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What It Is Like to Go to War [Hardcover]

Karl Marlantes
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 30 2011
From the author of the award-winning, best-selling novel 'Matterhorn', comes a brilliant nonfiction book about war

In 1968, at the age of twenty-three, Karl Marlantes was dropped into the highland jungle of Vietnam, an inexperienced lieutenant in command of a platoon of forty Marines who would live or die by his decisions. Marlantes survived, but like many of his brothers in arms, he has spent the last forty years dealing with his war experience. In 'What It Is Like to Go to War', Marlantes takes a deeply personal and candid look at what it is like to experience the ordeal of combat, critically examining how we might better prepare our soldiers for war. Marlantes weaves riveting accounts of his combat experiences with thoughtful analysis, self-examination, and his readings—from Homer to 'The Mahabharata' to Jung. He makes it clear just how poorly prepared our nineteen-year-old warriors are for the psychological and spiritual aspects of the journey.

Just as 'Matterhorn' is already being acclaimed as acclaimed as a classic of war literature, 'What It Is Like to Go to War' is set to become required reading for anyone—soldier or civilian—interested in this visceral and all too essential part of the human experience.

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"Karl Marlantes has written a staggeringly beautiful book on combat--what it feels like, what the consequences are and above all, what society must do to understand it. In my eyes he has become the preeminent literary voice on war of our generation. He is a natural storyteller and a deeply profound thinker who not only illuminates war for civilians, but also offers a kind of spiritual guidance to veterans themselves. As this generation of warriors comes home, they will be enormously helped by what Marlantes has written--I'm sure he will literally save lives."--Sebastian Junger
"Marlantes brings candor and wrenching self-analysis to bear on his combat experiences in Vietnam, in a memoir-based meditation whose intentions are three-fold: to help soldiers-to-be understand what they're in for; to help veterans come to terms with what they've seen and done; and to help policymakers know what they're asking of the men they send into combat."--"The New Yorker"
""What It Is Like to Go to War" is a well-crafted and forcefully argued work that contains fresh and important insights into what it's like to be in a war and what it does to the human psyche."--"The Washington Post"
"Marlantes is the best American writer right now on war . . . With "What It Is Like to Go to War" a second Marlantes book resides on the top shelf of American literature."--Anthony Swofford, author of "Jarhead"
""What It Is Like to Go to War" ought to be mandatory reading by potential infantry recruits and by residents of any nation that sends its kids--Marlantes's word--into combat."--"San Francisco Chronicle"
"In this thoughtful, literate work of self-exorcism, Marlantes tells tales of incredible bravery as well as brutality."--"People Magazine"
"A precisely crafted and bracingly honest book."--"The Atlantic"
"Marlantes knows what he writes. . . Raw, unsettling honesty pervades the work."--"Time.com"
"Marlantes has written a sparklingly provocative

About the Author

A graduate of Yale University and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. He is the author of 'Matterhorn', which won numerous prizes, including the William E. Colby Award given by the Pritzker Military Library, the Center for Fiction's Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the 2011 Indies' Choice Award for Adult Debut Book of the Year, and the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation's James Webb Award for Distinguished Fiction. He lives in rural Washington.

