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

whatWhen I was notified that I’d be receiving What It is Like to Go to War through the Goodreads First Reads program, I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. A book about combat? Well now, that certainly doesn’t sound appealing. Luckily, Mr. Marlantes quickly put my concerns to rest.

My main fear was that this book would glorify war and combat but, though it does discuss some very ugly truths, I didn’t feel that it was glorifying anything. Yes, the author saw plenty of combat in Vietnam, yes he killed people and yes he details that in this book. However, he makes it clear in the Preface that his goal is to educate people about the realities of war in an effort to better protect our military personnel:

“All conscientious citizens and especially those with the power to make policy will be better prepared to make decisions about committing young people to combat if they know what they are about to ask of them.”

This book does discuss what happens in wars but it goes far beyond a simple play by play of what it’s like to pull a trigger. The author speaks at length about the psychological damage that’s done and how ill prepared our troops are for this.

“The Marine Corps taught me how to kill but it didn’t teach me how to deal with killing.”

“We cannot expect normal eighteen-year-olds to kill someone and contain it in a healthy way. They must be helped to sort out what will be healthy grief about taking a life because it is part of the sorrow of war. The drugs, alcohol, and suicides are ways of avoiding guilt and fear of grief. Grief itself is a healthy response.”

Mr. Marlantes is very honest about all sides of the coin. He talks about the adrenaline rush of being in combat, about the mixed emotions you feel when you’ve succeeded at your objective…when that objective is killing another human being. He also openly admits that if he were to be in that same situation again today, he’d handle it differently.

“I’d hope that I’d remember to respect my enemy’s pain and agony.”

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Mr. Marlantes is quite the skilled writer. He wrote for a broad audience and explained the military terms without talking down to his audience. This was a powerful and important book that I would not hesitate to recommend.

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