Army Aviation

1979 Hygiene and Medicine

Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet Army rolled into Afghanistan.  The country was occupied in short order; but, a protracted war of attrition with an insurgency which refused to be cowed ensued.

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Soviet troops evacuating Afghanistan, 1988.” Source of photo: Mikhail Evstafiev

Of the many reasons for the Soviet defeat, one which stands out and seems rarely discussed is that of hygiene and medicine.  And the figures are astounding:

A total of 642,000 Soviet soldiers served during the nine year war in Afghanistan.  A staggering 73 percent of those committed became casualties.  Of these, 14,453 were killed and 53,753 were wounded.  The rest fell victim to sickness and disease, some 415,932.

Infectious hepatitis claimed 115,308.  Typhoid fever another 31,080.  Such ailments certainly impacted the combat readiness potential of many of the committed units, such as the 5th Motorized Rifle Division.  In October and November 1981, some 3,000 of the division’s personnel had been struck down with hepatitis.

In addition to the maladies offered above, there were another 233,554 cases of typhus, malaria, meningitis, amoebic dysentery, cholera, diphtheria and even plague.  That a modern army could be afflicted by such diseases on such a massive scale certainly calls into question the readiness of the Soviet armed forces.  Indeed, one could certainly make the case that the Soviet Army was met and defeated by two enemies in Afghanistan . . . the Mujahidin and the Germ.


Grau, Lester W., and Jorgensen, Major William A., “Medical Support in a Counter-Guerrilla War:  Epidemiological Lessons Learned in the Soviet-Afghan War,” Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS.  Article first appeared in the May-June edition of U.S. Army Medical Department Journal.

Nawroz, General Muhammad Yahya (Ret.), Army of Afghanistan and Grau, Lester W., “The Soviet War in Afghanistan:  History and Harbinger of Future War?” Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS., Military Review, September/October 1995.

Shunk, Colonel Dave, USAF, “Primer on the Russian Afghan War, 1979-1989, Lessons Learned,” December 26, 2008.

Singleton, Dr. Seth, “The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan,” Air University Review, March-April 1981,