In his New York Times best-selling 2012 memoir about his experiences and reflections on his service in the Vietnam War, Karl Marlantes puts plainly what many people who have not been in war want to know: What is it like?
Marlantes was chosen to tour and talk about What It Is Like to Go to War as part of the Cal Humanities statewide campaign War Comes Home. That campaign enlists its own army of artists, writers, libraries, veterans and teachers to spread awareness and conversation about the problems war veterans face when they return home.
Why him and why his book? Maybe because of the perspective offered by his distance from war, or because of his wisdom in age, or his success in business or high level of education. Maybe because he doesn't withhold the bloody truth of war.
"I've used [dead bodies] for temporary sandbags on occasion. It'd still do it," he writes.
Though he chronicles many of his own episodes in the Vietnam War, he says, ultimately, that it is "inexplicable."
Marlantes began a promising academic track—he graduated cum laude from Yale and was just starting Oxford—when he dropped out to join the Marines and fight in Vietnam.
As part of his statewide tour, he's speaking at CSUMB's Tanimura and Antle Library Auditorium, Room 1188 (Divarty Street and 5th Avenue, Seaside) 5:30pm Friday. The first 100 people will receive a free copy of his book. The Washington resident spoke to the Weekly, about war and peace, psychology and spirituality, and overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder.
Weekly: You grew up in Seaside, Oregon. What was it like there?
Marlantes: It's an incredible natural setting. It's managed to hang on. It was a logging town [when I was] a kid. There were also fishermen. They put a highway through the middle of my town. The whole economy of the coast is changing to tourism.
Before the military, what did you want to do with your life?
You probably don't understand, but when I was growing up, everyone's dad or uncle was a World War II vet. The military was called the service. No one wanted to get drafted, but it was there. People said "I'll get my service out of the way." It was like paying your taxes. You served your country. I was reading Kierkegaard. He said you have to make choices and stick by them. I decided to join the Marines.
What did you believe about the war in Vietnam before you went?
It was problematical even before I went. You had the feeling [President Lyndon] Johnson wasn't telling the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin, but you couldn't prove it. That the government was corrupt, but you couldn't prove it. The North Vietnamese weren't these kind people, like Jane Fonda said. You served the Constitution and if the president said go, that's what you do. I could have gone to Sweden or Algeria. I just couldn't have my friends over there doing the fighting.
What did you find out about the Vietnam War afterwards?
What does any young kid find out about war once he's there? You read books, seen movies, think you have some idea. You really don't. By the time I got back, I had a good understanding. Through a lot of killing and maiming, of my friends and the enemy. The reality of war. It's hard to explain to people who have never been there. It's almost inexplicable. The intensity. How can an 18 year old know? By the time I got back, 1969, the war was very unpopular. I was assigned to Washington DC and I couldn't get a date because of my hair being cut off. The country, a significant portion, was blaming the troops for the war. I think we've gotten over that. It's a hard lesson, the way we've treated Vietnam War veterans. I grew my hair long and hid. I never told anybody I was in the Marine Corp for years. The politics were…explosive.
Why did you decide to write a memoir about your experience in Vietnam [so many] years later?
I started writing it in the 1990s. It took me 35 years to get Matterhorn [Marlantes' first novel] published. The publisher asked "Do you have anything else?" I have this memoir. "Lets publish it" he said. I never had the manuscript rejected because no one would read it. "We can't sell this. Maybe you can switch this to Afghanistan." I can't do that. Writing literature is a very difficult marriage between art and business. Can I sell a book about the Vietnam War? By the '90s there were other wars. Thankfully, they were wrong.
You've been seemingly successful in your pursuits. Why have you been able to "make it" while other veterans have seemed too damaged to?
There's a host of factors. There's a direct correlation between abuse in childhood and how bad you suffer post-traumatic syndrome. What looks like a stable life from the outside…I lost my marriage, I screamed at my kids, had fits of rage. I was able to keep the lid on and be quite successful. But I suffered and my family suffered. My daughter reminds me she went to 12 schools in 8 years because of post traumatic stress. We didn't know about it. Had no clue it was related to the war. I came to my understandings of myself through writing. I ran a corporation, had own businesses. It was great. Underneath there was a problem.
What did you to deal with PTSD?
Writing. A zen guy in San Francisco said the job you have to do is turn ghosts into ancestors. A combat veteran has ghosts. Unconscious memories. The only way to get rid of a ghost is to get it outside of you. You can never expunge them. For me it was writing. There were many times I would break down balling while writing both books.
Has your study of philosophy helped you to understand what you went through?
I would say what helped me more was religion and Jungian psychology, archetypal psychology. That's the heart of the matter. You're taking human life, people are sacrificing their lives, you're in the realm of the spiritual. Locke, Hume, Descartes, the nature of reality. It's fabulously interesting, but not as helpful as mythology. I think Carl Jung is a very big influence. Joseph Campbell, too.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions civilians have about war and about soldiers?
I'll tell you a funny story. I'm at a signing. This woman, my age, who read Matterhorn, said she was a protestor of war in college. She had read my book and said "I didn't know you guys slept outside." There's a huge disconnect between what [civilians] even understand what the military is. My wife said to put a glossary in Matterhorn. There are people who Didn't know a platoon was bigger than a squad. In my home town, every woman knew what a destroyer was because they had family in the Navy. [Civilians] don't even know the structure.
I think people underestimate the physiological changes to your brain that happen in combat. Post traumatic stress is the rewiring of neural pathways. Most often you get wounded or killed because of your reactions. You hear a noise, the input goes into your cerebral cortex, you say "It could have been a leaf, an animal." By the time your nerves respond, you're dead. Later, the sound goes directly from the ear to the brain, it goes directly to your nebula and you shoot. You are changed. Physiologically changed. It's a profound and deep change.
Did war change you irrevocably? Can you sense that you are a different person because of it than you would have been without it?
No doubt. Simple things. Kids laugh when dad's taking a nap, but toss something in the room first to wake him up. I still take medicine. I wrote about and incident in the book. I was walking with my daughter Sylvia. Someone [in a car] came up behind me at an intersection and blasted their horn. When I started thinking again, I was on the hood kicking that guy's windshield in. What happened here? My immediate reaction, go get 'em. Now I'm able to stay in gear, hold on, and cope with these triggers. I'm not cured, I can handle them. If your family understands, it's so much better.
What do you think remote wars, conducted by drones, for instance, will do to the human psyche?
I have lot of thoughts. I think those wars will be entered into a lot without blowback. The president can send a drone anyplace in the world and no one knows. There's no political fallout, this ability to wage war without endangering the people waging it. Congress has totally abdicated their job. The last time Congress waged war was Dec. 8, 1941. I think you're still going to face the spiritual issues. Maybe not the danger issues of PTSD, but I know these guys running these drones. They watch these people for days, maybe months, they get to know their wives, families. Then someone gives the order to kill them, and they do. In the morning they kiss their wives, like the other commuters, afterwards take their kids to soccer, and what have they done that day? Killed somebody. They're in air conditioned office drinking coffee. They have to deal with it. When I killed someone, it was some guy trying to kill me or my friends. It's blurring, the violence.
You write about future warriors. That seems to imply that you presume an inevitability to war. Is that true?
Yes. I'm hopeful wars are going to be more contained, but I'm not betting on it. I think the human race produces bullies who are willing to kill people for power. The only way to prevent that is to use power against them. I think we'll have bullies until the human race changes. We're not the top animals on the food chain because we're nice. We're very fierce animals. I saw that. In myself. That's part of the human condition. We need to recognize our animal self and be able to control it, work with it. You have two choices. Live in a dictatorship or fight back.
What do we, as a country, owe soldiers?
Every possible opportunity to learn how to cope with the effects of combat. You as a civilian must reach out. I call it the code of silence. The guys come back and doesn't want to talk about it. Friends and family don't want to set him off. The barrier has to come down. I've done horrible things. I don't want to be judged. Even though it was in the name of a good cause. Hopefully. They want to talk. Not the cliche, "Hey, did you ever kill anybody?" Or "Thank you for your service." That's glib. Like when the servant shows up: "Thank you, Jeeves." Ask: Where did you go? What was it like? Where did you get water? The civilians have to step up to the plate.