Leading The Lambs

Image: Russian Ministry of Defense

This is an unauthorized personal journal entry by a Russian Army Major assigned to the Special Advisors Detachment, 45th Guards Spetsnaz Brigade located just west of Eslamabad-e-Gharb in Iran’s Zagros Mountains.

Written by John DeRosa, it is the third submission in The Art of the Future Project’s series with the Military Writers Guild. The piece stems from MWG’s workshop prompts at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum’s 2016 DEF[x]DC conference. The first submission was “Ends, Means and Timelines” by Luke O’Brien and the second submission was “Operation Cyrus,” an Iranian military commander’s fictional memo written by Benjamin Locks.

28 февраля 2026 – Моя жена перестал смотреть новости с тех пор она увидела меня сражался бок о бок пророссийских сил в Славянске…

…February 28, 2026 – My wife stopped watching the news ever since she caught a glimpse of me fighting alongside pro-Russian forces in Sloviansk. The moment that frightened her most was the feed going black after our position was struck by counter-battery fire. Oksana began nervously pulling out hair, worried sick, for two months until I rotated out of sector and was able to call her.

When the President sent us to advise Assad’s forces in Syria, she chose not to watch the TV at all.

Now I find myself again applying my unique skill set advising a foreign Army. Advising is probably a loosely stated term. I provide a backbone for poorly, if at all, trained armies. For the past few weeks, I’ve been assigned to a conscript infantry battalion.

Long, hot, dusty days have been filled drilling these recruits on basic tactical skills. My guess is this training is futile. My host has highly trained, battle hardened combat units. They fought the Islamic terrorists back in ’15 and ’16 in Syria and Iraq. These troops are not those veterans – and they know it.

Their assignment in the coming battle is bluntly, cannon fodder. The Iranian Republican Guard will be held in reserve. These conscripts will be sent to the front line to absorb the opening strikes of the American campaign.

I’m here to give these kids confidence. They would waste a Russian guest on cannon fodder? At least that is the story they are telling them.

These fresh faces aren’t the same as the fighters in Ukraine. Back then, those were men. Mostly convicts or out of work laborers, but men nonetheless.

Back in Palmyra, I fought alongside my own. I had no fear with them. I knew who was fighting on my side. I could count on the other Russian units to provide fires or close air support.

Here it is different. There are just three of us – Misha, Sasha, and I. We each have our own company of conscripts. We are more like shepherds leading lambs to Easter slaughter.

The food is probably the worst part of this assignment. Back in Ukraine, I could count on home-style type cooking. Vatrushka, borscht and cabbage soup – all made by local ethnic Russians.

Back with the Wolves, we were treated very well. I remember during Easter, the Sloviansk ladies made kulich and paskha that would put Kubinka ladies to shame any day. Even during combat, they were able to share the most beautiful Easter eggs – pysanky they called them. It is hard to imagine how, even amidst death and destruction, they were able to decorate with such vibrant colors. I guess against the drab and dusty background of debris and rubble, any color is appreciated.

Two years later we got lucky. In Palmyra, they served us Russian Army chow, but it was still Russian.

The Palmyra offensive wrapped up before the secession of hostilities. The 45th was able to celebrate Easter back home in Kubinka. Yet decorating eggs with my kids didn’t seem to be the same as before. Especially thinking about Lieutenant Prokherenko not being home for Easter with his bride and new baby. Well, I don’t expect any of us would have to call in an airstrike on ourselves in this fight. The Americans will be sure to take care of that for us.

I’m glad we still have access to fresh bread but here we eat the same rations as the Iranian conscripts. We haven’t had any butter lately, but canned cheese and pate will suffice. When they stop sending bread forward, and I have to break into my stash of biscuits, we’ll know it’s about time for the fireworks.

There’s always ample tea. On these scorching days in the desert, a cup of hot tea actually does the trick to help cool you down – even if it’s only for a few moments.

Interesting how a pending fight makes me think of food. Maybe it is to keep my mind of what lies ahead.

I’m trying not to get attached to these lambs. Yet it is hard not to. The regime of the preparation and enduring hardships alongside each other creates bonds. I am trying to instill esprit de corps in these boys. I never allow solitary tasks; everything must be done in teams – guard duty, weapon cleaning, equipment maintenance, eating, everything. When the time comes, it is all about who is fighting on the left and right of you.

I am certainly not here to preserve the Iranian Republic.

The Americans are about to unleash an onslaught that I don’t think even Tehran expects. This is a battle that has been in the making for how many years now? Almost 50?

My men ask me what they can expect in combat. I tell them, “Dig deep.” If we are to survive the opening round of US air strikes, we’ll need to have lots of overhead cover. If we in fact do survive the first round, we’ll have to reinforce our damaged defenses. The next round will only be more intense. There will be hours of MLRS and artillery barrages, certain death from above. Then the reaper might come by land as American tanks and infantry will surely be close behind. That is at least how the Americans toppled Saddam.

Have they learned some new tricks? There is intelligence about their new heavy lift helicopters. They could drop an armored brigade right behind us securing Kermanshah or further east past the Zagros. There they could link up with the Peshmerga that have been infiltrating Sanandaj to our north.

Nonetheless, maybe they should have sent an engineer instead of a special forces major.

At least they are taking my advice. At the end of the day, I inspect their fighting positions. They eagerly point with blistered palms and bloody knuckles at their hard work. I just say, “Dig deeper.”

Sasha scoffs at me, “What do you care about these kids? Save your energy for the Americans!”

I guess that’s the difference between us. If am going to keep Oksana from pulling out the rest of her hair, it will be because of the blood shed by these kids on the first day defending against the invaders.

I need to count on these lambs. They can count on me.


John DeRosa continues to serve over 20 years as a soldier, officer, and civilian in the U.S. Department of Defense. Concurrently, he is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Government and Politics Department of the University of Maryland University College and a Fellow with the Center for the Study of Narratives and Conflict. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He received a MSc in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, a M.A in National Security Studies, and a B.A. in Economics from California State University, San Bernardino. Follow John on Twitter @jpderosa