What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011, 273 pages)
In 1968, at the age of twenty-three, Karl Marlantes was dropped into the highland jungle of Vietnam, an inexperienced lieutenant in command of forty Marines who would live or die by his decisions. In his thirteen-month tour he saw intense combat, killing the enemy and watching friends die. Marlantes survived, but like many of his brothers in arms, he has spent the last forty years dealing with his experiences.
In What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes takes a candid look at these experiences and critically examines how we might better prepare young soldiers for war. In the past, warriors were prepared for battle by ritual, religion, and literature—which also helped bring them home. While contemplating ancient works from Homer to the Mahabharata, Marlantes writes of the daily contradictions modern warriors are subject to, of being haunted by the face of a young North Vietnamese soldier he killed at close quarters, and of how he finally found a way to make peace with his past. Through it all, he demonstrates just how poorly prepared our nineteen-year-old warriors are for the psychological and spiritual aspects of the journey.
Karl Marlantes deployed to Vietnam in 1968 as a young Marine Corps officer. This book is partly a memoir of his experiences during and after the Vietnam War and a proposal/plea for the military and the nation to do better when reintegrating service members into society after returning from combat deployments.
The author’s main argument is the military does a great job preparing soldiers to go to war and use violence against our nation’s enemies when required, but service members are ill-equipped to deal with the mental and physical impacts of those actions. Marlantes shares some of his experiences in each chapter. He further explains how there could be better support for service members during and after deployments while discussing big topics like lying, loyalty, and wanting to be a hero.
The stories are very honest and often brutal. Marlantes shares moral dilemmas he faced, things he is proud of, and things he is ashamed of. He explains what he went through upon returning from deployment; how he tried to process it all and put it behind him. The stories can be challenging to read, but they really help illustrate the struggles service members may face in combat; including making life or death decisions at a moment’s notice. These stories also explain why the military should provide additional support and training before, during, and after deployments.
The author faced combat in Vietnam, but he understands today’s military members may face similar stressors while launching missiles from a ship over the horizon or piloting drones on the other side of the globe. His recommendations really touch on not repressing one’s feelings, but openly discussing them and showing empathy to others. He argues this should start with children, but for the military, it should be a part of the initial accessions training. Additional discussion and reflection should be part of the process at a service member’s promotion to a new paygrade. This book was published in 2011. Given the rise in suicide numbers since then, Marlantes really seems prescient. We should give his recommendations serious consideration.
All active duty and civilian leaders of our military should read this book. The military may have made some changes since Vietnam (such as initiating various post-deployment assessments for members) but there is still room for improvement. They should also require this reading for the family and friends of all service members to help them understand some issues deploying military members may face. It may help spur discussions with loved ones.
Stephen Lepper served 21 years on Active Duty with the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. A licensed Professional Engineer, he currently works for CACI International Inc as an advisor on Military Construction for an international shipbuilding program. He lives with his family in central Massachusetts and is always on the lookout for what to read next. You can connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-lepper.