Set during the second World War, John Chioles’ short story “Before the Firing Squad” focuses on the central conflict between the residents of a small Greek town and the German soldiers occupying it. In addition to the obvious conflict between two warring countries, Chioles’ story explores the connected conflicts between individual residents and soldiers, as well as between each group's assumptions about the other. Through its exploration of these interconnected conflicts, “Before the Firing Squad” challenges the view that war is always a black and white, good and bad affair.
Greeks vs. Germans
Set in Peloponnesus, an important point of departure for Erwin Rommel’s African-bound German forces, the story's primary physical conflict exists between the German forces moving into and out of the town and a band of Greek guerrilla fighters. The Greeks despise most of the German soldiers who move through Peloponnesus, viewing them as cruel and inhuman. As a way to retaliate against their mistreatment, the Greeks form a small band of fighters to attack the German forces as they travel through town.
Occupying Germans vs. Moving Germans
Though the Greek residents hate the Germans who move through the city, they are fairly pleasant to the young German soldiers who stay behind as an occupying force. This represents one of the main psychological conflicts in the story -- there is seemingly very little that distinguishes the soldiers moving through from the soldiers living in the town, other than their status in the German army. Those just passing through belong to the SS, while those occupying the town are German army regulars. This tension between types of German soldiers generates confusion among the Greeks: Some believe all German soldiers are purely evil, while others can see humanity and kindness in some of the German regulars.
Occupying Germans vs. Themselves
Just as the Greek townspeople become somewhat attached to the young German regulars occupying their city, so too do the German regulars become somewhat attached to the occupied citizens. This represents another psychological and personal conflict in these soldiers which ultimately culminates in the story's climax. A young German soldier, Fritz, is ordered to kill a Greek, but instead throws down his rifle and flees Peloponnesus.
Duty vs. Humanity
Fritz’s act of disobedience reveals the final symbolic conflict in “Before the Firing Squad”: the conflict between duty and humanity. Instructed to kill people with whom he had grown close, Fritz is torn between following the orders of his superiors and following his own sense of humanity. Though the narrator dismisses Fritz’s actions as childish and somewhat cowardly, they can also be seen as a sense of humanity winning out over military duty.