What It Is Like to Go to War
A Vietnam vet urges soldiers to talk more openly about what it means to fight.
Ask most combat veterans what war is like and theyâ€™ll tell you â€“ if they agree to talk about it at all â€“ that you canâ€™t know war unless youâ€™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, hasnâ€™t Marlantes promised the impossible?
â€śWhat It Is Like to Go to Warâ€ť 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 Marlantesâ€™s bestselling novel, â€śMatterhorn,â€ť and like the novel, â€śWhat It Is Likeâ€ť 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 isnâ€™t war, but rather the constant mental churning that follows and a quest to recover from manâ€™s impulses in deadly situations.
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 â€“ Killing, Loyalty, Heroism â€“ 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 Nietzscheâ€™s fatalism: â€śI am by nature warlike. To attack is among my instincts.â€ť
â€śWhat It Is Like to Go to Warâ€ť goes through all this to amplify what is ultimately a simple plea: The veteransâ€™ 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 â€“ of a single man who fought in Vietnam and spent decades learning how to heal himself â€“ is the bookâ€™s vital center.
As Marlantesâ€™s own experience illustrates, silence may provide strength to the veteran and save him from societyâ€™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. â€śDuring combat tours time must be carved out to reflect,â€ť he writes. He wishes that after each military action, his commanding officer could have â€śdrawn 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....â€ť
In Vietnam, Marlantes made his soldiers bury the bodies of their victims and assumed the men would complete this as a â€śmechanical task.â€ť After all, they were already claiming body parts as trophies â€“ 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. â€śWhy,â€ť he asks, â€śdonâ€™t we bury our enemies with ceremony?â€ť
Many people might see such practices as unmanly or silly, he says, but heâ€™s determined to change that â€“ and with it, to change what itâ€™s like to go to war. â€ś[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,â€ť he writes in the opening chapter, â€śthen this book will have been worth writing.â€ť
But his book isnâ€™t just for future soldiers. Itâ€™s for all of us, to help us understand what weâ€™re asking our soldiers to do. We know that war is horrific, but Marlantes also wants us to know that it can be â€śpleasurable and satisfyingâ€ť â€“ 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. Heâ€™s talking now, though, even as he remains wounded â€“ and feels that he has wounded others. The mere act of walking on grass, he writes, makes him feel like heâ€™s â€śwalking on someoneâ€™s skin.â€ť Those of us who have never been to war cannot feel this pain, nor would we want to. But we can see it â€“ and respect it.
Jennifer Millerâ€™s debut novel, â€śThe Year of the Gadfly,â€ť will be published in May 2012.