What is your definition of a soldier? If it includes poet, psychologist and philosopher, then you are partway to describing Karl Marlantes. You’d have to add bestselling fiction writer and, now, nonfiction author to the mix before you got it right.
"As the wife of a Vietnam vet, I was touched by Marlantes’s honest appraisal of the emotional damage that he experienced after returning home..."
Marlantes is a decorated combat Marine, a veteran of Vietnam, a Yale graduate and an Oxford Rhodes Scholar. What he is able to do in this latest book is get inside the head of a “warrior,” as he likes to call those who fight for and against us, and then invite us inside as well. He wants us to remember that most warriors are teenagers, and that in basic training they become fighting machines who must give up their individuality in favor of loyalty and obedience. When they face combat conditions, they may be exhausted, enraged, guilty, sorrowful, lonely, terrified and, paradoxically, emotionally shut down. Put all these ingredients together in the proper mix, and you have heroes who do what we think of as the right thing, or out-of-control marauders who do what we think of as wrong.
Wrong is what happens in cases like the well-known My Lai massacre, or the lesser-known circumstances that led Marlantes’s friend Mike, upon capturing an enemy loaded down with land mines that were meant for his buddies, to “interrogate” the suspect all night by beating him to a pulp and then hanging him upside-down from a flagpole. As the author expresses it, “I search my soul for whether or not I could have done what Mike did --- or worse. I say no, but where is that ‘I’ after months of killing, no sleep, and sheer horror?”
WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR is filled with such brutal tales, tempered with examples of the ways that societies through the ages have dealt with war. Many religions and mythologies make allowances for the warrior, as in the example of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Joseph Campbell stated that heroism has the moral objective of “saving a people, or person, or ideal.” Though there can be judgments as to whether an action that take lives to save lives is morally sound, Campbell believed that such situations can’t destroy “the heroism of what was done. Absolutely not.”
As the wife of a Vietnam vet, I was touched by Marlantes’s honest appraisal of the emotional damage that he experienced after returning home (as well as being greeted by coldness and hostility, Marlantes was spat on in a train car). He laments the lack of a simple commemoration for all warriors that would relieve them of some of their guilt and ameliorate the perceived or actual disapprobation of society. But even such rituals cannot remove the horrors of PTSD; all warriors have to find their way through that, if they can. For Marlantes, some of his healing had to do with re-integrating his suppressed feminine self.
Some cultures have initiation rites for young men that give them the courage to make war when called on to do so. Among the Maasai, boys become warriors (morani) after being circumcised around age 12–15, and once their “community service” is complete somewhere between 20 and 30 years old, they get to marry. One wonders: If all our young people were put through compulsory military training, might it have the effect of maturing them and preparing them to do battle without blighting their spirit?
Though he is, with the passage of time, more of a pacifist than he was in his youth, Marlantes recognizes that “as long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them.” That is a healthy acknowledgement, as is his assertion that true warriors can be stirred to act to protect the innocent, to overcome evil people and evil ideas, but not “for oil.”
This is a book for all of us, especially timely when we as a nation are contemplating the costs of two ongoing wars. Those who mouth phrases like “blood and treasure” and "boots on the ground" ignore the personal view of the soldier as a human being. This is why we need Karl Marlantes.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on September 15, 2011