It offers a valuable and intense experience, whether you are a veteran, have a veteran in your family, know a veteran or simply have a curiosity about going to war.
“What It Is Like to Go to War” is an uncensored, unfiltered delve into the emotional, mental and physical world of being in combat, and then being a combat veteran in civilian society.
Karl Marlantes, the author, is distinguished for reasons other than being a Marine lieutenant and infantry platoon leader in the Vietnam War. He is a graduate of Yale University and was a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford prior to his time in Vietnam. His reflections on his combat experience are something much more than the average “war” novel.
He takes you on a mental journey to before his military service, through his military career, and most importantly, through the many years since in which he has struggled to cope with the things he saw and did.
A defining feature I thoroughly enjoyed was his raw, and at times, vulgar exposé of what it truly means to go to war and be a military veteran. He addresses an often uncomfortable reality of the human condition: Humans react with emotions, and for the most part, can’t control them. Marlantes makes clear that killing, blowing things up, almost being killed, and holding the power to do all the above, simultaneously, produce a powerful and profound rush unlike any other.
Marlantes achieves his multifaceted explanation of the deeply personal and intensely profound experience of combat through a combination of metaphors, analogies, historical quotations, examples and a stream-of-consciousness narrative.
The metaphors and analogies he presents are both simple and effective. They succinctly present the reader with realistic situations to drive home his points. His carefully selected and strategically placed quotations from historical texts represent an insightful and cultured view of combat veterans. He brings both Western and Eastern views on combat experience together in an attempt to compare accepted coping, or at least condoned, mechanisms and societal views toward veterans.
He does not glorify or demonize veterans for their actions during combat. There is no attempt to venerate those who take the lives of other human beings during war. Likewise, he restrains himself from making an antiwar or shameful spectacle of his and his fellow Marines’ actions.
He also dedicates extensive discussion to the stark differences between civilian and military culture and values. He illuminates certain aspects of military culture and its extensive emphasis on “the unit” and “the mission.” For veterans, it is often a characteristic absent in most aspects of postmilitary life.
A sporadically distracting feature is the stream-of-consciousness and philosophical preaching that sometimes bogs down this otherwise fast-paced and lean read. This is more common in the latter portion. Marlantes tells a story and then follows it with an important lesson or discussion point. This format works well and efficiently, but at times his emphasis becomes belabored, and his time-traveling can be disorienting. Maybe the disorientation is on purpose.
This book is a “must-read” for some and a “should-read” for many others. Veterans, especially combat veterans, of any era will find themselves nodding their heads for much of the read, tensing in frustration and anger at other points, and reliving the emotional experience that is combat. For the civilian reader, this story and its analysis provide an excellent and perceptive view into a world often shrouded in mystery.
No matter your background or preconceptions, it is a book well worth your time.
John W. (JJ) Jenkins, PA-C, works in general and vascular surgery at BayCare Clinic in Green Bay, Wis. He is an Army veteran and a 2014 graduate of the Carroll University PA program.