Behind the Headlines Soviet and American Military Might: the Jewish Factor
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Behind the Headlines Soviet and American Military Might: the Jewish Factor

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There is a great debate sweeping the academic, military and political community these days over the relative strength of American and Soviet arms.

The debate which is being engendered has wide ramifications both for military planners and industry because of the multi-million dollar contracts which are let out each year to defense contractors. Although it may appear somewhat strange, there is a Jewish factor in the contesting claims about the relative superiority of Russian versus American military power.

One of the most vociferous critics today of American defense strategies is Andrew Cockburn, a British journalist residing in New York City. He is the author of a highly controversial study of Soviet military power, “The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine” (Random House). This book is a meticulous audit of every aspect of Soviet strength from the morale of the Soviet soldier to the oiling procedure for heavy Russian tanks.

In his analysis of Soviet weaponry, Cockburn records that much of his information about Russian training techniques, billeting practices, officer promotion and a host of other aspects of military life — come from conversations he conducted with recent Soviet-Jewish emigres now living in the United States.

The Soviet Jews with whom he conversed did not, of course, reveal any military secrets: they did not have access to any of them. Rather, they told Cockburn what they knew about the day-to-day life of the Soviet soldier, his fears, frustrations, anxieties, strengths and weaknesses.


The composite portrait of the Soviet soldier which Cockburn has reconstructed from these interviews is a fascinating one. Cockburn claims, for example, that drunkenness is pandemic in the Soviet armed forces.

Despite strict prohibitions about the consumption of liquor, Soviet military personnel obtain their alcohol even if they have to siphon off the cooling alcohol used in jet aircraft. This kind of potent brew has resulted, says Cockburn, in numerous cases of blindness in the Soviet armed forces.

Information culled from interviews permitted Cockburn to suggest that the morale in the Soviet armed forces is at the lowest ebb. Recruits from Asian-Moslem parts of the Soviet Union are subjected to grotesque discrimination by the majority Russians in the army population.

Cockburn claims that in the initial stages of the Afghanistan invasion the Soviets found that Moslem troops sent to the country (in the hope that they would be able to deal more effectively with Afghanistan guerrillas) defected in large numbers.

Among the most interesting revelations Cockburn provides about the Russian army is the disinclination of the officer corps to report any kind of discipline problems with army draftees.

Their hesitancy in this regard stems from the fact that reports about problems with draftees inevitably result in the officer’s dossier being filled with comments about his inability to handle recruits — which reflects on his capacity for leadership.

As a consequence of this, reports Cockburn, grave incidents of indiscipline, sometimes approaching mutiny, are ignored by commanding officers, fearing their own reputation will suffer.


With regard to the weaponry factor, Cockburn has little that is positive to say about this issue. He uses the examples of Arab-Israel confrontations in recent years to question the alleged invincibility of Soviet arms.

Cockburn claims that the various Mikoyan-Gurevitch airplanes (the MIG 25s and others) have been vastly overrated and he cites Israeli kill figures during the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War and the war in Lebanon to prove his contentions about the superiority of American fighter planes. While acknowledging the role played by Israel’s superb pilots, Cockburn makes the point that their planes function with greater flexibility than the Russian aircraft flown by Arab pilots.

Cockburn has the same critical posture with regard to the fearsome Soviet tanks. Reputed to be virtually impregnable, these tanks are referred to by Cockburn as “mobile coffins,” that were easily pierced by Israeli projectiles in the 1973 and 1982 encounters between the belligerents.

As for the highly sophisticated Soviet missile batteries that proved so dangerous to Israeli fighters in the first days of the Yom Kippur War, Cockburn observes that after the initial shock, Israeli planners worked out defense measures which easily neutralized the Soviet missile network.

Given the fact that the Soviet armed forces are so demonstrably weak, Cockburn asks why Americans are inclined to exaggerate the strength of their adversary. Why are so many gloomy scenarios presented showing the superiority of Russian weaponry over American technology?

Cockburn’s answer is quite simple: American defense contractors, American generals and their allies have everything to gain from offering the most pessimistic views on American capabilities. Billions of dollars of potential contracts are at stake in the arguments over defense spending. But one of the most astute defense analysts, Edward Luttwack, disagrees with Cockburn.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

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