Book Review: The Unwomanly Face of War
“I heard…words…poison…words like stones…It was men’s desire---to go and fight. Can a woman kill?! Those were abnormal, defective women…
No! A thousand times no! No, it was a human desire. The war was going on, I lived my usual life. A girl’s life…Then a neighbor received a letter: her husband was wounded and in the hospital. I thought, “He’s wounded, and who will replace him?” One came back without an arm—who will replace him? Another came back without a leg—who will go instead of him? I wrote letters, begged, pleaded to be taken into the army. That’s how we were brought up, that nothing in our country should happen without us. We had been taught to love it. To admire it. Since there’s a war, it’s our duty to help in some way. There’s a need for nurses, so we must become nurses. There’s a need for anti-aircraft gunners, so we must become ant-aircraft gunners.” Pg. 195
When I first picked up The Unwomanly Face of War, I expected a flat and boring summation of a few women warriors from once upon a time. I expected the equivalent of a Wikipedia article about the two women snipers pictured on the front cover (Lyudmila Trosk and Nina Slonova c. 1944). What I didn’t expect to find was a deeply personal connection to these women from another generation, another war, and another country.
You might have heard of Svetlana Alexievich. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Her other notable works include Zinky Boys and Voices from Chernobyl. She is a Belarussian investigative journalist and writer famous for her use of oral history in crafting her stories. But long before all of that, she wrote this book. The Unwomanly Face of War was originally published in Russian in 1985.
In the time before social media and common use of electronic mail, Svetlana travelled all over the Soviet Union to collect these true stories in person. She wrote and received hundreds of personal letters. She sat face to face with these veterans in their homes. She held their medals, held their family photo albums, held their hands, held their grief. While this book was very powerful for me, I can’t help but think of how powerful that journey must have been for her and how cathartic for those veterans. Even though each story is coming directly from the veteran, somehow Svetlana is able to maintain narrative control of the whole book. It always feels as though we are just sitting next to her on the couch, on the train, on the park bench, listening.
That is the context for this book. A compilation of hundreds of real stories by real women that fought against Germany on the Soviet front in World War II. Real women. Some who fell in love with war. Some who fell in love in war. Some who never recovered physically. Some who never recovered emotionally. Those that were lauded. Those that were shamed. Close to one million women fought in the Soviet military in World War II. For context, our active duty military is sitting at about 1.3 million right now.
A quick Google search can confirm the history. There is no mystery in the plot. But I wouldn’t take any comfort in the Allies’ victory or that so many of these women are alive to tell their story. No one holds back the graphic details of their lived experience. The wounded get tortured, families lose all their children in this war, millions of people died on the Soviet Front and it was horrific.
There are so many beautiful anecdotes I wish I could share. Laundresses rubbing their hands raw as they washed every bloody uniform by hand. Old women boiling water in their kitchens to throw at the enemy. Women guerilla fighters giving birth in the woods. Women carrying their children with them as they fought. Women medics pulling wounded men out of tanks or crawling through no man’s land to drag the wounded to safety. Starving citizens giving their last bits of food and clothing to soldiers. Nurses, doctors, tank gunners, snipers, laundresses, radio operators, cooks, guerillas, horse cavalry, pilots. This is total warfare like no American alive today has experienced. And while the legacy of World War II is chilling, the way that our forebears rose to the occasion has never ceased to inspire. These women deserve their part in that history.
As I’ve grown older, I have made more attempts to be a better student of history, to learn about and connect with the heritage of women fighting for their homes and their countries. I grew up an Army brat. I went to a military college. I have deployed a few times and I have multiple family members in the service. Somehow the only warrior role models passed down to me were Joan of Arc and Mulan…..and G.I. Jane if I’m being honest. Ancient and mythic or fictional. Here is a book packed full of the warrior spirit, the real kind, not the stuff movies are made of. The dirty messy normal people doing heroic things out of love kind. I wish I had read this book 15 years ago.
This book belongs on any top ten list of military books, but not because its narrators are women. But because it is a prolific book about war and because there is no better lens for examining the human condition than the perspective of a person different from you. This curated group of stories is not trying to prove what women are capable. It is documenting what humans are capable of. The brutality of warfare, brought on and fought by humans, and the beauty of courage and the human spirit when faced with that brutality.
The Unwomanly Face of War is a must read. This is a book about war for those that have become immune to the violence in war stories. For those who think world wars are only in the past. For those that believe there are things in life worth fighting for. And for those who need but a simple change in narration perspective to see the beauty, humanity, and tragedy that is war.
♠️♠️♠️♠️♠️ one of the best books you’ve ever fucking read
Written By AJ