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars War for intelligent people Nov. 16 2011
Format:Hardcover
What a pity, when unprepared people try to judge a superb work of literature. Marlantes' What It's Like to Go to War is a profound, disturbing and highly intelligent work on the subject that not many of us know anything about. It is a superbly written, brutally honest account of what it means to be a soldier. Necessary read for everybody: soldiers, military families, civilians but politicians in particular. The marvel of a book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A book for all people, all times Aug. 30 2014
By C. CARD
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
With reference to the review by Katarzyna I could not have expressed my sentiments any clearer or better. This is an incredible book that ALL can benefit from reading and meditating upon. It should be a MUST read for psychologists and psychiatrists, especially those who deal with the effects of extreme stress, no matter what the cause. It is an eye opener into one's own mind and psyche and, at the age of 74, probably the most valuable book that I have had the honour to read.
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1 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Nick1 Oct. 24 2011
By Nick
Format:Hardcover
Karl Marlantes book the Matterhorn was better in my opinion as it was more of what I was looking for with a detailed narration of what it was like to be in the Vietnam War. This book was good but I thought he borrowed some from his earlier book but it still had new firsthand play by play about his time in Vietnam as a soldier. I personally am obsessed with this American war and all it entailed as I grew up watching it on the TV news broadcast with Walter Cronkite nightly in Canada. Fascinating time with the music, the drugs, the hippies, the draft and the average soldier's age of about 17 or 18 and what they had to face with their innocence on the line. Tragic, the lives lost.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  332 reviews
431 of 457 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Speaking of the Unspeakable Aug. 4 2011
By George Webster, Ph.D., - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I went off to war in 1942, and spent my time bombing Germany and watching my fellow flyers die at an alarming rate. Thus, I can attest that the author's splendid piece of writing conveys a realistic picture of war and its effect on the human spirit. General Sherman is reported to have said, "War is Hell". It certainly is, as the author found in the jungles of Vietnam, and I found at 25,000 feet above Germany. War is fire and explosions and machine guns pounding and dying men screaming for help. The author lost many members of his platoon. I lost five of my crew killed, and two (including me) wounded. Thus, war's combat is the same, wherever and whenever we find it.
Likewise, the effects of combat on humans seem to be the same, no matter which war we consider. In Vietnam, the author describes his post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) that caused trouble even after he had come home. His description had a familiar ring. I fought it for eight years after World War Two ended. Now, I read in newspapers that PSTD is a major problem for troops back from the Iraq and Afghan wars.
But some things have changed. When I went off to war, it seemed like the whole nation was supporting me, and we came home from the war to adulation and happy times. In contrast, when the author came home, a young woman spit at him, and people expressed their contempt. Today, it is remarkable if we hear anything on the news about our troops in the Middle East.
This very readable narrative is fascinating and disturbing, but it is well-worth your time.
194 of 203 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Should be required reading. Aug. 7 2011
By Theoden Humphrey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This is a remarkable book. I haven't read a lot of military literature, fiction or non-fiction; I have no personal connection to the military and never served. But I am a high school teacher, and every year I see some number of students -- sometimes more, sometimes less; quite a lot more since the economy sank in 2008 -- leave high school and go off to serve their country. I wanted to get some perspective on what they were in for, and perhaps a better idea of why they did it, why they signed up when the conventional wisdom is always for young men and women to go to college.

I got that perspective. And much more. I got a real glimpse into a soldier's heart and mind, told with clarity and great intelligence and heroic honesty; if for nothing else (and of course there is much), Marlantes should be honored for his willingness to delve so very deep into his own experiences, and to share them with the reading public in stark, perfect detail, hiding nothing. It made the book difficult to read at times, an experience that I can only think would be a thousand times more intense for fellow soldiers, but it made the book that much more necessary to read.

I also got led through an insightful plan for how a modern nation should treat its soldiers, how they should be trained, how the officers should deal with their commands, how the public should treat their warriors before, during, and after combat. This is where the author's intelligence and education shine: calling on mythology, psychology, sociology, history, and of course his own experiences, Marlantes lays out a set of suggestions for the military that made me think this book should be not only required reading for past and future soldiers (which it should be), but also required reading for elected officials who intend to send soldiers into harm's way -- whether they themselves are veterans or not. The basic concept is that we must give our military men and women time and tools to adjust, both before and after combat, both in the short and long term. Soldiers must be prepared for what they will have to face -- all they will have to face, the fear and the excitement, the heroism and the honor and the horror and the lies -- and they must be given the chance to work through what they have dealt with afterwards; Marlantes shows how asking soldiers to return from the field to civilian life in as little as a 24 or 48 hours, as happened to Vietnam veterans like Marlantes, is perhaps the largest root cause of trauma for all involved, especially since neither our government nor our society have policies in place to help soldiers make that difficult transition. It's a shame, and it should be changed.

I wish the book was a little easier to read; it gets a bit academic and complex at times, when the author is working through some difficult concepts -- such as the enemy within, or the idea of heroism, both in abstract and practical terms -- and some of the students I'd like to give this book to would have trouble following it. But I'm going to give it to them anyway, and they're going to be fascinated by it, as I was, even if there are some small bits they struggle with (Hey, I'm an English teacher; I'll help them through the hard parts.). Almost everything in the book is so real and so well-told that anyone can follow and appreciate it.

And this book should be read.
102 of 107 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Timely book takes you into experience of war and its aftermath Aug. 19 2011
By James Korsmo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
In this reflective memoir, Karl Marlantes, writer of the widely acclaimed Vietnam War book Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, takes a probing look at his own experiences of going to war, and of coming home again. Because it is more of a series of reflections than a continuous narrative, I will review it in kind, with some impressions and appreciations. First, Marlantes's book is honest, sometimes brutally so. And I think this is one of the keys that makes it work. The reader gets the distinct impression that he has carefully worked and reworked his memories until they come out as honestly and completely as possible. Even though at times this means recounting memories of his own brutalities in war. But along with these sometimes tortured memories come candid memories of his own emotions, impressions, and motivations that help bring the experience of war to life. They also guarantee that war isn't glorified, and neither is the warrior. Instead, we meet the brutality along with the valor.

