Best-Ever Antiwar Novel and Movie
by John V. Denson
by John V. Denson
This summer I attended a weekend seminar sponsored by Auburn University on the subject of World War I literature. I did not know what to expect in regard to any antiwar literature but I was very surprised to be introduced to what I now believe to be the best antiwar novel and movie. William March is the author of this novel Company K and the movie goes by the same name. My favorite antiwar novel and movie prior to this was All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich M. Remarque, a German soldier who fought in the trenches during World War I. March wrote about his similar experiences as an American Marine in the same trenches. Both authors speak of the horror and brutality of the experience of modern warfare and nothing about individual bravery, patriotism or the "glory of war."
The real name of William March was William Edward Campbell, who was born in Mobile, Alabama and grew up in small towns in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. He attended the University of Alabama School of Law and worked for a law firm in New York City. When America entered WWI he enlisted in the Marine Corps and saw extensive action in the hardest, bloodiest battles, including Verdun and the Meuse-Argonne. He was highly honored and decorated by both the French and the Americans by being awarded the French Croix de Guerre and by America, with the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross. He makes no reference in the book to his individual actions or honors.
After the war, March returned to Mobile, Alabama and became one of the organizers and a shareholder in what became an extremely successful business by the name of Waterman Steamship Corporation. He served as its vice-president and eventually became very wealthy as a result of his investment. He resigned early and began to travel widely in Europe, especially to Hamburg and London, and then returned to New York City to write his first novel, Company K which was published in 1933. He wrote several other novels including Come in at the Door, The Tallons, and The Looking Glass. He finally returned to the South, living in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he wrote his final novel, The Bad Seed. It was later made into a play and then a Hollywood movie, which brought him some notoriety. This last novel is about an eight-year-old girl who does not know right from wrong and becomes a murderer. March died in his sleep in 1954 at the age of 61.
Company K had apparently been out of print for several years when director and producer, Roger Clem, who is mainly known for his documentary films, made the movie in 2004, with an excellent cast, and can be rented from Netflix. The movie faithfully captures the essence and meaning of the novel about the futility and brutality of war, and especially the psychological scars left on the soldiers. In 2006, the University of Alabama Press reprinted the novel. Writer and literary critic, Alistair Cooke has described March as "the unrecognized genius of our time."
March tells the stories of 137 members of Company K in the first person, some describing contemporary events, some recounting the war long afterwards, and some speak from the grave. A brilliant introduction is provided by Phillip D. Beidler, a professor of English at the University of Alabama. He describes the book as " . . . the most furious novel of war ever written by an American up to its time and quite arguably at least as furious and graphic as any written since." Beidler goes on to say:
So throughout Company K, the narratives of individual soldiers become a litany of callousness, brutality, and degradation. This is most clearly reflected in a single incident lodged both literally and figuratively at the center of the book, something that might be thought of as the novel's primal scene: the execution of twenty-two German prisoners. The order, as a series of narratives tell us, is passed down from Captain to Sergeant to the Corporal who leads the detail. Otherwise good and decent men recoil, yet now participate in mass murder. Private Walter Drury, the one soldier who refuses the order and runs is subsequently sentenced to twenty years in prison. (128—129) His friend, Private Charles Gordon, remains, and, as he fires, sees the enormity of the deed in all the fullness of its awful truth. "Everything I was ever taught to believe about mercy, justice and virtue is a lie," he thinks. "But the biggest lie of all are the words, ‘God is Love.' That is really the most terrible lie that man ever thought of." (130—132) Meanwhile, the thing done, Private Roger Inabinett rummages nonchalantly among the bodies for valuables and souvenirs. On Sunday, we are told by Private Howard Nettleton, they are all ordered to go to church. (138—139)
Professor Beidler also states:
As with Hemingway, mixed with the violence and the brutalization, there is some talk of loss of illusion, of betrayal through patriotic lies. Yet in March, more than in any of his contemporaries, this too is ultimately subsumed into a depth of horror that goes far beyond any Lost Generation conceit. Here, individual soldiers come relentlessly forward, one after the other, the living and the dead commingled, to offer grim first-person testimony; and in narrative after narrative, there is mainly just one fundamental fact of modern warfare: the fact of violent, ugly, obscene death. Men die of gas, gunshot, grenade. They die by the bayonet. They are literally disintegrated by high explosive. They commit suicide. They murder prisoners. They murder each other. They kill wantonly and at random, at times in error and virtually always against whatever small portion they can recall of their better instincts. Killing and dying, dying and killing, they have lost touch with any fact of life save the fact of death's absolute dominion. This final reality March insists on to the degree that he often seems to have less in common with his fellow Americans than with his British poet-contemporaries such as Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Seigfried Sassoon. And, as with the latter, the death depicted is never gallant sacrifice. It is not grand, valorous, brave death. It is bowel-ripping, head-shattering, body-rending death. It is the kind of death that makes men scream for their mothers, soil their trousers, dissolve themselves into whimpering wrecks. Moreover, it is death on the whole vast scale of modern mechanization.
