What it is like to go to war

by Karl Marlantes

Hardcover, 2011




New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011.


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
Two years ago, I picked up [Matterhorn], the highly acclaimed novel about Vietnam. It was outstanding and ended up being my favorite read of the year. The author had spent 30 years writing it. It was based on his experiences as a young Marine lieutenant.
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.
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LibraryThing member buffalogr
A straight through read/listen because it was just that good. Author explains the development, employment and reflection of himself as a warrior. Then, he reflects upon solutions that could be implemented to advance society into the realm of enlightenment. Also, some creative ideas that will ease warrior transition back to society and give them some feeling of their role in human history. It's a poignant book that should be on the best seller list as well as required reading lists by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine service chiefs.… (more)
LibraryThing member dtn620
If this doesn't describe what it's like to go to war I am pretty sure nothing will. Not only is it a dark rumination, a book of atonement, it is also a book of ideas of how we can help our military deal with the psychological toll that war takes on our nation's youth. I am looking forward to sinking my teeth into Matterhorn, but first I'm going to need a short break from these themes.… (more)
LibraryThing member agnesmack
When I was notified that I'd be receiving this book through the Goodreads First Reads program, I really wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. A book about combat? Well now, that certainly doesn't sound appealing. Luckily, Mr. Marlantes quickly put my concerns to rest.

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.
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LibraryThing member vguy
Well written scenes from his Vietnam experience, but his philosophising/moralising about what it all means lack depth and turned me off. The Vietnam war seems somehow marginal now; didnt solve any problems, didnt cure the US of its ill-judged adventurism, just futile. didn't finish this one.
LibraryThing member fingerpost
"What It is Like to Go to War" is an incomplete title for this amazing book. Marlantes does so much more than merely show those who are fortunate enough not to have the experience what it is like, though that is certainly part of the book. The author embodies combinations of personality traits that we don't normally associate together. He is deeply proud of his service as a Marine in Vietnam. He is also shamed by some of the things he did in that service. He strongly believes that in a perfect world there would be no war and no need for warriors. He is also smart enough to know that we do not now and never will have that perfect world, and we will always need warriors.

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.
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LibraryThing member TimBazzett
As one of tens of thousands of readers who read and marveled at Karl Marlantes' best-selling novel of the Vietnam war, MATTERHORN, and wondered either privately or publicly how he managed to write such a viscerally real, honest and gut-wrenching fictional account of that war, here is our answer. Or at least Marlantes' attempt to answer that question. Because this "follow-up" book, WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR, reads like a cross between a psychological and sociological inquiry into the hell that is war and a personal examination of conscience. Marlantes lays bare his soul in this volume, or perhaps as close as one can come to doing this.

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.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
The war stories were great - I wish there'd have been more stories about ...gosh... "what it was like to go to war". The rest of the book was mediocre drivel, all self and male-centered. It was a shocking surprise towards the end to hear the author admit that women can be soldiers nowadays (apparently there were NO women in Viet Nam - news to me). The author needs a couple of courses on "white male privilege", but if you want to read a story of a guy who really revels in his macho-ness this is it. Too bad because he had a lot of good stories.… (more)
LibraryThing member SamSattler
Karl Marlantes’s 2010 Vietnam War novel, Matterhorn, was some thirty years in the making, years during which Marlantes continued to fine tune his story while waiting for the marketplace to be ready for him. Following the success of this acclaimed debut novel, Marlantes, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, now uses his real life combat experience as the basis to explore how insufficiently America’s young men and women are prepared for modern warfare.

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
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LibraryThing member saibancho
There isn't much I want to add that other reviewers have eloquently expressed about the importance of this book for anyone either considering the military or those who like Marlantes are coming from a position of experience and authority. It is a very moving book spoken from the heart and to the heart and therefore one of the most crucial books about combat - it should be a must read for all.

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.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
The author of the novel Matterhorn has turned his talents to writing a nonfiction book about his experiences in Vietnam, how present-day warriors are not trained to emotionally and spiritually deal with the jobs they physically must do, what we've done wrong, what we need to do better. He looks at the history of war and warriors in ancient cultures and mythology, and how the wars we fight are changing every day. He has advice for warriors, those who are serving now, those who are trying to deal with having served, and those seemingly fearless and impressionable young who want to serve. He looks at the psyches of those who kill, what emotions they are feeling. And like the training, that which makes the warriors strong and loyal can also work against them. I haven't underlined so many passages in a book since I was a student, trying to memorize facts.

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.
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LibraryThing member TJWilson
This is a well thought out book by an experienced veteran in war and in academia. I no doubt will never come close to the frame of Marlantes's experienced mind, but I can certainly appreciate the logic of his overarching view of war's place in society. His answer, balance and vigilance, seems simple enough, yet I shudder at the time it will take to implement such ideals. But one most be hopeful, as Marlantes is.… (more)
LibraryThing member emed0s
The first two thirds of the book are carefully put together. Quotes from every source are used (ever heard of the Mahabharata?), in combination with the memoirs of the author days in Vietnam, all in order to explain who the warrior mind works under stress and many times facing impossible scenarios.

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" ...
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LibraryThing member nmele
This short book of reflections on Marlantes' experiences as a Marine in Vietnam and the aftermath of his time in Vietnam is profound, a reflection on what war does to young people, and what our society did to combat veterans after the returned to Vietnam. Marlantes shares deep insights and hard-won wisdom. This book should be required reading for all policy makers, especially the civilians who cavalierly send young people off to war, but it's invaluable to anyone who knows a returned combat veteran. Marlantes is unflinching in relating his experiences and emotions, making this at times a painful read, but an extremely valuable one.… (more)
LibraryThing member jmoncton
Definitely one of my favorite books of 2011. With brutal honesty, Marlantes describes his combat experience in Vietnam. The book is a combination of riveting stories from his years as an officer and a well thought out analysis of society and the role that war has played in our past and present. It is clear that as much we prepare our soldiers for the tactical skills needed to fight or handle weapons, we don't prepare them emotionally or spiritually to handle the horrors of war. And even sadder, we don't help them return back to a 'normal' civilian life. Absolutely amazing book that should by everyone.… (more)
LibraryThing member smlyniec
The psychological side to Grossman's On Combat.
LibraryThing member creighley
for the true picture of the warrior fighting in a war, this is a must read! Told by a Viet Name vet who saw the good, bad, and the ugly there, he has somehow managed with MUCH introspection, to make sense of it all. A time-sensitive read for those whose loved ones are or were in the military. It is a MUST read for any combat veteran and the family!… (more)
LibraryThing member JackieBlem
I've met Karl Marlantes a couple of times now, and each time I've been deeply impressed with his intense intelligence, his ability to tell a story, and his bravery to talk so very honestly about war, what he did in it, what he got out of it, and what he wishes were different, then and now. This book is very much like having a long conversation (albeit with footnotes) with the man himself. He opens up about everything which requires a depth of bravery that far surpasses that of a traditional warrior, though he would argue that the truly traditional warrior was a man of thought and philosophy, and we've stripped that part of war away over the millennia. He's introspective and probing, looking for meaning and lessons. He's also adamant about training and supporting the WHOLE warrior, not just on weapons and strategy but on spirituality, philosophy, morality and psychological coping techniques--before they go, while they are in the field, and certainly after they come home. He makes many great points about what is wrong today, and what lessons we should have already learned from all the battles from Vietnam on. This is a very intense read, but an invaluable one. I urge everyone to read this book.… (more)



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