What It Is Like To Go To War

What It Is Like To Go To War
By Karl Marlantes
Corvus Books – £17.99

War, along with all its vile and harrowingly wasteful implications are herein broached with a severe and brutal honesty. An honesty that I have never encountered before; but then Karl Marlantes does write from elongated, explosive experience; which is to say he writes from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in: ‘’Killing someone will affect you. Part of you will think you’ve done something wrong. It’s drilled in from babyhood. If, however, you’re prepared ahead of time for it, you’ll suffer less because this knowledge and structure will add a thin layer of armour. Why put on the armour after the war? This is what I did.’’

As dark, barbaric and fundamentally male induced as war is, What It Is Like To Go To War is surprisingly humane and in parts, even delicate. As such, much of what Marlantes writes traverses the anaesthetized acquiescence of war, as if a literary heat-seeking missile. This is particularly true of the fourth chapter, ‘Numbness and Violence,’ wherein the author not only usurps the psychological human nature of war by quoting both Nietzsche (‘’I am by nature warlike. To attack is among my instincts’’) and Kierkegaard (‘’It is not good works that make a good person but the good person who does good work’’), but penetrates the solipsistic stasis of the benison acceptance of war, by just telling it as it needs to be told.

And it’s the truth in the telling, just like that of Marlantes’ outstanding debut Matterhorn, which will separate this book from a plethora of (terribly average and misinformed) others. To be sure, there are a number of stark, uncomfortable home truths throughout that are simply laden with unspoken clarity and conscience.

For instance, on the subject of ever increasing weapons technology, he writes: ‘’The critical psychological issue about weapons technology is the ability to distance the user from the effects. A constant martial fantasy is the ‘’clean kill.’’ To kill someone with an almost effortless eloquent blow of the first two knuckles of the fist is aesthetically more pleasing than to bludgeon them to death with a rock. How much more pleasing, then, with a fine rifle? A precision-guided bomb? A ray gun that simply makes people disappear? One of the major horrors of war is the blasted bodies, rotting parts, bloated intestines, and the stench. In Vietnam I used to fantasize about a laser beam so fine that you could slice an airplanes wing off with no more than a hair-line cut – or man’s head, with no blood at all.’’

That Marlantes declines to deny his own acceptance of such fantasy, enables the reader to feel comfortable within the much sought after knowledge, that what one is reading, is the oft ignored truth of the matter. Or at least certain candour bequeathed by way of high-octane, resolute understanding. As he invariably continues: ‘’This clean kill fantasy avoids the darkness. It allows the hero trip without any cost, so of course we fantasize about it. And as we get more and more technologically advanced there are more and more policy makers tempted to live out this ‘’clean kill’’ fantasy. Even the language is getting neat and tidy, as in ‘’surgical strike.’’ There is nothing very surgical about maiming Khadaffi’s children, the children of Baghdad, or Taliban fighters, or Iraqi soldiers. Dealing with blood is a major problem in surgery. I don’t mind the activity nearly as much as the hypocrisy.’’

Hypocrisy within war is endemic. The two are almost a partnership. A bad marriage of sorts, whereby one feeds off the other; while in so doing, depleting every moral sense of balance and discrimination to such an extent that all that’s left is pure hatred.

Indeed, manmade hatred.
Not to mention outrage and remorse.

What’s more, political hypocrisy within the parameters of war, is surely amid the worst, and most shameful of its kind. Here again (and again), Marlantes commendably shines a light: ‘’A Congressional junket to a combat zone is one junket this taxpayer would feel good paying for – as long as the junket doesn’t stop short at headquarters. Unfortunately most of them do because most junketing members of Congress are there so that they can tell people back home they’ve been there, not to actually see the results or failures of their votes. Walk through a burned-out village where the dogs haven’t been fed and you hear them eating the dead. If this doesn’t snap through your conditioning, then smell human meat rotting. Listen to the wailing of the orphaned child and go mad with it because you can’t get it out of your ears until you either walk away or do away with the child. Pick up chunks of body and feel the true meaning of dead weight. These senses aren’t filtered and dulled by visual media. These channels are much more directly open to the heart. This is another reason why ‘’computer game’’ warfare has no natural checks on its violence.’’

It’s not often one reads such frighteningly fraught and forthright sanctity; laced with one literary power punch, after another, after another, after another. This is why What it is Like to Go to War will probably end up being not only one of the best books of 2012 (and it’s still only January), but also one of the best books ever written on the subject of war.

David Marx


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