What It Is Like to Go to War, An Introduction

When I finished Karl Marlantes‘ book What It Is Like to Go to War, I had the urge I always have after reading a really good book: to tell everyone how wonderful it is, even at the risk of being tiresome; and to send copies to friends. (On that score, however, I’m becoming more selective: not everyone likes receiving a gift that demands time and attention.) I received Marlantes’ book as a gift from one of those friends you’re always grateful to get books from—because they’ve got great taste, you know you’re in for a treat.

The books that excite me prove themselves by being of sincere heart and sound mind, by awakening, delighting, and educating (in the expansive sense of that last word), and by not sounding false notes. There are good books, even great books, from which I learn things; yet I admire them from a distance. I can’t get excited about them because for some reason(s) they don’t resonate with me. At best, the author and I are just tuned too differently, so their work doesn’t call forth a sympathetic response in my soul.  At worst, the book has something it shouldn’t, such as ideology or pointless detail; or it lacks something it should have, such as an inner unity or sense of humor. Sometimes, despite all the good things, there are just too many false notes, and too much dissonance, for the book to be a true pleasure.

Marlantes’ book has none of these faults. My enthusiasm for it is so wholehearted that, in addition to sending off copies to dad and friends, I’m keen to share his sense and sensibility with you. (You see what I mean about that urge to tell everyone how wonderful it is.)

As the friend who sent me the book said, Marlantes is “a genuinely wise man.” His brand of wisdom is the more valuable for being so rare. He has written eloquently about a vital matter that few of us like to think about, that even fewer of us have any true understanding of, but about which nearly all us are full of passionate opinions. In 250 pages of  vivid, moving and incisive prose, Marlantes offers his experiences, reflections, and hard-won wisdom about war and warriors. Marlantes speaks as an insider, a Marine and highly decorated combat veteran who served valiantly in Vietnam. He is also a Rhodes scholar who grew up in my own home state of Oregon.

As Marlantes observes, there’s a warrior in each of us, just as there’s a shadow side in each of us—whether we’re conscious of it or not. The warrior personifies and symbolizes this spirited part of our souls. So does the noble dog, as Socrates points out in Plato’s Republic. One of the guiding theme of my book on friendship is this warrior-like “spiritedness”—that part of us that loves to compete but also to cooperate; that loves to dominate but also to be honored; that loves a good fight but also makes the best of friends. Moreover, one of my inspirations for writing the book is my conviction that spiritedness is the master key to making friends, yet it’s also the source of much discord and unhappiness because we’re largely unconscious of its true nature. Having meditated on these themes, you can imagine why I found Marlantes’ masterful reflections on war and the warrior so exciting. I’d found a kindred spirit, as we often do in books we love.

Marlantes knows from personal experience and long observation how hard it is to think straight about the spirited, warrior part of our nature. It raises so many painful issues that it’s largely sent underground. For instance, it is a fact that the United States of America is a tough, bullying, aggressive and violent country that devotes more of its resources to preparing for and waging war than any other country and that is responsible for much chaos and evil around the world. This is not all we are, of course, but it’s an important part of who we are.

Yet I suspect most Americans—and I include myself—have a hard time actually accepting this description of our national character. Or, even if we do, most of us deny that an analogous character lies within each of us. We don’t see ourselves this way because we have an enormous shadow side of which we’re largely unconscious. One of Marlantes’ achievements is to help the reader become aware of the nature of this shadow. He writes,

So where’s the shadow now after the Iraq War? Try Abu Ghraib prison. However, it is always going to go underground, just as it did in Gulf I and World War II, unless we start getting conscious. . . . We assume we’ll be cheered as white knights by the people of Iraq when we arrive with no plan for the occupation and self-righteously eliminate all agencies of law and order because their personnel were labeled Baathists, but we and the Iraqi people instead get years of bloody chaos. It’s not the activity itself that’s in question so much as the self-righteous attitude that one brings to the activity. This is where the danger lies. This nation should be less worried about putting the Vietnam syndrome behind us than restarting the World War II victory syndrome that resulted in the Vietnam syndrome in the first place. If you go to war singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” you’re going to raise the devil.

Shadow issues come around and around. There is no defeating the shadow. We have to live with it….We all have shit on our shoes. We’ve just got to realize it so we don’t track it into the house. This realization is one of the things we must work on in training society’s professional fighters…. (pp. 87-88)

Sage words. And more to come.

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5 Responses to What It Is Like to Go to War, An Introduction

  1. Nick Hudson says:

    Have you read The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle by J. Glenn Gray? It is a WWII version of what Marlantes wrote and, in my mind, better. He also struggles with how to remain compassionate in war, which seems to be one of the most important, and most difficult things to do (On Killing and War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning to some degree also discuss this).

    • No, I haven’t. (Is this the Nick Hudson I remember well from SJC?) And it’s better than Marlantes? High praise indeed. Many thanks for the recommendation.

      • Nick Hudson says:

        Yes, I was in your freshman seminar back in 1999-2000. I thought of mentioning it but figured more likely than not you wouldn’t remember. So I’m obviously pleased you did.

        And yes, Gray’s book is fantastic, a minor (generally overlooked as far as I can tell) classic. As an added bonus, Hannah Arendt wrote the preface to it.

      • Nick Hudson says:

        And I should add I just ordered your book. I read The Lives of Animals a few years ago and Barbara Smuts’ essay on her relationship with her dog was quite powerful so I’m excited to read what you wrote.

      • Of course I remember you. I even have a clear image of what you look like. That was your and my first year at the College after all. Thanks for supporting my book by buying a copy. I hope you love it! Let me know, one way or the other. Anyway, good to hear from you, and thanks again for the recommendation.

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