Moscow’s Invalids

Let me tell you about the ‘invalids.’ The invalids are young men who ride the Moscow metro begging for change from passengers. Begging, however, is really not the right word. What they are really doing is collecting a payment. A payment of a few rubles from all the passengers who either fought in Chechnya and returned physically unscathed (though mentally, who knows) or those who were lucky enough to be a woman, too old, weren’t sent there during their two year, mandatory military service for all men over 18, or were able to pay to get out of their service. See, these men lost their limbs in the war in Chechnya. Sometimes it’s an arm (these are the lucky ones), sometimes it’s an arm and a leg. The most frequent of late have been those missing both legs. These men are only torsos. They are propped in a wheelchair or worse on a plank with wheels, which they propel themselves forward with their arms.

The sight at first glance is one of horror. But for the majority of passengers, their glance is filled with guilt. You can see it in their eyes; in how they bow their heads in shame, in how some slowly turn their heads toward the walls, or in how some act like the invalid isn’t there. Now matter now matter how much you pretend that this half-man is invisible, he’s there. His silent message is clear: For you. For security. For Russia. For, what? A tithe of a few rubles is made so maybe this former soldier can live, and perhaps if he is lucky get prosthesis. Many people give, but is it enough? Can a few rubles, even from hundreds of people, perhaps even thousands of people who fill the Moscow metro everyday, repay a man for half his body? I’ve started carrying my coin rubles so I can also pay. . .

I don’t know much about the Russian military system. I don’t know how well they take care of their soldiers. I don’t know what kind of medical care they get. But, I think that the invalids’ presence in the metro plays a function that goes beyond money for daily bread. The invalids are a reminder of a forgotten war, an invisible war that has been waged off and on for the last 12 years. I think it is simply a war to exterminate the Chechens and to mentally and physically decimate a generation of Russian men. At first, however, the war in Chechnya was to prevent the Chechens from breaking with Russia and establishing their own state. Now, Putin’s government claims the war is part of a global war on terrorism. Recall the Pushkinskaya metro bombing, the apartment bombing, Nord-Ost theater hostage crisis (where most died because the Russian Security Forces gassed the theater), the slaughter of hundreds of children (by both Chechen hostage takers and Russian Security Forces) in Beslan, the blowing up of two airliners, and the more recent bombings in the metro. Despite all this, the reality of the war is a forgotten one. The greatest irony is that while one can see images on Russian TV of American soldiers fighting house to house in Fallujah, raiding people’s homes and forcing women and children to the ground at gun point, or Iraqi civilians fleeing their homes after the U.S. bombed their neighborhood, thereby making this forgotten, American war real, similar images of Russians in Chechnya are missing. To make matters worse, the Russians seem to respond to any mention of Chechnya with a face of disgust. Not for the senseless war there, but for Chechnya itself, its people, the whole matter. I call it a disgust of apathy. This apathy, like so many other emotions and opinions, turns to guilt at the sight of an invalid. You can’t pretend anymore with an invalid in your presence. The half-man before you is a reminder that there is a war and this is what it does to your OWN youths. The future of Russia is one built on a generation of dismembered bodies.

The invalid is the living symbol for modern war. Gone are high death numbers for states like Russia and the United States. These are only reserved for their enemies and the civilians that surround them. Gone are the wars were the participating societies are devastated by destruction, death, and disease, like the so-called glorious wars, WWI and WWII (the U.S. escaped the destruction the Europeans experienced in these two wars). For Russian and the American soldiers modern war resembles pre-modern wars. Like the peasant warriors of the 16th century who had their limbs hacked off, similarly our warriors also experience a hacking of sorts to the blunt precision of road side bombs. Our boys in uniform don’t lose their lives, they lose their livelihood. They are physically marked for life. Even if they are able to expunge the psychological nightmare of war, the physical reminder will always be with them. The pre-modern frequency of amputation is the face of modern war. The invalid is a testament to this.

Americans shouldn’t view the Russian invalid as yet another opportunity to sing the praises of American society. It would be sheer blindness, if not immoral, to claim difference, let alone superiority. As of this morning, 51 American soldiers have died in Fallujah. This is only going to increase as more men are further killed in battle or die from their wounds. The American casualty numbers from Fallujah and this means not only deaths but injury in battle, are in the hundreds. So far, if I remember correctly (I don’t have exact numbers in front of me) total American deaths since the beginning of the war have probably reached the 1,200 mark. According to investigative reports in the Christian Science Monitor, total casualties fall somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000, and by some estimates even up to 17,000. How many of these are ‘invalids’? It is hard to get an exact number, reporters claim, because the military restricts access to casualty numbers, military hospitals, and military transport of soldiers from the battlefield to bases in Germany. The fact that we can’t even see the shipment of coffins because (officially) it might upset some families (unofficially: remind us of how many of our OWN are dying), makes exactness on this question more a dream than a reality.

No, we can’t claim superiority over the Russians because our media doesn’t show anything about the war either. All we get are military press releases that use the terms ‘victory,’ ‘liberated’, and ‘pacified’ it seems almost everyday. These same press releases are the ones that claim that the U.S. air strikes in Fallujah are on ‘hideouts’ and ‘safe houses’ of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I honestly believe that this man does not, and perhaps never has existed. You have to be a complete idiot, or worse immoral to continue to believe what the military and our government are telling us the truth about Iraq. I don’t profess to know the truth, but I know that the story we are getting from out government is not it.

One could say that at least we don’t have to experience the horror of the invalid. At least our boys are “taken care of.” If you ever been to a military hospital you will know the increasing falseness of this. If you know about how the government has been steadily decreasing veteran’s benefits, you have to at least wonder. Plus, recognizing the invalid through his invisibility is like lumping him with the other ‘invisibles’ in our society: the homeless, the addict, the mentally ill, and the disabled. The invalid’s invisibility might bring us comfort, but does it make us more human? Is the placebo of invisibility better than the pain of guilt, of the reality of war? Is our society any better with the invalid hiding in their homes or in the dark corners of our cities, shameful of their dismemberment? Isn’t it us who should be shamed. At least the Russians are forced to face theirs in the dismembered body of a human being, even if this guilt passes with the next metro stop.

Every time I see one of these men on the Moscow metro, I can’t help thinking that we are only two years into our war. Despite assurances, it doesn’t look like an end is in sight. This is compounded by the fact that what “we” are fighting for keeps changing. First it was “weapons of mass destruction”, then it was “to liberate the Iraqi people,” now it’s a mixture of “it’s better to fight the terrorists there than here,” and “so the Iraqis can live in freedom and hold elections.” What will the reason be in five years when our invalids begin to make their way into our daily commute? Will the discomfort they bring be assuaged with the tithing of a few dollars? More importantly, will we feel guilt because of their missing limbs or because we didn’t stop the madness that took them sooner?