What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
He’s tough, and he’s also smart as hell.
Karl Marlantes was a Marine who served in
combat veteran who earned the Navy Cross and lots of other commendations. Also
graduated from Yale and was a Rhodes Scholar at Vietnam . No schlump, this guy. Oxford
So he’s tough, he’s smart, and he’s also unblinkingly honest and—that rarest of things—wise. He’s been figuring things about for the past 40 years about his own experience, and the experience of other warriors. And the result is this remarkable book, which I want to thrust into people’s hands everywhere I go. I especially want to hand out copies the next time I’m on Capitol Hill. Those people need to read Marlantes’ words and take them to heart. Hell, we all do.
It’s only 256 pages in length, but it’s packed with ideas, and they’re thoughtful and hard-won truths. This book demands to be read with care, not because the writing is difficult (it’s not), but because the content is so damn important. Also, it’s sobering, and often it’s just plain sad-making to read this book. But people—all kinds of people, and lots of people—really, really, really should read it. It’s the stuff we need to know before we send people to war. It’s the stuff we need to know when they return.
Listen to this:
“There is a correct way to welcome your warriors back… Cheering is inappropriate and immature. Combat veterans, more than anyone else, know how much pain and evil have been wrought. To cheer them for what they’ve just done would be like cheering the surgeon when he amputates a leg to save someone’s life. It’s childish, and it’s demeaning to those who have fallen on both sides. A quiet grateful handshake is what you give the surgeon, while you mourn the lost leg. There should be parades, but they should be solemn processionals, rifles upside down, symbol of the sword sheathed once again. They should be conducted with all the dignity of a military funeral, mourning for those lost on both sides, giving thanks for those returned.” (p. 195)
So, yes, he is sad, but he’s also frank about the ecstasy he experienced during battle. And then the horrible aftermath of killing.
He tells it true.
It’s an extraordinary book.
And perhaps the best doggone book I’ve read all year. Definitely the most important.
(Considered writing Karl Marlantes a thank you letter. Probably should do that. [Note: I don't write fan mail to authors, so this is a weird inclination on my part.])
For a preview of the book, here’s a half-hour interview with the author that aired on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”
And here's an interview that aired on C-SPAN:
But good as these interviews are, the book’s The Thing.