Last year Karl Marlantes published Matterhorn, the best novel to date about American soldiers’ experience of combat in Vietnam. Gritty, gripping and remarkably soulful, it offered readers a profoundly moving picture of what it was like to go to war.
Now Marlantes has written a sparklingly provocative nonfiction book called What It Is Like to Go to War. In it, readers will discover the outlines of some of the events he heightened and fictionalized in Matterhorn. Marlantes is an exceptional writer and his depictions here are vivid. But his purposes in this book are quite different from the purposes of his novel.
Here Marlantes uses his personal experiences as illustrations of the psychological, philosophical and spiritual dilemmas that combat soldiers face—in the field and upon returning home. He reflects with crackling insight on such topics as killing, guilt, lying, loyalty, heroism. He warns of the perils to a culture’s psyche in fighting war at a remove, as we now do with unmanned drones. And he writes of his own experiences with searing honesty, rejecting what he calls “jingoistic clap trap.” In one passage, for example, Marlantes says, “The least acknowledged aspect of war, at least these days, is how exhilarating it is.”
This will be off-putting to some, but Marlantes is not a warmonger. He is a realist. Part of his argument is that, since we will continue to fight wars, we risk damaging both the young warriors and the society that sends them to war if we avoid integrating those experiences into our collective psyche. At its simplest, his idea is that we must create rituals and reflective spaces in which frontline soldiers (usually in their teens and 20s) can care for their spiritual and psychological health. To do so one must be truthful about the full experience of combat, including what Marlantes, borrowing from Carl Jung, calls its shadow side.
Marlantes, a Yale graduate, left a Rhodes scholarship to join a Marine combat unit in Vietnam as a second lieutenant. He won the Navy Cross, two Purple Hearts and numerous other medals. He knows whereof he speaks. What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes says, is the product of 30 years of reading, writing and thinking about the meaning of his combat experiences. His reading has been wide, and his thinking deep. In his final chapter, he offers advice on how our society can improve its relationship with the gods of war. It’s advice worth heeding.