This is a remarkable book. I haven't read a lot of military literature, fiction or non-fiction; I have no personal connection to the military and never served. But I am a high school teacher, and every year I see some number of students -- sometimes more, sometimes less; quite a lot more since the economy sank in 2008 -- leave high school and go off to serve their country. I wanted to get some perspective on what they were in for, and perhaps a better idea of why they did it, why they signed up when the conventional wisdom is always for young men and women to go to college.
I got that perspective. And much more. I got a real glimpse into a soldier's heart and mind, told with clarity and great intelligence and heroic honesty; if for nothing else (and of course there is much), Marlantes should be honored for his willingness to delve so very deep into his own experiences, and to share them with the reading public in stark, perfect detail, hiding nothing. It made the book difficult to read at times, an experience that I can only think would be a thousand times more intense for fellow soldiers, but it made the book that much more necessary to read.
I also got led through an insightful plan for how a modern nation should treat its soldiers, how they should be trained, how the officers should deal with their commands, how the public should treat their warriors before, during, and after combat. This is where the author's intelligence and education shine: calling on mythology, psychology, sociology, history, and of course his own experiences, Marlantes lays out a set of suggestions for the military that made me think this book should be not only required reading for past and future soldiers (which it should be), but also required reading for elected officials who intend to send soldiers into harm's way -- whether they themselves are veterans or not. The basic concept is that we must give our military men and women time and tools to adjust, both before and after combat, both in the short and long term. Soldiers must be prepared for what they will have to face -- all they will have to face, the fear and the excitement, the heroism and the honor and the horror and the lies -- and they must be given the chance to work through what they have dealt with afterwards; Marlantes shows how asking soldiers to return from the field to civilian life in as little as a 24 or 48 hours, as happened to Vietnam veterans like Marlantes, is perhaps the largest root cause of trauma for all involved, especially since neither our government nor our society have policies in place to help soldiers make that difficult transition. It's a shame, and it should be changed.
I wish the book was a little easier to read; it gets a bit academic and complex at times, when the author is working through some difficult concepts -- such as the enemy within, or the idea of heroism, both in abstract and practical terms -- and some of the students I'd like to give this book to would have trouble following it. But I'm going to give it to them anyway, and they're going to be fascinated by it, as I was, even if there are some small bits they struggle with (Hey, I'm an English teacher; I'll help them through the hard parts.). Almost everything in the book is so real and so well-told that anyone can follow and appreciate it.
And this book should be read.
I went off to war in 1942, and spent my time bombing Germany and watching my fellow flyers die at an alarming rate. Thus, I can attest that the author's splendid piece of writing conveys a realistic picture of war and its effect on the human spirit. General Sherman is reported to have said, "War is Hell". It certainly is, as the author found in the jungles of Vietnam, and I found at 25,000 feet above Germany. War is fire and explosions and machine guns pounding and dying men screaming for help. The author lost many members of his platoon. I lost five of my crew killed, and two (including me) wounded. Thus, war's combat is the same, wherever and whenever we find it.
Likewise, the effects of combat on humans seem to be the same, no matter which war we consider. In Vietnam, the author describes his post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) that caused trouble even after he had come home. His description had a familiar ring. I fought it for eight years after World War Two ended. Now, I read in newspapers that PSTD is a major problem for troops back from the Iraq and Afghan wars.
But some things have changed. When I went off to war, it seemed like the whole nation was supporting me, and we came home from the war to adulation and happy times. In contrast, when the author came home, a young woman spit at him, and people expressed their contempt. Today, it is remarkable if we hear anything on the news about our troops in the Middle East.
This very readable narrative is fascinating and disturbing, but it is well-worth your time.
In this reflective memoir, Karl Marlantes, writer of the widely acclaimed Vietnam War book Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, takes a probing look at his own experiences of going to war, and of coming home again. Because it is more of a series of reflections than a continuous narrative, I will review it in kind, with some impressions and appreciations. First, Marlantes's book is honest, sometimes brutally so. And I think this is one of the keys that makes it work. The reader gets the distinct impression that he has carefully worked and reworked his memories until they come out as honestly and completely as possible. Even though at times this means recounting memories of his own brutalities in war. But along with these sometimes tortured memories come candid memories of his own emotions, impressions, and motivations that help bring the experience of war to life. They also guarantee that war isn't glorified, and neither is the warrior. Instead, we meet the brutality along with the valor.
