Review

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"Why can't the Russian command say: 'Your sons are dead. They were eaten by dogs in Grozny'?" Coming from a bearded Chechen, you might have dismissed this as mere bellicose exaggeration, the rhetoric of resistance. But it wasn't. It was the simple truth and Clive Gordon had the film to prove it - a wintery scene in which dogs tugged at nameless lumps in the street. It was not the worst sight on offer, by any means. His film brought home the two extremes of a contemporary war - the unchanging nature of individual suffering and the astonishing destruction achievable by modern weapons. Grozny today looks like Berlin 50 years ago - a shattered terrain of scorched brick.

The answer to the Chechen's question, incidentally, is relatively straightforward - the habit of mendacity has been so deeply engrained in Russian authorities that they would more readily inhale water than tell the truth. As Gordon's film made clear, the Russians had lied to their own troops, to beleaguered civilians and to the relatives of the dead - it was a parade of deceit and pointless cruelty that might have been designed to anneal the hatreds of their enemy.

And it hardly needs tempering - for 300 years the Chechens have been a stone in the Russian shoe, irreducibly independent in spirit. Stalin tried to take the stone out, forcibly relocating the Chechens for 13 years, as if the ground itself was the source of their particular virulence. That vicious incompetence continues to this day. Much of Gordon's film was taken up with the story of Samashki, a village in which, it's said, 250 civilians were murdered, despite attempts by the elders to negotiate a peaceful hand-over. Weeping women and children shrieked accusations about old people grenaded in cellars and houses casually destroyed. The army, true to form, took refuge in sullen lies. The village had not been shelled, they insisted, only machine-gunned. "Machine guns that can destroy houses," said a sarcastic Russian observer, "a fantastic advert for the Russian arms industry."

Narrative clarity wasn't one of the film's strengths - but then the air of confusion and grim serendipity was clearly intentional, a reflection of the baffling oddities of this war - one in which mothers arrive at the front to search for their sons and the combatants meet to haggle over prisoners. Gordon had clearly chanced upon some of his strongest material - in particular the roadside exhumation of some dead Chechens, with a young boy clutching his sister's bag, his face wiped by the purity of grief.

But in one respect at least, Gordon had tried to impose clarity on his material. Whenever Russian soldiers appeared they were accompanied by driving, baleful rock music. The implication seemed clear: electric guitars and firepower equals... Vietnam. The Chechens, by contrast, played a balalaika and sang folksongs. So you had human pluck against inhuman amplification, a home-made army against alienated conscripts. This was a miscalculation, and not only because it seemed naive about the nature of the Chechen cause - itself a tangle of crime, patriotism and revenge. Gordon hadn't reckoned either with the capacity of rock music to enlist you in the most dubious of causes. Rock and roll, to paraphrase Clausewitz, is a continuation of war by other means, a sexy, saleable version of attack and percussion. As a result, it has never cast an unflattering light on military power. At one point Gordon filmed a firefight from behind Russian lines. Young soldiers frantically loaded magazines, dipping into the shingle of loose ammunition as their comrades blazed away - firing until the barrels of their guns began to smoke. It was a picture of literally aimless violence but the soundtrack made it seem like the wildest party in town.

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