Title: The Unwomanly Face of War
Author: Svetlana Alexievich
Published originally in Russian: 1985
Published in English: Penguin, 2017
Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky
War is a subhuman enterprise. It makes brutes of men. What about women? How does war affect women-soldiers? Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s book answers that question eloquently. About a million Russian women fought in the World War II and the author of this book met a few hundred of those women in person. This book is narrated by them, in fact.
Many of the women who speak though this book were just teenage girls when they joined the forces enthusiastically. “We were a cheerful cargo,” says one who was a sniper. She is speaking about her first journey along with other girls to join the forces. “Cocky. Full of jokes. I remember laughing a lot.” She and her friends were happy to fight for their nation. They wanted to be at the front. “Everybody was fighting,” she says, “and we would be, too.” She concludes her memory on a totally different note, however. The war taught her some hard lessons. “[War] is not a woman’s task – to hate and to kill. Not for us… We had to persuade ourselves. To talk ourselves into it.” [Emphasis added]
War is about hating and killing. It’s not a woman’s task. One ceases to be a woman when one starts fighting in the war. Many of these women-soldiers we meet in the book say that they just stopped menstruating. They lost their femaleness. They were no more women, not supposed to be. “I need soldiers, not ladies. Ladies don’t survive in war,” they were told explicitly by a commander who was not at all pleased to know that his women-soldiers had visited a hairdresser and got their eyebrows dyed.
You are a soldier, not a woman. Your commander may not even notice that you are a woman. One of the commanders didn’t know that he was giving orders to a troop of women-soldiers. “Level your chests,” he ordered. And then asked, “What are you carrying in your shirt pockets?” Some of the women struggled to suppress their giggles.
If you are caught by the enemy, you are not only a soldier but also a woman. “They beat me,” says one about such an experience, “they hung me up. Always completely undressed. They photographed me. I could only cover my breasts with my hands… I saw people go mad.”
Victory – the word sounds beautiful, exhilarating, especially if you are a warrior. But you’d rather love and kiss. You are a woman, after all. “I dreamed of kissing,” says one of those women in war. “I wanted terribly to kiss… I also wanted to sing. To sing!”
Shouldn’t life be about those things actually? About love, kisses, songs? Who wants war? People incapable of love? Incapable of human refinement? Incapable of being feminine?
Alexievich has given us a unique book. It is a series of narratives spoken by women-soldiers. Recorded conversations in broken lines. Conversations that carry a lot of emotions, a lot of sadness, pain, terror. The book makes us wonder again and again whether we are as noble a species as we claim to be.