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Beyond heroism and romance: Karl Marlantes’s “What It Is Like to Go to War”

By Marc Leepson,

Every book written about war by someone who took part in one follows through on the eight words that make up the title of Karl Marlantes’s brilliant new book. That’s true of a sprawling 19th-century novel about the French invasion of Russia (Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”), of a surrealistic tale revolving around a World War II bombardier (Heller’s “Catch-22”) or of a Pulitzer-Prize winning memoir by the son of a Marine Corps legend who lost both legs in Vietnam (Lewis B. Puller Jr.’s “Fortunate Son”) — and of any other work written by veterans of conflicts around the globe since before the invention of the printing press.

Marlantes, who served a brutal tour of duty as a U.S. Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, first told his war story in “Matterhorn,” an autobiographical novel that came out last year to high acclaim. “What It Is Like to Go to War” is not a novel. It is a well crafted and forcefully argued work of nonfiction that contains fresh and important insights into what it’s like to be in a war and what it does to the human psyche. At heart, the book is a from-the-gut psychological and philosophical meditation on what happens to human beings in combat and afterward. In delivering those insights, Marlantes recreates his own wartime experience and his subsequent decades of emotional difficulties.

But this book is more than a memoir. Marlantes did an enormous amount of research to augment what he learned firsthand on the battlefield and at home after the war. Among other sources, he quotes from and comments on “The Iliad”; Tain Bo Cualinge, the Irish equivalent of “The Iliad”; the mythologist Joseph Campbell; the stories of the “The Mahabharata,” an ancient Indian religious epic; the psychologist Carl Jung; the poet Robert Bly; and the 10th-century Viking poet Egil Skallagrimsson.

Combat, Marlantes says, is “the crack cocaine of all excitement highs — with crack cocaine costs.” He goes on to describe the adrenaline surge of combat and the psychic pain that inevitably follows. To help mitigate that cost, he believes that warriors must bring meaning to the chaos and violence of war through rituals, spirituality and even literature. He favors making spiritual guidance available during training, in the war zone and afterward. He concedes that this cannot be forced on young people in combat. “You can, however, put people in situations where consciousness and spiritual maturity can grow, rapidly if those people know what to look for.”

The most powerful sections of the book are those in which Marlantes offers his first-person observations of what he saw in Vietnam. Many will be familiar to readers of “Matterhorn.” Here’s one example, from the chapter titled “Killing,” in which he describes an intimate encounter with an enemy soldier during a deadly fight on a steep mountain: “There was one particular NVA soldier whose desperate fearful eyes I still vividly recall, standing out like black pools in an exploding landscape of mud and dying vegetation.”

Here’s another powerful and evocative passage from the author’s detailed examination of his physical and psychological state after coming home from his debilitating 13 months in Vietnam. If you believe that fighting in a war is all guts and glory, consider this:

His body, Marlantes says, “was covered with scars from jungle rot. It had had dysentery, diarrhea, and probably a mild case of malaria. It had gone without fresh food for months at a time. It had lived on the knife edge of fear, constantly jerked from an aching need for sleep with all the cruel refinement of the best secret police torturer. It had pumped adrenaline until it had become addicted to it. There were scars where hot metal had gone in, searing and surprising in its pain, and scars where a corpsman had dug most of it out. There were bits of metal still in it, some pushing against the skin, itching to get out. The eyeballs were scarred where tiny bits of hand grenade had imbedded themselves. The inner ears rang with a constant high-pitched whine that ceased only in sleep, when the nightmares started.”

Karl Marlantes recovered from those wounds and is recovering from his post-traumatic stress disorder. He offers sound advice about how the Pentagon can help future generations of returning war veterans to do the same. If past experience is a guide, the military will ignore his suggestions.

Marc Leepson ’s most recent book is “Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General.”

WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR By Karl Marlantes Atlantic Monthly. 256 pp. $25

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