Book Review: The Unwomanly Face Of War is a terrific (and terrifying) counter-history of World War II

Gang rapes, limbs amputated with carpenter’s saws and no anesthetic, partisans drowning their own bawling babies, prisoners of war being stabbed and brained to death, suicides dangling from village trees—the revised edition of the Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich’s landmark book about the experiences of Soviet women during World War II, newly translated as The Unwomanly Face Of War, is as much an oratorio of horror as an oral history. It begins, more or less, with a cacophony of nameless, faceless voices: pages and pages of out-of-context interview material, the worst of the worst, censored from the original Soviet edition or cut by Alexievich herself. Who are these people? Are they interviewed elsewhere in the book? Did she make them up as some kind of rhetorical device? Before this comes a very brief history of women in the military—from ancient Greece to World War II—and …

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