Roundtable: Authors Talk about Writing on War

Tom Glenn, the author of Friendly Casualties, a book about Vietnam, asked two other writers who have published books about that war - Karl Marlantes and Grady Smith - to explain why they wrote.

Roundtable: Authors Talk about Writing on War

With Memorial Day upon us, we reflect on war, its meaning, its costs. Tom Glenn, the author of Friendly Casualties, a book about Vietnam, asked two other writers who have published books about that war to explain why they wrote. (Also see Tom’s own essay on books about war.) The responders are Grady Smith, author of Blood Chit, and Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War. All three writers have suffered the moral and psychological wounds of combat, a perspective that dominates both the questions and the answers. The similarity in outlook of these three writers testifies to the moral damage war inflicts on the warrior, the same lacerations that appear in the writings of combatants from World War I to Afghanistan.

Tom Glenn:
What led you to write your books about war?

Grady Smith: It was a long process. I stayed in the Army for twenty years. The military’s a subset of the country that approved and applauded what we did in Nam in contrast to the larger society, so I didn’t have any problems then. I retired in 1985 and about two or three years later my mind and emotions started to shift — subtly at first, then more sharply, more urgently. I found that writing was a bit like the lion tamer’s whip and chair and pistol. It held the beast at bay. For some reason, it was important for me to come at my Vietnam experience in a fictional mode. That let me distance myself to a degree from the actual events, and the arranging of imaginary incidents gave me some perspective on my own actual experiences. Ultimately, it took me about twenty-five years to wrestle it all into a novel and get it inside a book cover.

Karl Marlantes: I have always been a writer. I started recording my dreams when I was around seven or eight and my cousin and I wrote a “novel” when we were nine. (The world was saved from alien invasion by two nine-year-old boys.) So, since the first one was so easy, I thought a second one wouldn’t be all that tough. Was I ever wrong. Matterhorn was an enormous amount of work. I kept at it for 35 years and it went through a lot of drafts before it got published. I cannot tell you how many rejection letters I got over that time period. The relevant question is what kept me at it? When I got back from Vietnam, I still had another year in the Marines. I was assigned to Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington, D.C. One day I had to carry some papers over to the White House. So there I am in my full uniform, two months back from combat, and I’m confronted by about twenty students shouting obscenities at me, flipping me the bird, and waving protest signs and North Vietnamese and Viet Cong flags. I just stood there, across the street from them, stunned. All I could think of was, “You don’t know me. The people you are calling baby killers are three years younger than you are and are over there because they didn’t get to go to college.” People were passing me, heads down, not looking. I couldn’t walk across the street, there would have been a scene. I was in uniform and the Marines would probably have court martialed me for evoking one. I just wanted to shout across the street. “Here’s who we are, a bunch of kids, mostly younger than you, trying to grow up and do a job in very difficult circumstances.” I just wanted to tell our story. Very simple, just tell our story.

What It is Like to Go to War was very personal. I’d done a lot of killing. I’d seen a lot of carnage, my friends killed, seen friends sacrifice their lives for others, and had seen NVA soldiers do exactly the same thing. What was I supposed to do with all of this? By around 1990 I was a mess. Post-Traumatic Stress certainly involves physiological changes to the brain and psychological issues, but it also involves what I can only call a wound to the soul. You cannot ask an eighteen-year-old to take a human life, a role that should only be left to the gods, without damaging that kid’s soul. In my particular case, I’d killed an NVA soldier from about fifteen feet away looking right into his eyes. Locking eyes in combat is extremely rare. Every other person I’d killed wasn’t, right at the moment, human. He was a gook, some kind of animal trying to kill me and my friends. Making the enemy into an animal in your own mind is about the only way someone who isn’t a sociopath can actually pull the trigger. It’s not “dehumanizing” the enemy, as if that were some sort of politically incorrect act that one shouldn’t do; it’s dehumanizing yourself so you can do what your country asked you to do. Most combat veterans return with some sort of soul loss and in our culture they are pretty much left on their own to try and get their souls back. This wasn’t the case in more “primitive” cultures. Anyway, I’m driving down I-5 one night, all by myself on a long trip, about two in the morning, country music on the radio, and this NVA soldier’s eyes appeared in the windshield. I knew they weren’t there, but I saw them. I was psychologically sophisticated enough to know that it was time to really deal with this particular killing, and killing in general. As I said, I’m a writer, and I dealt with it through writing that book. I also hoped that it would be of some help to young people who were thinking about a career in the military and that perhaps it would be of help to other veterans.

