'Matterhorn' Author On What It's Like 'To Go To War' As a Marine in the Vietnam War, Karl Marlantes learned to fire an M16, to command a platoon, to fight and to kill. In What It Is Like to Go to War, he comes to terms with the experience of combat: the guilt, the thrill and the challenge of coming home.
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'Matterhorn' Author On What It's Like 'To Go To War'

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'Matterhorn' Author On What It's Like 'To Go To War'

'Matterhorn' Author On What It's Like 'To Go To War'

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In 1968, 23-year-old Karl Marlantes shipped off to Vietnam as a second lieutenant in command of a platoon of Marines. He and they experienced the exhilaration and horror of combat, God-like power and rage and guilt and loss.

After many years of reflection, he concludes that along with tactics and weapon skills, warriors need to be prepared for the spiritual and psychological consequences before they go off to combat.

In a new book, Karl Marlantes describes his experiences in war, the challenges of coming home and decades and reading and study that allowed him to recast his understanding of what he did and how he might have done it better.

We want to hear from combat veterans today. What lessons have you learned on reflection? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the last installment in our summer movie series. Murray Horwitz joins us to talk about the films of Elizabeth Taylor. But first, Karl Marlantes joins us from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle. His new book is "What It Is Like to Go to War," and nice to have you with us today.

KARL MARLANTES: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: And in your book, you write that like so many veterans, you buried your experiences but literally found yourself haunted by the eyes of a young North Vietnamese soldier.

MARLANTES: Yes, that's right. I think it's a way that the psyche keeps reminding me that I needed to deal with it. It was a particular kid that I killed up front and personal, and of course at the time, you're very busy. You're, you know, on adrenaline. People are trying to kill you. So you don't tend to think about it.

You're also young. But by the time you start to get middle-aged, and this image just keeps coming back, I think that's what the psyche is saying, that you need to pay attention to this and try and understand what went on. And I think that was kind of - I don't know what you call it - a touchstone for me to remind myself to try to come to terms with it in a mature and reasonable way.

CONAN: And we should emphasize this was not an atrocity. This was literally kill or be killed.

MARLANTES: Oh yes. It was in combat, yeah, and he was trying to kill us with hand grenades and the rifle. So it was that way, yeah.

CONAN: What was the touchstone? Those eyes, what did you see in them?

MARLANTES: Well, what it was is I saw some terrified kid. He was no longer, you know, the enemy. We love to pseudospeciate because we have to. I mean, you can't - if you're raised as a decent human being, killing somebody is against every moral thing you've ever been taught.

And so generally in combat, it's, you know, Krauts, the Gooks, the Yanks, I mean, whatever you want to do to try and make it so that it's not a human being. But in this particular instance, I had him in my sights, and he turned and looked at me, and he could see that - I was only about 10 feet away from him - that if I pulled the trigger he was dead.

And he had a hand grenade in his hands, and I remember thinking to myself: Don't throw it. Don't throw it, and I won't pull the trigger. And he threw it, and I pulled the trigger. But it was looking at his eyes that I realized he's just a kid, just like me, another human being. He was born in North Vietnam. I was born in Oregon. We end up on opposite sides of this terrible act that's going on.

CONAN: And you say soldiers need spiritual preparation. You describe this as the temple of Mars. But you also note a lot of people would argue there is nothing remotely spiritual about combat.

MARLANTES: That's true. I think it's a difficult issue. I think that - but where I come down is if you think about mystical experiences, and they have certain things in common. One is that they're always - the mystic is always trying to be in the present. The mystic is always aware of his own mortality, right over his shoulder.

They get into a position where they value other people's lives above their own. In other words, their ego needs are subdued, and they're a member of a larger group, most generally, the sanga, the church, the ullem(ph). Every one of those things happens in combat, every one of them.

And whether it's a mystical experience or just some equivalent, you know, psychological state, I'm not prepared to say. But what I am arguing is that you have a 19-year-old experiencing something at that level and then have him come back and, you know, flip burgers at McDonald's without any help trying to realize what just happened to him, what they went through, or any preparation that this is going to happen to you, and when it does, you're going to feel like this, and other people will same way, and in some ways that will help people come to terms with what I call a wound to the soul, as well as just the wound to the body or the brain.

CONAN: Another touchstone moment, many years after you left Vietnam and the Marine Corps, you find yourself at a dinner party with another bunch of successful executives sitting to one side and their wives off in a corner.

