What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes (I reviewed his novel Matterhorn) reads less like a linear memoir than it does a measured stream of consciousness attempting to explain the role of a soldier, the best way to protect that soldier and his family from the guilt and trauma experienced in war, and the possible consequences of using more technology to wage war and remove ourselves from the actual acts of war.  As well as how that removal changes the psyche’s view of war — making it more impersonal and thus more damaging.

Marlantes goes back in forth in time and purpose, but the key is to follow the chapter headings, like “Guilt,” to understand what the focus of the chapter will be no matter what time period in his life he is speaking of.  He’s clearly studied Carl Jung and other philosophies, including those of eastern nations, on his journey to find out how to best deal with his conflicting emotions of triumph and horror as a Marine who fought in Vietnam, and he often warns that without guidance when soldiers come home, they can spiral out of control as they lose the boundaries between the war life and their normal life.

“Death becomes an abstraction, except for those at the receiving end.  We must come to grips with consciously trying to set straight this imbalance of modern warfare.  What is at stake is not only the psyche of each young fighter but our humanity.”  (page 19)

“To be effective and moral fighters, we must not lose our individuality, our ability to stand alone, and yet, at the same time, we must owe our allegiance not to ourselves alone but to an entity so large as to be incomprehensible, namely humanity or God.”  (page 144)

Using examples from his own combat experiences, which are eerily similar to those presented in Matterhorn‘s fictional account, Marlantes outlines possible differences in loyalty and how high that loyalty must be in order for “right” decisions to be made in war, but he also acknowledges that all humans lie and that lying can serve many purposes, especially in a war that applauds achievement only through body counts.  The dichotomy of humans is pronounced in war as they attempt to navigate through the jungle or the foreign terrain to complete missions without laying unnecessary waste to themselves or the enemy.  Ethical warriors are just one part of the discussion, but mostly Marlantes is concerned with preparing today’s soldiers for the psychic and emotional break they will experience with their spirituality and their ties to society.

Mixed with philosophical discussions and examples from such texts as The Odyssey and the Bhagavad Gita, Marlantes strives to pinpoint the natural inclination of the warrior spirit in men and women and the dire consequences of suppressing that spirit or denying its existence.  While he suggests that the spirit should be tempered and praised, it also should not be allowed to spiral out of control — with a focus on creating balance.  In many ways, there is a deep Buddhist sense in his memoir about creating balance and eliminating ego’s perspective on justice in favor of what is truly right for humanity not just a particular nation or belief system.

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes is one man’s perspective on his experiences in Vietnam and what those experiences taught him.  He talks about what he thinks could improve soldiers in the field as well as when the fighting is over, helping them to integrate back into society with less bumps along the way — less suicides, less drug and alcohol abuse, and less violence.  For those looking for a memoir that offers more than just war stories about missions and lost friends, Marlantes provides an introspective analysis of the pride he felt in killing the enemy as well as the deep sorrow.

About the Author:

A graduate of Yale University and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. His debut novel, Matterhorn, will be published in April 2010 by Grove/Atlantic.

Mailbox Monday #167

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch. This month’s host is Diary of an Eccentric.

Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailbox meme.

Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

1.  What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes, which I bought.

In 1968, at the age of twenty-three, Karl Marlantes was dropped into the highland jungle of Vietnam, an inexperienced lieutenant in command of a platoon of forty Marines who would live or die by his decisions. Marlantes survived, but like many of his brothers in arms, he has spent the last forty years dealing with his war experience. In What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes takes a deeply personal and candid look at what it is like to experience the ordeal of combat, critically examining how we might better prepare our soldiers for war. Marlantes weaves riveting accounts of his combat experiences with thoughtful analysis, self-examination, and his readings—from Homer to The Mahabharata to Jung. He makes it clear just how poorly prepared our nineteen-year-old warriors are for the psychological and spiritual aspects of the journey.

Just as Matterhorn is already being acclaimed as acclaimed as a classic of war literature, What It Is Like to Go to War is set to become required reading for anyone—soldier or civilian—interested in this visceral and all too essential part of the human experience.

2.  The Names of Things by John Colman Wood for review in May from Ashland Creek Press.

The anthropologist’s wife, an artist, didn’t want to follow her husband to the remote desert of northeast Africa to live with camel-herding nomads. But wanting to be with him, she endured the trip, only to fall desperately ill years later with a disease that leaves her husband with more questions than answers.

When the anthropologist discovers a deception that shatters his grief and guilt, he begins to reevaluate his love for his wife as well as his friendship with one of the nomads he studied. He returns to Africa to make sense of what happened, traveling into the far reaches of the Chalbi Desert, where he must sift through the layers of his memories and reconcile them with what he now knows.

3.  The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng for review in March from Myrmidon Books.

It’s Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambrige and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon comes’. Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day. But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling’s friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of ‘Yamashita’s Gold’ and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?

4. A Demon Does It Better by Linda Wisdom, which I won from Peeking Between the Pages.

After more than a century, Doctor Lili Carter, witch healer extraordinaire, has returned to San Francisco and taken a job at Crying Souls Hospital and Asylum, where something peculiar and wicked his happening. Patients are disappearing, and Lil wants to know why. AND DOUBLY DANGEROUS FOR A DEMON… Lili finds herself undeniably attracted to perhaps the most mysterious patient of all-a demented but seriously sexy demon named Jared. What’s behind the gorgeous chameleon demon’s late-night escapades? Before long, Lili and Jared are investigating each other-and creating a whole new kind of magic.

What did you receive this week?