THE EASTERN FRONT of 1941–’45 was the first, and perhaps the only war in which women fought on a mass scale. They fought on the Soviet side, up to a million of them, and mostly volunteers; they may have tipped the balance for the Soviet victory. Was this a great advance for the liberation of women, or was it a terrible exception, never to be repeated? The title of Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s collection of testimonies, The Unwomanly Face of War, implies that those women did not belong at the front, that they were “out of place.” The German army certainly agreed: as a Russian doctor remembers, “[they] didn’t take women soldiers prisoner … They shot them at once.” Or worse.

Soviet women soldiers fought with unimaginable courage and endurance, only to face slander and neglect after they returned. It was not until 30 or more years later that Alexievich began to gather their testimonies. The Unwomanly Face of War is both a tribute to what these women endured and a justification of what they chose to do. If there can be a feminist defense of mass violence, this book delivers it.

Alexievich says that she feels a deep hatred for war, and in Boys in Zinc — about the Soviet war in Afghanistan — she argues that wars are caused by some fundamental flaw in male nature. Yet the women who fought on the Eastern Front also tried to do so according to their own nature. The founding principle of Alexievich’s feminist approach to war is her sympathy for her women soldiers’ attempts to preserve and express their femininity. Many of them were doctors, nurses, battlefield medics, and cooks. In all these roles, they were more devoted to saving Russian lives than to killing Germans. The medics had the enormously hard, terrifying job of carrying wounded infantrymen back to safety. Still, many women were eager to kill the enemy, serving as tank crews, gunners, and snipers — and as fighter pilots:

We would sit under a parachute, waiting for our assignment. The men smoked, played dominoes, and we, while waiting for a signal to take off, sat and embroidered handkerchiefs. We stayed women.

Alexievich gives many details of women longing for proper underwear, using their sugar rations to curl their hair, and the like. She tries to reconcile femininity and the warrior spirit and this was also the aim, to some extent, of the Soviet authorities. Women were favored as snipers, for example, because they were “patient and cunning,” with flexible limbs and soft hands on the trigger. About two thousand graduated from sniper school, and proved themselves in battle. More than half were killed.

Should there be a distinction between a woman writing as a historian, and a historian writing as a woman? Alexievich is frank about making the latter choice, and about her lack of interest in military history proper, in the sense of weapons, battles, or strategy. She is writing a history of “little people,” and of feelings rather than events. There are no descriptions of Stalingrad, Kursk, or other great turning points on the Eastern Front, except for the fragmentary memories of women who happened to have fought there. “A great idea needs a small human being,” she writes, “I look for small great human beings.”

When Alexievich started work on The Unwomanly Face of War in 1978 she was 30. The women she found to interview were about 30 years older than her, and had effectively been silenced since 1945. To gather their testimony she had the new technology of the cassette recorder (which also protected her from subsequent lawsuits). The Unwomanly Face of War represents the experience of hundreds of thousands of women on the Eastern Front. Alexievich’s portrait is an assembly of fragments. The women relate things that happened to them, rather than things they caused to happen. None of them served at the decision-making level, as field officers or generals.

Like other pioneers of the oral history genre, notably Studs Terkel and Tony Parker, Alexievich removed her own questions from the published text thereby obscuring her own participation in “leading the witness.” She interviewed more than 500 women for The Unwomanly Face of War, most of whom achieved no mention in the published text. Of those women who are included, many speak for less than a page, or even for a few sentences. The impact of The Unwomanly Face of War, as of Alexievich’s other works, comes from condensation and selection. In subsequent attacks on her books, interviewees complained that their own words — preserved on tape — no longer represented their views, because of the way Alexievich had rearranged them.

The Unwomanly Face of War is necessarily a composite of reportage and creation. In their raw state, Alexievich’s thousands of hours of interviews document history, but cannot interpret it. To select from this material is to transform the brute facts of collective memory. For his classic photo-book The Americans — not a modest title! — Robert Frank took 28,000 pictures as he drove around the country. The book includes just 83 of them. This may be an extreme case, but Alexievich also presents a collection of decisive moments, taken from four years of struggle much of which must have consisted of boredom and routine.

Her first rule of selection may seem simple enough: these are all wartime experiences specifically of women. Yet most of them went to the front for reasons that were not specifically feminine: to defend the motherland, or to avenge family members who had already fallen. Further, their war was “unwomanly” in the sense that they were transgressing gender expectations by fighting in it. Alexievich’s more recent book, Boys in Zinc, shows over and over again that boys who went to fight in Afghanistan did so in the hope that they were going to become men. But as Valentina Chudaeva, an anti-aircraft gunner, says here: “God didn’t make us for shooting, He made us for love.”

Shoot they did, though, however much it conflicted with their sense of their own natures. Theirs was a personal dilemma, but also a provocation to the male order, on both sides of the front line. The Unwomanly Face of War contains horrific stories of the torture and sexual mutilation of women who fell into German hands. And those who survived and returned to the Soviet Union were often stigmatized as well, especially by women who had not fought. “Front women” were resented for being foul-mouthed and unfeminine or, conversely, as sluts who had only joined up to have sex with the real heroes — the men. When Alexievich started her interviews, most of her subjects had kept a long silence about their experiences at the front, or even denied that they had ever been there. Natalya Ivanovna Sergeeva was a nurse who once looked after two hundred wounded men in a shed, single-handed, for four days without sleep. “I want to speak,” she said, “Finally somebody wants to hear us. […] I’ve been waiting all the while for somebody, I knew somebody would come.”

