I read this book because I loved the author’s novel, Matterhorn. What It Is Like to Go to War is a non-fiction book that is, essentially, a behind the scenes look at Matterhorn. It also reads as two different books and I have mixed feelings about the two parts.
The first part, which represents nearly the first two-thirds of the book, is Marlantes discussing his decision to join the Marines during Vietnam and his experiences in combat. I found this aspect of the book very familiar as I was not dissimilar in that I joined the Army after college and during a war as well. Obviously, I cannot and would not compare the eras in which we joined. I joined the Army at a time when people were happy to openly support the military whereas Marlantes did not. Likewise, my experiences in Iraq were in no way similar to Marlantes’ time in Vietnam but I was still able to relate to his story. This first part of the book is an imperative read for people considering the military.
The second half of the book leaves me quite conflicted. There is a lot of mythology and quite bit of, let’s call it spiritualism, and I found it odd. If I am very blunt, it reads like a therapy session for the author. Marlantes is very open and seems transparent about his fight with PTSD. I think that all of us need to, I won’t say understand, but at least attempt to find the means to empathize. This Vietnam veteran has fought his demons, both literal and figurative, for most of his life and we should do our best to listen. I believe this for two reasons: 1) it is the right and decent thing to do and 2) we already are seeing the same things happening to the current generation of veterans.
I think that the civil-military divide is growing and that hurts us as a country. Unlike many of my peers, I think that the military is equally as guilty for this. I find it interesting that as the world becomes more connected, we are increasingly isolating ourselves. While this book did not directly address this issue, it did skirt around it as Marlantes tried to find means for the current veterans to avoid his negative post-war experiences. I found it one more way that Marlantes gave back to his country, which he continues to do. The book left feeling like we failed Marlantes and his entire generation of veterans and he insists on trying to help the current generation. It strikes me as so wonderfully selfless and something to which I think a lot of us can aspire.