More than 60 years ago, waves of freshly drafted soldiers entered a foreign land to battle the Axis Powers of Europe. Nick Arvin’s “The Articles of War” details the harrowing experiences of George “Heck” Tilson, an 18-year old who fights in France during World War II. As Arvin describes the utter devastation of the French countryside and the havoc wrought upon the minds and bodies of American soldiers, he invites readers to ponder the nature of courage and war’s lasting effects on the human soul.
Heck’s somewhat reclusive personality detaches him from the drinking, swearing and coarse humor of the other soldiers. When he’s sent to the front lines, the novel plunges readers into the ugliness of war, addressing its crude realities and the soldiers’ emotional cataclysms.
In his first experience under fire, Heck digs a hole in the ground, curls up into the fetal position and sobs like a child. His reaction is not cowardice, but a natural response to the bloody confusion surrounding him. However, Heck’s actions result in shame and confusion as he tries to be the ideal American soldier.
Later, Heck deliberately exposes himself to enemy fire so he’ll be removed from the front. While his fear and soul searching invite sympathy, he exhibits ambivalence, struggling to prove his courage while trying to remain in one piece. In his interactions with the other characters, who are only briefly developed, Heck vacillates between a desire for comfort and feelings of alienation. He is forced to analyze his own behavior and the institutional hypocrisy that the war has generated. Heck’s character becomes a representative of every young American soldier who struggles to reconcile duty with personal morality.
Arvin’s carefully researched portrayal of France in wartime is both impressive and disturbing. His prose is grim and sometimes depressing, reflecting the war’s joyless setting. The sparse dialogue and rigidly structured interactions between characters underline Heck’s youthful awkwardness, but sometimes lack freshness and spontaneity. However, Arvin captures Heck’s aching loneliness and his twin desires for self-preservation and responsibility well.
Throughout the novel, Arvin addresses the overwhelming misery of the French civilians, both young and old, whose lives are destroyed by the upheaval of war. Yet he focuses on the American soldiers and the seemingly endless nightmare of death and destruction they face. Heck’s character is a grim reminder of the emotional and physical devastation wrought by the Second World War.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars