By Chet Yarbrough
The Unwomanly Face of War–An Oral History of Women in World War II
By: Svetlana Alexievich, Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Narrated by Julia Emelin, Yelena Shmulenson
Svetlana Alexievich (Author, Belorussian Investigative Journalist, 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature–for her polyphonic writings.)
The author of “The Unwomanly Face of War”, Svetlana Alexievich, suggests women’s deployment in war dates to the Greco-Roman wars. However, some say Russia is the first nation to deploy women as combat troops. History shows Russia enlisted women as a fighting force in WWI.
“The Unwomanly Face of War” notes nearly 1,000,000 women joined the Russian military to defeat the German armies in WWII.
Alexievich interviews former WWII Russian women as pilots, snipers, mine clearing commanders, and military tank leaders. Some were as young as 13; others in their late teens or early 20’s when they joined. At the time of the interviews, all were in their 50’s or older. By any definition, these Russian women were combat troops.
This is a particularly timely release of a translation of “The Unwomanly Face of War”. In western nations, as early as the 1940 s, the role of women in the military has been in transition.
Most countries recognize the immense contribution “women in war” have made since WWI. However, the WWII veterans in Russia’s battles were not fully recognized until the 1950s.
What Alexievich offers is a peek into what Russian women in combat experienced during WWII. She identifies similarities and differences military men and women experience in war. To listeners of Alexievich’s interviews, similarities appear much greater than the differences.
The preeminent common characteristic among combat troops is nationalism. Whether man or woman, the belief in the sovereignty of one’s country supersedes gender. The disgust for an invading country and its military is equally reviled.
Alexievich suggests women feel the atrocity of war more than men because women bare and raise children. She argues women are more nurturing and emotion driven than men.
However, her interviews recount two events that would equally engage and enrage men as women.
Two interviews reveal a mother’s decision to sacrifice her children. One circumstance is for a mother to quiet a crying child by infanticide because of an approaching German troop. The second is a mother who has her child carry a bomb into a military mess hall to kill the enemy as well as the sacrificed child. How does maternal instinct differ from the worst actions taken by men?
The human response to war seems as brutally evident in women as men. The trauma of war seems to be absorbed in similar ways. War experience is something never forgotten, and often repressed. There seems little difference among the sexes based on Alexievich’s interviews of WWII women veterans.
Another example that seems more of a provisioning than sex difference is the reality of menstruation and how it is to be dealt with in combat circumstances. With proper provisioning the difference between the sexes seems miniscule.
Another circumstance alluded to is the physical strength differences between the sexes. The circumstance recalled is a woman tank commander who cannot physically rescue an injured tank soldier because she is unable to lift him out of the tank.
Pulling dead weight is a limit for men as well as women. Though the average strength differences might be true between all men and all women, brute strength is an extraordinary need in war; not a common requirement. If one person is not enough to move a wounded soldier, he/she gets help.
“The Unwomanly Face of War” addresses the reality of conjugal sex in war. War is little different than life in the civilized world when it comes to the battle of the sexes. Alexievich recounts affections that rise between men and women in the field of war. One can appreciate exaggerated interdependence when one’s life is at stake. Maybe there is a difference, but the difference seems more of imagination than reality. Peace has its own way of corrupting the relationship between men and women. One must question how different the battle between the sexes is in war than in peace.
Common purpose brings the sexes together in both war and peace. When common purpose is absent, the sexes battle for their personal interests. What distorts the battle is power.
History suggests power more often lies with men than women whether in civilian or military life. Until there is equalization in power, the potential for fairness among the sexes is unlikely.
Whether in war or peace, sexual orientation is subject to inequality. The only remedy is a set of rules and regulations judiciously enforced.
One will draw their own conclusion about the role of women in war after listening to “The Unwomanly Face of War”. Whether in a time of war or peace, what is incontestable is unequal treatment of women