The war story is one of the most convenient nationally defining narratives because it relies on an immediate opposition between nations: Nation A sends its soldiers to destroy those of Nation B, with the success of each nation reliant on killing those who represent the other’s interests. The violence enacted upon these physical bodies is then abstracted into figurative violence upon the body politic, and the subsequent national reactions create new parameters of collective identity or reinforce the rightness of preexisting ones. In short, as sociologist Charles Tilly once wrote, “war makes the state.”
Perhaps that goes some way towards explaining why war is so often presented as a wholly masculine endeavor. Making the state entails power, and as everyone knows, that kind of power is reserved for men.
Records of actual military conflict, however, tell a different story.
Although most front-line personnel in modern wars have been male, women have by no means been absent from combat, whether in pre-modern conflicts or those closer to our present. The Trung Sisters in 1st-century Vietnam, for instance, were feared military leaders who led an army to victory against Chinese soldiers. Queen Nzinga of Angola planned battle strategies to push back colonizers in Angola. The onna-bugeisha of feudal Japan, upper-class women trained in combat, used their skills with deadly weapons to protect their households. And the Soviets in World War II had the Night Witches.
The Night Witches were fighter pilots who belonged to the all-female and highly decorated 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. Despite having only small wooden training biplanes to fly into battle, almost one-third of these women received the Hero of the Soviet Union award, the country’s highest combat distinction. (1) Although they were not the only Soviet women to engage enemy forces – the female snipers of the same military racked up hundreds, maybe thousands, of Axis dead – they certainly had the catchiest nickname, courtesy of German soldiers who a) supposedly thought their planes sounded like broomsticks and b) needed a disparaging term that incorporated femininity, because how dare mere women take out so many manly Nazi soldiers?
It has all the makings of a classic war story: social underdogs saddled with shoddy equipment, suffering shocking degrees of loss (the Night Witches lost thirty of their eighty pilots during the war), going up against impossible odds to save the day. Why isn’t it better known?
Part of the answer, I think, is that those of us who grew up while the Cold War was still ongoing have been primed to view “the Soviets” as the Communist enemy. It’s difficult within that framework to acknowledge the possibility of Russia having done something admirable, even at a time when our countries were fighting on the same side against the Nazis. Yet the history of Soviet Russia has gained a lot of traction in America and other Anglophone countries, or at least some of it has. Military hardware, propaganda posters, old-school Communist writings, and more: yes. The Night Witches, and women like them: keep dreaming. In a society where patriarchy continues to dominate, too much depends upon silencing narratives that foreground women fighting – because if our conventional histories acknowledge women’s active roles in defending the motherland and making the state, we would start to question the patriarchal structures that benefit from promoting such histories.
This is the very issue Ennis seeks to address through Night Witches, and indeed is one of the major issues informing his work as a whole. As the inaugural story arc in the Battlefields series of war comics, with covers featuring the usual visual motifs of planes/red tones/strong angular figures/etc., Night Witches is not presented as ideologically or narratively separate from more popular (male-centric) conceptions of what constitutes a war story. For all intents and purposes, the comic is a typical war story aside from gender, yet this is where its subversive power lies: not only does it subvert war narratives’ centering of masculinity by positioning women at the heart of its story, it also uses close adherence to genre conventions to achieve that subversion.
Anna Kharkova, the central character of Night Witches, is the scrappy protagonist underappreciated by her superior officer but ready to do her damndest for the war effort and capable of surpassing the expectations of those in authority. Said superior officer, Lukin, grows to respect, admire, and care for Anna as her abilities emerge. Anna even gets the double whammy of doomed wartime romance and character development via the death of a comrade in arms: not long after becoming her lover, Lukin fails to come back from a mission and is never seen again, while the death of her co-pilot Zoya is the catalyst for Anna’s transformation into battle-hardened warrior. If you’ve ever seen a war movie, you will be familiar with these plot beats, except this time they’re being driven by women.
But although applying supposedly masculine genre tropes to a comic about women is in itself a subversive act, centering women and displacing men in a war narrative is much more than a simple act of gendered substitution, and Ennis’s approach to Anna and her crew makes this very clear. The idea that women are central to “making the state” undermines the patriarchal foundations of how history at large is presented to us and, thus, of how we construe our modern sociopolitical structures and relationships to our collective pasts.
Anna’s physical attributes fall into the stereotypical categories of sexualized and vulnerable femininity. She is so short that she has to sit on a cushion to see out of her cockpit window, and is pejoratively described by a male officer with the phrase “the little one’s got big tits.” (2) However, rather than attempting to reframe these attributes in a way that would be more acceptable to a male-dominated power structure, she mentions them without equivocation. “I’m not very big,” she informs Lukin, looking straight into his eyes – and there is no “but” appended to the end of it. (3) She also reappropriates pejorative references to femininity regarding the world around her; after Lukin calls the Night Witches’ planes “sewing machines” to underscore their flimsiness, for example, she says, “I like my little sewing machine”, turning an insult into an expression of almost maternal domestic affection. (4) For Anna, combat piloting skills and being a short busty woman piloting a “sewing machine” or put another way, excelling in a masculine sphere and unapologetically inhabiting feminine physical and social spaces, are not mutually exclusive.
