Book Review: “What It Is Like To Go To War” by Karl Marlantes

Book Review

Just finished a book called, “What It Is Like To Go To War” by Karl Marlantes. Marlantes is a former Marine who served as an Infantry Rifle Platoon Commander in Vietnam in 1968-69. His brutally honest book is a must read for anyone trying to understand veterans and the price of, both psychologically and physically, about war.

Marlantes Award
Marlantes receiving the Navy Cross for Valor


It is a valiant effort to explain and make peace with war’s awesome consequences for human beings. It is a debunking of anything about the glory of warfare. It is a noble and intelligent conversation between the author, a highly decorated, former Marine officer and Vietnam Veteran, and the reader, an unknowing public. It grapples with the myth, the history, and the spirituality of war.

It is a beautifully written book that elevates the cultural conversation on the role of the military in today’s world. It is an emotional and honest primer for all Americans at war and the national psyche. It is our own peril that we ignore this book.

It explores what a combat veteran thinks and feels. Marlantes is a master at exploring the psyche of the combat veteran and translating it into words so that civilians can understand.

The Conversation

Marlantes talks about what is like to return from war. How veterans wrestle with demons of what they saw and did. There is conflicting feelings of guilt and pride. There is a constant vibration back and forth between these mixed feelings. The pendulum causes there to be diverse emotions.

Today’s wars have placed an enormous burden on a small portion of the population. There are now more than two million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is a divide between the warrior and society he represents. A “code of silence” gets in the way with the warrior and his loved ones. Both are trying to be kind by avoiding talking about horrendous experiences.

This adds to the sense of alienation for the veteran that he has done something horrific. With killing or witnessing a death, there are many levels of feelings: sadness, pride, relief that you are alive, and guilt because you are still alive while your brothers died.


The Mindset of the young (read: inexperienced) Warrior

The young warrior goes into combat with all his confidence. He has faith in his weapons, and his training. He is willing to sacrifice his individual self for the good of others. There is a shared identity.

The idea of, “I can be killed, but WE cannot.” By facing danger together we will survive the crucible of combat. There is another feeling. The thought of letting down your buddies is a fate worse than death.

The warrior is immersed in a culture where words like honor, sacrifice, duty causes young soldiers to be conditioned to sacrifice their humanity by killing and sometimes dying. In this same culture old warriors are venerated.

Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology. He was friends with Freud.

Jung believed that people have “a shadow,” or an unconscious dark side of one’s personality. The shadow is what allows moral men to carry out the deeds of war. He wrote that the shadow must be confronted and integrated in order for the veteran to take responsibility for all sides of ourselves. This will effect positive change.

PTSD is an ongoing counterpart to war. It is important for us to study the history of PTSD treatment and learn from its lessons.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a rewiring of the brain. It is a collection of memories and feelings. Our mind is trying to reconcile coming to terms with a cocktail of emotions. Exhilaration, grief, anger and sometimes joy.

When you first get into combat your brain learns to associate loud noises with people trying to kill you. You have adrenaline episodes that shoot through your body. You become “hyper vigilant.”

This flight or fight reaction rewires the brain to think differently. When you return home this chemical reaction is mapped in your brain. You are both physically and emotionally different.

Effects of war

For Marlantes, he wanted a medal to prove to his dad, a World War II vet, that he was man enough to carry on the family name. There was expectation of manhood.

There is the mystical quality about killing. War violates every value we have in the Judeo-Christian culture we are born into. But in sharing this emotional burden there is brotherhood.

This brotherhood is a key to understanding why men “want to go back.”

When you look at religious mystics, they have four things that they strive to do. One is they are always aware of their mortality. Don Juan says death is always over your shoulder. Soldiers feel the same thing.

Second, they’re always in the present moment. In combat, there is no thought about the future or the past. You are completely focused, completely in the terrible present moment.

The third thing that mystics do is they overcome their own sense of ego in terms of seeing that they have to move beyond that for the good of others.

In combat, time after time after time, you see people sacrificing their lives or their limbs to help their friends. It’s the same thing.

And then the fourth thing is that almost all of these mystics are part of a group. They’re in a convent or a monastery. They’re part of the Sangha, if they’re Buddhist. They’re a part of the Umma if they’re Muslim. They’re part of a larger group.

This sense of identity is strong. While deployed the soldiers are told they are, “brave and loyal.” This all enforces the identity of sacrificing for your nation. It gives you a powerful sense of identity. You, as a soldier, are living up to the highest ideals of your profession.

The kid

Heady and powerful stuff for a 19 or 20 year old kid. This is the first adult experience out of high school. They don’t have the life experience yet to process the experience of what they are seeing or doing.

This is why a delayed reaction of PTSD happens 10 to 20 years down the line. It takes a while to have the life experience to process what happened.

The very nature of the experience of combat violates our Judeo-Christian culture. Young people make perfect soldiers. They are impressionable and strong. Judgment and foresight don’t develop until you are in your 20’s.

The Burden

Our current wars have placed an enormous burden on a small portion of the population. In World War II an average grunt saw about 40 days of combat in a two year tour. There was a frontline and a rear area to rest in.

In this war, as in Vietnam, you are always on alert. Soldiers are always exposed to random acts of violence. This causes returning veterans to be on alert when they get home.

The Wars define the Veteran

During this war the sense of victory is ambiguous. How do you know you are making progress or winning? The endstate is not defined and there is no sense of closure. Think about Desert Storm only 20 years ago.

The good guys won that one. It was all said and done in less than 100 hours of fighting. If you are a veteran of a “popular” or “winning” war you are a hero.

The army of any nation has a social contract with the society it protects. When you, the vet, feels that no one cares about what you did this can add to the isolation of all the other feelings you are having.

A soldier who comes home feels alienated and not appreciated by the society he defended. Veterans feel, as did Vietnam Veterans did, that their sacrifice was for nothing and no one really cared.

Compound this with the young age of the veteran can really add a large burden. What veterans need is recognition and honor for their service. It helps to mend the wounds to your psyche and your soul.

This amazing book explores all these issues.

Karl Marlantes today


Marlantes, K. (2011). What It Is Like to Go to War . New York : Atlantic Monthly Press.