Bookmarks Issue: 

A-What It Is Like to Go to WarNearly 30 years in the making, Karl Marlantes' Mattherorn (4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2010) was touted by critics as a masterpiece of Vietnam War fiction. Less than two years later, Marlantes returns with a memoir about his tour in Vietnam and a study on war and the warrior spirit.

The Topic: "War is society's dirty work, usually done by kids cleaning up failures perpetrated by adults," writes Karl Marlantes, a Yale- and Oxford-educated son of the 1960s who cut short a stint as a Rhodes Scholar to join the Marines as a 23-year-old lieutenant in Vietnam. Marlantes brings psychology, poetry, Greek epic, and a chance encounter with renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell to bear on his own war experience and elegantly describes the profound psychic effects that war has on its participants. Some of the details here will be familiar to the readers of Matterhorn, though Marlantes' message is as relevant now as it was when he returned to the States as a scarred, decorated hero and was met with indifference--and worse, hostility: "We need to give returning veterans some sort of commitment to the future they are returning to."
Grove/Atlantic Press. 272 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780802119926

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"His book ought to be mandatory reading by potential infantry recruits and by residents of any nation that sends its kids--Marlantes' word--into combat. ... Read this book, and you will better understand what it is like to go to--and come back from--war." J. Ford Huffman

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[What It Is Like to Go to War] is a well crafted and forcefully argued work of nonfiction that contains fresh and important insights into what it's like to be in a war and what it does to the human psyche. ... The most powerful sections of the book are those in which Marlantes offers his first-person observations of what he saw in Vietnam." Marc Leepson

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Karl Marlantes' new book is as wrenching and deeply honest as its understated title would suggest. ... With war such a part of contemporary American life, this book is deeply important, as timely and urgent as contemporary on-the-ground reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq." Kevin Canfield

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What It Is Like to Go to War is best when Marlantes tells his own story. It gets wobbly when he turns to the larger implications of his experience, where it's caught in the unresolved tension between the oath he swore and his acute awareness of war's tragic consequences." Ellen Emry Heltzel

Critical Summary

Karl Marlantes follows his stunning Matterhorn with a war memoir for the ages. Closely observed, passionate, and delivered with an intimacy (in chapters titled "The Enemy Within" and "Killing," for instance) that even the earlier novel couldn't match, Marlantes' timely narrative holds timeless implications for those who fight and those left to pick up the pieces. Whether What It Is Like to Go to War will rank with Philip Caputo's Rumor of War, Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone, or Michael Herr's Dispatches as watershed documents of the Vietnam experience remains to be seen. But if the world needs war, then armies need more scholar-warriors like Marlantes to give us perspective on the experience.