Anthony Swofford on America’s Best War Writer, Karl Marlantes

To understand war and its costs, one should turn to one writer. 'Jarhead' author Anthony Swofford salutes Karl Marlantes’ powerful new book.

Horst Faas / AP Photo

I spent a few days in DC this week. On Wednesday I wandered through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, always heartbreaking. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, a high school choral group sang the “Marines’ Hymn.” I’ll admit that it still moves me, and in my head I sang along, and I thought of the men I served with 20 years ago. On Thursday, the Marine Corps' birthday, I walked the paths of Arlington National Cemetery. Many young Marines wore their dress blues, and I imagine they were paying respects to fallen comrades from the current wars.

Another way that veterans pay respect to the men they served with is by writing books about their experiences at combat. Over 40 years after he’d fought in Vietnam as a Marine Corps lieutenant, Karl Marlantes’s brilliant novel Matterhorn arrived on the literary scene in 2010 like an acre of Claymore mines detonating at once. The evocative book instantly joined Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, Richard Currey’s Fatal Light, and other classics of the form up on the top shelf of war fiction. Many people asked, “What took this guy so long?”

Marlantes answered with What It Is Like to Go to War. Part narrative memoir, part psychological study of the warrior soul, part literary think piece, part veterans’ mental-health advocacy project, this book does all of those things well and often splendidly.

Samuel Fuller is rumored to have said that to make a realistic war movie a director must fire rifles at the audience. The reader of this book might often feel the need to dodge bullets, so outstanding and visceral are Marlantes’s descriptions of combat. Early on he narrates for us a harrowing attack on a North Vietnamese army defensive position. Not only does Marlantes nail down the sensory phantasmagoria and fear of combat, but also the elation. After watching his radioman kill a close enemy, he writes:

It felt pleasurable and satisfying to see Cleveland ripping that kid apart on full automatic. I was alive!

But what does the old warrior feel now? “Ohh the sadness, the sadness. And ohh, the grief of evil in the world to which I’ve contributed.”

What It Is Like to Go to War By Karl Marlantes 272 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $25.

The then and the now are constantly at play in this book. The then of the young and powerful Marlantes, the now of another generation of young powerful men going off to add to the “grief of evil” that is war. The now of the elder Marlantes grieving for the then of his younger self—war-damaged, confused, prone to using drugs and alcohol as numbing agents, lurching around with violence in his heart in a society that didn’t know what to do with him and didn’t much care.

When Marlantes returned to America, he visited his brother, a student at Stanford. Waiting around the bookstore for his brother to finish classes, he gets stared down in the aisles by a young woman who recognizes his out-of-place military haircut and the physical manifestations of his psychic wounds: “I tried to slip past her and accidentally knocked a book from the shelf. […] I remember wishing she knew I had won a Navy Cross and was trying to reach the poetry section. She was joined by two long-haired boys who further blocked the aisle. Trembling with anger and humiliation, this Marine chose to advance in the other direction.”

This anecdote encapsulates all of what Marlantes is trying to tell the uninitiated civilian: the war hero, even the Yale and Oxford scholar war hero intending to binge on poetry at the Stanford bookshop, simply does not fit in. He is not allowed to fit in. If we allow him to fit in, we admit that we are him and he us. And by denying him we humiliate him. It is never good social policy to humiliate the man you just asked to run off and kill people for you.

Today’s war veterans don’t get spit on or yelled at, but I’d argue that they too return to a country not totally willing to welcome them. For the most part, we’d rather not know what they’ve done and seen: the veterans are much easier handled if their experiences remain foreign, mysterious, and unknowable behind a screen. This screen allows the veteran to avoid the civilian world, too. And it is destructive.

For Marlantes, this screen is a sign of a damaged “masculine principle” that America had insisted be left in the jungle in order to avoid the masculine order at home.

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After he returns home and has a pleasant but not totally satisfying evening with a girl from his high school days, he is on a ferry in the Pacific Northwest with his family, returning to a favorite spot, Cortez Island, for a vacation. His mother has told him that when she awoke him on his first morning home he reached up to choke her, an act he doesn’t recall. He falls asleep on the ferry. “A woman tripped over my feet, startling me. Again I reared up, reaching out to choke her. […] This kid was still in the jungle.”

