Every Day Is Veterans Day

An Eastside author argues for holistic soldiering and homecoming.

Every war gets the literature it deserves, from The Odyssey to the current crop of nonfiction from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The situation is a little different for Karl Marlantes, a highly educated, highly decorated Vietnam War veteran who was raised in Oregon and today lives in Woodinville. It took him more than three decades to fictionalize his combat experiences in last year's Matterhorn, which slowly became a best seller, aided by Sebastian Junger's rave in The New York Times. His new book is something like an appendix to that hefty novel, a slim spiritual guide simply called What It Is Like to Go to War (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25). As our nation prepares to honor the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which led to our two costly wars abroad, Marlantes isn't offering a critique of the Bush-era policy decisions that led us to Afghanistan and Iraq (though he clearly disagrees with the latter invasion). Rather, in 11 short chapters, he's intent on the soul of the modern soldier—those who operate lethal drones 1,000 miles removed from their targets, and those whose legs are shattered by roadside IEDs in Baghdad. Rolling down a hill under North Vietnamese fire in 1968, U.S. Marine Lt. Marlantes embraced a wounded soldier in a bear hug, risking his life to retrieve a fallen comrade in the platoon he led. In part, he simply wanted to save a life. But also, he admits, "I wanted a medal." Heroism, Guilt, Loyalty, Killing, Lying—these are some of the chapter headings in What It Is Like, describing the "contradictory mixture" of motives Marlantes experienced in battle. Invoking his idol, Joseph Campbell, he ascribes to the warrior many selves, a collection of identities that must be ritually assumed and—when the war is over—forsaken. Otherwise, as he relates from his own combat/peacetime experiences, the warrior's persona is disintegrated and filled with self-disgust. Marlantes spent decades coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), sopping himself with booze, sex, and drugs, ruining one marriage, and cycling through several jobs. Written in response to those rocky years, though not a straightforward memoir, What It Is Like is a proscriptive manual for soldiers to cope with combat and its cessation. It's also a stewpot of religious and mythic traditions, including Campbell, Jung, the samurai, Hinduism, the classical Greeks, and—New Age alert!—Robert Bly. "Warriors deal with eternity," Marlantes says, since they have the power to take away life and write the immortal pages of history. They're a special class of chosen young men expected to exhibit certain behaviors in a very discrete set of circumstances—this Marlantes calls "the Temple of Mars." This semi-sacred place has been profaned and the warrior demeaned, in Marlantes' estimation, by incidents like the My Lai massacre and Abu Ghraib. (Wearing his uniform on a train after discharge, he recalls, a young New York woman spat on him.) How then to restore honor and avoid PTSD? Marlantes advises a much longer re-entry period from martial to civilian life, as in World War II, where the return voyage took weeks, even months. He advocates ritual disarming, public ceremonies, and extensive counseling. He writes, "Veterans need to boast more. Metaphorically, veterans should be allowed to sing. When a child asks, 'What is it like to go to war?', to remain silent keeps you from coming home." (Stoicism is a virtue only back in the Temple of Mars.) In fact, the book puts you very much in mind of Coming Home, with Marlantes arguing for the reconciliation of the Bruce Dern and Jon Voight characters—the upright warrior and the gentle vet, with each role fulfilled in its proper time and place. You should love the thrill of war while in combat ("transcendence through violence"), feel no guilt about slaying an enemy who has chosen to forcibly oppose you, then later drop the sword and expiate bad feelings in stories and (metaphorically) song. Given that Marlantes finished his first draft of Matterhorn on a manual typewriter in 1977, What It Is Like also has a somewhat belated '70s feel. But though it often reads like Zen and the Art of M-16 Maintenance, the book is also a timely survivor's guide. As Marlantes correctly notes, the old distance between war and peace—soldiers were away for years in the classical era, or decades if you believe Homer—has been collapsed by CNN, Twitter, and Skype. Transitions from battlefield to soccer field (or hospital bed) are now nearly instant. There is no more threshold for Odysseus to cross. Whether or not you agree with Marlantes' aphorisms and bromides, his book is a sincere plea for better soldiers and veterans. As for better foreign-policy makers, who send troops to serve as policemen abroad, he writes, "If we are unwilling to commit warriors for decades we should stay put, relying instead on nonmilitary forms of pressure to bring about the required change." bmiller@seattleweekly.com

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