What It Is Like To Go To War

  • Karl Marlantes
  • Atlantic Monthly Press
  • 272 pp.

Coming to terms with the gruesome truth of combat, by a veteran of Vietnam.

Karl Marlantes will be speaking at Politics & Prose on Monday, September 19. See here for more details.

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

“There it is.” This sentence recurs in Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes’s unforgettable 2010 novel about Marines fighting in Vietnam. It means, “That’s how things are. We can’t change them.” The message in Marlantes’s new book, What It Is Like to Go to War, is blunt: The warrior kills and maims. That’s his job. It’s what we as a nation order him to do. But the warrior who has risked his life and has killed is torn. He knows the ecstasy of combat — the thrill of fighting to the death, the warrior’s high. He knows the fierce pride of heroism and saving the lives of his fellows. He knows the anguish and rage of watching the tortured deaths of his buddies. Most of all, he knows the terrible shame inherent in killing. Reentering peaceful society after being trained to kill and actually killing is itself fraught with conflict. And post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with which Marlantes was diagnosed in 1998, is a healthy response to the unspeakable horror of war. There it is.

In 1967, Marlantes, a Rhodes Scholar, interrupted his graduate studies in England to serve as a U.S. Marine lieutenant commanding a platoon of 40 men in Vietnam. For his service, he received the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for Valor, two Purple Hearts and ten air medals. He wrote What It Is Like to Go to War, he tells us, to come to terms with his own actions and to forgive himself, a process that has consumed 30-plus years. The 11 chapters of the book examine different aspects of the combat experience. Killing, guilt, numbness and violence, lying and heroism each get their own chapter. Using the psychology of Jung, ancient myths from a variety of sources and the semiotics of Joseph Campbell (author of the classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces), Marlantes probes the soul of the warrior in which contradiction, moral ambiguity and cognitive dissonance do their work. Integration of the combat experience with the psyche of the husband, the father, the citizen is the work of a lifetime. Coping with the unbearable is nearly always done alone and in silence.

Marlantes calls the combatants “kids.” Many Marines who saw combat in Vietnam were barely 18 years old; North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers were even younger. Marlantes looks into the eyes of an NVA soldier seconds before he kills him and realizes that the soldier is a kid, just like the Marines dying by his side. We understand why so many Marines adopted the saying, “Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil ’cause I’m the meanest motherfucker in the valley.” To a teenager, meanness meant survival, but it also sometimes led to cruelty, even atrocities.

Throughout the book, Marlantes spares neither himself nor the reader. In a voice devoid of emotion he shows us his delight at napalming the enemy, shouting to his team, “We got Crispy Critters all over the hill!” He describes his decision to set up a no-quarter fight to the death “where no one is allowed to surrender or run. Everyone on the losing side is killed,” ending when three NVA stand, probably preparing to surrender, and are immediately gunned down. He relates the story of Raymond, who, after he left the military, cried every Christmas because he lost his entire squad on Christmas Day.

In the aftermath of the war, Marlantes suffers the classic PTSD symptoms — nightmares, flashbacks, abuse of drugs and alcohol. The worst is guilt. Only through ritual can he begin the process of healing. He requests a Mass for the Dead, celebrated for him by a Capuchin friar, which only the two of them attend. The celebrant opens the door into the night and invites in Marlantes’s friends and enemies, those he couldn’t save and those he killed. “I felt them filing in,” Marlantes writes. “They had waited for a quarter of a century.” And he says to them, “I forgive you. Please forgive me.”

The scholar takes over as Marlantes struggles to sort out the ethics of war. He concludes that the warrior must make two fundamental moral choices: to take sides and to use violence to protect others from violence. Marlantes doesn’t question that a rule of no violence would be a superior dictum but argues that it would work only in a perfect world. “One of my axioms of faith,” he explains, “is that we don’t live in a perfect world.” Corollaries to the moral choices of the combatant are: preemptive strikes are rarely justified; gradual escalation is morally wrong and doesn’t work (he cites Vietnam as an example) — once we are committed to war, we must be totally committed with an overwhelming force focused on winning — and politicians who send kids into war must operate on the two dictums that drive the warrior. Kill ratios (determined by body counts) as a measure of success or failure are both morally flawed and misleading. The author implicitly indicts McNamara for relying so much on counting and measuring that he overlooked the moral immeasurables that in the end decided the outcome of the war, like the North Vietnamese determination to fight to the death as a nation, and the corruption of southern officers and government officials.

Marlantes’s prose is blessed both with a grace born of passion and with the serenity of the scholar, neither lauding nor condemning an imperfect world that, in his view, is incapable of doing away with war and its attendant suffering. His writing, not always as polished as that of the professional philosopher, is nevertheless nakedly honest and convincing. His occasional use of profanity reminds us that we are dealing with a Marine here, despite his mastery of philosophy, psychology and world mythology.

Though Marlantes doesn’t say so, this reader was forced to conclude that the U.S. is so willing to go to war because so many of its citizens are ignorant of the unimaginable grisliness of combat. Unlike most nations of the world, we have not, within living memory, fought a war on our own territory. What It Is Like to Go to War forces the reader to confront the gruesome truth of war. Maybe it will make us more hesitant.

A warning to the reader: nothing about this book is easy, nothing is left to the imagination. I was so moved, repeatedly, that I had to stop reading. The content was so real to me that I could smell the blood.

For a number of years, writer Tom Glenn was an intelligence operative on the ground during the Vietnam conflict. The U.S. Marines oversaw his escape under fire as Saigon fell.

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