Noah Ackerman, a university student drafted into the American infantry after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Born poor, physically slight, and Jewish, he is a target of suspicion and contempt. At boot camp, he must fight his own platoon mates, who want a scapegoat for their prejudice and an outlet for their aggression. He emerges a tough, hardened soldier who performs heroically and skillfully in combat. He fights not so that one nation can defeat another but so that ordinary citizens can live free of ideology. He is one of the soldiers whom Diestl ambushes and kills.
Michael Whitacre, a successful film and stage writer with easy duty in a photography battalion. Well off, and accustomed to comfortable living and cultured acquaintances, Whitacre enlists after a messy divorce but finds infantry life too demanding. Feeling only slight guilt, he uses his influence to secure a safer billet in the war effort. He is content to play soldier behind the lines in London while others fight and die. After being injured in an air raid because he is drunk, he meets Ackerman and is moved by the man’s loyalty to his platoon. Following Ackerman to France, Whitacre experiences real combat for the first time. After Diestl kills Ackerman in the ambush, Whitacre stalks and slays the stormtrooper.
Hope Plowman, Ackerman’s wife. She is a sensitive, sensible, and sensuous woman attracted by Ackerman’s sincerity and intelligence. Over the objections of her Protestant parents, she marries him. Through her, Ackerman learns to express his passionate, poetic nature. After his unit departs for Europe, she gives birth to their child.
Laura Whitacre, a beautiful actress married to Michael Whitacre for several years. Like her husband before the war, she cares more for private pleasures than for politics. She regards the war as a rude intrusion into a comfortable life. During Whitacre’s absence, she readily finds another man and files for divorce.
Gretchen Hardenburg, the wife of Diestl’s commanding officer. Left alone in Berlin, she lives a frantic life of self-indulgence; her beauty, sophistication, and availability quickly attract the attention of politicians and officers stationed in the capital. When Diestl visits her to report that her husband has been seriously wounded, she takes him as a lover.
Johnny Burnecker, Ackerman’s best friend in the platoon. A simple Midwestern farm boy, Burnecker yearns only to go home and till the soil, as his ancestors have done. Admiring Burnecker’s sense of family and land, Ackerman treats him as his spiritual brother and fights fiercely to protect him. Burnecker’s death makes Ackerman bitter and reckless.
Colonel Colclough, Ackerman’s superior. An officer by virtue of his birth and a stickler for rank, he is in charge of his men, but he does not lead them. Concerned neither for patriotism nor for his men, Colclough wants only for his unit to obey orders and perform well so that his own career will be enhanced.