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Boys in Zinc was begun while the Afghan War (1979–’89) was still in progress, and Alexievich visited the front herself a few months before the Soviet withdrawal. The title comes from the zinc coffins in which the dead were sent home. (Or parts of the dead, in which case dirt was added to make up the weight.) Half a million Soviet troops served in Afghanistan, and 15,000 of them died. No one counted the Afghan dead, but there were probably at least a million. Boys in Zinc enraged many veterans; there were legal attempts to suppress the book, or to claim damages by those who felt their own words had somehow been distorted. One veteran testified that Alexievich had “deprived our entire ‘Afghani’ generation of moral justification,” and had become rich and famous by doing so. To which one might respond that she did precisely the opposite, morally justifying the conscience of her country. Boys in Zinc may be a more stringent reckoning than any that has been made for US wars from Vietnam to Iraq.

In 1978 the Soviets had set up a client regime in Kabul with the aim of “modernizing” Afghan society, by force if necessary. When the Mujahideen started their rebellion, Brezhnev felt obliged to intervene militarily in support of his client. “They were defending their Homeland,” one veteran told Alexievich, “but what were we doing? We played the part of the Germans — that’s what one young guy told me.” The most savage fighting of World War II was between the German army and partisan guerrillas, especially in Alexievich’s Belarus. In Afghanistan the Soviets were not facing any visible army: just partisans everywhere. The Soviets called them “Spirits” because they were so rarely seen, except as corpses, and because they killed silently.

Then there was the lieutenant who found a small child at the side of the road, and went off with his driver to return the child to a nearby kishlak (village compound):

We waited for them for an hour; it was only twenty minutes there and back.

They were lying in the sand. The lieutenant and his driver. In the middle of the kishlak. […] The women had killed them with hoes.

It is not hard to imagine the consequences of such events. “We became even more cruel than the enemy,” one private recalls, “after what we did there, we’ll never get into heaven.”

In the courtroom where Alexievich was being tried for libel, a spectator said:

we believed that we lived in the best country, the most just country. But you tell us that we lived in a different country — a terrible country, drenched in blood. Who’s going to forgive you for that?

The case ended with no clear verdict, and many still attack Alexievich for airing her country’s dirty laundry in public, and for tarnishing the honor of the soldiers who had died. She could only reply that she had reported the truth, and had the tapes to prove it. Nonetheless Boys in Zinc, like The Unwomanly Face of War, presents narratives and explanations that are ultimately of its author’s creation. Whether in Afghanistan, the Eastern Front, or anywhere else, Alexievich’s message is the terrible seductiveness of war, and its terrible power to transform those who take part in it.

Unlike the Eastern Front, women did not serve in Afghanistan except in auxiliary roles, such as nurses or clerks. When Alexievich went there, it seemed to her “that war is a creation of the male nature and incomprehensible in many ways. […] At war everything’s different: you, and nature, and your thoughts.” This transformation is often self-willed, but it presents a cruel paradox. An infantry officer says: “If you ask me whether [I went] for an idea or to understand who I am, of course it was the second one. I wanted to test myself, see what I was capable of.” As in any war, men went to Afghanistan to confirm their identities, by finding out if they were the kind of person that a man should be. Except that, as one private says, “After two or three weeks there’ll be nothing of the old you left, just your name. You aren’t you any longer, but someone else.”

This sense of complete dissociation between before and after is part of the PTSD from which almost all of Alexievich’s informants seem to be suffering. It also fuels their rage against those who criticize them from the safety of civilian life. Alexievich begins Boys in Zinc with the story of a mother whose son dismembered someone with an axe, because he had lied about having been in Afghanistan. “My son was a murderer,” she says, “Because he did here what they did out there.”

In the United States, veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq also carry the scars of their service: violence, addiction, suicide. But there has been nothing like the radical disillusionment, across Soviet society, produced by Brezhnev’s decision to go to war in 1979. It could be argued that failure in Afghanistan took the entire Soviet system down with it. The troops found that they were miserably supplied with food, equipment, and medical treatment, especially in the early years of the war. There was also pervasive corruption and brutal treatment of incoming recruits by older soldiers, the so-called “grand-dads.” Another factor was the realization that Afghanistan, a supposedly backward country, had all kinds of consumer goods that were impossible to find in the USSR: jeans, toiletries, cassette players. When troops tried to take such things home, they were stolen by officials before they could board their return flights.

The Afghanistan campaign was a comprehensive disaster for the Soviets, but the story told by Boys in Zinc — and by The Unwomanly Face of War — is not entirely bleak. Alexievich’s informants can often speak of their trials with shattering insight and eloquence. Ordinary soldiers, both men and women, constantly quote the Russian poets and novelists and find consolation in them. If the Russian soul is formed by suffering, as Alexievich contends, it is suffering that has been given an unforgettable voice.

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Paul Delany’s recent books include biographies of Bill Brandt, George Gissing, and Rupert Brooke.