In his memoir, Marlantes relates his combat experiences in Vietnam and discusses the daily contradictions warriors face in the grind of war, where each battle requires them to take life or spare life. He also underscores the need for returning veterans to be counseled properly.
Now, we have his non-fiction account and this one might be even more harrowing than the fictional one. It is also a book about war, our warrior instinct, the vast mental strain combat places on soldiers and the difficult task of re-entry into “normal” society. Marlantes attempts to cover all these issues, in a clear, sometimes philosophical manner. He also offers many solutions for making these transitions a little easier.
He is a very fine writer, with a deep intellect. If you have not read the novel, do so now and then wait a few months, (you’ll need to) and then start this remarkable and profound follow-up.
My main fear was that this book would glorify war and combat but, though it does discuss some very ugly truths, I didn't feel that it was glorifying anything. Yes, the author saw plenty of combat in Vietnam, yes he killed people and yes he details that in this book. However, he makes it clear in the Preface that his goal is to educate people about the realities of war in an effort to better protect our military personnel:
"All conscientious citizens and especially those with the power to make policy will be better prepared to make decisions about committing young people to combat if they know what they are about to ask of them."
This book does discuss what happens in wars but it goes far beyond a simple play by play of what it's like to pull a trigger. The author speaks at length about the psychological damage that's done and how ill prepared our troops are for this.
"The Marine Corps taught me how to kill but it didn't teach me how to deal with killing."
"We cannot expect normal eighteen-year-olds to kill someone and contain it in a healthy way. 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."
Mr. Marlantes is very honest about all sides of the coin. He talks about the adrenaline rush of being in combat, about the mixed emotions you feel when you've succeeded at your objective...when that objective is killing another human being. He also openly admits that if he were to be in that same situation again today, he'd handle it differently.
"I'd hope that I'd remember to respect my enemy's pain and agony."
I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Mr. Marlantes is quite the skilled writer. He wrote for a broad audience and explained the military terms without talking down to his audience. This was a powerful and important book that I would not hesitate to recommend.
Karl Marlantes is a combat veteran from the Vietnam War. He says in his preface that he has spent the last 40 years writing this book in one sense or another. The book is not a story. There is no linear tale of his experiences. The chapters are titled things like Atrocities, Loyalty, Lying, Honor... Each of the chapters has several elements. There is a war tale or two from the author's experience that illustrates his point. These tales are brutally honest, and sometimes hard to read. There is a psychological discussion of the subject. There is intelligent expression of theory as to how this particular element can be improved in future combat scenarios and for the benefit of those involved in war. And for each chapter, he also points out that this element is not unique to war. In all of our lives we deal with all of these features. The problem is that war amplifies them to the nth degree.
I have never been in the military. No one in my family has for at least two generations. I chose to read the book to see if it could show me what it is like to go to war. I got far more out of it than I hoped or expected. I would recommend this book to anyone. I think the "war monger" and the "peace hippie" would both come away from an open reading, wiser, more empathetic and compassionate to their philosophical opposites, and one small step towards making this a better world for everyone.
The chapter headings in the book say it all: Killing, Guilt, Numbness and Violence, Lying, Loyalty, Heroism, and Home. Marlantes investigates thoroughly every aspect of what it was like for him and thousands of other young men who were torn from home and family, trained to kill and then thrust precipitously across an ocean and into an unforgiving jungle world filled with other young men who were trying to kill them.
Although Marlantes also attempts to put the Vietnam combat experience into a larger historical context going all the way back to the Greeks and Mars the god of war, it is when he tells of his own personal agonies and fleeting madness in the heat of battle that he is most effective and touches the reader most deeply. And it is in the chapter on heroism that this comes through in the most profound way, when he tells of the specific events that earned him some of the highest medals, awards he's not sure he really earned, considering so many other he knew of who did and sacrificed so much and were never decorated at all.
One of his exploits which earned him a medal involved trying to rescue one of his men who had been wounded, crawling and firing up a hill under a machine gun barrage, then dragging and rolling with the man back down a hill where the man died, "a neat hole in the top of [his] skull." Decades later, Marlantes remembers that hole, and still wrestles with guilt and crippling doubt.
