Book Review – What It Is Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes

By James Gillam
9/16/2011 • Vietnam Book Reviews

Since the Vietnam War ended, many of its veterans have recorded their martial legacy in a variety of literary forms. Some have written to claim a place in history, others have pursued that elusive catharsis called closure. Karl Marlantes is part of that preservationist, introspective, phenomenon. Thirty years after he left the war, he wrote the much-acclaimed novel Matterhorn, a fictional work based on his year in combat. His second book, What It Is Like to Go to War, is a powerful, non-fiction complement.

Marlantes says Matterhorn was fiction, written for him and his comrades. Having read both books, I am convinced that Matterhorn blurs the line between fiction and memoir, and that What It Is Like to Go to War is an almost required companion piece to Matterhorn. However, What It Is Like does have a different motive from Matterhorn. It speaks to the veterans of the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a map for finding closure. It is also a heartfelt message to the society and policy makers who sent those men from across generations to war.

Marlantes’ message in his new book is conveyed in a series of topical discussions about critical concerns of warriors past and present. The goal is to create “the Conscious Warrior.” There is a chapter called “Killing” and one called “Guilt.” Other chapters are called “Heroism,” “The Club” of combat veterans and “Coming Home.” Marlantes says, and I agree, that Vietnam veterans, and their contemporaries, too, have waited too long for resolution of these issues. We also agree that factors of class, race, culture and educational limitations for many veterans have left them effectively uncommunicative on these issues in any meaningful sense. As a solution, Marlantes has used his Ivy League education to analyze these complex issues and propose solutions. He has also, wittingly or not, become a spokesman for the less articulate warriors, both past and present, to the politicians and the nation that sent them to war.

Marlantes’ messages are for individuals, nations and politicians. His advice to the individual who would be a soldier is to become a “conscious warrior”—a man skilled in the practice of war, but restrained by morality and ethics; trained and supported by literature and ritual, and guided by spirituality, too, in the practice of his profession. His advice to politicians is that they set clear political and moral parameters before they declare war. To the nation, he advises unqualified support for the warriors before, during and, especially, after the war.

Marlantes’ speaks to the “conscious warrior” through a matrix of references that bridge societies, literature and philosophies from the Odyssey to the Bhagavad Gita of 5th-century BC India. From the Homeric literature, he recounts the social ritual and literary tradition that confirmed the warriors’ honor and respect in society. From the heart of the Vedic tradition, he offers advice on how the “conscious warrior” copes with the moral quandary that results from violating universally held basics of morality and social convention when he goes to war.

What It Is Like also evinces Marlantes’ mastery of metaphor and the use of modern sciences such as sociology and psychology to address the concerns of the warriors he speaks for and to. For example, in his preface, he observes that combat is like unsafe sex; a major thrill with the potential for horrible consequences. That ties him securely to the blue-collar tradition of many combat veterans. His reference to the term “pseudospeciation”—creating a false species of humanity—reflects his experience with sociology, racism and the psychology of avoiding guilt. Pseudiospeciation is a social psychology term for the racism that allows or requires a warrior to see the enemy as a member of an “other” or “lesser” human species. In Vietnam, the “other,” or “pseudospecies,” were “Gooks.” Nineteen-year-old infantrymen in Vietnam probably never heard the word “pseudospeciation,” but they all knew the term, “Gook.” They also knew that once a Vietnamese became a Gook, his death, by any means possible, was morally and ethically sanctioned with no cause for postwar guilt.

What It Is Like to Go to War is a tidy companion piece for Matterhorn, but it can also stand alone. It is an articulate and complex search for closure by one veteran for himself and others. This book transcends time, space, societies, literatures and sciences. The veteran reader knows for a certainty that this piece speaks to and for him with the empathic voice of one who shares his experiences, concerns and unsettled issues. All that I would change is the title. I would call it How to Protect the Heart and Soul of a Warrior.

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011

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