Sunday, November 11, 2012

Karl Marlantes' "What It Is Like to Go to War": Book Review

I recommend reading "Matterhorn" first. This non-fictional companion narrates many of Marlantes' real-life incidents around Christmas 1968 on the Laotian border near the DMZ which inspired that masterful Vietnam War novel. Those who immersed themselves in that epic work's detail and mood will see how Waino Melles stands in as a counterpart for Karl Marlantes--even if a few of the most daring moments of his real life (as in hanging on outside an overloaded chopper so he could make his R+R) service gain in the true telling even more than the fictional fashion.

As previous reviewers noted, this follow-up lacks the seamless quality that at its best (which was often) carried one through six-hundred plus pages of "Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War" [see my brief Amazon review in Aug. 2012]. It's much choppier: he integrates recollections of his Oregon coming-of-age among Finnish fishermen, his Yale and Oxford studies, and his difficult re-entry into civilian life. These reminiscences alternate with topical chapters on aspects of warrior culture. These in turn explore in tangents or directions many moments gleaned from his Marine tours of duty, his literary and cultural studies, and his experiences at integration as a man who understands the costs of sending nineteen-year-olds to fight in an era when such duties will be done more and more at a distance, via a drone from a Nevada base and not as hand-to-hand taking a hilltop from the NVA (memorably recounted in both "Matterhorn" and "What It Is Like to Go to War," understandably).

He emphasizes recommendations for rituals that ease the transition from life to death, battle to peace, killing to harmony, which are necessary in an age when compassion for both the fighter and his or her enemy may be more difficult to sustain. Mass killing and not individual duels may add to this societal and cultural switch, and our psyches may not handle the transfer. Marlantes shows how "natural aggression," as with our sexual drive, needs not to be denied or suppressed, but comprehended, cared for, and disciplined. He does not shrink from honesty, and he mingles justice with mercy adroitly.

He draws upon religious analogies intriguingly. He locates the spiritual in combat. He finds "constant awareness of one's own death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people's lives above one's own, and being part of a larger religious community" [loc. 159] in the contrast of the mystic's heavenly ascent and the soldier's hell descent. Both enter a sacred space; respect must be paid. Unless young men and women learn to deal with initiation, the realization of compassion, the balance of justice with mercy in doling out punishment in the field, the shift into this fearsome space and their sudden retreat from it by jet or video, they will not reach healing and wholeness within.

This higher cause appears akin to the "semper fi" commitment he vowed to never leave behind his comrades and to make their needs a priority above his own. Marlantes tells how, in a humble but inescapably dramatic fashion, his first Bronze Star emerged out of such a willingness. He applies Jungian notions of the shadow via Joseph Campbell to explain this imperative.

War ideally is like mercy killing: done out of necessity, but with respect and sadness. Marlantes tackles the "touchdown" cheerleading, the innate reaction we share with apes to kill and take pleasure in it, but he also sees that this alone, the "white heat atrocity" of logically premeditated killing or the "red" of unleashed bloodlust, cannot control those whom we send to fight for us. Evil, as with good, can be summoned out of the energies around us, like we turn on a television.

Transcendence, he boldly argues, can come with frenzy in war. Homer, Cúchulainn, the Bhagavad Gita, video games show this pattern over centuries. We need to channel this energy. Out desire to fight for our side cannot be eliminated. Those who ignore it within our nature do so at a destructive cost. This common drive, as he shows with a vignette from British and Germans pitched against each other in North Africa's desert, can reveal respect that connects the souls of sworn enemies.

I am not sure I agree with his implied stance that if one is not for one's own side in a war decided by national policy and detached politicians, one is aiding and abetting the enemy, but my experiences have not been tested as have been his and his successors, and to be fair, Marlantes aims this book more at them than me. He concludes with ethical suggestions and ways to blend his idealism into practical programs and rituals for those who fight. I teach many veterans (near a VA hospital). I see young men starting college with physical and psychological damage. As I read "Matterhorn" I discussed it with some students, and I will guide more to this companion volume, and their classmates, for this will benefit them all. (Amazon US 9-3-12)


AM said...

I borrowed this book from the library but never got to read it because I have Matterhorn at home and wanted to read it first. Having read this review I am prompted to move more hastily to reading Matterhorn.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Yes, AM, finish the novel first. It's long, but as you may have found already, it's worth it. (As I read it by e-book, I found out only at the end how the military acronyms and slang were glossed. A testament to his prose is how I understood the references by his adroit explication, no easy task.) I recommend the memoir-narrative- study afterwards, as you learn how Karl M took the events and characters of the war and enriched them fictionally.

Both depict from the inside the warrior ethos, and its necessity at least for some in the kind of society we appear destined to perpetuate, idealism aside. I may add how he stresses the technological impact of recent fighting, when radios (and now networks and wired set-ups) diminish the soldier's control to make decisions, as the chain of command interferes compared to the traditional patterns of war.

He makes an intriguing mystical analogy to the "fog of battle," an entry into combat and a need for gradual separation from its intensity, that I never heard of before. While parts of the study lagged and veered compared to the immersion of the novel, they reward by a paired perspective.