MARLANTES: Yeah, that was one of those moments where you go, like, hmm, what am I doing? I was managing director of a corporation in Singapore and exactly what you're describing. We were all at this sort of dinner party, and the guys had all gotten together, and we were talking about, you know, what was going to happen to the deutsche mark and whether the government in Singapore was going to do X or Y.

And I was glancing over to where all the wives were, and I was hit with this color. I mean, they were Indian women and Singaporean women, Chinese women and European women. And the color and the flashing and the talk, and then I would go back to my own group, which was sober and gray.

And I began to sort of go like wow, you know, there's a whole other dimension to life, and I believe that it's called the feminine with a capital F. And generally speaking, I was raised in a logging town in Oregon where that didn't count.

And it was at that point, it was one of those moments where you go, like, hmm, I think I'm going to have to expand myself a little bit here.

CONAN: And that in a sense was the start of the spiritual journey.

MARLANTES: Well, it was on the way. I mean, it's hard to say where the spiritual journey starts, you know, all the way back to early childhood, you know, baptism and being in a church, in Sunday school. But in terms of waking up, waking up to certain aspects of life that you have been blind about, that was an important step.

CONAN: Some people argue, too, you don't need consciousness on the battlefield, you need a certain sense of remove, a certain almost numbness.

MARLANTES: Oh absolutely. I mean, I think that I try to make that very clear. First of all, you're dealing with generally very young people, 19-, 18-year-olds. The odds of them being conscious even outside of combat are very low. But if you can tell somebody ahead of time, I think that they'll notice it when it happens.

No, when you're in the fight, you're not going to be conscious. You're going to be at a basic - I don't know what you'd call it - reptilian level. I mean, you are fighting for survival, and you're trying to kill somebody else. But the sooner that you can come back, in a sense to become conscious of what you've done, I believe that the healing process that's going to take place when you come back home is going to be sped up simply - it's just simple that when I came back, I just repressed it.

I talked to my friends and then, you know, and we'd say, hey, what's all that stuff about nightmares? You got nightmares? I don't have nightmares. Ah, it's no (unintelligible). It's all BS. Well, 10 years after that conversation, I'm rolling around sweating at night, having nightmares and, you know, scaring my wife to death.

It's because you can't repress it without, you know, bad consequences. If you can start the process - and I think it's quite possible to start it right there immediately after a battle, when you're finally safe. You can take time to reflect not only on your own friends who have been killed, and you do need to take that time, but also reflect on the fact that these other people that you just killed were there sort of just by the grace of God or circumstance, and you took their lives, too.

And there's no sense of being guilty about it. It was just part of the situation that both of you got thrown into, and luckily enough, you're the one that came out alive. But to be able to bring it to consciousness sooner I believe will help heal this terrible wound to our own souls faster. But on the spot, no.

CONAN: Karl Marlantes served as a Marine officer in Vietnam. His new book is called "What It Is Like to Go to War." We want to hear from other combat vets, what they've learned on reflection after their experiences, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Bill's on the line with us from Kansas City.

BILL: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Bill, go ahead, please.

BILL: Yeah, I just want to add to his comment about, you know, healing right after an event. I was in Iraq in 2005, 2006. We were - I was with a company doing route clearance. I mean, we were actively looking for IEDs. We did have a horrible night where, by the grace of God, nobody lost their life. The most injured person just lost a finger just because of a vehicle rollover due to an IED.

But wow, that was a lucky night, but the next day, we were all sitting back at our base in southern Iraq and talking about what happened, and just got it out of our system. And we kind of stayed down there for a while, until the commander said all right, I think you guys are good to go. And he put us back out on the road, and everything went well, and we came home with everybody.

So that's - you know, I do agree with what he was saying there.

CONAN: Karl Marlantes, talking about it, as simple as that sounds, you say that might help, too.

MARLANTES: Oh absolutely. I mean, it's amazing in our culture how we - the forces are against you. I mean, if you're proud of what you've done when you've served in the military, well then we call that bragging. And if you are unhappy about what happened, we call that complaining. And so what are you going to do?

Are you going to stay quiet, or are you going to talk about hey, you remember the time we got drunk on Calvados and, you know, those kinds of stories, which my father and my uncles all told. But the real tough ones you stay quiet about.

