History, Emotion, and the Unwomanly Face of War

Human life is driven by emotion. Yet most history books show little feeling, focusing on facts over experiences. This is particularly true of military history, despite the intense emotions war evokes, from the exhilaration of combat to the depths of grief.

The Unwomanly Face of War breaks this pattern in extraordinary style.

A Powerful Read

The Unwomanly Face of War was researched and written by journalist Svetlana Alexievich. It details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. When it was first published in 1985, it was a groundbreaking work, revealing a side of the war that fitted poorly with the USSR’s official accounts. Extraordinarily, despite its huge significance and international impact, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Most of the book is filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war. These provide powerful testimonies to the experiences of these soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. From saving lives by leaping upon burning tanks to losing a baby while hiding in a swamp, both the details and the way they are presented catch at the heart in a way that most military history doesn’t.

In this book, we read the human experience of war in a way seldom seen elsewhere.

The Author’s Shadow

Like any history book, this isn’t a simple presentation of facts, but their careful cultivation to prove a point. Alexievich is open about this, making her role explicit throughout. She describes finding and meeting these women, talking with them, and making difficult decisions about what to include.

Making the audience aware of the author can often create a sense of distance. In this case, it brings us closer to the story. Alexievich describes her own reactions and those of the women to being asked about their lives. The way the war still affects them decades later adds to the power of what these veterans have to say.

Another Side of Humanity

This book is important because it shows the underrepresented role of women in fighting the Second World War. It explores the extra challenges they faced and the way the war transformed their lives. It pays tribute to their courage, skill, and tenacity.

In doing so, it reveals how incomplete our view of military history is. These women struggle to express their stories, for a range of social, political, and personal reasons. Yet they are able to reveal aspects of war that few men could discuss, indoctrinated as we are to bury our feelings and hide our weaknesses. I have read dozens, probably hundreds of books based on men’s accounts of war, and never felt like I had a complete view of it as a human experience. The Unwomanly Face of War fills an important gap in that picture.

Reading these stories, it feels like an act of madness to have ignored them for so long. But perhaps that ignorance was protective, a way of hiding ourselves from the traumatic reality of conflict. Never having been a combatant, I’ll never truly know, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also grateful to Svetlana Alexievich for revealing to me another face of war.

“Why We Fight” – Getting a Story’s Name Just Right

One of the hardest parts of writing a story is finding a good name. It should evoke atmosphere, draw attention, maybe even add something more to the meaning of the tale. I don’t find a title I like even half the times I write. So when a story does it really well, that’s worth looking at.

“Why We Fight”, the ninth episode of historical drama miniseries Band of Brothers, has one of the most perfectly chosen titles I’ve ever found. It evokes the tone of the episode, draws the audience into the characters’ minds, and adds nuance to the uncomfortable issues present.

Like all of Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight” follows Easy Company, an American paratroop unit taking part in the Second World WarThis episode focuses on Captain Lewis Nixon, while also showing the experiences of other characters.

It’s late in the war. The company are fighting their way across Germany. They’ve lost a lot of people and they’ve seen a lot of destruction. Most of them look battered and weary.

Nixon might be one of the weariest. He’s missed out on fighting thanks to a command liaison job, but has still seen the hellish side of war. Now he’s battling with the bottle and been booted back to a combat post. His wife writes to say that she’s leaving him. Nixon, who we first met as someone bright and charming, is falling apart. He fights with others because of the toll the war has taken on him.

Meanwhile, a new man joins the squad. He’s never seen combat. He’s eager to do his part and to see action while he still can. He wants to fight because it seems noble and heroic, while the men around him fight on because that’s their job. The innocence was long ago knocked out of them.

During the first half of the episode, this is how the question of “Why We Fight” is addressed. It’s all about individual motives and personalities.

Then comes the moment that changes everything, both for Easy Company and for the viewer. A group of soldiers stumble across a sight of such horror that they don’t have words for it. We seem them standing stunned, unable to comprehend what lies before them. A few minutes later, the truth is revealed to viewers, most of whom must already have guessed.

Easy Company have found a concentration camp.

Suddenly, the meaning of the episode is turned on its head. Now, when we ask “Why We Fight”, we’re talking about why these nations have gone to war, why the horrors of the Nazi regime had to be faced. “Aha!” thinks the viewer, myself included the first time around. “This is why they fight. To stop the Holocaust.”

But that reaction digs out a deeper, less comfortable truth.

The Holocaust was one of the defining features of the Second World War, a process of nearly unparalleled evil. Yet we’re on episode nine out of ten of Band of Brothers and it’s only just been mentioned. Why?

Because the Holocaust is not “Why We Fight”.

The Allies fought against Nazi Germany for many reasons. Out of self-interest. To protect friendly nations. To stop a relentlessly aggressive regime. But to stop the Holocaust? No.

When they entered the war, Allied leaders didn’t know how bad things were under the Nazis. They had no way of knowing how bad they would become as the war progressed. In 1942, when reports reached them through the Polish government in exile, they chose not to publicise the attrocities. They were afraid that no-one would believe them and that there would be a backlash against the extreme claims.

An argument can be made that the Allies fought to stop evil regimes. Their actions certainly had the effect of ending the Holocaust. But the death camps and the horrors they represented were not “Why We Fight”.

