Company K
by William March

University of Alabama Press
(first published 1933)

First Collection

"Suddenly the blue-eyed man looked at me and smiled, and before I knew what I was doing, I smiled back at him. Then Sergeant Pelton gave the signal to fire and the rifles began cracking and spraying bullets from side to side. I took steady aim at the blue-eyed man. For some reason I wanted him to be killed instantly. He bent double, clutched his belly with his hands and said, “Oh!...Oh!” like a boy who has eaten green plums. Then he raised his hands in the air, and I saw that most of his fingers were shot away and were dripping blood like water running out of a leaky faucet."

Reviewed by Marko Fong

William March’s, 1933 anti-war novel-in-flash, Company K, has a curious history. Although it received mixed reviews in America, British critics like Graham Greene, Christopher Morley, and Alistair Cooke championed it. In its 79-year history, Company K has fallen out of print multiple times. The last edition came from University of Alabama Press (1989). It’s still available possibly because the press published a 2011 biography of March, a native of the state. When Company K gets revived (including a poorly distributed 2004 independent movie), it’s attributed to its place as the first American war fiction completely free of jingoism.

Company K’s narrative approach, 113 first person voices each narrating a short story, directly influenced Norman Mailer’s use of multiple-flawed-pov characters in The Naked and the Dead. March’s breaks from realism and darkly ironic humor paved the way for Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. March, however, remains the bolder writer. Where Heller and Vonnegut had main characters who weren’t necessarily heroes, March not only created a war novel without a hero, he also refused to compromise his bleak vision with a sympathetic main character who might give readers the illusion of lessons learned or triumph through survival. Instead, several of March’s POV characters die in ways that serve no moral purpose. Vonnegut portrayed war as brutal and bizarre to the point of being a live-subjects experiment run by aliens from another galaxy. Heller portrayed war as an insane- business proposition for the soulless. March portrayed war as pure evil.

Perhaps a reason the book and he never got their due, Company K didn’t just condemn war, he unsparingly criticized America and its war iconography. Priests ignore morality in favor of patriotism, the girls the boys leave behind are often faithless, and the soldiers, though sympathetic, commit multiple atrocities. Several stories trace individual reactions to being ordered to murder nine German prisoners. In an early chapter, the wife of a March stand-in suggests he not include the episode in his book, one of several bits that anticipates meta-fiction and other post-modern narrative techniques. As a highly-decorated veteran of World War 1, March likely had more freedom to break silence. In that sense, he resembles his forgotten contemporary, Smedley Butler, the Marine general who wrote the non-fiction War is a Racket.

Company K also breaks with the Homeric tradition of treating war as a crucible for men to prove courage, loyalty, or personal sacrifice. While reciting propaganda about German baby killers, an American empties a canteen just out of reach of a dying German as he begs for water. In another story, a gassed soldier regrets putting his own gas mask on a captured German in the midst of a gas attack. The selfless act is nothing more than an impulse, no different from the soldiers who trick a private out of cherished innocence by bribing a French prostitute to seduce him with a story of a lover killed in war (the private gets court-martialed for the resulting STD). Callousness goes poignantly undetected when a soldier charms a child into giving him a beloved pet fawn, then gives it to the company’s cook.

The stories are written to sound like the recorded voices of the common men who appear to tell them. The only sense of an author comes from March’s pervasive use of irony. The apparent simplicity makes the stories feel like inadvertent confession, oddly the same illusion makes contemporary reality TV so riveting and intermittently revelatory. The narrative simplicity also hides considerable thematic complexity across stories. For example, two soldiers take bread from a dead German, discover the bread is covered in blood, then eat it anyway. The incident juxtaposes a subsequent communion story in which a soldier sees Jesus wandering no man’s land asking "What should I do?" In a later story the man who becomes the unknown soldier, is essentially crucified on barbed wire and throws away his dog tags so his memory can’t be used to delude others into war.

The emphasis on Company K as American cousin to All Quiet on the Western Front may have also obscured the book’s stylistic significance. Some seventy years before "flash fiction" got its name, Company K may have been the first successful American novel written entirely in flash. March didn’t invent his form; he likely drew heavily from Edgar Lee Masters’ (1915) Spoon River Anthology and its 212 epitaphs from a small town cemetery. Spoon River, however, is written in verse. Another contender, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio is more accurately a short story cycle that includes several stories too long to qualify as flash. One of March’s characters calls the technique a "spinning wheel". Graham Greene credited March with "finding a new form to fit the novelty of (World War 1) protest."

Much of the resonance of Company K, comes from March’s marriage of a thoroughly democratic narrative structure, in which each soldier gets roughly the same time on stage regardless of rank or likeability to a vision of war as a dehumanizing and anti-democratic force that can’t have heroes. March may also have been one of the first writers to both explore the battle experience and its impact well after the shooting stops. A good third of the stories are set before and after the fighting.

Company K’s continuing relevance isn’t formal or stylistic. March matters because he told the truth about things that lesser artists keep secret even from themselves. He does it with heart, depth of vision, and without regard for self-protection. In his most moving story, a soldier, days before armistice, encounters a German relaxing beneath a tree. Instead of ignoring him, the American bayonets the German with such urgency that he can’t pull it out afterwards. He plunders the German's ring then throw it in the bushes, but the ring repeatedly returns to glue him to that moment forever. March often recalled a similar experience and clearly suffered from what we now call PTSD. This was the story that March, the war hero, felt most compelled to share. It's his gift to future generations and should be required reading until we find some better reason than war for killing our young.


Read a story from this collection in Voices

Marko Fong lives in Northern California and published most recently in Kweli Journal, Mosaic, Pif, and Solstice Quarterly. He also serves as the fiction editor for Wordrunner
Marko's other Short Reviews: Jennifer Egan "A Visit From The Goon Squad"

Yiyun Li "Golden Boy, Emerald Girl"
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William March (born Campbell) (1893 -1954) won the distinguished service cross and the French Croix de Guerre for his courage during World War 1. Trained as a lawyer, he returned from the war and maintained a career as an executive for a shipping line. Although his stories were recognized by the O’Henry awards four times, March’s only significant commercial success came from his novel, The Bad Seed, (better known as a play and movie), which he published the year before he died.