Karl Marlantes: What It Is Like to Go to War

October 2, 2011 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-0802119926 – Atlantic Monthly Press – Hardcover – $25.00 (e-book and audiobook editions available)

I read Karl Marlantes’ novel, the extraordinary Matterhorn last year (and interviewed him about it for Writerscast – you can listen to that interview here).  I don’t think I am alone in believing that Matterhorn is perhaps the finest and most important war novel of the Vietnam generation; for me at least, it belongs in the pantheon of great American war novels (going back to WWI, Thomas Boyd’s Through the Wheat is another great novel written by an former Marine).

It took Karl Marlantes more than 30 years to write and publish the novel we read as Matterhorn its final form.  His new book, What It Is like to Go to War, now follows as a deeply thoughtful and moving work of nonfiction about the nature and meaning of war, and what it means to the individual warriors who participate who fight, as well as to the society that gives them that responsibility.

There are many parallels between the two books.  I’d recommend you take on the novel first, spend some time thinking about its story and characters, and then move on to this new work of nonfiction, which is a combination of personal memoir, meditation and social, political and cultural analysis and polemic.

Insofar as fiction gives us our deepest emotional and spiritual truths, Matterhorn cannot fail to move you and allow you to feel the reality  of what it is like when our best and brightest go to war.  Then What It Is Like to Go to War gives us another carefully wrought perspective, what Marlantes has learned from his own experiences and from many years of studying and thinking about war and society.

And we should all be paying attention to what he says here.  America has had more people fighting wars for a longer period of time than at any other time in our history.  Indeed what does this say about contemporary American society?

In 1969, when he was just 23, Karl Marlantes was an inexperienced lieutenant in charge of a platoon of Marines whose lives were in his hands.  His experiences in the jungles of Vietnam , molded and shaped him throughout his life.  He has thought deeply about his wartime experiences, how they affected him and his comrades, as well as how other soldiers before and since have gone through similar experiences.  In What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes weaves accounts of his own combat experiences with analysis, self-examination, and powerful ideas drawn from his wide reading from Homer to the Mahabharata to Jung.

Unlike many of us who feel that war must be ended in modern society, Marlantes starts from the belief that war is an inevitable component of societal and political being.  What he is after is to make us think about preparing warriors not for fighting, which we already do quite well, but for living with the effects on those who go to war that derive from participating in the morally unnatural but societally sanctioned acts of killing other human beings.

Most societies that preceded us have used powerful rituals, myths and ceremonies to integrate acts of war into the fabric of their cultures, and to reintegrate their warriors thoroughly into their societies, while our secular, materialist society really offers no tools or methods to warriors (or for that matter to civilians) to create a holistic “story” of why and how war is meaningful and necessary.

One of the many points he made in this book really struck me is that those who send men and women to war are themselves warriors, that actual soldiers (as opposed to guns and bombs) are their weapons.  These individuals must fully comprehend what they do, and must find ways to integrate their own acts of war as much as the soldiers on the battlefield who wield the weapons and who witness so much death and destruction on both sides of battle.

I found that the author’s afterword to the book was very important to my understanding and acceptance of his work:

“We must be honest and open about both sides of war.  The more aware we are of war’s costs, not just in death and dollars, but also in shattered minds, souls, and families, the less likely we will be to waste our most precious asset and our best weapon: our young.”

“The substitutes for war…are spirituality, love, art, and creativity, all achievable through individual hard work.”

I can’t recommend this book to readers enough.  It’s book that, like the work of my friend, Paul Chappell, (Will War Ever End and The End of War) has the potential to shift our societal dialogue about war and what it can and should mean to a modern society.

There’s a fine review of What It Means to Go to War in the NY Times and a very worthwhile interview with Karl on Livewriters about Matterhorn.

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