Feature

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes

The author, a decorated Vietnam veteran, knows about war, and his thoughts about combat, coping with war memories, and helping soliders re-enter daily life “couldn’t be more timely.”

(Atlantic Monthly, $25)

“Karl Marlantes knows what he writes,” said Matt Gallagher in Time.com. The author of the acclaimed war novel Matterhorn is a decorated Vietnam veteran who has killed and seen comrades killed, and who has spent the past 40 years seeking solace from combat’s lasting psychological wounds. In this ambitious book, he juggles several goals: to provide future soldiers with a blunt preview of what they will face in combat, to help returning veterans cope with their memories, and to give civilians and political leaders a sense of how best to help such warriors re-enter daily life. The result is a work of “raw, unsettling honesty.” Given how many soldiers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, it “couldn’t be more timely.”

“As any reader of Matterhorn knows, Marlantes is top-notch in describing ground combat,” said Tony Perry in the Los Angeles Times. We’re with him in Vietnam when he shoots an enemy combatant at point-blank range, and when his attempt to play hero possibly causes the death of a fellow American. He never glorifies war violence, but argues convincingly for its place in protecting against greater atrocities and also insists that civilians should understand how “exhilarating” it can be in the moment. “There is a deep, savage joy in destruction,” he writes. Less successful are his attempts to flavor his meditations with references to psychology and literature—“some are a graduate-school stretch.”

This affecting book’s crucial message is, at heart, “a simple plea,” said Jennifer Miller in CSMonitor.com. Marlantes views soldiers as being badly damaged by the “code of silence” that so many adopt on tour and carry home with them. He urges the armed forces to instead institute rituals that help soldiers in the field solemnize the killing they witness, to make counseling mandatory for all combat veterans, and to make the sharing of war stories from old soldiers expected rather than uncommon. Those of us who’ve never experienced combat may never be able to truly understand the post-battle pain that Marlantes describes. Even so, we can learn to see it—“and respect it.”

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