A second impression one gets is that these are carefully analyzed reflections. He has quite obviously held his own experiences, indeed his own person, under the light of careful scrutiny. This means the narratives and accounts he relates are thick descriptions of events, filled out with his own psychological analysis about not only what he and those around him experienced but why. And this also means he often extends his reflections beyond his own experiences, through an analysis of why, to a discussion of what we might constructively draw from them. One key example that comes up repeatedly in the book is the experience of coming home from war. He recounts many of the difficulties of going from a life-or-death struggle in the jungles of Vietnam, where you are dealing death in a god-like fashion, to being rapidly transported via helicopter and airplane, back to your family and friends in everyday society in a matter of hours. And that jarring transition is made without reflection, significant preparation, or guidance. He recommends greatly increasing the debriefing and processing time for returning veterans, both before and after they come home. At one point he recommends returning to the WWII practice of returning home by ship: "We should have had time to talk with our buddies about what we had all shared" (150). And he says so much more about this key issue of reintegration and the need for acceptance, especially dealing with the challenges of returning from Vietnam to a country that didn't appreciate his service or the battle he was sent to fight. This important and timely issue alone makes the book a compelling and worthwhile read, and has given me renewed respect and concern for our current crop of returning vets.
Last, in my unsystematic collection of reflections, I would say this book is vivid. It takes you not only into the battles but into the very experiences of being there and the psyches of the soldiers involved. The horrors of war are inherent, and an honest account like his helps keep us from sugar coating the experience and practice of war. He also raises interesting questions regarding the modern practice of war, with drone pilots dropping death by day and having dinner with the family "after work" in the evening. The psychological effects are hard to fathom.
Marlantes writes well, with carefully crafted words and deeply reflective ideas. I hope this book gains a wide readership, as it has brought home to me a fuller understanding of the exercise of war and also a much deeper appreciation for the men and women we commission to carry out war on our society's behalf. I also applaud his aims to send out warriors who are better trained to face the psychological and ethical aspects of war, and I expect that his candid memoirs will be a tool toward just such an end.
on August 30, 2011
This is not a Vietnam memoir, such as Tim O'Brian's If I Die in a Combat Zone or Robert Mason's Chickenhawk. That's not meant as criticism, because Karl Marlantes clearly wasn't trying to write a Vietnam memoir. Instead, it has the flavor of a book that has been a very long time under consideration, the distillation of his thinking, during all of his adult life, about the nature and implications of war.
The book is broken into chapters dealing with specific themes ("Killing," "Guilt," "Lying," etc.), an organizational strategy that well supports what Marlantes is trying to achieve. Much of the power of the book comes from the author's own experiences in Vietnam, used to illustrate the points he is making. The book is at its best at those moments (and bumps the author's Matterhorn closer to the top of my "To Be Read" list). His description of calling in a fire mission on elephants is heart-breaking. And his use of the experiences of others (especially those of the WWII-era Major von Luck) is often equally graceful.
While I certainly agreed with his suggestions of how the experience and rituals of the warrior may be changed to make it easier to return to society after combat is through, I had the feeling of reading suggestions that would never be followed. To follow them would require society to admit that war and aggression is part of who we are. But the truth, as Marlantes himself points out is that "War is society's dirty work, usually done by kids cleaning up some failure on the part of the adults."
The book is not perfect. The galley copy that I reviewed showed signs of insufficient surface editing; examples are a reference to a "mystical experience" at fifteen that "scared the hell" out of him but is never explained or referenced again, the possessive of Robert Graves being "Grave's," the use of "will he nil he" rather than "willy-nilly." At a higher level, it sometimes feels choppy, lurching from a scholarly dissertation supported by references from classical literature into first-person experience in the jungle. The book may be have been more effective had it been shorter and tighter, more starkly making the points that the author was seeking to make. Although scarcely over 200 pages, it felt long at times. All these are minor concerns, however.
This is an impressive book, written by someone who has experienced the best and worst of combat, who has thought deeply about it, and wants the nature of the experience to change for those doing battle now and in the future.
This was a tough book to read. The author came to my attention early last year with a novel of his services as an officer of Marines during the Vietnam war. "Matterhorn" was a novel but it apparently was based on Marlantes actual experiences. Matterhorn is a powerful book and ranks up their with Jime Webb's "Fields of Fire".
