A book review: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. By Svetlana Alexievich
The term “tour de force” is applied so frequently it has lost most of its punch, but in the case of this remarkable book, it fits perfectly. Very serious and challenging stuff here. The author has undertaken and compiled, by means of face-to-face interviews, a first-person account of the experiences of Russian women in WWII. I doubt anyone who has not experienced combat–and I have not–can begin to appreciate or understand the horrors these women faced, and then brought back home with them.
There are common elements running through most of these interviews, so that this reader comes away with a prototype woman soldier. They were young, sixteen, eighteen year olds. They were determined, not just to be involved, but to get to the Front, to get to the fight. They badgered their recruitment offices, were rejected (too young, too small), and went back again and again. If persistence failed, they sneaked aboard troop trains, trucks, anything that got them into the war to defend their beloved Motherland.
They were issued uniforms made for men, including boots that were many sizes too large. If they received rifles, they found them almost too heavy to carry. But they kept right on going, heading for the Front.
Their battle experiences were varied, each horrible in its own way. Some saw hand-to-hand combat, heard bones break, saw bayonets thrust into bodies, into eyes, into mouths. Some cooked for the soldiers, only to see their preparations wasted, because everyone was killed. Some got into the fight. One sniper, in particular, reportedly had seventy-five kills, almost all head shots.
In the horror of battle, these young girls became old women. Their youthful faces became drawn and lined. Many had their hair turn gray.
When they returned home, they found a country stripped bare; the war had consumed everything. They were not considered eligible for marriage because of what they’d seen, what they’d done. Their war never ended.
Yes, a real tour de force.