Beidler concludes, "In sum, a novel formed again, as with Company K, from a collocation of individual fragments, becomes a vast, enormous testament to the utter insignificance of individuality in a world of modern, mass-production war."
Even though, William March (William Edward Campbell), after the war became a very successful and wealthy businessman and a brilliant novelist, he suffered terribly for the rest of his life from what we now call "post-traumatic stress" or severe depression, nightmares, hysterical reactions related to his throat and eyes and required frequent psychiatric assistance. This book is written by a soldier who experienced the greatest horror in protracted and intense combat, unlike the writer, Stephen Crane, who experienced no combat, yet wrote the excellent book about war realism, The Red Badge of Courage. This American classic about the Civil War that has been read and studied by generations of readers, however, is not the more brilliant and disturbing antiwar novel Crane originally wrote. It is now known that the original publication in 1895 was altered by the publisher, D. Appleton and Co. of New York, by making many deletions, including an entire chapter to present a less realistic picture of war so as to be more acceptable to the readers of the time. Ernest Hemingway, who only experienced about six days of combat as a Red Cross ambulance driver still wrote a widely acclaimed novel, A Farewell to Arms. Some critics say Hemingway suffered more psychological trauma from being rejected by the nurse who cared for him in the hospital and became his girlfriend and then left him for an Italian officer, than from the wounds received in combat. Other literary critics say
" . . . his description of the German attack on Caporetto — of lines of tired men marching in the rain, hungry, weary, and demoralized — is one of the greatest moments in literary history."
When you read the stories told by March however, and see them depicted in the movie, you can feel the passion and experience the horrible pain of someone who had actually been there and suffered through it all for a long period of time. In Company K March portrays himself as Private Joseph Delaney, who writes a book after the war and explains to his wife the reason for writing it:
I wish there were some way to take these stories and pin them to a large wheel, each story hung on a different peg until the circle was completed. Then I would like to spin the wheel, faster and faster, until the things of which I have written took life and were recreated, and became part of the wheel, flowing toward each other, and into each other, blurring and then blending together into a composite whole, and unending circle of pain . . . . That would be the picture of war. And the sound that the wheel made, and the sound that the men themselves made as they laughed, cried, cursed or prayed, would be, against the falling of walls, the rushing of bullets, the exploding of shells, the sound that war, itself, makes . . .
The book and movie Company K are highly recommended and hopefully will become widely known and understood in order to help stop the mindless, unnecessary foreign wars and foreign policy America has engaged in for so long. March recognizes that simply telling the horrors of war will not be enough. It will also take a widespread understanding of the false reasons and premises used to get America into unjust, aggressive wars and knowledge of the real consequences of those wars, especially the loss of freedom which occurs whether you win or lose. Unfortunately, March does not address the alleged reasons for the war, or America's entry into it, but he has one of the soldiers in the book state:
At first I used to listen to Les Yawfitz and that fellow Nallett argue in the bunk house. They'd been to college, and they could talk on any subject that came up. But mostly they talked about war and how it was brought about by moneyed interests for its own selfish ends. They laugh at the idea that idealism or love of country had anything to do with war. It is brutal and degrading, they say, and fools who fight are pawns shoved about to serve the interest of others.
For a while I listened to them, and tried to argue the thing out in my mind. Then I quit thinking about it. If the things they say are really true, I don't want to know it. I'd go crazy and shoot myself, if I thought those things were true . . . . Unless a man does feel like that, I can't understand how he would be willing — how he would permit himself to —
So when they start talking now, I get up and leave the bunk house, or turn over to the wall and cover up my ears.
Regrettably, most Americans protect their comfort level by naïvely believing the patriotic political myths about all of our wars being just and for the defense of our freedom. Most people do not want to be disturbed or shocked by the real truth concerning the horrors experienced by our soldiers in actual combat. William March certainly addresses this last subject in Company K better than any other novel I've read.
September 19, 2008
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