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Young men who marched proudly off to war

The decades change, but the trenches remain the same

(Page 2 of 2)

The meager supports that sustained Willie gradually disappear: His friends are blown to pieces, his girlfriend never writes back, and Dublin turns against the war, rendering the trenches his only real home. Once again, Barry has managed to articulate unspeakable grief, and only the beauty of his prose could make this tragedy bearable.

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It's a recurring miracle, Willie thinks, "how human nature fell ever short, but could be summoned to illumine the dark tracts of a life nonetheless." Here in mingled lines of terror and tenderness is "all the matter and difficulty of being alive in a place of peace and a place of war."

The commonalities between Barry's novel and Nick Arvin's Articles of War, about a young solder in World War II, are a reminder of the redundancy of 20th-century carnage. Arvin's protagonist, an 18-year-old farm boy from Iowa, "could not wait to be sent forward and he dreaded being sent forward." He's awkwardly aware of his own naiveté and inexperience in the world, but determined to be practical about this duty.

In Normandy, waiting and waiting to be deployed, he wanders into the woods one day and finds a little boy playing in a mine field. Prodded by the boy's frantic older sister, Heck runs to him and carries him out. It's a heroic, selfless act, to be sure, but it's the last brave thing Heck can get himself to do through years of service in the Army.

On the way to the front, he passes earlier battles. "The destruction was vast," Arvin writes, "the things and homes of many lives reduced to a great acreage of rubble, none of it reaching higher than eye level. And soon the same firepower that had done this would be aimed at himself."

He discovers that his whole body trembles uncontrollably. His thoughts are jumpy, constantly drawn to paths of flight. "It began to seem to him that he might be without bravery in any category."

Arvin follows this young man through surreal scenes of carnage and pasture, moments of mayhem followed by passages of peacefulness. His style is restrained and minimalist, but one eerily striking scene follows another.

Through the destruction wreaked by both Germans and Americans, Heck wants only somehow to stay alive, but "he was often overwhelmed by a sense of shame at his cowardice." In battle, he looks for ways to escape rather than fight. "He did not want to be dead or crazy or maimed. Yet these seemed his only options." He repeatedly uses the Army's administrative distraction to drift away from the front or prolong needless sick leaves. He's desperate to shoot someone - anything - to prove to himself that he's not a coward, but he's terrified of combat. Considering the sacrifices of his fellow soldiers, his behavior is shameful, of course, but there's something so endearing and earnest about him.

Ultimately, Heck's path crosses the real-life story of Private Eddie Slovik, who was executed for desertion in 1945. Their meeting provokes a haunting, unsettling examination of fear in the face of destruction that would terrify any sane person.

Both these authors march bravely into the darkest, most dangerous terrain of human nature to discover what resides beneath the shiny armor of patriotism and duty. Especially in a time of war, their novels remind us how profoundly complex the soldier's life is.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.