seeing the end of the Soviet Union as a whole. My own family served in Afghanistan, both with the Soviets in the 80s and later with the U.S. in the 2000s, and on both ends there is a solemn respect for the region and the people there and a grudging acceptance that it is simply an untamable corner of the world, truly the graveyard of empires.

14 thoughts on “All Along the Watchtower: The Soviet Vietnam

  1. Tim, this such an interesting post! The comparisons you’ve drawn between the Afghanistan invasion and the U.S.’s invasion of Vietnam are really fascinating and unique – great job!


    1. Thank you! It really is a unique comparison.


  2. I really like the connection you draw between the popular culture (music in particular) and the fissures in Soviet society that the war exposed and deepened. And again, your personal connections to this history are really powerful. It is worth noting, I think, that the US support of the Mujahideen made the conflict more costly and would have its own backlash after the Soviets withdrew. Also,
    Check back on the Current Digest citation – you need to use the “stable URL” to link to the specific article you want. (As is, you’re using a general “Search” query and the article that I read was all about how fantastic things were in Afghanistan.


    1. Dr. Nelson, I agree that the US support put a major spin on the war, but it wasn’t something widely acknowledged amongst Soviet ground forces until much later as it could have lowered morale. I should have spent more time explaining my sources, the page I linked is an example of how the Soviets spun the situation as propaganda despite their military and political failures, I should have addressed this directly.


  3. Tim, your post was very informative. I agree with Emma, it was interesting to read about the comparisons of the Vietnam War and Afghan War that you wrote.


  4. Tim, I really love this post and how you not only describe the situation and conditions, but included music that went along with the time. Your comparison to the US’s involvement in Vietnam and Jimi Hendrix stemming from it is very eye-opening.


    1. Thanks, I grew up with DDT the same way many people here grew up with Hendrix, so it feels like a natural parallel to draw.


  5. I thought that the comparison of the Soviet War in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War was really apt. Also, this blog post really illuminated just how brutal this war was, which was something I didn’t really realize before. It was also interesting to see the impact this had on Soviet culture with the anti-war songs.


    1. Thanks! The brutality of the war is something that is still not commonly acknowledged, my grandfather never speaks of it, whereas Vietnam was largely publicized, so it’s interesting to see how that impacted the cultural developments.


  6. Tim, I took a class a few semesters back on the history of Afghanistan. It’s such an interesting area. I think it’s worth pointing out that the primary reason for the Soviet invasion was to ensure that the communist government there would remain stable. I also think it’s worth mentioning that many of the Soviet forces that ended up fighting in Afghanistan, were actually from the Tajik and Uzbek SSR’s. This is kind of interesting to me, since many of the Soviet soldiers ended up fighting people of the same ethnic background in Afghanistan. Great Post!


  7. I really liked this post! I think the title’s great and the pictures you included were very cool! I like how you started giving a little background information on how empires that tried taking over Afghanistan often failed too.


  8. I really liked your post. The backdrop is super cool. I also didn’t realize that the Afghanistan war gave Russia one of its greatest era’s ever! Very Interesting.


  9. Tim, glad you included the cultural and social changes of the war in Afghanistan because it adds crucial pieces to the puzzle of the complex relationship between the USSR and its citizens in the 1980’s. You used a lot of great examples and comparisons that made your post easily understandable and interesting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close