What It Is Like to Go to War

A Vietnam vet urges soldiers to talk more openly about what it means to fight.

By , Correspondent

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    What It Is Like to Go to War
    By Karl Marlantes
    Grove/Atlantic
    272 pp.
    View Caption

Ask most combat veterans what war is like and they’ll tell you – if they agree to talk about it at all – that you can’t know war unless you’ve been there. War movies and battle memoirs will never replicate the firsthand horror and exhilaration of battle. Karl Marlantes, a Marine lieutenant and platoon leader in Vietnam, is equally well aware that combat cannot be bound between two covers. In calling his new book What It Is Like to Go to War, hasn’t Marlantes promised the impossible?

“What It Is Like to Go to War” is really more about What It Is Like to Have Gone to War. True, this book describes the chaos of combat, with beautifully conjured landscapes and riveting battle sequences. Some scenes are nearly identical to those in Marlantes’s bestselling novel, “Matterhorn,” and like the novel, “What It Is Like” spares no detail about exhaustion, or excrement, or jungle rot. But this new book is less a memoir than an intellectual analysis in which Marlantes grapples with the complex and disconcerting moral questions involved in fighting and killing.

What he has replicated isn’t war, but rather the constant mental churning that follows and a quest to recover from man’s impulses in deadly situations.

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It may be an equally impossible task, but Marlantes attempts it with deliberate dissection: Each chapter is titled after behaviors endemic to the war experience – Killing, Loyalty, Heroism – and emotions like Guilt or the lack thereof, and Numbness. He musters an army of philosophers, historians, and religious texts with which to attack (and deconstruct) the war experience. He quotes Nietzsche’s fatalism: “I am by nature warlike. To attack is among my instincts.”

“What It Is Like to Go to War” goes through all this to amplify what is ultimately a simple plea: The veterans’ code of silence must be broken. And yet, in constantly turning from his own thoughts toward those of dead philosophers, Marlantes risks overshadowing the power and emotional impact of his voice. That story after all – of a single man who fought in Vietnam and spent decades learning how to heal himself – is the book’s vital center.

As Marlantes’s own experience illustrates, silence may provide strength to the veteran and save him from society’s ridicule and scorn, but it also leads a returning soldier to release bottled-up emotions through aggression, or meaningless sex, or substance abuse, as Marlantes himself once did. The only way to rewrite this code of silence, Marlantes says, is to teach soldiers how to express their feelings and process their experiences in wartime, not afterward. “During combat tours time must be carved out to reflect,” he writes. He wishes that after each military action, his commanding officer could have “drawn us all together, just us. In ten or fifteen minutes of solemn time we could have asked forgiveness and said good-bye to our lost friends....”

In Vietnam, Marlantes made his soldiers bury the bodies of their victims and assumed the men would complete this as a “mechanical task.” After all, they were already claiming body parts as trophies – cutting off the ears of dead Vietnamese and affixing them to their hats and helmets. But instead, when faced with the solemn, humanizing ritual, the soldiers cried. “Why,” he asks, “don’t we bury our enemies with ceremony?”

Many people might see such practices as unmanly or silly, he says, but he’s determined to change that – and with it, to change what it’s like to go to war. “[I]f by reading this book before entering combat a young warrior can be helped to better handle the many psychological, moral, and spiritual stresses of combat,” he writes in the opening chapter, “then this book will have been worth writing.”

But his book isn’t just for future soldiers. It’s for all of us, to help us understand what we’re asking our soldiers to do. We know that war is horrific, but Marlantes also wants us to know that it can be “pleasurable and satisfying” – and that the dangers of denying this duality are great. It took Marlantes decades to confront the moral ambiguities of his combat experience and even longer to speak about them. He’s talking now, though, even as he remains wounded – and feels that he has wounded others. The mere act of walking on grass, he writes, makes him feel like he’s “walking on someone’s skin.” Those of us who have never been to war cannot feel this pain, nor would we want to. But we can see it – and respect it.

Jennifer Miller’s debut novel, “The Year of the Gadfly,” will be published in May 2012.

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