Karl Marlantes has a two-fold objective in writing What It Is Like to Go to War. On the one hand, he seeks to put to rest personal demons resulting from his own experience in combat, but he also has a larger purpose in mind. As a deeply thoughtful, intelligent, and idealistic young man, Marlantes gave up a student deferment and a Rhodes scholarship to serve in Vietnam in the late 1960s; his conscience would not allow him to be a "cocktail critic," sitting comfortably on the sidelines while those in less fortunate circumstances bore the burden of a war forced upon the nation for highly questionable reasons at best. With a keen sense of morality and an uncommon understanding of the human psyche, the author has here created an insightful analysis of the experience of war, in hopes that
all conscientious citizens and especially those with the power to make policy will be better prepared to make decisions about committing young people to combat [because] they [will more clearly] know what they are about to ask of them.
Marlantes has an intimate awareness of the "moral quagmire" engendered by "the sacrificial fire called war." He says that the violence at the heart of combat "assaults psyches, confuses ethics, and tests souls." It becomes the obligation of warriors to take lives, which, under the accepted norms of society and religion, is a job which belongs rightfully to God alone. In Marlantes's view, the practical aspects of military training in the United States, are, for the most part, excellent. It is, however, in helping individuals deal with the psychological, moral, and spiritual components of the combat experience that preparation is sorely lacking.
In the context of war, the continuing shift in definitions of right and wrong cannot help but wreak havoc with the human psyche. On the battlefield, violence towards others, which under normal circumstances is anathema, is now a requirement. Death becomes an abstraction, "except for those at the receiving end," and warriors thus distance themselves from the killing they are doing. The enemy becomes dehumanized; this dissociation of the enemy from humanity makes it easier to kill. In addition, in order for a warrior to be able to reconcile his or her new commission, which is completely at odds with the requirements of morality in normal life, a "psychological split" must occur in his or her mind. This "split" engenders...
(The entire section is 2108 words.)
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