Fittingly, the enemy in Night Witches – a division of Nazis – espouses toxic patriarchal masculinity, which is depicted as a hugely destructive force, at every possible turn. They interpret the existence of the Night Witches as a black mark against the Russians: “Sending women out to fight, they’re nothing but sub-human scum”. (5) To them, women in combat are aberrations illustrating Russian men’s failure to live up to restrictive, aggression-based ideals of masculinity. When the Nazi soldiers capture one of the Night Witches, each man in the division (except one) sexually assaults her in a display of dominance before their commanding officer kills her; the one soldier who resists is ordered to remain with her corpse until dawn, and is forbidden “to tidy her up, or make her decent, or even [have] covered her up with your coat”. (6) Their sense of superiority is dependent on keeping women vulnerable, and on inducing complicity in those de facto collaborators who seek to break out of this framework.
The Nazis inhabit a world where women are not meant to make an effort to protect their greater interests in the nation-shaping theater of war; where war, and indeed any sort of combat, is an exercise of masculine power; where women who intrude upon this masculine sphere are punished via aggressive gendered attacks upon their female bodies, because how dare they threaten the master race’s male superiority? Through the contrast between the German and Soviet forces Ennis links the failure to challenge this mindset with the violent pursuit of sexual and racial supremacy, which leads to equally violent death and isolation for those who pursue it.
Readers familiar with the Russia-Germany conflict in World War II, Mother Russia vs. the Vaterland, will already know how this ends. The combination of Russia’s huge, unfamiliar expanses and punishing winters didn’t treat the German troops so well. Thus one of our last sights in Night Witches is two men in Wehrmacht uniforms bleeding out in the snow, dying in isolation from anyone who could save them. It would be more pitiable if we did not know what they had done, or at least what they had allowed to happen.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the most common parental appellations attached to each country are of different genders, but in the context of Night Witches this discrepancy can be read as underscoring the opposition between the elite feminine of Russia and the not-so-elite masculine of Nazi Germany, which the latter finds inconceivable. In fact, this threatened masculinity is what gives rise to the “Night Witches” nickname (Nachthexen in German), both in the comic and in real life. The “Night” part of the nickname has a simple explanation, namely that the pilots carried out their missions after dark, but “Witches” suggests supernatural, inhuman power, as though no woman could naturally beat a man in the proprietarily male arena of global war.
But surely #NotAllMen hold such toxic views, some readers might protest, and even those men who do still possess good qualities. The German soldiers in Night Witches adopt a stray dog as an unofficial troop mascot; they disdain Hitler’s demagoguery; their banter is underlaid with deep loyalty to one another. All good qualities – but, when tainted by passive complicity, these are not enough. Pulling back somewhat from Nazi ideology is not enough if other toxic models of supremacy are extant. Simply recusing oneself from oppressive acts without challenging them is not enough, and is a surefire way to fall short of redemption. This is the case for Graf, the one soldier who refuses to sexually assault the female Soviet pilot captured by his division. Although he saves Anna from his fellow soldiers when her plane crashes, she fatally stabs him in the back, since she cannot speak his language and therefore sees him solely as an enemy soldier. Graf’s death is especially interesting, and wrenching, because his actions toward Anna are motivated by the kind of ethical awakening that would in other circumstances earn him the narrative right to survive:
“I will not let it happen again. We are either beasts or human beings, and though they put me up against a wall and shoot me, I have made my choice. To hell with Scholz [his superior officer] and his petty, shitty hatred. To hell with the little corporal in Berlin, and his spit-flecked ramblings of a master race. To hell with men who define themselves by brutalising women. I will remain myself.” (7) [emphasis added]
Graf is at least able to find his moral footing before his death, but otherwise this realization comes too late to save him. It should also be noted that his final stand occurs when he has little left to lose; most of his comrades in arms are dead and the German army is scattered in shambles across wintertime Russia. Only when the authority structure propping him up has visibly rotted away does he “make his choice,” which is better than no choice but is nevertheless not enough. He dies, and Anna, the comic’s primary representative of female power, lives on.
The last pages of Night Witches depict a grim-faced Anna trudging through the snow. It’s a classic last-man-standing scene, or rather a last-woman-standing one, as befits the hero of a war story. Like several other war comics written by Ennis, these visuals are accentuated with a quote from one of the comic’s real-life inspirations:
“Sometimes, on a dark night, I will stand outside my home and peer into the sky, the wind tugging at my hair. I stare into the blackness and close my eyes, and I imagine myself once again a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia – how did you do it?’
– Guards Captain Nadia Anastasia Popova, 588th Night Bomber Regiment/46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Regiment”
By including the quote from Guards Captain Popova, Ennis manages to navigate the balance between opposing male oppression of women while writing stories about them as a man. The quote enables this particular story about women to conclude by foregrounding women’s words and experiences in a way that fits into the conventions of the war comic genre. This in turn implies that women’s stories are not an aberration when it comes to the histories of the conflicts that shape our world, but instead are integral parts of such histories – and that we marginalize them to our detriment or, worse, at our peril.
1. Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001).
2. Garth Ennis and Russ Braun, Battlefields: Night Witches #1 (Runnemede: Dynamite Entertainment, 2008).
6. Ennis and Braun, Battlefields: Night Witches #2 (Runnemede: Dynamite Entertainment, 2008).
7. Ennis and Braun, Battlefields: Night Witches #3 (Runnemede: Dynamite Entertainment, 2008).