Author Q&A: Karl Marlantes

More than 40 years after his service in Vietnam, Karl Marlantes describes coming to terms with the emotional scars of combat in What It Is Like to Go to War.


More than 40 years after his service in Vietnam, Karl Marlantes describes coming to terms with the emotional scars of combat in What It Is Like to Go to War. Marlantes will be speaking tonight (Monday, September 19) at Politics & Prose. More information is here. Tom Glenn’s review of What It Is Like To Go To War is here.

Have you had any feedback from combat vets on your new book? What do they say?

I have. The response has been very positive, and it’s not just Vietnam vets. For example, I was contacted by a Marine who was serving in Afghanistan (on his third combat tour, by the way) because he’d read Matterhorn. I sent him a copy of What It Is Like and he emailed back an amazing and positive reaction to the book, part of which the publisher put on the cover as a blurb. I’ve been invited to Quantico to speak to Marines there, almost all of whom, after ten years of war, are combat veterans.

Do you still run into people who criticize you for fighting in Vietnam?

Yes. I was at a lunch in New York, and someone at my table told me that he didn’t see any distinction between those who fought in Vietnam and those who joined the Gestapo and SS during WWII. I asked him if that included kids who were drafted, and he replied that it did. Quite frankly, I was speechless, but, thankfully, the person next to me responded so I didn’t have to.  On the other hand, I’ve found a huge number of people who were totally opposed to the war and actively protested against it, who are seriously trying to come to terms with that time period, which was (and clearly still is) extremely divisive. They still think the war shouldn’t have been fought, but they don’t blame those of us who fought it. I had a particularly moving experience in Berkeley at Mrs. Dalloway’s book store where 90% of the audience had been anti-war protesters in their youth. I finished reading and the whole rest of the evening was spent with those people genuinely engaging with each other, not me, to try and come to terms with that divisive time.

How has your family coped with your Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Maybe you should interview them. It was hard on my kids, and I don’t hide the fact that my first marriage broke up in large part because of my PTSD. The kids would learn strategies, like “don’t wake up dad by touching him.” “Dad doesn’t like the fire-works on the Fourth of July.” They were also puzzled by my behavior which at times would look totally inconsistent to them. My oldest daughter told me just recently that one of the things that was hardest for her to understand was that sometimes she’d drop the milk and I’d be just fine about it and another time she’d drop it and I’d explode in a rage. What she didn’t understand, nor did I at the time, is that if the milk was dropped behind me and I didn’t see it being dropped, the PTSD startle reaction would take over. My body was saying “danger, danger, danger” and “it’s time to fight,” and my rational mind was simply out of the picture.

What would you say to people who never had therapy —so many of us thought that counseling was for sissies — and still suffer, almost 40 years later, from nightmares and flashbacks?

If you’re having nightmares and flashbacks, these are signs that your body is trying to heal itself from trauma. You can have your choice, have flashbacks and nightmares until you’re dead, and continue to leave wreckage in your wake, or help the body get the job done by doing therapy, and what goes along with it: dream work, art, talking; there are lots of ways to heal. I’d guess that anyone having nightmares and flashbacks who thinks that this is all that is happening to him is sadly mistaken. He’s likely to be behaving in ways that are damaging his relationship with his own family, making choices that are harmful, like self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, or choosing to live in isolation in the woods someplace. Once you know you have a problem, I think you have a moral duty to try and solve it, and good therapists can cut the time it will take enormously.

A few Vietnam vets I know look down on PTSD sufferers and consider them whiners. What do you say to such people?

First of all I’d point out that PTSD has been with us for thousands of years. When at a banquet Odysseus was asked to talk about the Trojan War, he exhibited all the signs of it. Our own Civil War veterans had what they then called “soldiers heart,” very palpable heart pounding that no one could say was made up. Secondly, I’d point out that in the last ten or fifteen years, neurological science has actually gotten to the point where it can pinpoint actual physical and chemical changes in the brain that are a direct result of war trauma. So, there is physical evidence that PTSD exists. Talking honestly about having PTSD is different from whining. One can also have the flu, talk honestly about it, or whine about it and drive everyone around them nuts. I agree that people who whine shouldn’t, but saying you have PTSD shouldn’t be conflated with whining. I also think part of the “whining” rap is a result of the fact that it’s easy to fake having PTSD, or exaggerate just how badly you do have it. Anyone can go to the DSM IV [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition published by the American Psychiatric Association], look up the symptoms, and if you’re a good enough actor you could probably convince most psychologists that you’ve got it.

In What It Is Like to Go to War, you mention that you were married twice. Did PTSD have anything to do with the breakup of your first marriage? [Disregard this question if it is too personal, i.e., none of my business.]

Absolutely. We didn’t know what hit us. My first wife thought I’d gone crazy. I was certainly no longer the guy she’d married. In a way this was true. Had we known about PTSD, it would at least have explained a lot of my weird behavior, and it would take it out of the realm of “this is a hopelessly crazed man who can’t control his anger issues” to “this man has suffered a brain chemical change, and it’s not his or anyone else’s fault.” Once you move from a moral judgment about the behavior, and I mean both the spouse and the sufferer seeing the behavior as “bad,” to accepting that it is something that needs to be worked on, much like a person with a serious physical injury needs to go to physical therapy, the odds of the marriage being saved go way up. Lots of wives are just at a loss about what to do, they feel that somehow they’re doing something wrong, they’re confused, they’re hurt, and they suffer. One cost of war we don’t generally count up is the havoc it wreaks on families long after the war is over.

