Synopses & Reviews
Fast off the success of his devastating Vietnam War novel, Karl Marlantes gives us his incredibly readable treatise on soldier psychology, Reflections on Combat: Psyche, Soul, and Consciousness in Modern Warfare. Writing in a personal address to youths considering military service, soldiers facing imminent combat, government policy-makes, and anyone with an interest in reforming the nature of war or better understanding a society that fosters it, Marlantes approaches this difficult and divisive subject with a raw practicality and honesty informed by his years of sober thought and personal struggle. He is unwilling to take the moral high ground and adopt an idealistic pacifism, and instead addresses a future that will inevitably harbor further wars and create untold further generations of soldiers; with his personal discoveries and wealth of historical and psychological thought, Marlantes explores ways of reforming soldier training, counseling for soldiers and veterans, and military law that will help avoid the unnecessary spiritual and literal casualties of wars past.
The book is divided into many chapters covering such topics as Atrocities,” Numbness and the Rapture of Violent Transcendence,” and Heroism.” Each chapter begins with the effective thesis for the sectiona frank statement of a serious problem like the fusing of civilian life and war or the lack of empathy in soldiers and a broad-scale way to approach its rectification. What follows is then a hybrid of essay and memoir that leads the reader to both a personal and technical (as much as this can apply to matters of human consciousness) understanding of the chapters thesis. Marlantes recounts engaging, gritty, tense, and unflinchingly truthful personal experiences from his deployment in Vietnam: how his laziness in checking a mortar stand resulted in three friendly casualties, how killing Viet Cong and commanding massive firepower imbued him with a sense of omnipotence, how he put an entire rescue helicopter at risk in order to make his scheduled rest and relaxation, how he executed, going beyond the ordered objective, a merciless rout of enemy soldiers as a form of revenge for a fallen comrade. These incredible stories are then supplemented with personal introspection and rigorous philosophical and sociological examination with frequent appeal to the likes of Jung, Nietzsche, and Yeats in order to discover the structure of the underlying problem in military training, military operating procedure, and even cultural norms.
All of this goes towards understanding problems in soldier psychology that are complex and terrifying. Marlantes is obsessed with how hopelessly unprepared soldiers are for the transcendental experiences of war and he doesnt shy away from this construal of the transcendental. While fully affirming the horror of war and death, Marlantes fearlessly asserts that these experiences nonetheless force soldiers into all-too-real contact with that notoriously indescribable quality of humanhood: the unknowable, the intangible, the dark mystery of existence. One of the overarching themes of his book is that military culture discourages soldiers from confronting these sorts of psycho-spiritual conflicts, when in fact the proper course of action is to do the exact opposite confront these tough issues and experiences head on, before, during, and after combat.
While the book cruises comfortably in the dual tones of the memoirist and the psychoanalyst, it is perhaps most potent when it dips into the truly confessional. At points Marlantes steps back and addresses the problems he had writing this very book his battles to confront self-deceit, personal trauma, and deep seeded denial and we see the author laid bare: a brutally honest, sometimes distraught figure hunched over the keyboard, writing with almost sacrificial sincerity. The result is one mans attempt to help future generations in the inevitable event of war, where human beings are forced to witness and carry out the obliteration of life.
"Marlantes, author of the highly acclaimed novel Matterhorn, reflects in this wrenchingly honest memoir on his time in Vietnam: what it means to go into the combat zone and kill and, most importantly, what it means to truly come home. After graduating from Yale, Marlantes attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. But not wanting to hide behind privilege while others fought in his place, he left Oxford in 1967 to ship out to Vietnam as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He eschews straight chronology for a blend of in-country reporting and the paradoxical sense of both fear and exhilaration a soldier feels during war. Most importantly, Marlantes underscores the need for returning veterans to be counseled properly; an 18-year-old cannot 'kill someone and contain it in a healthy way.' Digging as deeply into his own life as he does into the larger sociological and moral issues, Marlantes presents a riveting, powerfully written account of how, after being taught to kill, he learned to deal with the aftermath. Citing a Navajo tale of two warriors who returned home to find their people feared them until they learned to sing about their experience, Marlantes learns the lesson, concluding, 'This book is my song,' (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Karl Marlantes has written a staggeringly beautiful book on combatwhat it feels like, what the consequences are and above all, what society must do to understand it. In my eyes he has become the preeminent literary voice on war of our generation. He is a natural storyteller and a deeply profound thinker who not only illuminates war for civilians, but also offers a kind of spiritual guidance to veterans themselves. As this generation of warriors comes home, they will be enormously helped by what Marlantes has writtenIm sure he will literally save lives." Sebastian Junger
"To say that this book is brilliant is an understatement Marlantes is the absolute master of taking the psyche of the combat veteran and translating it into words that the civilian or non-veteran can understand. I have read many, many books on war and this is the first time that I've ever read exactly what the combat veteran thinks and feels nothing I have ever read before has hit home in my heart like this book." Gunnery Sergeant Terence DAlesandro, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, U.S. Marine Corps
"A valiant effort to explain and make peace with wars awesome consequences for human beings." Kirkus Reviews
"What It Is Like to Go to War is a courageous, noble and intelligent grapple with myth, history, and spirituality that beautifully elevates the cultural conversation on the role of the military in today's world. It is an emotional, honest, and affecting primer for all Americans on war and the national psyche, and we ignore this book at our own peril." Ed Conklin, Chaucers Books, Santa Barbara
From the author of the New York Times
, this is a powerful nonfiction book about the experience of combat and how inadequately we prepare our young men and women for war.
War is as old as humankind, but in the past, warriors were prepared for battle by ritual, religion and literature — which also helped bring them home. In a compelling narrative, Marlantes weaves riveting accounts of his combat experiences with thoughtful analysis, self-examination and his readings — from Homer to the Mahabharata to Jung. He talks frankly about how he is haunted by the face of the young North Vietnamese soldier he killed at close quarters and how he finally finds a way to make peace with his past. Marlantes discusses the daily contradictions that warriors face in the grind of war, where each battle requires them to take life or spare life, and where they enter a state he likens to the fervor of religious ecstasy.
Just as Matterhorn is already being acclaimed as a classic of war literature, What It Is Like To Go To War is set to become required reading for anyone — soldier or civilian — interested in this visceral and all too essential part of the human experience.
About the Author
A graduate of Yale University and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. He is the author of the best-selling and prize-winning Matterhorn.