"He had been lying head down toward me. The bullet went into the top of his head. I could have put it there myself when I was trying to keep the machine gun fire down as I crawled toward him. I'll never know."
And later, in the chapter called "Home," Marlantes summarizes what so many returning veterans no doubt felt in those years, with no little bitterness and anger - "To me, and to my parents, I'd been gone an eternity; to everyone else, a flash. This is no one's fault. Life is busy and full."
I can remember how I felt coming home from the army after nearly three years away and people I knew acting surprised that I'd even been gone. But I was a Cold War veteran who never saw combat, so it's hard for me to imagine how such a reaction would have felt to someone who had undergone horrendous living conditions in a faraway jungle, risked life and limb and been wounded multiple times. In fact Marlantes didn't just get casual indifference from people; he got rejection and outright hostility. Indeed he even recalls having his uniform spit on by a woman on a train. Such were the sixties.
There have been countless personal narratives detailing the Vietnam war experience. Two of the best that immediately come to mind are Philip Caputo's A RUMOR OF WAR and Robert Mason's CHICKENHAWK. But Karl Marlantes has spent most of his life trying to figure out exactly what happened to him in Vietnam, going over it and over it and over it again. Finally he gave birth to a most moving and enormously successful novel, MATTERHORN. In this new book, WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR, he finally explains his own personal experiences and the absolute hell that war has always been and how it can destroy lives. It's a pity that politicians don't make time to read books like these. Perhaps they would not be so quick to rush into wars. I hope, finally, that Marlantes has managed to expiate some of his own personal demons and doubts by writing. He deserves a separate peace. He has earned it.
In What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes addresses the history of warfare, a history as old as man himself, and the methods used by various cultures to prepare young men to risk giving their lives for the perceived good of their country or tribe. The author believes that, compared to warriors of the past, today’s soldier not only has far superior weapons, he is, in fact, better prepared “technically and tactically” than ever before. His concern is that these young soldiers are not being prepared to cope with the moral and psychological stresses associated with modern warfare. Marlantes does not, however, believe that the kind of individual soul searching necessary to prepare them properly for war can be accomplished via today’s cookie-cutter training programs. This must be accomplished, he offers, by the individual, alone or with the help of a peer or mentor who has already successfully crossed that bridge.
What It Is Like to Go to War is Karl Marlantes’s attempt to help America’s young fighters maintain their sanity – both during, and after, their combat experiences. To his way of thinking, if these young men and women go into war with the proper mindset, they will not only do no more harm than their mission requires of them, they will be able to make a healthy adjustment to life when they return home. In order to accomplish this, the terror and horrors of war they experience have to be placed into their proper context so that the overall experience means something.
One of the most striking characteristics of modern warfare addressed by Marlantes is the way that modern technology has blended the worlds of combat and home. Today’s soldier has the luxury of calling home within minutes of the end of a firefight in which he thought he would die. In addition to communicating by telephone, he can exchange photos and messages via email, and if he is so inclined, can tweet on Twitter and check-in with friends and family on their Facebook pages. His two worlds become so blurred that it is near impossible for him to leave behind the stress of combat when he is thrust back into the arms of his family at breakneck speed.
What It Is Like to Go to War should be read required reading for every young man and woman before they place their lives on the line for the first time - if not even before they formally become part of the military. It should be read by our policy makers, those who decide where, and how many of, our soldiers will be put in harm’s way each time a new hotspot flares. It should be read by those drill sergeants and officers that train our troops for combat. And, just as importantly, it should be read by the families of those who serve so courageously. This is an important – and practical – book.
Rated at: 4.0
However I feel that there are limits to Marlantes philosophy of war and its spirit and it is there that I think that the book desplays some limitations. Specifically he uses analogies of initiation ceremonies when describing the homecoming from the Vietnam War and his personal experiences at being reviled by some upon his return (notably the spitting incident)making the point that post-initation youths would be welcomed back into the tribe as heroes but that they werent after VN. This is a faulted analogy since tribal initiation ceremonies usually took place in the forest or a remote place where no one was harmed, especially not civilians of that forested area.
