This isn’t what it says on the tin. This is not what it is like to go to war. At least, not for me or any other Vietnam veteran I know. War is deadly, but it is also deadly boring. But saying that won’t sell many books; so Karl Marlantes gives his readers the Hollywood version.
Scene one: Rhodes scholar on hash holiday in North Africa arrives at an American base near Casablanca. Camera pans to “amused look on the face of a young Navy lieutenant” as “a desert-darkened hippie in a camel hair djellaba and heelless yellow slippers announced he was Second Lieutenant Karl Marlantes, USMCR, reporting for active duty”.
Cut to jungles of Vietnam: A Marine is killed by a claymore mine. “He always kept a picture of his girlfriend… in his breast pocket for good luck. The shrapnel that stopped his heart went straight through her face… I pulled the picture from his pocket and looked at it… this beautiful young face obliterated by the same random piece of steel that had stopped her lover’s heart.” I know war has an uncanny way of imitating film clichés, and the surest way to get killed is to carry a picture of your sweetheart, but why was Marlantes rummaging through a dead Marine’s pockets?
Cut to Marlantes trying to rescue a wounded Marine: “I wrapped my arms and legs around him and started rolling with him, embracing him as the machine gun bullets went slamming into the dirt all around us. Me on top. Utter on top. Over and over, down the hill together, me on top, Utter on top.” It was futile, as Utter was already dead. Mark Simpson has commented on Marlantes’ “unhinged obsession with Thanatos”. Thanatos and Eros are the bread and butter of dead war buddy sentimentality: Rolf Harris’ “Two Little Boys” being a case in point. It’s a pity Marlantes doesn’t deal more frankly with the homoerotic aspects of military life – the elephant in the barracks.
I checked out Utter, and another dead Marine called Isle. Neither name is on the Vietnam casualty database. Were the names changed out of respect for the families? Fair enough. But what about Niemi, who Marlantes describes as getting a Navy Cross? I checked that, too. There is no Niemi, no Marines at all – other than Marlantes himself – awarded the Navy Cross for the dates involved. So what’s going on? Well, Niemi is a Finnish name and Marlantes had Finnish grandparents. Is he creating a second self? I have no doubt Marlantes is a genuine hero who saw intense combat, but there are questions that need answering here. Authenticity is important when you have the chutzpah
to call your book What It Is Like To Go To War.
The worst thing about this book isn’t the over-glossed war stories, but the author’s justification of male aggression: “being bad helps give many males identity as men; it fills a need for esteem”; “cruelty in warfare is as mundane and common as cruelty in child rearing”; “our task as parents is to recognise that aggression and the warrior energy are as natural and as problematic as sexuality”.
Marlantes maintains that “war isn’t all bad”. If it were, why do kids play war games? “In Vietnam, there were times when I swelled with pride at the immense destruction I could deal out. There is a deep savage joy in destruction, a joy beyond ego enhancement… There’s a part of me that just loves maiming, killing and torturing.” Rather than admit these feelings are monstrous, Marlantes says they are part of his Jungian shadow. What about those of us who say we haven’t got a Jungian shadow? “People who say they don’t have one have an even bigger one.” Gotcha. We’re in denial.
Reading this book is like being cornered by a saloon bar bore who suddenly goes seriously weird. Marlantes is a warrior cult fanatic. He describes arriving in Vietnam: “I had entered the temple of Mars, where not only were humans sacrificed, including me, but I was also the priest.” There are echoes of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, a film which portrays an American fascism which differs from other far-right ideologies in being non-sexist and non-racist. The warrior, regardless of gender or race, belongs to the noblest caste. They deal in death and that, according to Marlantes, makes the warrior special. After leaving the Marines, he became a successful businessman – “large income, first-class hotels, jets to Europe and the Far East” – but he knows he is different: “I looked back at my group, powerful and successful but bloodless.” The others haven’t shed blood; they are not members of the guild of warriors.
To be truthful, very few warriors shed blood either. In Vietnam, the ratio of bullets fired to enemy killed was 50,000 to one. Let’s say an infantryman fired 1,000 rounds during his tour – and very few did – he would have had only one chance in 50 of killing an enemy. Even then, it is unlikely the killing would have been face to face. But the bulk of Marlantes’ readers are armchair war junkies who need pleasing.
Per head of population, the Vietnamese suffered more than 200 times as many war dead as the United States – three million Vietnamese versus 58,000 Americans. Every American soldier had a ticket back to the US after 12 or 13 months; the Vietnamese were there for the duration. I don’t think it is appropriate for Marlantes, or any other US Vietnam vet, to write a book with this title. None of us really know.