Friday, January 27, 2012

What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes

I have never had to serve my country nor was it something I ever considered.  When I was of age, the Cold War was winding down and the pain of Vietnam was still divisive and hurtful.  Unlike veterans of previous generations, these men were disparaged and misunderstood and left to the fringes by a society that was embarrassed and lacked the appropriate compassion and understanding to help them heal.  

Fast forward to the current era when we have recently fought two wars on two fronts.  Suddenly, young men were going off to war again with some returning home whole, others maimed, still others not at all.  It is a rare person who hasn't been touched by this recent round of national service.  Perhaps it is my age that allows me to consider matters differently but these young soldiers were fighting a very different war than my father did in the 1940's.  

In his book, Marlantes examines the warrior as both an ideal and an all-too-real figure.  Through his own experience and insight, he explains who the warrior is, how the warrior must prepare and how he or she must be brought back into the fold of non-military life after their service.  This book has great power and important lessons.  It should be required reading for soldiers, their superiors, politicians, and the American people.  

In the parlance of rap duo Eric B. & Rakim, Karl Marlantes "ain't no joke".  He went to Yale, was a Rhodes scholar and a highly decorated combat veteran of Vietnam.  Those decorations include the Navy Cross and the Bronze Star among others.  His first novel, Matterhorn, was championed by both the critics and the bookstores when it was published in 2010.  His non-fiction follow-up is remarkable.  

It has been at least six weeks since I finished the book but hardly a day has gone by that I have not found myself still ruminating on it.  Marlantes is so unflinching in his honesty, so straightforward about his own mistakes, including his participation in what he describes as a "massacre", it has left me haunted.  After reading What It Is Like To Go To War, I have gained an even greater respect for those who choose to serve primarily because Marlantes makes me understand not only how awful it can be but also how glorious it is for a soldier who can finally put into practice all they have been trained for.  

At the beginning of the first Gulf War, when Tom Brokaw announced on the nightly news that AWACS were in the air, my friend, who had spent years in the naval reserve, wanted to re-enlist because he had been trained to be a warrior but never got to use what he learned.  It boggled my mind.  "You want to go to war?  Why in hell?"  After reading What It Is Like To Go To War, I think I can begin to understand.  

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