Magazine | October 17, 2011, Issue

A Sacred Space

What It Is Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes (Atlantic Monthly, 272 pp., $25)

About three years ago, Karl Marlantes asked me whether I would review the manuscript of his novel, Matterhorn, about Vietnam, and write a dust-jacket blurb for it if I liked it. I agreed and was soon immersed in one of the finest war novels I have ever read. Here’s some of what I wrote for the publisher: “I had the honor of serving in the same battalion as Karl Marlantes in Vietnam. There he proved himself to be one hell of a Marine. With Matterhorn, he proves himself to be one hell of a novelist. . . . No other novel about Vietnam — including Jim Webb’s Fields of Fire — does a better job of capturing the essence of what it meant to be a ‘grunt’ in Vietnam than Matterhorn.”

I must confess that although I was overwhelmed by the power of the novel, I really didn’t think that there would be much of a market for a work about one unpopular war just as another was winding down. It’s a good thing I wasn’t Marlantes’s literary agent, because I was dead wrong: Matterhorn became and remains a best seller.

He has now turned his attention to a nonfiction reflection on combat titled What It Is Like to Go to War. Like Matterhorn, it is a powerful work that takes an honest, introspective, and very personal look at the ordeal of combat and its aftermath. Marlantes interweaves accounts of his experiences in battle with thoughtful analysis and self-examination that is almost too honest for the reader to bear: “What got me into the temple of Mars was a contradictory mixture of patriotism, genetic imperative, the draft, a yearning for transcendence and escape from the humdrum, a need to prove my manhood, and just plain self-testing and curiosity. Inside the temple I experienced a surprising love for those who entered with me. There I prayed for deliverance from horror, carnage, and death.”

Marlantes is a remarkable fellow and something of an anomaly among Vietnam veterans. He is a graduate of Yale who went to war when most of his Ivy League colleagues did whatever they could to avoid it. Indeed, he gave up a Rhodes scholarship to return home to fight (it was later reinstated). But he was nonetheless a reluctant warrior: While at Oxford, he came to believe that the Vietnam War was a mistake on many levels and seriously contemplated deserting — he had already accepted a Marine Corps commission that was delayed so he could go to Oxford on his scholarship — by going to Canada.

But loyalty led him to return home. He was awarded the Navy Cross for valor during a particularly nasty battle, and two Purple Hearts, one for a wound that almost cost him an eye. Marlantes became a successful businessman after the war, but admits to bouts of drug use in his attempt to deal with the demons that accompanied him home from war.

He draws heavily on many disparate sources to convey the meaning of combat: invoking Jungian psychology, especially Jung’s concept of the Shadow — the “other,” our internal enemy — that is deeply buried in our psyche, and also the epic poetry that has shaped our understanding of war since the earliest times (the Iliad; the Mahabharata of India, especially the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, known as the Bhagavad Gita; Bushido, the warrior code of Japan; and the story of Cuchulainn from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge).

#page#The book is structured around several topics, each the subject of a separate chapter: Killing; Guilt; Numbness and Violence; The Enemy Within; Lying; Loyalty; Heroism; and Home. He ends with a discussion of how it might be possible for citizens of a modern liberal society to better relate to “the underlying organizing power that creates and sustains those physical and terrible aspects of war that seem beyond the comprehension of our small psyches.”

Those who have lived through war write about their experiences for several reasons. The first is that writing serves as catharsis for the writer. A second is to convey to those citizens who have not been subjected to the crucible of war — in these times, the vast majority of the American population — the sacrifices that soldiers make in order to ensure the liberty and prosperity of their fellow citizens.

Marlantes suggests a couple more reasons: to help other veterans “with their own quest for meaning and their efforts to integrate their combat experiences into their current lives,” and to convey to those about to join the military what war is really like. As he remarks, “the violence of combat assaults psyches, confuses ethics, and tests souls.”