You mention the importance of combat veterans talking about their experiences. What if no one wants to listen?

I’d first put this in some context. Virtually all people who are close to a combat veteran, wives, parents, children, siblings, are terribly curious about what made such a drastic change in someone they love. They’re mostly embarrassed to ask, and as a result of the way our society is structured (you mentioned whining in a previous questions) veterans are reluctant to open up. Those few that don’t want to listen, you just don’t talk to. It would be pretty silly to be invited to a dinner party with people you don’t know well and start talking honestly about your war experiences. That would pretty well ruin dinner.

What is the undercore of strength in a man like you who has gone through soul-destroying trauma and has somehow survived as a better man? Is it genetic? Psychological? Spiritual? Why does one man make it and another doesn’t?

You’ve raised one of the most perplexing issues in moral philosophy, whether or not there is free will. Certainly, I’d say that there is a genetic and early nurturing component to surviving the impacts of trauma. I’ve been told that research shows that if you were abused as a child, you have a much higher chance of getting severe PTSD from combat than if you had a healthy upbringing. On the other hand, I was told by a very respected VA psychologist that he’s never seen anyone overcome war-related PTSD without there being some spiritual component to their recovery, whether it’s traditional religion or Sufi dancing. I was brought up with a solid spiritual/religious foundation. My parents openly questioned religious dogma like survival of the individual after death, the Trinity, but they did not question that there was a mystery beyond this world of suffering. My Finnish grandmother was a communist and very much believed that religion was the opiate of the masses, but she also believed that the Columbia River was alive. My Greek grandmother firmly believed absolutely everything that was taught in the Greek Orthodox church, right down the line. So I got a pretty wide ranging exposure to things spiritual. I think, because I saw as a child that no one had cornered the market on understanding God, I didn’t have my religious rug pulled from beneath my feet when I saw the horror of combat, but I could still accept my inability to understand it all and not feel so bad about not understanding.  Finally, I do believe in free will. We can choose to believe. We can choose to learn to cope with trauma.

Have you gone back to Vietnam since the war?

I haven’t. For me it would be like going to a foreign country I’ve never visited before. I was flown into a military airfield, dropped into the jungle, and never saw a Vietnamese village or city. I’d be interested in going to the mountains where I operated, but frankly, I’m a little afraid that I’d collapse from exhaustion trying to reach those places. I’m also just a little worried about unexploded ordinance. Friends of mine have gone back and all of them have found it a healing experience.

In an interview, you talked about a woman who told you she didn’t even realize that the Marines slept out of doors in Vietnam. Do you think that Americans who have read your work and have some understanding of the horrors you lived through might be more hesitant to go to war in the future?

I’d hope so. I’m not a pacifist. I believe bad people exist and they want to hurt us and we have to protect ourselves. I also believe that we too often waste our nineteen-year-olds cleaning up messes that we adults could have solved by other means. I often point out that economic and social pressure helped change apartheid in South Africa without military intervention. We could do much of the same, still staying actively engaged in making our values known, applying pressure when we feel it is needed, in places like Afghanistan, but without military intervention. It also wouldn’t hurt our cause to be seen living up to the values we espouse. I was all for going after Osama Bin Laden in 2001. He killed several thousand of my people and needed to be stopped. I think trying to get the Pathans [another name for the Pashtun tribe members of Afghanistan] to get along with the northern tribes, or change the social views of ignorant people through force of arms, is generally too costly a way of moving them along. I do despair, however, that most American politicians, those that actually read history, don’t seem to take away the same lessons from history that I do.

Having fought the war in Vietnam, how do you feel about present-day Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam?

I actually don’t have any particular feeling about it, any more than I do about other repressive regimes. I wish repressive states didn’t exist. I feel sad for the suffering of the people who live in them. The DRV doesn’t seem to be nearly as bad as some other repressive countries, and I take my hat off to them for getting rid of Pol Pot, but it certainly isn’t any place I’d like to live in.

You’re obviously on speaking terms with Jungian psychology, many different mythologies, and semiotics — as reflected in your references to Joseph Campbell. Where and how did you learn these disciplines?

A woman who shared a house with me in Oxford gave me a copy of Jung’s Man and His Symbols. I read it all night. That was the beginning of a lot of reading in archetypal and depth psychology. I later was a founding member of the Oregon Friends of C. G. Jung, which was the inspiration of a woman named Dotty Kyle who was very much a mentor to me. We invited guest speakers, many of whom were not known at the time, which is why we could afford them, and because I was a board member I was able to have dinner and long conversations with many of them. This just fueled my desire to learn more. I also have to credit a home study course for small groups called Center Point, which I believe was put together by the Episcopal church. I have been interested in mythology since childhood. My local librarian gave me a gift of Yeats’s Celtic Twilight when I was quite young­–at least young enough to go around looking for fairies and spectral birds trapped in the walls of the house. That got me into Celtic mythology. My mother’s family came from Norway and Finland and my father’s family came from Greece, so both of those mythologies were naturals for me.

With two successful books under your belt, what will you write next?

I am hoping to get to work on another novel. The protagonist is a woman who is a labor organizer in the logging camps of the Northwest at the beginning of the 20th Century. I’m pretty much done with war.

Writer Tom Glenn was evacuated under fire during the fall of Saigon after operating many years in Vietnam. The declassified government documents decribing his work are on his web site, http://tom-tells-tales.org.

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