"What It Is Like to Go to War" is a recommendation of the type of psychological training tht Marlantes believes will best train people before they experience the crushing violence of war. The book draws heavily on incidents that Marlantes suffered through on his Vietnam tour as a Marine infantry officer. This is a powerful book, and enjoyable to read; however, the case he makes needs to be examined. As a Vietnam veteran, I am just happy to have had a much easier war than Marlantes experienced.
on October 17, 2011
I'm an active duty career Marine infantryman with tours in Desert Storm, Somalia, twice to Iraq and just returned from Afghanistan where my unit, 3/5, was in heavy fighting in Sangin, Helmand Province. We suffered heavy losses, primarily from IED's and an enemy who blended into the population every day rendering them impossible to identify unless we were in contact. I have never read a book that sums up the psyche of the combat veteran better than this one does. Marlantes wrote this in a manner that anyone can understand whether they've been in the military or not. For us combat veterans, this book is theraputic in the sense that as I read it I felt a sense of relief that someone finally told our story.....not about battles and operations but about the way that you feel while you're in combat as well as the after effects. I'm a career infantryman....the Marine Corps is a lifestyle to me. In some ways i'm better prepared than the 18 year old enlisted grunt who'll be discharged back to a civilian life and to people who expect him to be relieved to be back to the "World" with them. What they do not realize is that there is a huge part of his psyche that will miss combat.....he'll miss his brother grunts and the shared misery....he'll constantly battle with not being able to relax and getting frustrated by civilians, family and friends who don't understand why he wishes he was still deployed sometimes. Marlantes masterfully describes how you can despise the brutality of combat but long for the closeness and the brotherhood that's never duplicated anywhere in your life once it's over. The displays of unselfishness and the living like there is no tomorrow in combat forever is etched into your mind especially when put side by side against the self-absorbtion and sense of entitlement that so many have that have never had the priviledge to serve with warriors in combat where the only thing you have is each other. Semper Fidelis 1stLt Marlantes, you know what you're talking about and only a combat vet grunt truly understands how powerful this work is. This is a life-changing book for the young snuffie grunt rifleman because he reads this and knows that somebody "gets it".
WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR by Karl Marlantes is exactly what I was hoping for in a book about war. It tells me everything I wanted to know about the warrior's experience, plus more, much more. It is an exhilarating, enlightening, empowering reading experience that soars with spirit and grace. It is one of those books that sings: "MUST BE READ BY EVERYONE!"
I am an aging female Baby Boomer who remembers well the Vietnam War but only from what I heard through Walter Cronkite on the evening news. I am fortunate never to have had a loved one go off to war and even more fortunate never to have had a loved one come home in a military coffin.
I knew of a few young men who were drafted and sent off to Vietnam as normal, healthy, patriotic teenagers, only to return utterly fractured in mind, body and soul. I dated two of these Vietnam veterans for a short while in college, but no solid relationships could ever be truly established - no friendships, certainly no romances. These young men were too unstable, too damaged to function in the world they returned to. America and home were different places than what they left behind for combat in the jungles of Vietnam.
I remember being terribly sad for all of the returning Vietnam vets. I was ashamed of how my country treated her returning warriors. I wanted to reach out, express the compassion that was filling my heart and help these men in some way. I had no frame of reference however - I did not know what to offer them or how to communicate empathetically. I simply did not have a clue as to how to bridge the distance between us. Making matters worse, I was frightened by them, by their suppressed anger and rage, their repressed memories of violence and death.
Of course I knew the answer was not alcohol, nor sex, drugs and rock n roll, but these were the usual remedies of the veterans I came into contact with back in those heady days of the late sixties and early seventies. The distance between us only seemed to widen into complete oblivion. How sorry I am to say now that I never knew what became of those guys. When I think of them, I send up a prayer for them.
I wish I had a book then as deeply insightful and sensitive as WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR. This book of non-fiction is so much more than Karl Marlantes coming to terms with his own combat experiences as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam. He channels forty years of wisdom gained from his personal experience into far-reaching psychological and spiritual advice for all warriors serving their country and society; for the combat veterans coming home, integrating back into society and dealing with PTSD; for their families and their friends who want to understand them; for their health care practitioners who heal them; for all the young men and women currently contemplating military service; for the Military who trains them; for the country's administrators and policy makers who send them off to war in the first place; and for every conscientious citizen of a nation now engaged in three wars.
WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR is as beautifully written as it is profound and moving. Marlantes seamlessly pieces together literature, philosophy, psychology, mythology and spirituality with the narrative thread of his personal accounts of the war experience. His riveting narrative plumbs the very depths of human experience. It is visceral and yet it is transcendent: "...I realized that the mystery of life and death had once again been played before me and that I was once again in a sacred space and, other than in my role as a walking weapons guidance system for the United States of America, I was totally unprepared to be there. The Marine Corps taught me how to kill, but didn't teach me how to deal with killing."