And so the name of this episode draws attention not just to the struggles of Easy Company, but to our own struggle with the past. The fact that the Allies ended something so evil lets us paint the Second World War in black and white. But just like the soldiers who stand stunned in the face of that concentration camp, our governments didn’t know what they were facing when they went to war. They didn’t fight to stop this. That they did so was a happy side effect, if the word “happy” can ever be used here.

This is why “Why We Fight” is the perfect name for this story. It gives us an angle from which to consider what the characters are going through. It provides a lever with which to open up our own perceptions, to face questions about the past and about how we view it.

Story titles don’t get more fitting than that.

Beneath Cloudy Skies – a historical flash story

Estelle stood in the darkness beneath the trees, watching the surrounding fields. Her heart was pounding from her frantic cycle ride and from the fear of being caught. But she had heard the bomber go by overhead and seen the flash as it crashed in the distance. If any of the crew had survived, they would have landed somewhere around here. If she was to save them from the Nazis, she had to act quickly.

It was a cloudy night, as it usually was when the British sent out a raid. It was almost impossible to make out shapes in the darkness. If she hadn’t been so familiar with these fields, she might never have noticed the movement by a hedgerow. As she peered more closely a shape emerged – a man, made bulky by his thick jacket, a bundle in his arms.

As she approached, the man dropped his burden, parachute silk tumbling across the stubble of this year’s corn. He pulled out a pistol and pointed it at her.

“Friend,” she said, trying to sound reassuring despite her fear. “You understand?”

He said something in English – she had no idea what – then put his pistol away.

Estelle grabbed the parachute and thrust it into the depths of a haystack.

“I’ll come back and bury it later,” she said. “You understand?”

The airman stood staring.

“Never mind,” Estelle said. “I can take you to-”

Engines roared through the silent countryside. Cars coming this way along the winding road, their lights just bright enough to see a few feet in front of them.

Only the occupiers and their pet authorities drove at this time of night.

She grabbed the airman’s arm and pulled him after her, running up the hill toward the trees. He stumbled, found his footing, and kept moving, even as one of the cars moved off the road and headed across the field, slowing as they bounced across rough ground.

The Germans must have seen a parachute coming down and come to look. She prayed that they were too busy driving to spot her in the darkness.

She flung herself behind one of the trees. The airman did the same. As Estelle peered out, she saw that the car had stopped less than two hundred yards away. Four flashlights blinked on, their bearers spreading out to scour the area. Two were heading this way.

She looked at the airman, barely visible in the shadows and the night. There was still time for her to get away on her own – to grab the bicycle and ride to safety. She had come out here to help this man, but if he was clumsy or stupid then he could get them both caught. For him, that would mean a prisoner of war camp, for her torture and death.

He didn’t try to look out from behind his tree. Instead he looked at her, waiting for her next move, trusting her to make their choices.

That was enough.

She moved deeper into the trees, going slowly and carefully to avoid making noise. She waved to the airman to follow. As he did, he seemed to imitate her movements, taking the path she had picked out, one that avoided dense undergrowth and places where she knew dead wood and dried leaves fell.

The beam of a torch flashed into the woods. Estelle scrambled beneath a thicket of dense, low-lying bushes. The airman followed her. As they lay in the darkness she could hear him breathing inches from her face.

The torch shone above their heads again. Footsteps approached, breaking twigs underfoot and crashing through the undergrowth. The man called out in German and someone replied.

He was less than twenty yards from them now and still coming closer. He held his torch in one hand, a light machine-gun in the other. All he had to do was look down and they would be caught. Taken away to a dank cell and a man who knew all about questions and about pain.

The airmen shifted beside Estelle. She heard the faint sound of something being drawn from a pouch at his belt. Then he reached out past her, moving with terrible slowness, pointing a pistol at the German.

Horror gripped Estelle. Was he mad? Didn’t he understand that there were other soldiers around, that they would close in the moment they heard the shot? What good was shooting this one man if it got them caught?

Silently, she placed her hand on the airman’s arm and pushed down. For a moment he resisted, but then he gave way, letting her lower his weapon.

The man with the torch kept walking, past them and away into the night.

They lay there until the Germans were long gone. Then Estelle led the airman out of the darkness and down the winding, narrow roads to her family’s farm.

Dawn was breaking as they entered the kitchen. Papa was up, cooking breakfast with his one good hand. He greeted the airman in broken English, and the airman responded in a rush of words, a smile of relief filling his face.

“I think he says to thank you,” Papa said. “For saving him from the Nazis.”

Estelle shrugged and sat down at the table, waiting for the eggs to be served. She was tired and needed the energy to help her think. Already she was considering when and where to contact the escape line, how they would get the airman to people who could start his journey home.

“Tell him he’s not safe yet,” she said. “His journey has only just begun.”

* * *

 

The work of the escape lines during World War Two was truly remarkable. Civilians risked their lives to get stranded airmen, soldiers, and spies out of Nazi-occupied Europe. Many lost their lives in the process or suffered imprisonment and interrogation at the hands of the Nazis’ brutal security services. If you want to know more, I recommend Ian Dear’s book Escape and Evasion, which also covers other escapes of the Second World War.

And if you’d like more historical fiction, check out my short story collection From a Foreign Shore or sign up to my mailing list for stories straight to your inbox every week.