Tom Glenn:
Were the characters in your fiction drawn from real people you knew in wartime circumstances? Do you yourself appear as a character?

Grady Smith: Both real people and imaginary ones, plus real people I never knew personally but heard about from other vets over time. I think I come closest to Captain Bonner, the company commander in Blood Chit. He’s only in the first chapter, but in an earlier draft I told his whole story as a sidebar — that story got dropped out of the novel on the way to publication, but the tale of how he pays off his own blood chit is on my website.

Karl Marlantes: The major characters in Matterhorn are drawn from people I knew, or are amalgams of people I knew. Anyone who was in my platoon would recognize who inspired the character, but I didn’t try to be “true” to the actual person. What the characters think and do in the novel is fiction, not biography. The higher in rank, the less the characters are drawn from real people. I was a lieutenant and we didn’t hob-nob with colonels and generals. Everything that my central character, Mellas, sees, I saw or took from a true story related by a close friend. His character, however, isn’t very much like me at all, other than that he’s like every green lieutenant going into combat for the first time and I was no different. I often joke that if I had half the political savvy of Mellas, I’d have ended up as governor or a whole lot richer than I did. I had an older brother who was an extremely good and well-liked corporate leader with a lot of what today is called social intelligence. I also knew a political king-maker in Oregon, a man who was consulted by politicians of both parties on virtually anything of consequence, and, like my brother gifted in political and social skill. I drew on both of them for Mellas. At cocktail parties, I’m the one over by the potato chips trying to look like I’m just hungry and not that I can’t find anyone to talk with.

Karl Marlantes, Grady Smith, and Tom Glenn

Tom Glenn:
Did your books require considerable research to aid your memory?


Grady Smith: For the most part, no. But regarding the Graves Registration function, I knew nothing. I went over to Suitland MD to the National Archives and found a lot of stuff on the Korean War, but only a little on both WWII and Nam. So the research specialist put me in touch with a vet in North Carolina who had worked in the GR function for 18 months in Nam, and he told me how it was. He and I still stay in touch.

Karl Marlantes: I’d have to say no. My war experiences were pretty well burned into my memory. Even today they seem like they happened several weeks ago. I did do a little memory jogging with internet searches. For example, I knew that an NVA anti-aircraft weapon was around the same size as one of our .50 caliber machine guns, but I didn’t know the precise caliber, even when I was over there.

Tom Glenn: What scenes or episodes took the greatest emotional toll in the writing?

Grady Smith: There are two or three places in the book where the main character, Paxton distills his most intense emotions into an introspective window on himself — about losing his best friend on the battlefield, about the crushing isolation he feels when he gets home, and about his hopelessness as he struggles to get beyond his combat past, which continues to overwhelm his present life. I still respond to those passages with an intensity of emotion that’s very painful but confirms for me that I’ve gotten some part of a vet’s back-home experience right.

Karl Marlantes: In both books it was the combat scenes, in particular, scenes drawn from times when I had made mistakes that got people killed or acted from ignoble motivations. I’d often be taken over with sobbing; I mean snot-running-out-of-my-nose-onto-the-keyboard sobbing.

Tom Glenn: For me, writing about what I went through awoke conflicting feelings of regret, shame, and pride. Did you have similar feelings?

