Thursday, September 29, 2011

What It is Like Going to War

At 23 Karl Marlantes, a 23-year-old 2nd Lieutenant from Oregon, parachuted into the jungles of Vietnam. That was 1969, four years after I watched young Vietnamese trainees being celebrated by the local hockey fans in Fort Worth, TX, 1965.

Marlantes is a Yale graduate and a Rhodes school, so he is no fool. He served as a Marine officer, loved the service, and valued his Navy Cross, Bronze Star, two Navy Commendations for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. He is also a prize-winning author. He wrote this particular book as his way of wrapping up forty years of dealing with his experiences of PTSD and the gruesome life-destroying effects that war has on the soldiers that survive intense combat.

He writes from a deeply personal perspective. I found him brutally honest, intensely personal, widely educated, and ethically sensitive. He understands military life and describes both its better sides and its undesirable effects. He shows great insight into human nature, with pros and cons of human reaction to military life and the politics of war.

I was glad I read his book, for he added to my arsenal of challenges opposing war and military thinking in contrast to waging peace. In the end, I found him in a love-hate relationship with war, loving the models of heroism with its polished medals, and the excitement of intense combat, yet thoroughly traumatized and haunted across the years by the face of that young Vietnamese soldier he killed in close combat.

Ultimately, it is his how he examined himself and made peace with his past. It is also his critical analysis of the military mind, and war. He tells riveting stories of combat, thoughtfully analyzed and self-examined via readings from Homer, the ancient Greek warrior to eastern Mahabharata, to psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

Although he began with a religious orientation, I found him more steeped more in psychoanalysis than the Bible.

His major concern is one he makes extremely clear--just how poorly prepared our nineteen-year-old warriors--mainly men but increasingly women--are for the psychological and spiritual aspects of the journey. He deeply values the warrior, and loved the warrior life, but within the scope of his ethical concepts for a warrior.

He rightly concludes that a nation that sends its finest young to do its dirty work of war, owes them better psychological and spiritual preparation than they currently receive. As the world’s finest fighting machine, they are ill equipped in the realm of the spirit, yet his brilliant education seemingly lacked the ability to dig deep enough to find an evangelical God.

Ed Conklin of Chaucer Books called it a “courageous, noble, and intelligent grapple with myth, history, and spirituality.” I gained insights both positive and negative regarding WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR. Most people would gain greatly from an open-minded reading of it, but I came away disappointed that he could not conclude it with a total rejection of a failed system.

War is as old as humanity and it comes out of a nature that man is unable to conquer, because that man is unable to deal with that selfish side of humanity which the theologian describes as that old sinful nature. Marlantes writes in his closing paragraph on page 256:
“As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them … They must undertake the personal responsibility for deciding when to kill and for what higher cause … beyond self-interests, or even national interest alone…”

Military leaders could improve themselves by reading it, and perhaps their chances for survival. People opposed to the ways of war, would be greatly enriched as to why they believe in waging peace. People who do not, or will not, bother their minds about issues like war, could greatly benefit by reading this recent literature on war.

His “Afterward” briefly outlines contradictory causes leading him into the Warrior life. He now confesses never feeling closer to God and yet more baffled by the problem of evil. He admits his own flawed humanity and raw savagery, but witnesses to something better when saying “the more we recognize the feelings of transcendence and the psychological and spiritual intensity of war, the easier it will be to prevent their appeal from clouding our judgment about going to war the next time. What ultimately will save us from the appeal of war is achieving this transcendence and intensity through other means” The weakness I find here is his very unevangelical substitutes are “all achievable through individual hard work” with too little recognition of the power of God’s transcendent grace.

From Warner’s World,
I recommending your reading of WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR, by
Karl Marlantes, Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2011 …

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