I’ve always enjoyed reading about war: the bold – or daft – decisions taken, soldiers tales of hardship and heroism, the comradeship of men who have fought together. This, traditionally is what war so often turns into – for the historian and politician, even sometimes for the survivor. What we all conspire in is the effort to make the waste and horror of it all somehow conformable to the norms of peace.
Even the famous memoirs of the First World War – which lives in popular imagination as the most futile and bloodiest of conflicts – are, somehow, at one remove from the horror. We are cushioned and protected from the physical reality of so much death perhaps by literary convention, perhaps an instinctive reticence, perhaps by the sense that those bloody experiences are, somehow, not the proper focus for a real history book.
The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of women who took part in the Great Patriotic War against the Germans, is different. The memories of the women interviewed are unmediated, funny, heartbreaking, truly horrifying at times. They are drenched in blood. The women staunch it when they can; work and fight in clothes so stiff with dried blood that the cloth cuts you; they bleed themselves – as soldiers and as women. For the first time, in these stories, blood isn’t incidental, it is the war itself. This is Maria Yakovlevna Yezhova, a Lieutenant of the Guards and Commander of a Medical Platoon who, on her first day at the front rushed straight to the trenches because the quicker she started, the sooner the war would be over.
I would come to the medical platoon, wash up, grab some clean clothes – and go back to my trench.At the front line. I didn’t think about myself. You crawl, you run…Only the smell of blood…I couldn’t get used to the smell of blood…
After the war, I became a midwife in a maternity ward – but I didn’t stay there for long. Not for long…For a short while…I’m allergic to the smell of blood; my body simply wouldn’t accept it…I had seen so much blood during the war that I couldn’t stand it anymore. I left Maternity and went to Emergency Aid. I got nettle rash, I was suffocating.
I sewed a blouse from a piece of red cloth, and by the next day some of sort of red spots had spread all over my hands. Blisters. No red cloth, no red flowers – roses or carnations, my body wouldn’t accept it. Nothing red, nothing that had the colour of blood…Even now I have nothing red in my house. You won’t find anything.
…Human blood is very bright, I have never seen such a bright colour, not in nature, not in any painting.
Pomegranate juice is something similar, but not entirely. Ripe pomegranate.”
After reading this I searched out those pictures of poppies flooding the moat around the Tower of London (walls hiding its own Bloody Tower) and saw them again more mindful than before of what they stood for – that ‘blood dimmed tide’ we loosed upon the world. I also reflected that – consciously or unconsciously – we have used the flower to sanitise the memory so that wars – the bloodprice we pay – become somehow affordable again.
Alexievich’s book is written as an antidote to that sort of complacency. Talking about how she can explain war to her six year old daughter, Alexievich writes:
‘how am I to explain war to a child? To explain death? To answer the question of why people kill? Kill even little children like herself. We, the adults, are as if in collusion…I would like to write a book about war that would make war sickening, and the very thought of it repulsive. Insane. So that even the generals would be sickened…
You read this book slowly, wanting time to reflect on each woman’s story, not to rush past any of these hard won histories. We are privileged to share in truly untold memories. This is an unburdening.
The title points to one of the tensions that runs through the book and through the stories the women tell.
War is ‘unwomanly’. It is man’s business. Women don’t find glory it, as men do. They are not fascinated by it. If they fight it is only for peace.
The army asserts its intrinsic manliness in all sorts of ways. It will accept women as soldiers, but cannot accommodate them. Women are always non-conformists. In a real sense – whatever their qualities as soldiers – they cannot fit into the uniforms the army provides.
The consequence is that, although their comrades acknowledge their contribution, you could never trust them to stick to an agreed line or tell the right stories. Even 40 years after the war Alexievich was told she shouldn’t publish her book, because women’s memories would be unreliable. They would make things up. They would focus on the wrong things.
Alexievich resists this. Women’s testimony she says (and every story attests) is uniquely important because it is different. She writes:
There is a concept in optics called ‘light-gathering power’ – the greater or lesser ability of a lens to fix the caught image. So, then, women’s memory of the war is the most ‘light-gathering’ in terms of strength of feelings, in terms of pain. I would even say that ‘women’s’ war is more terrible than ‘men’s.’ Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and conflict of ideas, of interests, whereas women are caught up in feelings…They are capable of seeing what is closed to men. I repeat once more: their war has smell, has colour, a detailed world of existence: “They gave us kit bags and we made skirts out of them”; “I went into the recruiting office through one door wearing a dress, and came out through the other wearing trousers and an army shirt, with my braid cut off and only a little lock left on my forehead…”; “The German’s gunned down the village and left…We came to the place: trampled yellow sand, and on top of it one child’s shoe…”
And sometimes all you can do is laugh: listen to the irrepressible Anastasia Leonidovna Zhardetskaya, Corporal, Medical Assistant:
And my husband…It’s good he isn’t here, he’s at work. He told me strictly…He knows I like to talk about our love…How I made my wedding dress out of bandages overnight. By myself. My friends and I spent a month collecting bandages. Trophy bandages…I had a real wedding dress! I still have a picture: I’m in this dress and boots, only you can’t see the boots. But I remember I wore boots. I concocted a belt out of an old forage cap…An excellent little belt. But what am I…going on about my own things…My husband told me not to say a word about love – no, no, but to talk about the war. He’s strict. He taught me with a map…For two days he taught me where each front was…Where our unit was…I’ll tell you, I wrote it down. I’ll read it…
Why are you laughing? What a nice laugh you have. I also laughed…What kind of historian am I! I’d better show you that photo, where I’m in that dress made of bandages.
I like myself so much in it…In a white dress.
Sasha Dugdale has written some verses in response to these stories, published in her collection, Joy. This is one of them:
I have no right to grief
I am whole
I have no right to grief
I am whole
I have no right to grief
I am whole
From Days by Sasha Dugdale