Grady Smith: Yes. These are the emotional rocks in the backpack of anyone who’s ever been in combat. It’s the flip side of Socrates’ dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living — the life that’s examined can be excruciating. And make no mistake, we’re talking moral pain here. Every commander, right down to the platoon and squad, makes mistakes in battle. My experience is that those mistakes take on a life of their own and can flay you when you least expect it. Even when you were able to do everything right and lost people anyway — that doesn’t go away. I try to start my days with quiet time, and I’ve evolved to a place where I consciously call to mind the men I lost. For one thing, it usually prevents being taken by surprise. And I’ve reached the point where their memory is no longer couched in guilt, but there’s plenty of that regret you mentioned in your question. I shared this once with a Chosin Reservoir Marine [Chosin Reservoir Marine fought in the battle at Chosin Reservoir in Korea in 1950]. He told me it was time to give up all hope of a better past. I’m working on it.

Karl Marlantes: Absolutely. I’m extremely proud to have served with the Marines. I saw those I served with do great and noble things. At times, I even did such things along with them, but five minutes after doing something brave and noble, I could do something stupid, self-serving, or even cowardly. The combat experience is the whole range of human emotions and motivations on steroids.

Tom Glenn: Along the same lines, unquestionably my writing helped me cope with combat trauma or Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. Did you experience any sense of catharsis as a result of your writing?

Grady Smith: Writing helped me cope, too. But I don’t think there was a full-fledged catharsis in the sense of purging away the emotional consequences of the experience. What it did do for me was demonstrate that I could spend months and years looking it all in the eye while writing and survive doing it. At the same time, there was a kind of antiphonal dialogue going on between Paxton’s experience in his fictional war, and my real one. He had his own life in Nam and back home, and he was very much in charge of it in the creation of the novel. But I would find myself comparing my experience to his — how our battles and emotional responses were the same, how they differed. In this whole process, the writing constructed a perspective for me, brought order to the way I looked back, when originally the whole Vietnam tour was a chaotic mess with respect to its purpose in my life and its emotional impact.

Karl Marlantes: I did, particularly with the non-fiction book
which, as I said, was motivated by actually having to deal with certain actions
and experiences that haunted me for years after I came home.

Tom Glenn:
What do you hope your readers will learn from you?

Grady Smith: Without ever having addressed the issue directly in the book, I hope people will want their government to think long and hard before starting the next war. We’ve got thousands of young men and women right now who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and came back with Traumatic Brain Injury, multiple limb amputations and PTSD, and the nation is morally obligated to care for them for the next half century. Does anyone seriously think the people who decided to start these wars considered that?

Karl Marlantes: With Matterhorn I wasn’t trying to make any particular point, political or otherwise. I just wanted to write well enough to evoke the magic of literature, which is to allow the reader to experience some aspect of the human condition he or she wouldn’t otherwise experience. Didactic fiction is bad fiction. I’ve been criticized about Matterhorn because I didn’t present a balanced view of the war, that those who opposed it had valid reasons and weren’t all spoiled college kids taking the easy way out, and that we did a lot of damage to the Vietnamese people. Of course I see that; it’s just that none of my characters would have. With both books I suppose I was hoping that people would come to understand just exactly what they are asking their kids to do when they send them to war. I’m no pacifist, and clearly America isn’t a pacifist nation, but I would hope the cost benefit analysis of the next decision to go to war would have the cost side clearly understood.

Tom Glenn: Has the readers’ response to your books been rewarding?

Grady Smith: Yes. After a presentation, vets have been almost grateful to talk about their own experiences — going all the way back to WWII. It’s as if the painful truth of what’s in the novel becomes a platform, or even a permission, for their own thinking and sharing. Non-vets on the other hand seem to be learning, gaining perspective on what happens when their country sends young men and women to war. I think in a way, my generation of vets, the Nam war cadre, had to go through all the rejection from civilians and the ugly reviling so Americans could learn to distinguish between the warfighter and the war — in time to apply that lesson to our new crop of veterans. But I still have a simmering resentment over the kind of welcome we got when we came back. I probably always will.

Karl Marlantes: It has been far beyond what I had even hoped. I’ve had so many veterans, and not just of the Vietnam war, tell me that I nailed it. One man came to the signing table with five books. He’d been trying for years to tell his wife and children what it was like for him in Vietnam and never could. He said he was just going to give them Matterhorn and let that do his talking for him. The active-duty military has responded in an overwhelmingly positive way. I’ve been asked to speak at all the service academies and both books are now used in classes there. The Commandant of the Marine Corps put both books on the Commandant’s Reading List, which is virtually required reading for Marine NCOs and officers. Veterans’ organizations and therapists who deal with veteran issues are using both books with their clients.

