Sophie’s Recommendation: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

By Sophie Evans

History is often likened to archaeology, with historians excavating the past from its sedimentary layers. Svetlana Alexievich forces us to remember that there are people under the ground, beneath the monument of war. Comprised of hundreds of individual accounts of Soviet women soldiers in World War II, The Unwomanly Face of War operates in opposition to the historical record. Alexievich dares ask: What is war if not noble, if not heroic? In this meticulous work of defamiliarization, she finds an answer among the memories of ordinary witnesses.

The text reads as a living cemetery, not dissimilar to the ending of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, where those buried in Grover’s Corners fleetingly return to inhabit past lives. The book is oriented not on those who died but on those who live and yet somehow, too, are gone. It is “hauntingly elegiac” as The Times of London’s Gerard DeGroot wrote, but unusually so in that it is an elegy for the living. Alexievich accomplishes this task by writing a “history of feelings,” a history “of the soul.” She unearths the individual voices paved over by the Soviet victory and its accompanying state-sanctioned historical narrative.

It is an “investigative contemporary history,” in the words of Yale historian Timothy Snyder, made possible by years of interviews with women of various military professions conducted throughout the former Soviet Union. Alexievich’s “documents are living beings” or, more precisely, their memories. They speak in “two voices at the same time,” where “the young one … the one in the war” operates as a primary source, which “the old one … the one after the war” corrupts through its introduction of perspective. These women are aware of how they have been remembered. They are aware of how they have been consciously forgotten in service to the official history of the war. The young voice has been buried while the older lives on, a memory in the face of grand memorial. Herein lies the source of elegy.

The work focuses on women soldiers because, according to Alexievich, “men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them.” In many respects she is correct: the master narratives of military history are written by men. When the husband of one military journalist repeatedly remarks, “Keep your eyes peeled! This is epic! Epic!” it is not an intrinsic consequence of his gender, but rather of the years of cultural indoctrination in the heroic and noble nature of war. Women, on the other hand, received no such training. With fresh eyes, they witness the horrific reality of war without the desensitizing lens of grandeur. They do not see fighting as just “hand-to-hand combat,” but as people beating, stabbing, and strangling each other. They hear “howling,” “shouting,” “moaning,” the “crunching of bones,” and the “crack” of a skull “split open.” They conclude that “there’s nothing human in it,” and in this light we see that The Unwomanly Face of War is really the inhuman face of war. It just takes a woman’s perspective to realize it. The book is a “landmark study of female soldiers,” as Snyder and other critics suggest, but it is also an unfiltered study of war, written by those whose “vision is normal. Unwarlike, unmanly.”

Sophie Evans is the Policy Director at Engage. You can reach her at sophie@engagewomen.org.


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