The 2011 book What It Is Like to Go to War
is a philosophical treatise on the psychic toll that warfare takes on those who participate in it. It was written by the Rhodes Scholar Karl Marlantes, who volunteered for the Vietnam War where he served as a lieutenant and earned the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. After writing the acclaimed novel Matterhorn
based on his Vietnam experiences, Marlantes authored What It Is Like to Go to War
as a kind of nonfiction companion piece – a thorough examination of how unprepared soldiers are emotionally for dealing with what they will be asked to do in theater, and how our government could do a better job of making being in war less mentally wounding.
Returning from his Vietnam tour of duty to continue pursuing his studies at Oxford University and later Yale, Marlantes suffered not only from extensive physical ailments and combat wounds, but also from what we now call PTSD. He was haunted by images of what he witnessed and did during wartime, and attempted to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Some of these memories make their way into this book, and Marlantes’s lyrical and arresting descriptions are some of the book’s highlights.
Whatever healing process he could access through therapy was set back by the isolating hatred he felt from those who opposed the war. Although today we no longer blame soldiers for wars that we oppose politically, we do still treat them as an “other” rather than integrating them into society. The professionalized and voluntary army is now held at a respectful, but also purposefully ignorant remove.
Based on his experiences, and having spent the last forty years considering how at least some of his suffering could have been avoided, Marlantes offers a different system for preparing young people entering the army to become “conscious warriors.” Referring to such diverse works as Homer’s The Iliad
, the fifth-century BC Indian text Bhagavad Gita
, the Irish epic Tain Bo Cualinge
, modern psychological theory, and sociological research, Marlantes uses his wide-ranging erudition to support his own realizations about his experiences. He relates the way that older societies used ritual and spiritual practices to normalize the idea that soldiers’ humanity is dramatically altered by war and to create ways to acknowledge and recontextualize what they had gone through.
Because of this, one of his main contentions is that, aside from physical and technical training, soldiers should receive enough instruction to be able to create narratives of meaning from the chaos and destruction of war. The question of justifying killing is a complex one. Until now, it has been too tempting to prepare soldiers to kill by relying on dehumanizing the enemy – in Marlantes own case, the army urged those serving to stop thinking of the Vietnamese as people and instead to consider them a lesser species. He relates a particularly unhelpful visit from a chaplain, whose bland affirmations did nothing to answer the essential questions: why is killing necessary, how killing fits into a grander scope of a soldier’s life, and what to do with the emotions that will most likely result from killing. Instead, Marlantes urges the creation of rituals, ongoing spiritual assistance, and even access to guided reading groups. Although none of this can be forced on the young men going to war, its availability would create a culture of “conscious warriors.”
The period after war also comes in for prolonged discussion. Marlantes describes the Homeric rites of passage that marked the “cleansing” of warriors coming back from army service and argues that we have not created sufficient systems for reintegrating soldiers. There should be an in-between period of detoxification after the end of combat, in order to identify any mental or emotional needs soldiers have before they rejoin civilian life. Not only that, but society should fundamentally come to terms with the fact that we are all involved in the wars fought on the behalf of our country – an understanding which will hopefully come to mean that we will use violence only as a last resort and as little as possible. At the same time, if we all take responsibility for the warfare we wage, soldiers will be able to come back to normal life.
The book ends with a retelling of the Roman god of war, Mars, a figure that originally represented not just violence and bloodshed, but coupled these concepts with the idea of justice. Marlantes wishes that this combination of fairness and force were something our military and government would strive toward.
Karl Marlantes has been called America’s best war writer, and both of his books have garnered tremendous praise and adulation. What It Is Like to Go to War
, in particular, has been cited for its clear, moving, and deeply thoughtful prose, as well as the depth and breadth of Marlantes’s thinking. As Sebastian Junger wrote in The New York Times
, “He has become the preeminent literary voice on war of our generation. He is a natural storyteller and a deeply profound thinker who not only illuminates war for civilians, but also offers a kind of spiritual guidance to veterans themselves.”