What It Is Like to Go to War is a fitting title for this elegiac half-memoir, half-manifesto by Karl Marlantes, a decorated combat veteran who served with the US Marines during the Vietnam War.
The truth is that whoever devised the title could never come up with something that captures the sheer force of what Marlantes has to say about conflict, coming home, and the relationship between the warrior and the society in whose name the warrior fights.
Marlantes says early on in the preface that he wrote the book to come to terms with his own combat experiences, but that it could also serve as a guide for future soldiers. And in a way the strongest parts in the book – because they apply to civilians too, invoking a universal appeal – are the scenes outside of the jungle mayhem, when the bullets aren’t flying.
“The intervening years are the important ones,” he writes. “They are fraught.”
How to handle those fraught years seems to be the main passion of Marlantes, who spent thirty years writing his first novel based on the war, Matterhorn.
This time of deep reflection is necessary to process – a word Marlantes would not like, for its implication that only therapists can help returning veterans – the experience of going to war, which he compares in different points to unprotected sex and crack cocaine; both thrilling highs with potentially devastating consequences.
In one passage, he is on R&R in Australia and attends a party. To get there, he steals someone’s car and doesn’t think twice about it.
“Three days earlier, I had been killing people. Taking someone else’s car to a party without asking was nothing. Three days after stealing the car, I was back in combat.”
War and its elusive cousin, returning home from war, create an often-ignored tension that affects the families of veterans. Years after stealing the car, Marlantes goes to another party, this one over the holidays at the home of a fellow Marine who had been in Vietnam.
He listens to the wife of his veteran friend describe the experience of attending a military parade in Washington DC, where the lack of public attendance clearly disturbed and let down her husband. It also infuriated her. There is a pause in the story, and all of a sudden, the two worlds of war and peace are indistinguishable.
“She turned the water tap on and turned it off again. Shhhhht. It was like the static burst from a lonely night listening post keying the handset.”
Near the end of the book, Marlantes tells of a Navajo tale in which two brothers go off to war, win great victories, and come home to the tribe, where people are terrified of these violent men. A goddess helps them learn to mold their adventures into songs. When they return to the tribe they sing of what happened.
“When they had made up their songs and sang them to the people, the people were no longer afraid,” Marlantes writes. “This book is my song.”
It’s a sad and wrenching ballad, not unlike Odysseus telling his tale on his way back to Ithaca. But everyone should take a few moments and listen.
What It Is Like to Go to War is now available at Monument Books for $16.00.