And also there's an embarrassment. People are very curious to know what happened to you, but they're worried that if they ask you, well that's somehow going to upset you or vice versa. I mean, at the dinner table you're not about to start talking about, you know, some horrific thing that you saw in combat. It's going to pretty well stop the whole evening's conversation.

So the culture sort of works against us getting it out.

CONAN: I wonder - Bill, thanks very much for the call. We're glad you and everybody else made it out. I wonder, just have a second, but do you have different versions of the same stories, one that you might tell to a close friend over a glass of beer and one you might tell at a party, it's a little lighter version, the comedic version?

MARLANTES: No, I never would do that. If it's not appropriate for a party, I don't talk about it. I might tell a funny story, but that would be all it would be.

CONAN: We're talking with Karl Marlantes, who served in Vietnam, about his new book "What It Is Like to Go to War." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. We're talking with Karl Marlantes about his new book "What it is Like to Go to War." In it, he writes: Ask the now-20-something combat veteran at the gas station how he felt about killing someone, his probable angry answer, if honest: not a damn thing. Ask him when he's 60, and if he's not too drunk to answer, it might come out very differently, but only by luck of circumstances.

Who was there to help him with the feelings those four long decades after coming home from the war? It is critical for young people who return from combat that someone is there to help them before they turn to drugs, alcohol and suicide. We cannot expect a normal 18-year-old 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 of the part of the sorrows of war. The drugs, alcohol and suicides are ways of avoiding guilt and fear and grief. Grief itself is a healthy response.

If you served in combat, call and tell us what you've learned upon reflection: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can go next to Gordon, and Gordon's with us from Mosinee in Wisconsin.

GORDON: Hi. Well, my story's slightly different. I've come to find that I think I've suffered from some PTSD from a stateside incident to do with the Vietnam War. I'm a Vietnam War-era veteran. I was stationed in San Diego at NELC in the Navy, which I joined willingly. My dad was a veteran of World War II.

I thought it was the right thing to do. I was 19 years old. Anyway, I ended up on this base, and this is about the time, 1969 or so, that the anti-war movement was sort of heating up, and there was an incident where there was a permitted protest in front of the base. And we were told, as military personnel, to line up at the gate and just be a presence. There were 12 of us, unarmed, you know, Navy support, technical - I was in electronics.

And - but there were armed Marines in a barracks with live ammunition, fixed bayonets, and they were directed by a British officer, and they had orders to just go charging out there if there was any trouble whatsoever with the anti-war protests. And we were ordered to duck out of the way if they led the charge.

So I started having doubts about this, and I've been worried about what would have happened. I didn't have the guts to yell out at the civilians that their lives were in danger, and I didn't know if I was doing the right thing or not, and I've thought about it a thousand times.

Then it turns out that later on in that same stint, that I had access to secret information that we were bombing Laos and Cambodia, and the president was getting on the news every night saying oh, no, we aren't. And then my personal trauma started getting worse, and I thought I was participating in something that was not legitimate.

CONAN: I think, to some degree, what Gordon is talking about you write about in the book, Karl Marlantes, about making choices.

MARLANTES: Well, yes. I think that there's two things. The first is that what I say about what a warrior does is you make choices, and he decides which side he's on. And often, that is not a very simple thing to do.

And the other thing is - that's - that I think is important about the warriors' psychology is that it has to line up with some larger cause. You don't just do it - if you just do it for yourself, you're just a brigand. You're just a murderer or a robber. You have to line up with a larger cause. And I think what the listener is saying is that he had lined up a larger cause, and then you begin to find out that, oh, maybe that larger cause is not true.

And that's going to throw you into considerable turmoil. And I think that the Vietnam War was a very difficult time for all of that, because we had been raised, as he said - I mean, my own father was in World War II, and I can remember telling friends of mine that, well, an American president would never lie to Americans. And people would laugh.

And if I told my kids that today, they'd be, like, boy, were you naive. Well, we were. But - and that's what - a big change happened in Vietnam in that regard. And I think the listener has experienced that, that sort of sense of betrayal, of serving nobly, trying to serve nobly and finding out that, hmm, maybe it all isn't the way that we've been told.

CONAN: Gordon, thanks very much for the call.

GORDON: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Warren, and Warren with us from Mustang in Oklahoma.

WARREN: Yeah. Earlier in the show, you mentioned that it wasn't an atrocity, that it was kill or be killed. And honestly, you ask what those of us who have returned have learned, and honestly, if we were true Americans, we would have honored their desire to be self - or their desire for (technical difficulties) determination.

