In 1918, after four long years of brutal warfare, a mysterious, a corporal convinces his French battalion to simply stop fighting; this simple plea spreads across the entire front until the military and political leaders, both French and German, are frantic to get the fighting going again, so as not to lose the very justifications for their positions of authority. Corporal Stephan is sick of the fighting. Sick of the needless deaths and arbitrary suffering. His solution is so simple that it appears, at first, to be insane. Why not simply stop fighting? He begins with his own squad, twelve men who follow his "teachings" religiously (the Jesus/disciples allegory extends throughout the entire novel). They then spread the word, and soon the entire battalion of 3,000 decides to just lay down their arms, not fire another shot, and not leave their trenches.
The Germans are expected to press the advantage and slaughter the suddenly pacifistic mutineers, but for some reason they do not. This lull in the fighting becomes a stalemate, which then becomes a truce, as the rank-and-file in units all along the line, both French and German, realize that continuing the war is a decision that they, in fact, have power over.
This does not go over well with the military and political high commands. They realize that the entire façade of their authority rests on their ability to wage war. With that suddenly and, to them, inexplicably taken away, they feel their very existence under siege. This affects the leaders on both sides, and a secret meeting is held between the generals to figure out how to get the fighting going again.
The Allied general overseeing the affected sector subsequently orders the arrest of the initial mutineers. At Corporal Stephan's insistence, the soldiers do not resist. Once arrested, they are brought to the town of Chaulnesmont, where the locals, brought to a mob frenzy by the ruling propaganda, demand the mutineers be punished. It soon comes out that all the men are not to "blame", and that the real blame lies with the twelve "disciples" and, even more so, Corporal Stephan himself.
The Allied general decides to have Corporal Stephan executed. Again, Corporal Stephan does not fight this. He knew this was a possible, and perhaps expected, result of his actions, and he almost seems to welcome it. Thus follows a long and moving section where the general attempts to convince Stephan of the rightness of the military's position, that war is not only natural but inevitable, and to try to fight it is to fight against human nature itself. Stephan is not convinced, and the general has him executed.
Meanwhile, groups of German and Allied soldiers have met in peaceful groups between the lines, and even with Stephan executed it appears as if the war is finally at an end. But then artillery from both sides opens up on the peaceful congregants. The unofficial leaders are killed or crippled. The survivors flee back to their trenches. And the war continues.
Best part of story, including ending:
I really wanted to like this book -- and I do love its ideas, its mythic elements, its exploration of transcendent issues. But the execution is lacking. It could really have used someone like Gordon Lish to have gone in and lopped off a hundred or so pages.
Best scene in story:
The general's brilliantly reductive speech -- as he tries one last time to convince Corporal Stephan of the error of his ways, and of the inherent rightness of the general's point of view -- is almost worth the price of slogging through the rest of the book.