Twenty years later, he understands. “My body was trying to tell me I was choking the Feminine, but I didn’t get it.” His choking of the Feminine was essential to his healing and the understanding that what he did in Vietnam was not abnormal but a part of the cruel dance and clash of civilizations. There in Vietnam he was a man being a man. And upon his return, he needed some space to heal. But America didn’t offer it.

Here some readers might notice that this particular insight occurs in the 1980s, and to feel too much the burden of a particular kind of Men Healing Men, Robert Blythian soul-soothing, shouting at trees optional. I did. But strangely it works. Men have been slowly emasculated. Skinny jeans. Fake lumberjacks. Flavored whiskey? Do men matter? How often have you read that headline? The penis, along with the Great American Male Novel, is dead.

Today’s warrior is totally separate from society. Marlantes argues that men must still protect the community. When the enemy is at the gates and you need some skulls bashed in, you will still most likely call up your young men. They are built for it.

In the old days they would return to a cleansing ceremony. Nowadays that’s just not possible. Too few people take on the burden of fighting our wars.

Marlantes is a committed optimist when it comes to treating veterans before they fall into the morass, what for himself he called The Presence. He says, “Counseling should be required. This will eliminate the stigma [of combat service].” He advocates “honoring parting as much as entering, with equal emphasis on ritual.”

This is all laudable, but from my time spent around current vets and a few Marine officers, it seems wholly undoable. And when Joe Smith returns to Podunk from the Korengal Valley and his buddies from high school are working at the big-box stores out near the highway and shooting Oxy on the weekends, it’s going to be hard for the community to muster any ritual for Joe Smith’s cleansing.

Doing nothing is criminal, of course. Read: Vietnam Veterans. What It Is Like to Go to War is full of anecdotes of vets ruining their minds and bodies, and Marlantes states with hard-won authority, “We’d have saved lives if returning veterans had been better prepared for re-entry.”

Men try many salves for the wounds of war. At one point, Marlantes asserts that sex was not going to do it for him, nor will it for any soldier today. He wishes someone had taken him aside before he disappeared with an Okinawan prostitute and said: “All that’s egging you on is some misplaced idea that being masturbated by a paid pair of labia is somehow manlier or more satisfying than doing it yourself. They’re exploiting your loneliness. You’re exploiting their poverty. You’re both just using each other and it is going to make everyone feel bad. And, oh, by the way, you can catch a venereal disease.” All of these are very good points. But try telling a young Marine 24 hours removed from combat that a bottle of whiskey and a prostitute aren’t going to help his soul. Your protestations will fall on horny deaf ears. You might even get punched in the face.

With much respect to the former Lieutenant Marlantes, there remains in this book one massive elephant in the room, and the elephant is Class. Marlantes is a Yalie who studied at Oxford before and after fighting in Vietnam. He is as rare as the Elgin Marbles. The trappings of an elite education and a secret society at Yale, along with the doors that that education and secret society open, can hardly be ignored in the healing process of our writer. His second tour at Oxford “took me out of the country, away from the anger, pain, and humiliation.” A group of women helped him heal in Oxford, with tea and sympathy and invitations to holidays at home and in Switzerland. Much later a friend who was a Capuchin friar held for Marlantes an effective healing Mass for the Dead at Old Mission Santa Inez.

These seem to me rather fine ways to heal from war, and I’m happy that Marlantes had such opportunities, or we might not have had the treat of these two books from him. But that kid from Podunk, now unloading freight at the big-box store, is a universe away from Oxford and a Capuchin friar buddy.

One path out of the psychic pain of warfare that Marlantes never explicitly espouses, probably because it is so obvious to him, is the education he secured prior to going to war. The key ingredient to a vet’s mental health is reintegrating into society, and what better way to do that than through educating oneself in the communal world of the college student?

I’m not saying that studying Proust or metaphysics will heal PTSD. But I know that when I returned from war, a few classes in philosophy and literature helped move me further toward feeling human and integrated than any ritual cleansing and multiple rounds of group therapy might have, had I even thought to try group therapy.

But put aside my minor quibbles. Marlantes is the best American writer right now on war and the extreme costs to society of sending young men and women off to combat without much of a safety net for them when they land back home. He has high hopes for the future treatment of these combatants and a fellow warrior’s respect for the soul shattering process of killing for your country. With What It Is Like to Go to War a second Marlantes book resides on the top shelf of American literature.