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What It Is Like to Go to War

Karl Marlantes

(Grove / Atlantic; US: Aug 2011)

Late in Karl Marlantes’ memoir-philosophical treatise What It Is Like to Go to War, a follow-up to his acclaimed Vietnam novel Matterhorn, the author makes a plea for how America should treat its returning veterans from current and future wars.


“There should be parades, but they should be solemn processionals, rifles upside down, symbol of the sword sheathed once again,” he writes. “They should be conducted with all the dignity of a military funeral, mourning for those lost on both sides, giving thanks for those returned. Afterwards, at home or in small groups, let the champagne flow and celebrate life and even victory if you were so lucky — afterward.”


It’s the kind of homecoming that Marlantes and many other Vietnam veterans were denied: “Many of my compatriots are still not back from the war.”


It isn’t that Marlantes has a particularly unique take on the horrors of Vietnam or the ill treatment afforded returning veterans. He does not. See Oliver Stone’s Platoon or the stories of Tim O’Brien. But the passion and self-revealing pain of What It Is Like to Go to War make it a must-read for anyone interested in that now long-ago war, the men who fought it, and the country that, in its confusion and political turmoil, treated many of those soldiers shabbily.


A glance at recent headlines about suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans shows that Marlantes’ concern is not specific to the Vietnam veteran. “We cannot expect a normal eighteen-year-old to kill someone and contain it in a healthy way,” he explains. “They must be helped to sort out what will be healthy grief about taking a life because it is part of the sorrow of war. The drugs, alcohol, and suicides are ways of avoiding guilt and fear of grief. Grief itself is a healthy response.”


As any reader of Matterhorn knows, Marlantes is top-notch in describing ground combat and its morally brutalizing effect on warriors. His attempt to find literary and psychological references to explain combat is another matter; some of the references work, some are a graduate-school stretch. What It Is Like to Go to War, then, is much like the years — mid-‘60s to early ‘70s — that it covers: complex, contradictory, messy and alternately high-minded and self-absorbed. After nearly four decades of brooding about Vietnam, military service, the meaning of masculinity in America and other weighty topics, Marlantes has yet to develop a concise or unified theory.


Still, with an intellect as sharp and critical as Marlantes’, and a temperament not afraid to display confusion or remorse, What It Is Like to Go to Waris more than worth the effort of any reader. Take, for example, his Marine service: Marlantes, a decorated officer, is proud to have led Marines into combat and to have shared in their sense of brotherhood: “The least acknowledged aspect of war, at least these days, is how exhilarating it is. It makes people very uncomfortable. It is not only politically incorrect; it goes against the morality taught in our schools and churches…. There is a deep, savage joy in destruction, a joy beyond ego enhancement. Maybe it is loss of ego, I’m told it’s the same for religious ecstasy.”


But he is also angry at lunkheaded officers who risked the lives of their troops needlessly. He worries about a semper fi culture in which individual judgment is overridden by group loyalty: “To be effective and moral fighters, we must not lose our individuality, our ability to stand alone.”


Though Marlantes confesses near the beginning of the book that he wrote What It Is Like to Go to War to help come to terms with his own experiences, by the end, his concern has broadened to current and future generations of young Americans sent into harm’s way in faraway places. War will be necessary, he writes, “as long as there are people who will kill for gain and power or who are simply insane. We will need people called warriors who will kill to stop them.”


Despite its necessity on occasion, war’s seductive nature — for politicians, armchair patriots and even those in uniform who thirst for glory and medals — must be resisted, he writes: “The more aware we are of war’s costs, not just in death and dollars, but also in shattered minds, souls and families, the less likely we will be to waste our most precious asset and our best weapon: our young.”

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