Articles of War
by Nick Arvin
Published by Doubleday
192 pages, 2005
The War Inside
Reviewed by Jennifer Thornton
How can I tell you how humbly sorry I am for the sins I've committed. I didn't realize at the time what I was doing, or what the word desertion meant. What it is like to be condemned to die. I beg of you deeply and sincerely for the sake of my dear wife and mother back home to have mercy on me. To my knowledge, I have a good record since my marriage and as a soldier. I'd like to continue to be a good soldier.
In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway said that to be a coward is the worst luck any man could have -- words that prophesized a reluctant reality for many soldiers.
Many novels have explored the curious psychology of men in combat: The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line and The Things They Carried. The majority of us will never experience the intimate horrors of war except within the pages of books like this. And although it seems speculative and arrogant to describe what it must mean to kill another human being, Articles of War, the first full-length effort from Nick Arvin, tackles the difficult task with a command that makes it easy to forgive the author's temerity.
Articles of War is the story of Iowa farm boy, George Tilson, nicknamed Heck for his aversion to swearing. Serving as a replacement during the invasion of Europe in WWII, Heck discovers that war exists in moments of normalcy and boredom, intermixed with expeditious chaos and terrific fear. His fear makes him an idle soldier. Afraid to fight, Heck becomes bleak and confused. Shelled for hours at a time, he advances through random sniper fire and digs foxholes to shield himself not so much from the fighting but from his catalytic fear.
Abruptly he stopped and sat. He drew his legs up and pressed his face into his knees. He was going insane. The possibility was suddenly very clear to him. As was the temptation.
Just 18-years old, Heck is a competent marksman, disinterested in his reputation as a sharpshooter, though the skill is widely prized by other soldiers. His indifference to duty suggests he is a man in age only. Heck's mind wanders, and in military concerns, he ranges from competent to shiftless. Like most young men his age, Heck nurses the memory of a girl; a coquettish French beauty named Claire whose memory tails him ceaselessly. Their brief, stilted encounter prompts the only courage Heck possesses and he pledges to return to her. Nothing can assuage Heck's bereavement at the unfortunate thought of losing her memory.
Beautifully rendered, Articles of War is tightly wrapped in a delicate, quaking unease.
... fear returned and consumed all other thoughts .... The noise was like nothing he had ever experienced before, a noise such as might be used to herald the beginning of a terrible new world, and now, as he was bodily shaken and thrown by his wracking of the earth, there was no time, no memory, no future, no self, no control or sense beyond fear. He was reduced to the pure sensation of that single, awful fear...
Articles of War was written after research led Arvin to an article about Private Eddie Slovik, an American soldier executed for desertion on Jan. 31, 1945. Under direct orders from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Slovik was the first man executed for desertion since the Civil War; killed by firing squad and buried in the French countryside, "alongside convicted rapists and murderers in a grave marked only by a number until 1987."
Heck's story is a sobering parallel to Slovik's tragic end and a fate opposite of what Abraham Lincoln called, "the better angels of our nature." Repeatedly shooting a bound man as he fights to stand is the very nature of cowardice.
The startlingly good Articles of War unfolds like a slow burn. It is courageous and thoughtful, artful and sparse. The tender conclusion evokes a graceful, weighty sympathy for a fear that is intimately suspended and a violence that is appropriately emotional. The story is calmly paced and infinitely spacious. One of the most important novels in recent memory, Articles reminds us of the heights literature can reach. Still and expertly remote, it gingerly explores the fragile costs of soldiering while challenging the stalwart notions of courage in the face of swift, chasing fear, Articles is a grimacing tale stamped by Arvin's searching heart. An architect with words, Arvin writes determining sentences that seem to spring out of nowhere and linger long after they have been read. I abandoned paragraphs in their middle just to begin them again.
Articles of War seems destined to become a classic. | April 2005
Jennifer Thornton is a writer living in Sacramento. She has written articles, criticism and book reviews for Buzzine, AntiqueWest, and Route 66. She is the literary editor for Bella Online.