It wasn't done in our backyard. We went to their backyard, and they lost two million fighting for their freedom. Honestly, I think we should have held people responsible for the entire endeavor, and had we done that, we might have taken a different course as a nation. As it is now, we've killed a lot of innocent people in Iraq, even Desert Storm, and it goes on and on.

CONAN: Were you in Vietnam, Warren?

WARREN: Yes, I was, 361 days. I was a Navy diver. I was not aggressive - or I'd say in a forward position. I pretty much did cleanup stuff.

CONAN: But everybody there participated. You're one of those responsible.

WARREN: We were kids. We were taking orders. There were a lot of kids that were smarter than us that stayed home, and that's why we don't have bases in Vietnam today. So, you know, I think it was an atrocity. I'm not trying to do anything personal, as far as hold anybody responsible.

CONAN: I was talking about - no, I was talking about a specific incident, and you're talking about a much more -a grander principle, that the war itself was an atrocity.


CONAN: All right. Warren, thanks very much for the call, and glad you made it back. Appreciate it. You do write about atrocities in the book. There's an incident where some of your men - again, you were, at this point, I think a second lieutenant in charge of a combat platoon of Marines, 25 guys, maybe some more, some less at various times. And you found them taking trophies.

MARLANTES: Yes. It was - we'd been in a particularly difficult battle. It had gone on for days. A lot of their friends had been killed. And I happened to be just, you know, just ducking down in one of the fighting holes. And I noticed that this kid had some ears on his helmet, where there was a rubber band, a very thick band that people use to strap different things on their helmets with.

And I just said, you know, to him, I said: What's that all about? And it was sort of like, well, you know, Fred did it, too. And so I looked down at the other - you know, there's this other kid, and he's done the same thing.

And I got them both together, and I said: Look, I know they killed your friends, but you killed their friends. And I said, you know, we're going to have to - this is something you can't do. This isn't sort of a high school letterman sweater that you're doing here.

And I made them go down to those bodies that were laying in front of our fighting holes and bury them and put the ears back. And it was not trivial, because, you know, we were getting shot at. And so - but what was interesting to me is that they broke down into tears when they were burying those bodies.

And that's another incident that reminds me that you try to sort of put your humanity at bay so that you can get certain jobs done, but then when that job is over, it's up to the mature people - and I was 23, they were 18 and 19.


MARLANTES: So - but it was about that. It's like coming back and saying now, look, you go down and bury these bodies. These are people, too.

CONAN: Let's go next to John and John with us from St. Joe, Missouri.

JOHN: Hi, Neal. Well, first, I thank the author for the courage to write the book. And secondarily, I was in a (unintelligible) group, the Special Forces group, from '84 to about '92. We served in Asia and in the Gulf War.

But I'm willing to discuss operations with anyone who hasn't chewed my dirt. But when we come back, the Army and then the VA give lip service to providing us debrief or decompression, but I haven't really seen any change.

My son is currently serving, and he also serves in a forward area, and I haven't seen anything that they're doing differently now than they did for us/ And once they're done with you and you ETS, it's good luck. It's entirely frustrating, and thank God the author had the courage to write this book. I really appreciate it. I'll take whatever comments you have off the air.

CONAN: Thanks, John. You wrote this book, you say, for kids who are going off to war, so that they might think about some of these ideas in advance and be a little bit more prepared than you were.

MARLANTES: Absolutely. I think it's important. I'm not a pacifist. I believe that when people attack us, we should go after them. I just think that too often we tend to be a little too quick on the trigger. But I did - I - so I want people - it's an honorable profession to serve in our military, but I don't want any romantics going in there, thinking that they're - it's going to be John Wayne in something like a movie, because that's damaging.

That's that same sort of get-the-rug-pulled-out-from-underneath-you. If you go in thinking it's going to be, you know, glory and, you know, overcoming, you know, harsh conditions, well, it's all that, but it's way more than that. And I think if you're prepared for it, you're going to be healthier when you get through this ordeal than if you're not prepared for it.

CONAN: And again, to emphasize, it's not that you'd say the Marine Corps and the other American armed services don't prepare the young men and women for combat. They do a very good job of that, you write, it's they don't prepare men and women for a post-combat.

