Journal of Cold War Studies 2.1 (2000) 132-134
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The Collapse of the Soviet Military
William E. Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998. 523 pp.
This new book by William Odom, one of the foremost experts on the Soviet military, addresses an extremely challenging question: How and why did the Soviet military collapse? This question cannot be answered without reference to larger political and [End Page 132] economic forces, particularly the sweeping reforms launched by Mikhail Gorbachev. The book thus addresses a broader topic than the title implies: the role of military factors in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Odom's explanation of why the military collapsed is disarmingly simple: "Gorbachev made it collapse" (p. 392). Although Odom devotes considerable attention to larger structural factors, he ultimately concludes that Gorbachev's leadership and decisions were the "critical precipitating factor" (p. 393). Odom's portrait of Gorbachev hews closer to John Dunlop's interpretation of Gorbachev as a duplicitous schemer ignorant of the Soviet system's fatal flaws than to Archie Brown's depiction of a true social democrat who overcame nearly insurmountable obstacles to liberate his country from tyranny and the world from a deadly arms race.
Odom's view of Gorbachev is evident in his discussion of economic reform, particularly reform of the military-industrial sector. Odom highlights economic decline as a key impetus for Gorbachev's international and domestic reforms. In Odom's view, Gorbachev naively believed that he could fix the economy by transferring resources from guns to butter, rather than by introducing fundamental changes in the system. Odom concludes that "perhaps Gorbachev's inability to understand this issue conceptually was actually a blessing. Had he understood, he might have given up on perestroika" (pp. 241-242).
The book begins with five solid chapters on the foundations of Soviet military policy. Odom's chapters on organizational structures, manpower policies, and the military-industrial sector represent some of the best introductions to these topics available. Those on ideology and military strategy are inherently more controversial. Odom restates his long-held views that Marxism-Leninism was the most important guide to Soviet military planning, and that the Soviet leadership's view of nuclear weapons and war-fighting was fundamentally different from the American approach. He brings little new evidence to bear on these questions, however, and is unlikely to persuade experts who disagree.
Odom moves on to consider the entire range of military issues that civilian and military leaders confronted during perestroika: doctrinal reform, arms control, glasnost, the role of the Communist Party in the military, manpower policy, "conversion" of military industries, and the use of the army to cope with internal unrest. Odom's treatment of these issues is excellent. His many years of study of Soviet military affairs give him a firm grasp of the roots of problems that first received public attention during the glasnost era. His discussion of the origins and consequences of dedovshchina (the hazing of first-year conscripts by second-year troops) is probably the best available in English. Odom's own experience as a military officer allows him to appreciate the formidable problems that the Soviet High Command faced in implementing major policy changes. Civilian reformers in the Soviet Union tended to be much less aware of these practical difficulties. At the same time, Odom makes no apologies for corruption and "old thinking" in the senior officer corps.
Odom traces the beginning of the end to 1988, when Gorbachev initiated bold political reforms and announced unilateral cuts in the Soviet armed forces. Odom contends that military reform, broadly defined, was the key to Gorbachev's entire program. [End Page 133] According to Odom, the size of the military burden and the importance of the army as the "last defense against destabilizing forces" (p. 396) ensured that the military issue would be at the heart of any serious attempt to enact broader reforms. He demonstrates that manpower policies increasingly spun out of control from 1989 to 1991, starting with the...