Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2005 | Reviews

Articles of War by Nick Arvin

By Megan Levad
A novelist takes aim at the horrors of war, bravery, and human failings.

Rarely does a work come along that makes war human-size. In the tradition of books like The Thin Red Line and All Quiet on the Western Front, Nick Arvin’s first novel is spare, elegant, and compelling in its clear-eyed treatment of the everyday horrors of war. It shows the struggle to simply continue fighting, revealing soldiers’ most private thoughts and fears, and making us understand how we might fall short under the same circumstances.

Articles of War is a coming-of-age tale set in World War II, but it’s not the expected story of buddies, bravery, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead of giving us an excited young man proudly going off to a new, hopeful war, it begins with his draft into the army near the end of a seemingly endless old war. This is not a hero’s story. Heck, so nicknamed because he doesn’t swear, is confused and despairing and endearingly real.

He is willing to fulfill his duties because he believes in the value of work and discipline, but he is never especially proud of himself for it. He is alternately bored and afraid. In a field on the Normandy coast he meets Claire and Ives, a French girl and her young brother, when Ives steps on a landmine. At first, he hopes they haven’t seen him watching, but when it’s clear that they have, he begins to gingerly pick his way across the field, fearing with each step that he’ll blow his own leg off.

Claire becomes Heck’s romantic interest, and his desire to find her again preoccupies him as the war enfolds him. His first battle experience confirms his belief that he won’t get out alive; he is terribly frightened by the bullets and bombs, and the idea of doing anything but huddling like an animal in his shallow trench is unthinkable. After an awkward accident the next morning sends him to the infirmary, the action as well as the emotion of the book is quickly heightened.

While Heck is stalling in a makeshift hospital for weeks, he unwittingly sets himself on a course that will lead to the shocking, brilliant climax of the book. Never knowing what will come next, he has nothing to pin his fear on, and it grows and generalizes until he is constantly shrouded in it. We begin to understand the terror of living through a war.

By keeping the story personal, Arvin grounds the philosophical meditation on courage, survival, and human frailty. He also makes it difficult to scorn Heck for his cowardice or to revere him for equally arbitrary acts of bravery. It becomes clear that sending uninspired 18-year-olds to protect our country is a gamble, and that we owe some kind of sympathy for all those who fight—not just the heroes.