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Thu June 9, 2005
Articles of War
A young WWII soldier comes to terms with his fear.
By Don Noble
This short novel takes place in Normandy and then in the Hurtgen Forest in 1944.
The protagonist, and I assure you he is no hero, is George Tilson, a U.S. Army private, 18 years old, a farm boy from Iowa and a callow, unsophisticated young man who seems to know nothing and be afraid of everything.
Articles of War opens at Omaha Beach in August, two months after the landing, but still a very dangerous place.
The landscape is nearly surreal, with burned-out vehicles and rotting animals and the ground still laced with land mines.
George, who is called ?Heck? because he promised his now-dead mother that he would not cuss, is very afraid and simply cannot cope. He is, in short, a coward.
?Heck decided that his own fear definitely annoyed him. It felt now like an object, exactly as if someone had cut him open, stuffed this thing inside, and sewn the flesh closed again.?
He is even too terrified to have sex with a French girl, Claire, who inexplicably offers herself, practically at first sight. In fact, the entire so-called ?love affair? is not credible.
Heck?s truck convoy is shelled on the way to the front. Heck is afraid.
He enters into the chaos of his first firefight in the streets of a small town, Elbeuf, and he never fires his weapon. He panics, cowers, screams, flees, hides, and loses control of his bowels, but luckily no one sees him. Then, in a stupid accident, he falls and cuts his leg.
?Whenever someone asked how he had received the wound he said ?I don?t know? and left it at that. He found that the other soldiers did not press him. He supposed they imagined some horrible, unspeakable experience, and he did not mind such a misunderstanding . . . ?
Many readers of Articles of War will begin to realize about this time that this sequence is following exactly the plot of The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane.
After malingering a long time at the field hospital, Heck is sent back to the front, to the Hurtgen Forest, where the German counterattack known later as the Battle of the Bulge is about to commence.
Heck is in the thick of it, hiding in little bunkers, trying to keep from being killed. Nearly everyone else in his unit is killed, but Heck really knows how to cower.
At about this point the notion of desertion enters the picture, with a fellow GI even giving Heck a lecturette on the subject.
?I did my research. . . . No one has been shot or otherwise executed for military desertion since the Civil War.?
This is true, and Heck contemplates it seriously. He opts instead to stick his left hand up above the wall he?s hiding behind and wave it until finally a German sniper shoots it.
Alas, it is a flesh wound.
Further alas, Sgt. Conlee saw him do it.
The promotional materials for this book insist that it is inspired by The Execution of Private Slovik and tells us that the Slovik tale is ?deftly interwoven.?
Slovik is first mentioned on page 155 in a novel only 176 pages long. As a kind of unspoken, ironic punishment for his own cowardice, Heck is assigned to the squad that executes Private Slovik for desertion.
In The Execution of Private Slovik (1954), William Bradford Huie of Hartselle, Alabama, did a masterful job.
If you want to read of the utter inability of a young man to cope with the terrors of war, that is the place to go.
For the best narrative treatment of what it is like to be under fire for days at a time, read Eugene Sledge?s With the Old Breed (1981), which takes place on Peleliu and Okinawa.
For the classical treatment of a young man coming to terms with his fear, read The Red Badge of Courage.
I am dead certain Nick Arvin did.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.