War is bad enough when youre killing enemy combatants but its the shit that usually goes with it (and probably accounts for a large part of it in Vietnam), the children and the women and unarmed peasant villagers in their thousands - renders any initiation ceremony analogy - redundant. fact.
If we are likening war/battle experiences, especially wars that we chose to involve ourselves in, we surely cannot legitimate them by using the symbolism of a tribal initiation ceremony - perhaps that is indicative of the flawed reasoning in all modern warriors - and its what I found philosophically limited in this work - it certainly isnt Sun Tzu but it is still a useful and moving book. Morality, especially Christian morality doesn't mix well with wars of adventure. and with the point that follows Marlantes book ventures into doubtful territory for me - it would be a failed book if it it any way appeared to be an apology or justification for war.
This may be harder to see clearly in some countries where the civilian culture may be quite heavily militarised and a larger majority of ordinary citizens habitual stakeholders in the life and activities of the military, at work and in community activity, on many levels - the attraction of military duty in the United States to fund youreslf through college (Forces Grant) ( very attractive if you are poor and have no realistic change of funding yourself through a life changing qualification) is a particularly disturbing/ insidious example.
The other slightly annoying thing was the (mis)use of scripture, eg Matt.18 and interepreting it along the lines of the Manichean/Bushian Doctrine - 'You are either with us or against us'. Marlantes was using this as the argument describing the impossibility or invalidity of the neutrality postion of countries..perhaps he should have referred himself to the Melian Dialogue in Thucydides to see that error in thinking. It's important because it can give the impression that war is a necessary option always on the table rather than a failure of dialogue and sort of ok despite his obvious misgivings about what war does to the young psyche in the rest of the book. From his troubled years in a drug addled wilderness that he spent after coming back - it's clear that the damge that comabt does is severe - and that's only the survivors. War does indeed suck but it would be a mistake to interepret this book ecouraging the young man/woman considering the military as a career as 'Suck it and see'. If you end up killing someone, it will always taste bad - every single time.
So, for sure it's a book for potential warriors - but if its read closely and with caution regarding the above philoshophical and scriptural exegetical errors, it might just produce some of the future 'warriors of peace' who carry an olive branch rather than an M16. Something that we so badly need in this war-ravaged world of ours.
If this book is able to produce one less gung-ho trigger happy grunt - then it will have been a success.
I don't remember reading a book that touched me as deeply and as personally as this one did. Some of his writing is about theories, ideas, interesting to read and ponder. Some is very highly personal, violent, open. While I found the theories and ideas fascinating, the personal really hit home. I found myself, most unexpectedly, crying.
Part of this is because I married young, after (and largely because) my husband was drafted, and he was sent to Vietnam when I, along with many of the soldiers and their spouses, was not old enough to be allowed to vote. I felt powerless and very angry. And the war...the war, not the young soldiers...was one we both opposed. He was, of course, a different person when he returned. This book brought back all those long-hidden emotions.
But that is too much about me. I include it to explain in part why this book had such a profound effect on me. I can't imagine it not having an effect on anyone living through that period. But I think it is very important reading for anyone who has served or is serving, for anyone considering it, anyone who is responsible in any way for training warriors. And it is also for those who oppose most or all wars. It's a must-read for anyone who has ever given a second thought to war.
The version I read was an e-book uncorrected proof, and I thank Grove/Atlantic and NetGalley for giving me a copy. The publication date is scheduled for September, 2011. In case you haven't already figured it out, I highly recommend this book.
But towards the end of the book quotes are less and the author pet peeves show throughout the text while we tries to develop his ideas on how to improve military training, and child rearing, in order to obtain moral warrior.
I thin kthe following quote sets the tone "Infantry platoons have medics for the body. Why not for the soul?"
Marlantes quality writing is there all the way, but I would have liked a regular memoir better than this attempt at "Zen and the art of war waging" ...