[Trigger warning for discussion of rape and sexual violence. Spoiler warning for Garth Ennis’ Battlefields Vol. 1.]
One key decision I made while writing Among the Red Stars was the choice not to have any of the characters experience sexual violence. Some people may be puzzled by this choice; after all, isn’t rape a common war crime committed against enemy women in many armed conflicts, and weren’t the Night Witches, in combat against the Nazis, particularly vulnerable?
Many atrocities took place on the Eastern Front, but the women of Aviation Group 122 make virtually no references to sexual violence. One of the only mentions comes from Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, who wasn’t a Night Witch but the commander of a mixed-gender attack squadron:
I don’t know if I lost consciousness, but when I opened my eyes there was a fascist standing over me with his boot on my chest. I was seriously injured: I had a broken spine, head injuries, broken arms, and a broken leg. I was burned on my knees, legs, and feet, and the skin was torn on my neck. I remember the face of the fascist; I was very afraid that I would be tortured or raped. (Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death 224)
In this case, it seems, she escaped sexual violence (she was thrown in a truck without any medical treatment and shipped to a concentration camp, which is surely horrifying enough on its own). There certainly may have been unreported rapes, although, as the above quote shows, they didn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of physical violence . But most of the airwomen never even met enemy combatants face to face. Rape wasn’t a defining part of the Night Witch experience as reported by the women themselves, and we owe it to them to allow them to define their own experiences. (What did sometimes happen is still prevalent in the modern military: sexual assault at the hands of their own male officers.)
But it isn’t purely a question of historicity. Thematically, how does the inclusion of a rape scene affect this kind of story? What message does it send?
One of the few English-language fictional representations of the Night Witches is Garth Ennis’ graphic novel Battlefields: The Night Witches. Despite its gorgeous illustrations and solid writing, it just doesn’t feel like a respectful handling of the source material. There are a lot of reasons (why does a story ostensibly about women have a male narrator and a mostly male cast?), but one major reason was the prominent role of rape in the storyline. One Night Witch gets gang-raped and murdered by the Nazis, two more shoot themselves to escape the same fate, and a fourth is rescued by another Wehrmacht soldier, all in one short volume that only manages to give two airwomen names.
Rape, a gendered threat, thus replaces death as the primary danger these women face (only one airwoman is actually killed in combat). This framing emphasizes women’s unique weakness. Sexual violence, of course, can and does happen to men during wartime as well, but neither Battlefields nor war fiction in general acknowledges this. Thus, the focus subtlely shifts off of women as strong and heroic and onto women as weak and vulnerable. These women aren’t defying death, they’re escaping rape. The reader’s implicit reaction isn’t “Those total badasses,” it’s “Those poor things.”
We do need stories that tackle real-world problems like rape. But we also need stories where women are allowed to be brave and tough and adventurous without the constant reminder that they are women and therefore vulnerable. Among the Red Stars is about real-life heroes and I intend to portray them as they portrayed themselves: as competent, determined, patriotic warriors, not as victims or “poor things.”
PO-2 illustration by me. Photo of Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova found here.