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Book Reviews "Women in/and the Military" (2 titles)

Svetlana Alexievitch, La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme [Svetlana Aleksievich, U voiny ne zhenskoe litso, Moskva : Pal’mira 2004] [The face of war is not feminin], Paris : Presses de la Renaissance, 2004, 399 pages.

Vincent Porteret

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1In this book Svetlana Alexievitch gives another view point about the Second World War in the USSR : she shows the different ways that women have waged this war. As she says, she aims to write not another book about war but “a book about mankind in war” (p.15), about his feelings... Her objective is to give women the opportunity to tell the reader their story, a story that is, for many, unknown and, as we learn, hidden. By letting these women express themselves openly, she simply listened and tried to “note down the testimonies of women who had different military jobs” (p.102). She often had “no more strength to listen. But they still needed to talk” (p.312) about “their” war.

2The reader follows the different steps of the way women went into war. They left their towns, their parents, some of them their children and husbands, their friends... with enthusiasm and patriotism. These feelings made it easier for women to wear the uniform and to play roles usually reserved for men. As such we can say that this “total” war did have a woman’s face. But it doesn’t mean the roles of women were always seen as legitimate: at the beginning, they often met many difficulties to be taken seriously as soldiers: because, for them, “everything in the Army was complicated” (p.116), it was an unknown environment. Men accepted the women but some explain it was not an easy experience: “we did more than men, because we had to show that we were just like them” (p.250), something which is still true today in armies where women are employed. They learnt new jobs and how to fight; all of which brought them into contact with a world of fear, horror and death.

3They were deeply upset by this experience. More than 50 years after, they all explain that their life completely changed because of what they had experienced there, even those who had had more “traditional” jobs like laundresses in the armies. Some explain they don’t cry anymore; others tell the author they left a part of themselves on the battlefield. For all of them the war was also a very difficult experience physically which influenced their behaviour over a short or long period of time. But, paradoxically, even if war induced many transformations in the way they thought about themselves, they “tried to remain the same” (232) as they used to be. They tried to break the uniformity what was a condition of their acceptance within the armies, for example their hair was cut very short just like the men’s. Thus, many were afraid to loose their feminity and looked for attitudes or situations that made it possible for them to be “like other women”, as far as possible (to dance during a party but incognito, to keep a skirt, a ring, to love...) and not to live only collective experiences, but individual ones too, for example love.

4The homecoming was a second and deep rupture, not only for those whose families died during the war. Most of them hoped life would be back to normal again but they met a lack of understanding of what they really did during the war. They expected some recognition and often received contempt, insults especially from women who stayed at the home front and who accused them of having sexual relations with men, their men. Thus, as one says, they waged another war, “a terrible one too” (p.392). It was the end of the arms’ fraternity: “men walked out on us. They didn’t protect us” (p.392). Most of the women decided to tell nobody they wore the uniform and kept in touch with other women by letters (p.148). The recognition comes later than for men who “were the winners, the heroes, some potential fiancés, it was their war. [...] Our victory had been confiscated from us. It had been discreetly exchanged for an ordinary feminine happiness” (p.148). As we may say, the sexual division of labor must go on. That could explain why this part of these war memories has remained hidden: these feminine soldiers felt guilty. Such a feeling had been reinforced by the attitudes of civilians; it made it difficult for women to remember what they experienced during and after the war, and nobody really wanted to listen to what they’d like to say. Only a few veteran’s organizations try to keep the memory alive; they helped the author to meet these women in uniform.

5Svetlana Alexievitch’s point of view is very empathic. She wanted to remain faithful to what the women she interviewed told her and she managed to do so but the reader doesn’t know a lot of thing about the author’s method, about how she selected the testimonies, ... The testimonies are given to the reader without commentaries except for some observations about the difficulties the author had (for example the book begins with a few pages bout what the censure suppressed – her own censure and the regime’s one both deal partly with the relationships between men and women). We have a lot of details about the women’s work, their relationships with other soldiers, their feelings... All these elements put light on a subject often discussed: did women really wage war, did they wear arms? Alexievitch’s work answers positively, but from a particular example and from a special context. The questions brought to the surface by this experience could be further investigated in other contexts, especially about recent participations of women in military operations around, in other forms of war... That could put light on the sexual division of labor, and on war too.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Svetlana Alexievitch, La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme [Svetlana Aleksievich, U voiny ne zhenskoe litso, Moskva : Pal’mira 2004] [The face of war is not feminin], Paris : Presses d

Electronic reference

Vincent Porteret, « Svetlana Alexievitch, La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme [Svetlana Aleksievich, U voiny ne zhenskoe litso, Moskva : Pal’mira 2004] [The face of war is not feminin], Paris : Presses de la Renaissance, 2004, 399 pages. », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 4/5 | 2006, Online since 27 November 2006, connection on 16 December 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/489

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About the author

Vincent Porteret

Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne - CNRS

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This text is under a Creative Commons license : Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

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