Synopses & Reviews
Capturing the reality of war with a fidelity and power that echoes the best of classic war writing, this haunting novel brings to life the terrors of a young soldier in shocking, almost hallucinatory detail.
George Tilson is an eighteen-year-old Iowan farm boy who enlists in the army during World War II and is sent to Normandy shortly after D-Day. Nicknamed “Heck” because of his reluctance to curse, he is a typical soldier, willing to do his duty without fuss or much musing about grand goals. The night before he is trucked into the combat zone, Heck meets a young French refugee and her family, an encounter that unsettles him greatly.
It is during his first, horrific exposure to combat that Heck discovers a dark truth about himself: He is a coward. Shamed by his fears and tortured by the never-ending physical dangers around him, he struggles to survive, to live up to the ideal of the American fighting man, and to make sense of his feelings for the young French woman. As the stark reality of combat—the knowledge that he could cease to exist at any moment—presses in on him, Heck makes a series of choices that would be rational in every human situation except war.
With remorseless, hypnotic clarity, Arvin draws readers into the unimaginable fear, violence, and chaos of the war zone. Arvin layers profound meaning within a brilliantly executed minimalist style. His portrayal of the emotional and physical terrors Heck can neither understand nor escape is one of the most disturbing and unforgettable accounts of the life of a soldier ever written.
George Tilson is an eighteen-year-old farm boy from Iowa. Enlisted in the Army during World War II and arriving in Normandy just after D-day, he is nicknamed Heck for his reluctance to swear. From summers of farm labor Heck is already strong. He knows how to accept orders and how to work uncomplainingly. But in combat Heck witnesses a kind of brutality unlike anything he could have imagined. Fear consumes his every thought and Heck soon realizes a terrible thing about himself: He is a coward. Possessed of this dark knowledge, Heck is then faced with an impossible task.
Capturing the reality of war with a fidelity and power that echoes the best of classic war writing, this haunting novel brings to life the terrors of a young soldier, George Tilson, an 18-year-old Iowan farm boy who enlists in the army during World War II and is sent to Normandy shortly after D-Day. Young Adult.
About the Author
Nick Arvin studied mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan and Stanford and has worked in a variety of positions in automotive and forensic engineering. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the recipient of the Michener Fellowship, he is the author of In the Electric Eden, a collection of short stories. He lives in Denver, Colorado.
Reading Group Guide
“A short, furious novel. . . . Articles of War
presents a tough and visceral vision of war as ‘a universe unto itself’ and a moral crucible.” –The New York Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Articles of War, Nick Arvin’s harrowing novel about one’s soldier’s confrontation with his own fear during World War II.
1. In what ways does Articles of War differ from most literary and cinematic depictions of war? What is the value of writing about war not from a heroic point of view but from the perspective of someone who is paralyzed by fear? What does the novel tell us about the essential nature of war and what it does to those who are asked to engage in battle?
2. What does George Tilson’s nickname, Heck, reveal about his character? In what sense is his refusal to curse a harbinger of his actions?
3. Why does Heck run away from Claire instead of making love to her? How does this turning away affect his later actions? What is the symbolic significance that the encounter takes place in a cave?
4. Should Heck be considered a coward, a young man unsure of himself, or a victim of the stresses of war? At what moments in the novel does he make cowardly decisions? At what points does he demonstrate bravery?
5. When he is at the hospital, Heck is so “mired in his own problems” that “the men around him had remained more or less indistinguishable” [p. 81]. Why doesn’t Heck feel a greater sense of camaraderie with his fellow soldiers? How does this lack of a bond influence his behavior during combat? Why doesn’t he seem to be aware of or committed to the purpose of the war?
6. Why does Conlee order Heck to join the firing squad executing the deserter Private Eddie D. Slovik? Is he trying to teach him a lesson, or does he want to punish him for his cowardice? In what ways is it poetic justice for Heck to execute a solider for failing to do his duty? How does the experience affect Heck?
7. The sergeant overseeing the execution of Slovik tells the men who are to shoot him that “the responsibility for this decision lay with a higher authority, and this authority was not theirs to question. Theirs was to carry out orders to the best of their ability” [p. 159]. How does this statement echo the defense of Nazi war criminals like Adolf Eichmann who said that they were simply following orders? Under what circumstances should soldiers question or disobey orders?
8. The narrator tells us that after the execution, Heck returned to battle and found that he “had no fear–or at least he could very easily control himself in spite of it–and fought reasonably well until the end of the war. He didn’t understand this change, did not want to understand it, and took no pride in it” [p. 171]. How can this change be explained? Why doesn’t Heck want to understand it or take any pride in it?
9. After the execution, Heck “tried to move himself toward what had been in the mind of the man under the hood in the moment before he died, the moment when the last heartbeat was heard faintly in the doctor’s stethoscope. But he had no access to imagination and could conceive only emptiness” [p. 169]. What does the narrator mean when he says that Heck has “no access to imagination”? Is his lack of imagination a kind of moral failure? What is the value of Arvin’s ability to imagine both the experience of war and the consciousnesses of those who are thrust into it?
10. Albert tells Heck, “War makes thieves and liars of everyone. Dishonor is everywhere. People will do anything–loot a neighbor’s home, murder a grandmother–anything they can think of to help them live a day or two longer. And people are stupid. . . . One or two people are manageably stupid. A handful of people are, collectively, dumb as your average dog. A mob: stupid as an insect. Armies, nations: stupidest things on this earth” [p. 26]. Is this an accurate view of human beings and how they behave during wartime?
11. The author’s note reveals that there was a real Private Eddie D. Slovik who was executed for desertion on January 31, 1945. Why didn’t Arvin make Slovik, who on the surface might seem a more interesting character, the protagonist of his novel? Why focus on Heck instead? In what ways might Heck’s story be more representative than Slovik’s? The author’s note reveals that there was a real Private Eddie D. Slovik who was executed for desertion on January 31, 1945. Why didn’t Arvin make Slovik, who on the surface might seem a more interesting character, the protagonist of his novel? Why focus on Heck instead? In what ways might Heck’s story be more representative than Slovik’s?
12. How might Heck’s life unfold after the novel ends? Is it likely that he will keep the baby? What effect might raising a child have on him? Why has Arvin chosen to end the novel in this way?