A searing novel of one man's moral choices in war . . .
George Tilson is an eighteen-year-old lowan farm boy who is drafted into the army during World War II and 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 thinking too much 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. During his first, horrific exposure to combat. 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.
Desperate to get away from the front line, he deliberately allows himself to be shot but a fellow private sees and understands what he has done. Sent to a hospital behind the lines, his wound heals quickly and he returns to find that the witness has been promoted and is now his superior. He says nothing to Heck about his act of cowardice but a little while later sends him to the rear for a special assignment, without telling him what that assignment is. In fact, he has been assigned to the firing squad which will execute Private Eddie Slovak (in reality the only GI shot for desertion during the Second World War and the first since the Civil War).
This is Heck's excruciating moral punishment. He, himself a deserter, is forced to shoot another deserter.