What a brilliant and compassionate book this is! I can open it to any page and find the evocative and the profound. The chapters include: "Temple of Mars," "Killing," "Guilt," "Numbness and Violence," "The Enemy Within," "Lying," "Loyalty," "Heroism," "Home," "The Club," and "Relating to Mars."
WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR summons up the very essence of war - the physical and the emotional, the psychological and the spiritual, the ethical and the moral. War is as old as mankind and America is a nation of war. It is therefore essential that war be understood by every one of us - warrior and civilian, man and woman alike. This book has touched me deeply and my arms embrace its author for his openness, his candor, his scholarship and his noble heart.
on April 11, 2012
No war ever really ends for those who fight them. For Karl Marlantes, the ghosts of Vietnam have seemingly haunted him since and produced excellent writing both here and in his earlier Matterhorn, a novel.
I read "What it is Like . . . " from the viewpoint of my experience as a World War II combat infantry veteran who also wrote a memoir of the war as well as a novel about the aftermath. Although the circumstances of Vietnam and Nazi Germany were substantially different in many respects, questions surrounding what it was like are virtually identical. War is war and killing is killing no matter the time, place, or situation.
After many years of thinking and writing, I have concluded that combat in war is so unique that it is impossible to describe what it is like to anyone who has not been there. In this sense, the book's title is misleading. While Mr. Marlantes writes vividly, explicitly, and vibrantly, it cannot provide an adequate answer to "What was it like?" except, perhaps, for other combat veterans. Deadly combat is often unfathomable, mostly unexplainable.
Beyond these questions, "What it is Like . . ." can be read as a great adventure story, as a lesson about the efficacy of a far off war in a country with a vastly different culture where, in the end, it was proven that we had no vital national security interest, and as a cautionary tale about the consequences of a war waged without adequate citizen support.
I am, however, uncomfortable with one of Mr. Marlantes's central themes. Throughout the book he pleads for more and different training in preparation for the killing that warriors (his word, extensively employed) must perform and justify to their consciences in the interest of mental and emotional well being. Is that really possible? I doubt it. Is it even desirable? I doubt it even more. Can, for example, soldiers, be trained to deliberately kill in good conscience in the morning while returning to bases in the afternoon or evening for at-ease Internet chats with their wives and children without psychosomatic consequences? If so, is that not inhuman? I believe that it is and ought never become an objective of preparation for war. If successful, does such training not set these "warriors" even more apart from the country they defend than is already the case due to the lessening of shared responsibility that results from a professional volunteer Army? Perhaps I have read a bit more into this aspect of the book than Mr. Marlantes intended. I hope so. I realize that my view may be quite controversial and outside the mainstream of American thinking about war, particularly relating to terrorism. Maybe I have not found words to express my discomfort as well as I might. Nevertheless, I am deeply troubled.
World War II, on the ground, was fought with a largely conscripted Army. Lots of killing resulted, proportionally more than in the rather different wars of today. Yet I do not recall thinking of killing, per se, as an objective in and of itself. In lectures, I recall instructions (of major interest to young soldiers) about the comparative psychological/sexual mores of American and European women but never about the psychology of killing as a purpose. We got lectures about the broad aims and purposes of the wars with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We were trained to accomplish missions and to take and hold territory. We fought for towns in order to get out of the cold but never to kill as such. The international law of war, an antidote for its inhumanities, was emphasized. Strategies like mass bombing of cities (planned killing, obviously) stiffened resistance rather than hastening the surrender of Germany and Japan. Will today's targeted killings, and their unavoidable collateral aspects, have any better results? It seems doubtful. I am also troubled by Mr. Marlantes' extensive use of the term "warrior" in the context of a military culture in which deliberate killing is the intent. It is, I fear, a very slippery slope that ought to be approached, if at all, with utmost caution.
Yet even with these misgivings, I give Mr. Marlantes five stars for the excellence of his writing and the questions he has raised. We need to give much more thought than we have to the use and implications of a volunteer military skilled in efficacious killing, whether on the ground in battle or at a far away computer console directing a drone missile. Again, killing is killing. It happens. But when it does it lessens our humanity. No training as to conscience can, in my view, change that fact.
Whether you are a hawk or a dove: you should read this book. Whether you have been to war or not: you should read this book. Whether you are connected to a service member or not: you should read this book. If you are a citizen: you should read this book. If you are a federal legislator or policy maker: you should read this book before you commit another dollar or another volunteer in uniform to go in harm's way. If you have *any* interest at all in the enduring and fundamentally human endeavor of war (from any political, philosophical, religious or moral point of view): you should read this book.
