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Monday, May 23, 2016

Review: What It Is Like To Go To War

After I read Matterhorn, I went to see what other books Karl Marlantes had written, and the non-fiction work What It Is Like To Go To War showed up.

Partly a treatise on war and its effects on the young men who are sent out as warriors to do dirty jobs that their elders thought up, part a "behind the scenes" memoir about the events that went on in Matterhorn, it is uneven but still worth reading (or in my case auditing via audiobook).

The first thing you notice if you've already read Matterhorn (especially in as close proximity as I had) is how little fiction was in Matterhorn. By the time you're done with this book, you'll realize that calling Matterhorn is only fictional in the sense that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is. Names have changed.  In the novel, you don't see the medals that Marlantes win as a result of his actions, that's pretty much it.

What you do get out of this book that isn't apparent in Matterhorn was how much Marlantes liked combat. At one point, he noted (and this is where audiobooks really suck compared to reading a real book --- I can't search the book and pull out the quote) that as a 21 year old XO with a gunnery sergeant and a PFC on a mission, he had a staggering amount of firepower available: he could rain down artillery shells from 3 artillery fire bases, he could call in fire from the heavens as napalm via air-strikes, he had specially custom made machine-guns capable of tearing apart the entire landscape. And then there were the RPGs, LAWs, and grenades. The jeep he was in was so bristling with firepower that he actively wanted the enemy to try to stop him, just so he could get a chance to use it all. His jeep was a veritable chariot of the gods. And society actively handed a 21 year old with that much power to maim, kill, and destroy, and asked him to do it!

Repeatedly, the book emphasizes rituals. A lot of the problems with the Vietnam war was that there was no transition between the arena of war and civilian society. Marlantes describes a desperate battle to evacuate wounded battles during a mission, where the helicopters were so crowded that he had to leave on his R&R by hanging on to the lip of the door with his legs in the air. Hours later he was in Australia. No wonder reports of soldiers carousing and otherwise going crazy were fairly regular during R&R --- they were still charged with adrenaline from the fight. Marlante points out that in today's wars, it's more insidious. With drone warfare, you could be killing people via video camera during the day and still go home for dinner.

Marlantes covers PTSD, and not surprisingly suggests again that better training in the form of philosophy and room for reflection and "talking down from the warrior state" for the returning veteran be a strong part of military tradition.

What really tears at my heart is Marlantes' description of his return from Vietnam. It really was true that young women spat on the veterans, many of whom did not really want to go to war. At least that part seems to have changed for the better over the years.

I recommend this book. It's not nearly as consistently good a book as Matterhorn, but if you enjoyed Matterhorn, you'll want to read this book for the behind the scenes exploration of what happened both before and after the events in the novel, which you will never look at again as fiction.

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