In the HBO series The Pacific, the father of future Marine Eugene Sledge is a genteel southern physician who served in World War I. He tells his son that “the worst thing about treating those combat boys from the Great War was not that their flesh had been torn, but that their souls had been torn out.” One who has seen a comrade die, or who has looked into the eyes of an enemy he is about to kill lest his enemy kill him, is forever transformed.

Killing is what soldiers do for society. But Marlantes makes clear that modern liberal society doesn’t recognize the psychological split that killing, and war generally, engenders in those who fight: a split under whose spiritual weight the soldier will “stumble” for the rest of his life. Marlantes writes: “War is the antithesis of the most fundamental rule of moral conduct. . . . To survive psychically in the proximity of Mars, one has to come to terms with stepping outside conventional moral conduct. This requires coming to terms with guilt over killing and maiming other people.”

Marlantes candidly discusses a topic of particular interest to me, one I have often written about for both National Review and National Review Online: atrocities. In a series of articles during the 2004 election, I took umbrage at the central claim of John Kerry’s 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to the effect that atrocities were an everyday occurrence in Vietnam and that they were sanctioned by the chain of command. I contended that the U.S. conducted the Vietnam War with remarkable restraint: Between 1965 and 1973, 201 soldiers and 77 Marines were convicted of serious crimes against the Vietnamese. My Lai is, of course, the exception that seems to prove the rule. I acknowledged that there were likely to be episodes that were not reported, but, given the number of U.S. troops who served in Vietnam and the nature of the war, atrocities were remarkably rare.

Marlantes argues that there are three basic categories of atrocity: “white heat,” where logic reigns supreme untempered by empathy; “red heat,” where rage dominates at the expense of reason and logic; and the atrocity of “fallen standards,” arising from failures of leadership. Marlantes describes his own experience with each type. I agree with him that “in combat we do dreadful things that are excused too easily,” but I believe his understanding of atrocity is too broad. Anyone who has been in combat understands the thin line between permissible acts and atrocities. The first and potentially most powerful emotion in combat is fear arising from the instinct of self-preservation. But in soldiers, fear is overcome by what the Greeks called thumos, spiritedness and righteous anger. In the Iliad, it is thumos, awakened by the death of his comrade Patroclus, that leads Achilles to put aside sulking in his tent and kill Hector, dragging his corpse behind his chariot before the wall of Troy.

#page#It seems to me that wartime behavior arising out of both Marlantes’s “white heat” and “red heat” circumstances is a manifestation of thumos. The problem is that thumos, if unchecked, can engender rage and frenzy. It is the role of leadership, which provides strategic context for killing and enforces discipline, to prevent this outcome. Such leadership was not in evidence at My Lai.

I would dissent from Marlantes in one other respect. His observations are applicable mainly to the soldiers of a modern liberal society, one that does not place war at the center of its being. While war may indeed be a “sacred space” — one that possesses a mystical quality for those who fight it — it is not a space shared by most citizens of the modern West. This is not true of many of our enemies, who, like those in ancient societies, embrace war and death with a fervor that goes far beyond what is accepted in the West today.

It is important to note that although Marlantes discusses his own experiences in Vietnam, this book is not about Vietnam per se, but about war in general. For far too long, Vietnam has been singled out as somehow unique in the history of warfare. In fact, Vietnam was no more brutal than what my father went through in the Pacific during World War II or what contemporary young Americans have endured in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that makes what Marlantes has to say all the more important. Unfortunately for the utopians among us, barbarism exists in the world. Civilization can repress barbarism and savagery but cannot eradicate it. Thus war is not an aberration.

Marlantes writes that as long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, the U.S. will need soldiers who will kill to stop them. But this requires honesty about war and its costs, especially in terms of the split that war creates in the soul of the soldier. In Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach captures the nature of that psychological split: “Shame and honor clash where the courage of a steadfast man is motley like the magpie. But such a man may yet make merry, for Heaven and Hell have equal part in him.”

– Mr. Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.; editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI); and author of US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

Mackubin Thomas Owens — Mackubin Thomas Owens, the associate dean of academics for electives and directed research and professor of strategy and force planning for the Naval War College, is a contributing editor to ...

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