NONFICTION REVIEW: What it is Like to Go to War

  • Article by: KEVIN CANFIELD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2011 - 12:10 PM

The author of "Matterhorn" tells the truth about the horrors of battle, and how unprepared soldiers are to come home.

Karl Marlantes' new book is as wrenching and deeply honest as its understated title would suggest. An oft-commended Marine who was wounded in Vietnam, Marlantes killed and suffered and watched many of his friends die in brutal fashion. For his efforts, he was heckled and assaulted when he got back to the United States. With war such a part of contemporary American life, this book is deeply important, as timely and urgent as contemporary on-the-ground reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I know that over twenty people are dead directly as a result of my behavior, but the people they killed are dead too," he writes. "Saying I was right and they were wrong, or vice-versa, isn't going to make me feel better, or their mothers or sisters, or the mother and sisters of the ones they killed."

Marlantes leapt into this hellish quandary in 1967, when he decided to walk away from his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University. He had become a Marine three years earlier, and though he thought the war "was a mistake," he couldn't bear to sit in a classroom in Britain while the men he'd trained with during the Corps' famously rigorous boot camp were dying in Southeast Asia.

The horrors that Marlantes saw and participated in informed his 2010 novel, "Matterhorn," a 600-page epic that has been praised by battlefield journalists as one of the most authentic documents to emerge from the Vietnam era. Like its predecessor, "What It Is Like to Go to War" is undaunted and, at times, truly terrifying.

Here, for instance, is how Marlantes remembers the aftermath of a deadly -- but not unusual -- encounter with North Vietnamese soldiers: "One of the wounded [Americans] kept screaming obscenities until someone gagged him with a sock. When they were safely inside the lines I saw bits of brain spattered on the inside of his jungle hat."

But Marlantes doesn't wallow in violence for its own sake. He has many points to make that apply to war circa 2011, and he does so methodically and with great persuasive force.

The most urgent of these has to do with the reintegration of soldiers into American culture. Marlantes himself "got into drinking, drugs and sex" after coming home from Vietnam, and he offers several specific ideas that he believes would help soldiers returning from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. "Most veterans come from the strata of society where counseling is something that happens to crazy people," he writes. "Counseling should be required. This will eliminate the stigma."

"Metaphorically," he adds, "veterans should be encouraged to 'sing'" -- to tell their stories in whatever fashion comes naturally. In this vein, Marlantes is trying to set an example. "This book," he writes, "is my song."

Kevin Canfield is a writer and book critic in New York.

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