Tom Glenn: If you had it to do over again, what would you change in your books?

Grady Smith: I’d try to find a way to emphasize the moral anguish more. Most veterans who fought the war nose to nose come away living in some degree of moral pain, even though the nation and most major religions say it’s okay to kill in battle. But insofar as we’re moral human beings—and I hope we all are — we have to look to the consequences.

Karl Marlantes: For sure I’d have gotten the trigger mechanism on a Claymore mine right. I can’t tell you how many people out there not only wrote me about it, but put it up on their websites. Hey, it was forty years ago, give me a break. More seriously, I’m pretty happy with both of them and can’t think of anything major that I’d change.

Tom Glenn: My experience in Vietnam has pushed me toward counseling more careful consideration before we as a nation decide to go to war. My sense is that we as a people have no memory of war on our own territory, no sense of how gruesome war is, so we’re more willing than other nations to engage in war. What’s your reaction?

Grady Smith: I agree. There’s a handful of senators wanting us to go into the Middle East right now without looking into the practical consequences of that. Haven’t we learned anything from Afghanistan, Iraq, the First Gulf War, Vietnam? I think in a sense war comes to our land when the veterans return home. We see the results of war writ large on the veterans’ bodies and minds. I’m amazed when I see how blind the people who make national policy are, and how little they seem to learn from history.

Karl Marlantes: I’m absolutely with you on that. I’d add that we have a peculiar blind spot that many other nations have gotten over just because, as you point out, they actually experience war. We see ourselves as knights in shining armor, our enemies as members of the “axis of evil,” and we let our belief in American moral exceptionalism justify a lot of actions that lead us into a lot of moral pickles. Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden were actually killing our people. We had every right to go after them and, because they are beyond reasoning with, kill them. A great many people, however, don’t think that the Taliban are awful. In fact, just a couple of decades ago, we ourselves thought they were noble freedom fighters. So why are we trying to “build a nation” in our own image in a country that, as far as I can tell, not only doesn’t have a clue what we’re on about, but quite frankly disagrees with a great deal about how we conduct ourselves, for example our sexual mores and consumer materialism. We decided that everyone who was a Baathist must have been just as evil a bastard as was Sadam Hussein. We threw them all out of government, disarmed the institutions that could have helped secure the peace, and absolute chaos ensued. I think we’d have been out of Iraq years ago if we’d had a more balanced, less moralistic view. Sure a lot of Baathists were sociopathic torturers, but I’d venture to say that most Baathists were just bureaucrats trying to get along in a totalitarian state. I am eternally grateful that I wasn’t born in Germany in 1920. Had I been, at the very least I know I would have laid low politically and wouldn’t be at all surprised if I didn’t join the Hitler youth. I certainly would have fought in the German army. We need to get it through our heads that “they” are “us” in different circumstances. You don’t kill the rabid dog in the neighborhood because God is on your side. You just put it down with sadness because it could kill your children.

Tom Glenn: What’s your writing future? More books about war?

Grady Smith: Right now I’m working on a novel about a murder in my home town, Saint Louis, at the turn of the last century. I’m taking the bare bones from the newspapers and heavily fictionalizing it. After that, one more shot at a war novel, about the spiritual aspects of PTSD. During the Civil War in Winchester, Virginia, a Quaker woman’s experience of four years of combat raging around and through her town grinds her down. She finally violates the Quaker Testimony against war in order to shorten the killing, and as a consequence she loses her contact with her “sweet small voice within.” You don’t have to carry a rifle to suffer combat PTSD.

Karl Marlantes: I am pretty sure I’ve written my last book about war, although future books may include bits about war because it is such a pervasive part of our culture and history. Right now I’m writing a novel about a woman who is a labor organizer in the logging camps of southwest Washington State around the turn of the last century. I suspect I’ll be writing novels until I keel over my keyboard.


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