MARLANTES: That's exactly right. And I think that it's - the military has actually made improvements, so people are considering post-traumatic stress disorder as, at the least, a possible psychological problem. You know, when I was in Vietnam, it was just considered malingering. And we're making progress. And I think that - but I think there's just a long ways to go. And I think that the caller who has just called in has pinpointed one of the problems, which is that it's too easy to sort of do the lip service. It's like, well, we'll clap for them at the airport when they come through and - off to a normal life.

I mean, one you send a 19-year-old out to do that kind of a job for your country, you're going to have to do a lot of care to get that kid back into the mainstream. You can't just let it happen by circumstance. I'm amazed, quite frankly, at how resilient our young people are. The vast majority of them do come back and they do, you know, raise families and hold jobs. But they're still very troubled, and I think that knowing ahead of time would help and then knowing what to expect when you come home would also help.

CONAN: Karl Marlantes is the author of the award-winning novel "Matterhorn." His new one is called "What It Is Like to Go to War." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. John(ph) is on the line, John with us from Illinois.

JOHN: Yeah.

CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air, John. Go ahead.

JOHN: OK. Thank you. I'm - I was glad to hear that you had the author of "Matterhorn." And I read the book. And it was a fabulous book. I've recommended it, bought it for people. I'm a combat veteran from Vietnam. I suffered from - I been in a recovery program for drugs and alcohol for 16 years now. I buried a lot of the pain with drugs and alcohol. I had two wives. You know, that didn't work. I've been in counseling now for five years.

But the psychological impact of warfare was something I wasn't prepared for. And I was the - I did enlist and I volunteered, and it was the romantic vision of going to war. I was going - I was a warrior. And my illusion was shattered with the lies, you know, that I realized about why we were there and what we were doing. And it's hard to come home and express that. And to find anybody to talk to - and you just bury it. If there would have...

CONAN: Doesn't stay buried, though, does it, John?

JOHN: Pardon me?

CONAN: Doesn't stay buried.

JOHN: No. It always comes up. But, you know, I think a lot about what this country is going to face with all the Iraq and the Middle East veterans that are coming home. I just don't think we're prepared for it.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. We wish you good luck.

JOHN: Thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate it. One of the things you write about in this book, Karl Marlantes, which I found interesting, is the future of combat. As horrific as your experience - and infantry experience has not changed much since, well, the days of infantry warfare was being invented. But warfare itself is being changed again. You say, it is inevitable that we are going to see more and more uses of robots - the drones, of course, now being used in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, Yemen, various other places. But robots in all kinds of aspects in a warfare, where people are conducting war from an armchair in Nevada, but conducting it very far away.

MARLANTES: Yes, I think it's something that we need to do some really profound thinking about, because you see, when you go into this combat space, traditionally, most of the people and most of the armed services did enter this - what I call the temple of Mars. And you actually have a sense that you're going into a different sort of a space, a psychological, spiritual space. And then you have a sense that you're leaving it and you're coming back. Those lines are going to be increasingly blurred, especially for people who are not infantry. I mean, if you're in infantry, you're still going to see the bloody consequences of your actions.

But it's going to become just way more antiseptic. And this idea that you're going to, you know, say, kiss the wife and kids goodbye, go down and kill a few Iraqis and - or Taliban and then come back for dinner that night is going to confuse the psyche, no end. It's - when, in fact, are you in the killing mode and when are you not? This is not going to work in, you know, balancing the budget. We're talking about something very, very fundamentally different. And it's going to be increasingly difficult for us to try and keep our moral compass, especially since there's not going to be any consequences. I mean, combat veterans have to deal with the gore, and that is going to bring you up short. As one of your listeners just said, you're not expecting it. But if you never have to even deal with the gore, then what is the psychological brake on just letting the, you know, what I call the mad monkey loose? It's not as apparent.

CONAN: Karl Marlantes, thanks very much. Appreciate the time.

MARLANTES: Thank you.

CONAN: Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam. His new book about his experiences there is called "What It Is Like to Go to War." He joined us today from member station KUOW in Seattle.

And now the legend of the TOTN summer movie festivals continues with the celebration of the legendary Elizabeth Taylor.


ELIZABETH TAYLOR: (as Angela Vickers) We'll have such wonderful time together, just the two of us.

CONAN: Well, Murray Horwitz may be here too. Let us know your favorite Liz Taylor film. 800-989-8255. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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