"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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 e-Chapbook.com