A second impression one gets is that these are carefully analyzed reflections. He has quite obviously held his own experiences, indeed his own person, under the light of careful scrutiny. This means the narratives and accounts he relates are thick descriptions of events, filled out with his own psychological analysis about not only what he and those around him experienced but why. And this also means he often extends his reflections beyond his own experiences, through an analysis of why, to a discussion of what we might constructively draw from them. One key example that comes up repeatedly in the book is the experience of coming home from war. He recounts many of the difficulties of going from a life-or-death struggle in the jungles of Vietnam, where you are dealing death in a god-like fashion, to being rapidly transported via helicopter and airplane, back to your family and friends in everyday society in a matter of hours. And that jarring transition is made without reflection, significant preparation, or guidance. He recommends greatly increasing the debriefing and processing time for returning veterans, both before and after they come home. At one point he recommends returning to the WWII practice of returning home by ship: "We should have had time to talk with our buddies about what we had all shared" (150). And he says so much more about this key issue of reintegration and the need for acceptance, especially dealing with the challenges of returning from Vietnam to a country that didn't appreciate his service or the battle he was sent to fight. This important and timely issue alone makes the book a compelling and worthwhile read, and has given me renewed respect and concern for our current crop of returning vets.

Last, in my unsystematic collection of reflections, I would say this book is vivid. It takes you not only into the battles but into the very experiences of being there and the psyches of the soldiers involved. The horrors of war are inherent, and an honest account like his helps keep us from sugar coating the experience and practice of war. He also raises interesting questions regarding the modern practice of war, with drone pilots dropping death by day and having dinner with the family "after work" in the evening. The psychological effects are hard to fathom.

Marlantes writes well, with carefully crafted words and deeply reflective ideas. I hope this book gains a wide readership, as it has brought home to me a fuller understanding of the exercise of war and also a much deeper appreciation for the men and women we commission to carry out war on our society's behalf. I also applaud his aims to send out warriors who are better trained to face the psychological and ethical aspects of war, and I expect that his candid memoirs will be a tool toward just such an end.
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Lifetime of Thinking about the Meaning of Combat Aug. 30 2011
By Jeffrey D. Kenyon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is not a Vietnam memoir, such as Tim O'Brian's If I Die in a Combat Zone or Robert Mason's Chickenhawk. That's not meant as criticism, because Karl Marlantes clearly wasn't trying to write a Vietnam memoir. Instead, it has the flavor of a book that has been a very long time under consideration, the distillation of his thinking, during all of his adult life, about the nature and implications of war.

The book is broken into chapters dealing with specific themes ("Killing," "Guilt," "Lying," etc.), an organizational strategy that well supports what Marlantes is trying to achieve. Much of the power of the book comes from the author's own experiences in Vietnam, used to illustrate the points he is making. The book is at its best at those moments (and bumps the author's Matterhorn closer to the top of my "To Be Read" list). His description of calling in a fire mission on elephants is heart-breaking. And his use of the experiences of others (especially those of the WWII-era Major von Luck) is often equally graceful.

While I certainly agreed with his suggestions of how the experience and rituals of the warrior may be changed to make it easier to return to society after combat is through, I had the feeling of reading suggestions that would never be followed. To follow them would require society to admit that war and aggression is part of who we are. But the truth, as Marlantes himself points out is that "War is society's dirty work, usually done by kids cleaning up some failure on the part of the adults."

The book is not perfect. The galley copy that I reviewed showed signs of insufficient surface editing; examples are a reference to a "mystical experience" at fifteen that "scared the hell" out of him but is never explained or referenced again, the possessive of Robert Graves being "Grave's," the use of "will he nil he" rather than "willy-nilly." At a higher level, it sometimes feels choppy, lurching from a scholarly dissertation supported by references from classical literature into first-person experience in the jungle. The book may be have been more effective had it been shorter and tighter, more starkly making the points that the author was seeking to make. Although scarcely over 200 pages, it felt long at times. All these are minor concerns, however.

This is an impressive book, written by someone who has experienced the best and worst of combat, who has thought deeply about it, and wants the nature of the experience to change for those doing battle now and in the future.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Difficult Memories Aug. 19 2011
By Lee S. Mairs - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This was a tough book to read. The author came to my attention early last year with a novel of his services as an officer of Marines during the Vietnam war. "Matterhorn" was a novel but it apparently was based on Marlantes actual experiences. Matterhorn is a powerful book and ranks up their with Jime Webb's "Fields of Fire".
"What It Is Like to Go to War" is a recommendation of the type of psychological training tht Marlantes believes will best train people before they experience the crushing violence of war. The book draws heavily on incidents that Marlantes suffered through on his Vietnam tour as a Marine infantry officer. This is a powerful book, and enjoyable to read; however, the case he makes needs to be examined. As a Vietnam veteran, I am just happy to have had a much easier war than Marlantes experienced.
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