In 2010, Karl Marlantes presented us with a stunning fictional account of the Vietnam War, Matterhorn, a book that gestated in his post-war experience for more than 30 years. In this book, he also provides the findings of an extended period of processing, introspection, meditation, reflection and realization to offer one of the single best discussions of the personal experience of war I have ever read.
Those who have already read "Matterhorn" will recognize common elements from that work in his new book, where they appear not as part of a fictional construct, part as part of his own autobiographical, personal context of war. It is not necessary to read the novel to appreciate this piece of non-fiction (but consider doing so).
The Oxford-educated and Basic School trained Marlantes takes an interdisciplinary approach to examining the impact of war on its participants through multiple religious and philosophical interpretations of the experience. To be sure, some of the concepts are on a high level that will require patience and concentration to fully appreciate. On the other end of the spectrum are his vignettes that reveal the raw energy of war, the thin margins between living and dying, between the maimed and the intact, between truth and myth, between those who go home and those who don't.
Marlantes also offers prescriptions for those entering into service that could send them to war, for those returning home from war, and for those on the outside waiting for their return. Even as he offers his reasoning for the views he holds on our current engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, his empathy for the warriors remains apolitical as he suggests ways to better prepare them to both enter and exit combat.
Some of the content of this book is graphic, and could make you uncomfortable. It should, because the subject matter is one of great gravity. But if you want to walk away with a better insight into the fight, the fighters and how they might hope to pick up the pieces when the fight is over, this book can help with that.
I just recently read Marlantes "Matterhorn" and really liked it. In many ways, this is the nonfiction equivalent, and some of the scenes that appear are apparently the true story behind "Matterhorn's" fictional equivalent.
"Matterhorn" took 30 years to write and revise, and that care is evident in every word. I can't say the same about "What It Is." I think another draft might have helped, and it's sort of strange how scenes that were so lifelike in his fiction sometimes seem cliched and melodramatic in his true story. Maybe the fiction gave him more emotional detachment. Sometimes this felt a little too maudlin and awkward.
That gets the flaws out of the way - this is an important book, especially as attention from our two current wars inexplicably recedes from the attention of an easily-distracted country. So many young veterans are coming back to a culture that not only doesn't understand their experience, but probably had no connection to it at all. By addressing the topic head-on, especially baring himself the way he does, Marlantes opens doors of dialogue that often remain closed.
This book is very much Marlantes experience after Vietnam. It doesn't always or easily apply itself to veterans of today, but is still important for those civilian readers who want insight into what a soldier is going through, after multiple tours overseas when they are finally out for good.
Time is spent on heroic acts, killing and dying, events that most soldiers will never actually encounter, but constantly faced Marlantes as a young platoon leader. He makes the point about how civilians don't know how to talk to soldiers, with the "did you kill anyone?" question. It really is the most disrespectful, ignorant question one could ask of a young soldier.
First, the question stereotypes the military to one job - there are a 1,000 jobs in the Army, most of which don't involve weapons at all. Second, it forces the veteran into one pigeonhole. If they say, "yes, I killed someone," then they're ONLY killers, right? And if they say, "No, never did," well, then apparently they didn't do anything at all.
If you want to ask a young (or old) veteran about their military time, ask them "hey, did you ever have to burn those latrine barrels? The ones full of poo? Must have been awful, huh?"
Because, yeah, it is awful burning barrels full of poo and diesel fuel; even if they never did it themselves, they'll still know the deal. But it's also funny, after the fact, and can begin a friendly conversation. And, anyone with kids has dealt with dirty diapers, so maybe there's even more common ground.
I was in the Army, and went as an Army photographer to 1991's Desert Storm, which to me and 99 percent of us was ridiculous and silly...and to 1 percent, the worst kind of awful hell. I've also been to Iraq several times since as an embedded journalist with company-sized units.
There's not a lot of people in this country who actually have gotten on a plane for some overseas conflict, and said to themselves, "wow, I really hope this goes my way." It's not the greatest feeling, but it's the most exciting feeling, because EVERYTHING is at stake. Doesn't happen behind a desk, coffee in one hand, pencil in the other. So, yes, a war veteran does feel superior to you, but they'll be nervous about it too; it's really an impossible gap and one can fall in from either side.
"What It Is Like to Go To War" gives a glimpse into Marlante's Marine and combat veteran's experience and feelings. He's not every veteran, but he's the one with the bestselling book that has earned the hopefully wide audience who should pay attention and read what he has to say.
(and, since I was in the Army, I'm not totally the book's audience. Anyone with prior service will bring their own biased perspective to the subject matter. So when I call the writing "maudlin," maybe I'm the one internalizing. Who knows...)