When reading Nick Arvin’s novel Articles of War, I was reminded of a snippet of lyrics from an old John Prine song: “Strangers had forced him to live in his head.” In Arvin’s haunting novel, an 18-year old Iowan named George Tilson – nicknamed Heck because he promised his now deceased mom he wouldn’t swear – comes face to face with the horrors of war after being sent to Europe during World War II. Facing this new reality, Heck, a naturally reticent Midwesterner, is in many ways “forced to live in his head” and to wrestle with the demons he finds there. Articles of War puts the reader inside Heck’s head as he tries to make sense not only of the seemingly unreal surroundings and circumstances he finds himself in, but of his reactions and the characteristics they reveal. The result is a lyrical yet disturbing portrait of the almost random chaos and violence – both mental and physical – of war.
There is a temptation – particularly in a time of war – to view Articles as an “anti-war” novel, but I think this misses the point. The story isn’t about war in the larger sense of geo-politics, moral philosophy, or the depravity of man. And, despite its vivid portrayal of the brutality, it isn’t really about how every war – no matter how well intentioned – turns out badly. No, what Arvin is getting at, in my opinion, is the “internalities” of war; what happens when flawed, and often fragile, human beings meet the extremes that war can bring. The Marianne Moore epigraph makes this clear: “There never was a war that was not inward.”
It may be a cliche, but it is nevertheless true that these types of events reveal people’s character in an almost raw way; they strip away the barriers we put up to hide our true selves. This is the process Heck finds himself in, much to his horror. Heck is a sort of prototypical Midwestern boy. He is straightforward and mild mannered, not prone to emotional outburst or gestures. He knows the value of hard work and persistence; knows how to “accept orders” even “tedious and exhausting” ones. He can shoot a gun. But under this competence lies doubt and fear. He has an “instinctive self-awareness of his own ignorance about many things.” As Heck is shipped from the safety of his boyhood home to the unknown terrors of war in Europe, he can feel his fear taking over.
Arvin captures the peculiar back and forth of war: long periods of waiting broken up with flashes of deadly violence. In the lulls Heck struggles with the growing realization that he is a coward. Even before he reaches the fighting Heck wrestles with this demon. In an encounter with a young French woman and her brother he manages to do the right, and courageous, thing, but only after an obvious, and wrenching, hesitation. Later, when faced with the possibility of sex with the young woman (named Claire), his fear overcomes him and he runs away. He is assigned a unit and sent to the fighting the next morning.
Each time Heck faces danger he seems incapable of action; his fear incapacitates him and further isolates him. And yet he avoids the oblivion of death or the “escape” of serious injury. While Heck avoids both using his M1 and getting killed, death is all around him: a soldier sets off a booby-trapped log; a sniper picks off his unit’s radioman; a box of Nazi paraphernalia explodes in a house-to-house search; an icicle falls from a barn killing a soldier in the mess line. Heck is trapped between his cowardice and his desire to prove it wrong. He ponders desertion but can’t imagine facing his dad after such an act. He can’t even bring himself to intentionally get trench foot.
Throughout this process his thoughts turn to Claire and she hovers in his imagination as an escape. As he fingers the music box she gave him, he longs to get away and search for her. He even fantasizes of marrying her and returning to America. But when confronted with an opportunity to see her, his fear gets the better of him again. When his plan to get sent home backfires, however, he is brought face to face with the repercussions of cowardice. Heck is assigned to the shooting squad for the execution of a deserter.
Here the mental trap is complete. Heck, who knows in his heart he is as much a coward as the deserter, must either kill a man or face the consequences. He contemplates breaking the prisoner free and escaping but is prevented from even trying by a blizzard. When this “plan” dissolves he feels both relived and “disgusted at this relief.” Try as he might, he “could see no path before him that was not stained with cowardice.” In the end, Heck fires his bullet when given the command.
This climax marks the final scar on Heck’s conscience; marks the end of his innocence. He tries to imagine what might have been going through the mind of the deserter before the execution but “he had no access to imagination and could conceive only emptiness.” It is this emptiness that allows Heck to return to battle and “fight reasonably well,” although he doesn’t “understand this change, did not want to understand it, and took no pride in it.”
Heck passes from the “age of war into the age of after the war befogged by unbelief.” He feels incapable of returning to his old world; facing his father is “unimaginable.” So he volunteers to stay on in Europe and assist with the occupation. Despite having lost all of his former feelings for Claire, he once again finds himself searching for her and once again avoiding a direct confrontation. But it is out of this final connection that his chance at redemption – or at least an implied chance – grows.
The tension between who we think we are, and what others expect of us, and what we really are when pushed to the extreme runs throughout the story. Arvin here is not dealing with evil or immorality so much as weakness and self-deceit. Heck is in many ways a decent and caring young man, but he is simply not prepared to deal with what he encounters on the battlefield’s of Europe. Arvin artfully captures this in the narrative. When Heck enters those periods, it is as if he is watching events unfold from outside of himself. He blacks out only to see the scenes replayed in his mind over and over again; his voice is scratchy and he wonders if he had been screaming. On a number of occasions Heck stares at his limbs as if they were strangers and when he sustains his first injury he feels nothing. Events have forced him to live in his head.
In this way, it is not the physical that hinders Heck but the emotional. He is not able to compartmentalize or shut off his fears long enough to fight or take action. It is only with the emotional trauma of the execution that he is finally able to shut off that part of him. The degree of this emotional cauterization is clear from his lack of feelings for Claire. After the execution he feels “vacant.”
If there is an anti-war message involved it is this psychic cost of war. But these emotional issues are not unique to war. There are untold numbers of people trapped in the same way as Heck who have never seen combat or the horrors of war. The power of Articles comes from the way it captures the emotions and thoughts that play out in our heads. One doesn’t have to share the characters’ experiences or feelings in total in order to recognize the reality they represent. The story makes an impact because although we know the author made it up, it nevertheless contains truth.
Articles of War is a sparse, tightly written, and at times gripping story about human emotions pushed to the extreme. It is amazing how much punch Arvin packs into a story less than 180 pages long. Comparisons to Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage are natural given that Arvin, like Crane, is a young man without combat experience and yet has written an incredibly realistic portrait of war. One can only hope that Arvin doesn’t share Crane’s tragic fate of dying at a young age. I hope to see much more from this talented writer. I highly recommend Articles of War; it is much more than simply a book about war.