The Unwomanly Face of War

I’ve always enjoyed reading about war: the bold – or daft – decisions taken, the soldiers tales – hardship and heroism, the comradeship – the sense of the sweep of history. Once wars are done this is what they become. Historians, politicians, even the survivors themselves seem to conspire in trying to make sense of what has happened, casting the waste and horror of it all seem necessary, worthwhile even, conformable somehow to the norms of peace.

Even the famous memoirs of the First World War – which lives in popular imagination as the most futile and bloody of conflicts – are removed from the fearful reality of what was actually experienced. We are cushioned and protected from the physical reality by literary convention,  reticence, or perhaps by the sense that those bloody experiences are stories are not only untellable, they are not fit to be told.

The Unwomanly Face of War is different. Svetlana Alexievich spent years collecting the stories of women who took part in the Great Patriotic War against the Germans, serving in every part of the armed forces.

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, over the years since it was first adopted, the poppy – symbol of spilt blood – has itself helped normalise the idea that the sacrifice – the blood price – was worth paying. Always a dangerous illusion because a price wort paying becomes by easy steps affordable.

Alexievich’s book is written as an antidote to that sort of complacency. Talking about  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…

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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.

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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…”

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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.

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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

The Unwomanly Face of War

Summertime

ROSPA has a whole fact sheet devoted to the ill effects of moving the clocks forward and back proving fairly comprehensively that it’s a bad thing on all sorts of levels.

For me it’s personal – from the sense that, when we lose an hour tonight I will feel robbed – if only of an hour’s sleep – to the days of adjustment, feeling slightly jet lagged while your body catches up, to a childhood memory of early mornings shared with my father.

When I was eight or nine years old, I was an early riser with a very regular internal clock. I don’t remember the time we went to bed but, in the summer, I woke up at 6.00am without fail. Dad, who had to leave for work by 7.00am, was already awake and I’d go downstairs, clothes quickly pulled on* and share a cup of tea with him, a bite of breakfast and the pleasure of being the only two up and awake.

I had a job too – I’d run around to the newsagents to pick up dad’s newspaper (in those days the Sketch and the Mirror). Mr Huxley, the newsagent would beam at me, promising me work as a paperboy when I was old enough. Inevitably, by the time I was 13, this sort of early rising was well behind me.

After dad set off up the road I entered a sort of happy limbo, when, I felt, normal rules no longer applied. I’d mooch around exploring all the places I knew I shouldn’t. I’d steal my baby sister’s rusks and take a swig of her gripewater. Feeling it couldn’t do me any harm I’d take a swig of cough medicine too. Then, at about 7.30 I’d set off for school, meandering through the town, by the brook and on the riverbank with all the time in the world.

Alas, it was a summer dream only – when the clocks went forward in October I woke at exactly the same time, an hour later – dad gone to work and the house starting to stir around me…

*Memories of getting dressed as a child still represents a sort of gold standard for me. In the summer it was pants, shorts and tshirt and you were good to go. Winter added a little more wool, but it was still pretty swift. Getting dressed as an adult is so boooring in comparison.

Summertime

Wowski

In our morning’s drive poor little Wowski (Mr Wynn’s little dog, bought at Wansford Bridge) was run over by the phaeton, and his leg much hurt.

That was in 1788, but it still is news. John Byng notes the incident in passing in the journal he kept of his tour around Sussex* We have never met Wowski before and we never discover if this little dog – a terrier surely – recovers to yap and leap and bother passing carriages again.

Dogs are so often our unacknowledged companions, a call on our heart, but rarely considered important enough to figure in published histories – until poor Wowski leaps into view. He may have been dead for well over 200 years, but I winced when I read about his accident and can’t help hoping  he did eventually recover.

*Published in John Byng’s Rides Around Britain

Wowski

Warning

I’m sure I heard that dogs can smell cancer in us – they just don’t know that the information might be useful to us.

There is  a tradition, though, when disaster looms, of warnings given by animals – who will even speak at times. C S Lewis drew on it in That Hideous Strength when, before an impending earthquake he writes:

One had heard his donkey, another her cat, say “as clear as clear”: “Go away. ” 

Paul Farley speculates that the disappearance of sparrows – once so familiar, ubiquitous, companionable – is a conscious withdrawal, as these old friends leave us to rattle off to hell in our handcarts all by ourselves. Of course, if we were still woken by dawn choruses, the unwonted quiet in the mornings, outside our bedroom windows, would be as clear an alarm as you could imagine. 

The poem is, For the House Sparrow, in Decline:

Your numbers fall and it’s tempting to think
you’re deserting our suburbs and estates
like your cousins at Pompeii; that when you return
to bathe in dust and build your nests again
in a roofless world where no one hears your cheeps,
only a starling’s modem mimicry
will remind you of how you once supplied
the incidental music of our lives.

Warning

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This week on Radio Four the BBC is broadcasting extracts from Svetlana’s Alexievich’s oral history of the experiences of Russian women soldiers in the second world. It’s marvellous – terrible and sad, horrifying, moving and inspiring too. Well worth a listen on iPlayer.

Here’s a review of the book from the Guardian:

[A] sense of absolute directness and immediacy lies at the heart of Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history of the Russian women who fought in the second world war, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Over seven years in the late 1970s and early 80s, she interviewed many hundreds of women, the pilots, doctors, partisans, snipers and anti-aircraft gunners who served on the front line, and the legions of laundresses, cooks, telephone operators and engine drivers who backed them up.Very few of those she approached refused to talk to her. One former pilot, who turned her down, told her that she could not bear to return in her mind to the three years during which she had felt herself not to be a woman. When, in the ruins of Berlin, her future husband proposed to her, she had been outraged. “How, in the midst of chaos? Begin by making me a woman,” she told him. For the rest, the women poured out their memories to her, not simply recounting them, but reimagining them. The simpler the women, the more their stories were “uninfected by secondary knowledge”.

Source: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich review – for ‘filth’ read truth | Books | The Guardian

I have been looking at Svetlana’s books for a few months now, since they started appearing on the bookshelves (Penguin have published her oral history of the Chernobyl Disaster Chernobyl Prayer and a lovely edition from Fitzcarraldo Editions of stories from people living through the end of the the Soviet Union, called Second Hand Time

I didn’t buy because I had enough in my unread pile already, but thought, if I’m lucky, here’s a new Studs Terkel…

Did I mention she’s a Nobel prize laureate too?

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich