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Book Review: What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes

If you look at the 250 or so book reviews I’ve written for this site, I would be surprised if you found a handful of books I called a “must read.” So when I say Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War falls in that category, there’s no question I think it is special. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it profound.

The list of people who should be required to read the book is long: every decision-maker and policymaker in the Department of Defense, every NCO and officer in the military, and every member of Congress. It better be on President’s Obama’s list of “books I read this summer.” What It Is Like to Go to War should be assigned reading at every military academy and in any fundamental leadership course for non-academy military training. In fact, it is a book that should be read by everyone who relies on the military. In other words, it should be read by all of us.

Marlantes combines personal experience, philosophy, history, mythology, ethics, psychology and spirituality in examining how we train our warriors. Marlantes has a range of ideas on how we can better prepare them for the jobs we assign them and, equally as important, to return them home with the least damage to their psyche. Much of what he suggests comes from his own experiences as a combat Marine in Vietnam (some of which will be familiar to those who read his highly praised Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War) and as he tried to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder after the war. Even though that war was fought decades ago, Marlantes now has the benefit of perspective.

He argues persuasively that not only do today’s soldiers face many of the same issues he did, the ability to kill remotely — and seemingly antiseptically with drones, cruise missiles and the like — may raise other issues. Yet while recognizing modern warfare, What It Is Like to Go to War occasionally also looks to the past. Marlantes argues that some “primitive” societies better prepared their warriors for the toll combat takes on the body and the mind. Among other things, he suggests “rituals” to aid combat veterans, including some that would be performed immediately after a firefight. He also suggests that spiritual (not necessarily religious) guidance not only be part of military training, but available in the combat zone and afterward, particularly since our wars are fought by the young of society. At least from a layperson’s perspective, much of what the book suggests does not seem to be difficult to put into practice or disruptive of military training.

There is no question Marlantes, a Rhodes scholar, thought long and hard about the personal consequences of combat, how we prepare our soldiers for it and how to help them deal with it afterward. What It Is Like to Go to War is stunning in the breadth of knowledge on which it draws yet is highly accessible. It is an important book, far too important to ignore.

About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.