Transcript for What It Is Like To Go To War - Karl Marlantes

Jim Fleming:  Karl Marlantas choose to take part in the Vietnam War he is a decorated marine.  He received the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.  At the age of 23 he was put in charge of the lives of 40 other young men.  He was not psychologically or spiritually prepared for what came after the war.  Marlantas writes about his experience in his book What it is Like to Go To War.

Karl Marlantas:  It was two days before Christmas and I had been on top of a very tall mountain and I had been left there with just a platoon to cover a whole companies front and we were exhausted.  And we were trying to do the work of a company and intending to be a company we had gotten hit a couple of times and had lost three people to a terrible friendly fire incident and this was actually the first time I had been in command all by myself of a fire base and a platoon since the company left.  This was my sort of first initiation into combat and it was just before Christmas and so I thought I would read you a  bit about what happened on that day.  Two days before the fog lifted just enough to allow a single chopper to work its way up to us a dangerous journey squeezing beneath the clouds above the jungles ridges.  Along with food, water, fuel and ammunition came the battalion chaplain he had brought with him several bottles of Southern Comfort and some new dirty jokes.  I accepted the Southern Comfort thanked him and laughed at the jokes and had a drink with him, Merry Christmas inside I was seething I thought I had gone a little nuts how could I be angry with a guy who just put his life at risk to cheer me up and didn't the southern comfort feel good on that rain raked mountain top?  Years later I understood I was engaged in killing and maybe being killed I felt responsible for the lives and deaths of my companions.  I was struggling with a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite and he was trying to numb me to it.  I needed help with the extensional terror of my own death and the responsibility of the death of others not Southern Comfort. I needed a spiritual guide.

Fleming:  You know what's compelling about that paragraph that you just read is what it leads to  that because of the suggestion that war is a spiritual experience and you need a spiritual guide.

Marlantas:  Right.  Most people are aghast when I mention that thesis but what is spiritual experience about?  What is religion about other than death?  If we didn't die I don't think we would do much of that activity.  And here you are , you have a nineteen year old  who has been raised in a basically Judeo Christian culture  though shall not kill and suddenly they are transported usually to some foreign country and asked to kill for their country which is totally the opposite of what they have ever done.  When you kill another human being and you sort of wake up to the fact which usually happens after you do it  you don't just have a wound to your body or your psychic from the war  you have a wound to your soul and looking at warfare because it does deal with death and 19 year olds cast in the role of the Gods.

Fleming:  It seems to me that you are suggesting that our soldiers might be healthier  if we talked about it and had a more for lack of another word, a crueler  introduction of what was going to be asked of them?

Marlantas:  I wouldn't use the word cruel, I would use the word darker.  The 19 year old isn't going to be enlightened and go into combat like our ideal of the samurai solider or something.  But if you can tell him ahead of time that you are going to experience this.  This is going to happen to you after you come back it may not happen the first week it may happen a decade later, I dealt with PTSD for four decades if someone had told me what was coming down the road I would have probably recognized it 20 years earlier and saved a lot of problems.

Fleming:  What you are talking about is two periods in a soldier’s life, the in combat time and the post war career time.  The PTSD is something that everybody is aware of but hardly anybody talks about.  So you think training will both help you kill and help you survive the training?

Marlantas:  I don't think it will help you kill you don't want to kill human life so the way we sort of trick ourselves  in combat is that you sort of get into the  mental state that person you are about to  kill is not a person.  Words like Gook, Towelhead, Ragtop, Damn Yankee you name it we have all these things in our culture that allows us to make the other person non-human.   Because if you were human you would hesitate, and it would be much harder.  I had this experience where it broke down and it haunted me after the ware for twenty years.

Fleming:  You talked about this you can still remember the eyes of a man that was as scared as you were and....

Marlantas:  we happen to be 15 feet apart he had been throwing grenades at me and my friends and had wounded one of my friends.  We were throwing them back and had killed one of his friends and I had snuck up on his side and so I could get a shot at him to stop this and I was looking at him across the barrel of a M16 and he sat up with a grenade ready to pull the primer and we locked eyes.  I wish I could speak Vietnamese don't throw it.  If you don't throw it I won't pull the trigger   If you don't throw it I won't pull the trigger   I did not want to do that .  He just snarled at me and threw it and I pulled the trigger.  Twenty years later I am driving down I5 at two in the morning country music on the radio and a nice little bubble of warmth in the car and those two eyes appeared in the windshield and it was my unconscious saying Marlantas you got to deal with this.  And that was a large impetus for writing this book.

Fleming:  Well and this is the thing when you come home you stop being a solider all that time when you took the emotion out of it in order to do your job.  It sounds as if that comes roaring back almost though as if you have to experience all that emotion that you kept out?

Marlantas:    I don't know if you have to but I did with writing this book.  I had snot on the keyboard from balling my eyes out to try and sort of… It would come roaring out and I suspect that is the way it works .  You can't get the job done if you are completely in the throws of emotional state but on the other hand you still are a human being and you have experienced this and in order to integrate it you do have to feel it.  So again that is why it is important to tell again the young solider you are going to feel this but that's good not oh you’re terrible you're breaking down and we have a lot of that problem.  Guys are afraid to go in and get help for PTSD because if it says you are unstable on their record they are not going to get an promotion.  It is very hard.

Fleming:  Can you train soldiers ahead of time? That's where we started this conversation.

Marlantas:  I think there are simple things you can do that will help to retain your humanity to the spirit.  If you could train coremen who are the big brothers who are usually older than the others and you give them a little training: how do you handle the grief of using the friend, how do you bury the enemy.  We used to throw them off the side of the hill. I had two guys in my platoon, we had been under attack for days and we had lost a lot of friends and they were down below are fighting area and they went down to cut the ears off.  They are like 18 and I had been in combat in the country a long time and I wasn't angry with them but I knew you couldn't let that go.  Look  I know they killed your friends, and you killed there friends and you killed them this is nothing you should get trophies over so I said I want them buried and that wasn't trivial cause we were still taking sniper fire .  They went down and dug that whole and they both started crying .  I am sure that moved them forward in integrating back into society.,  Because they touched , that didn't make them less effective, they were doing the same job.

Fleming:  They had their grief then.

Marlantas:  They didn't have to be afraid later, it was going to come out.

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