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 I took on my first assigned reading in fifty years last month, for a seminar at Juniata college in Pennsylvania.  We were 6 former active duty officers who had come to resist the war in Vietnam and push our way out, most through applications for conscientious objector status, accompanied in some cases by law suits brought against the navy.  The book was The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle by J. Glenn Gray, himself a graduate of Juniata.  The other participants were students who chose to come to the first evening panel discussion [and 150 came, on a Friday evening!] and then for two days, sixteen undergraduates who, as it turned out, had their own conscientious objections to events and demands and obligations on their lives.  It was, also, the week-end of the imminent US bombing raid on suspected Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles.

As I’d been immersing myself in accounts of, and reflections on, war over the past several years, I also read Karl Marlantes What It’s Like to Go to War, thinking in the first place that the two together, from different wars,  might provide interesting tension and balance, and in the second that I had been much impressed with Marlantes’ recent fictional account of marines at war in Vietnam in his 2010 Matterhorn.

Gray wrote about WW II, in which he participated as a U.S. Marine intelligence officer for four years, 14 years after its end.  Marlantes wrote about the war in Vietnam, in which he participated as a Second Lieutenant, U.S. Marine platoon commander, for one year, and 34 years after its end. Though they explore common themes –men’s fascination with war, comradeship, guilt, love, killing, death– they bring different backgrounds, different experiences and different concerns. Though both interleave recollections of war with reflections on what they now see, Marlantes’ accounts of battle are longer, comprise more of the text and are more visceral. Of the two he was the more traumatized.  As a result  his reflections are  more self-centered, more psychological, trying to work out what he did, and why, and to the degree he now regrets it, how it might have been done differently.  Gray more easily moves to the generalized and abstract, summarizing and categorizing types of behavior such as love, feelings about death, images of the enemy.  He is more concerned by failure to remember than, as Marlantes is, by how fighting, when it is necessary, can be less vicious and less traumatic.

Though each argues for harnessing the power and destructiveness of war, Gray offers his hope that a slight, but decisive change in consciousness might put an end to war while Marlantes calls for deeper preparation of the ‘warrior,’ psychological and spiritual, to help him keep his sanity in combat, to be only appropriately deadly, and to more easily re-integrate when he returns.  With such preparation, he asserts, wars will also be entered into with less alacrity.


The Warriors, published in 1950 with a praiseful forward by Hannah Arendt, holds a hallowed place among those who think about war and the people who fight in them.  Gray’s  purpose in writing, as he explains in the opening chapter, took shape after the shock of realizing, 14 years after his discharge, how discontinuous his life had become.  Reading his own letters and recalling the pain and the horror he had felt then, during the invasion of southern France in 1944 and the liberation of  German concentration camps, he asks himself  if he has changed at all as a result of the war, and if so how.  Most of all he wants to know if there was meaning in what he did.

“The deepest fear of my war war years, one that is still with me, is that these happenings had no real purpose… unless that day [in war] had some positive significance for my future life, it could not possibly with worth the pain it cost.”

Karl Marlantes, a generation later, opens with some of the same disturbances as Gray but sets off on a different road, arriving at a different destination.  Marlantes volunteered to join the US Marines and fight in Vietnam, breaking off his Rhodes scholarship year at Oxford to do so.  He fought, as a second lieutenant, in fierce hand-to-had combat, using every weapon at his disposal to kill the enemy, including napalm and ‘willy-pete.‘  He is clear about his reason for writing.

“I wrote this book primarily to come to terms with my own experience of combat.” Like Gray, a quest for meaning is central.

“Perhaps in some way I can help [other combat veterans] with their own quest for meaning and their efforts to integrate their combat experiences into their daily lives.”

But what the two men have seen, or experienced, is clearly different.  Although Marlantes’ opening lines are

“The violence of combat assaults psyches, confuses ethics and tests souls… not only from the violence suffered but from the violence inflicted”

his main concern is those with whom he fought, not those upon whom the violence was visited.

Though both marines, Gray went to Europe a different man than Marlantes to Vietnam.  He was drafted.  He received his notification on the same day as that of his PhD in philosophy.  Though involved in the Operation Dragoon invasion of southern France and intense fighting with ‘fanatical SS troops” he does not say that he ever killed a man.  The closest it seems he got to personal violence was during questioning of POWS.

“I began to detect with a kind of horror that I was becoming inured to cruelty and not above practicing it myself on occasion,” and,  “I interrogate these ‘bastards,’ as we call them, sneeringly, insultingly, and sometimes take cold delight in their cringing…”

Writing to a friend back in the States he reveals the personality of the man in 1944 who will write the book in 1959. Citing W H Auden’s line, “We must love one another or die,” he speaks about the despair he has seen and felt, saying  that  “I have only one alternative to death and that is to love, to care for people whom I, as a natural man, want to strike down.”  He tells us he is more upset by Allied cruelty than that of the Germans because “it weakened the will and confused the intellect.”  He feels  “‘the responsibility for ours much more than for theirs.”  He is appalled by the misery of non-fighters:

[to understand how I feel] you would have to see a fine, fine family broken, people you have learned to love, destroyed because of petty personal grudges.  You would have to see people slapped and beaten because they might possibly be telling a lie or because certain sadistic impulses need to be satisfied.  You would have to see old men and women on the roads with a few pitiful belongings in a driving rain, going they not know where,  trying to find shelter and a little food in a scorched-earth area.”

This sorrow in not found in Marlantes’ account of his war. He came back from Vietnam and like Gray — and most soldiers– did not speak much about his experiences until, urged by his wife, he went to an encounter group and found himself in a sobbing, shaking, public recollection of what he had seen and done.  This began decades of full-fledged PTSD  – job loss, crying jags, distance from wife and children.  Thus his book, instead of coming from a fear of forgetting, comes from the terror of remembering.  It was written, in part, as a vehicle back on the road to health, in part a series of recommendations for how future soldiers should prepare themselves, spiritually and emotionally, how they should be prepared by those who send them.

Both have interesting observations on war’s fascination to humankind, and especially to men: the “love of destruction” [Gray]; “a deep, savage joy in destruction, a joy beyond ego enhancement [Marlantes]. The power of comradeship;  the gratification of surrendering oneself to a larger purpose.  Both grapple with guilt, though in different ways.  Gray calls on Spinoza and Kant and Jaspers, he knows his Ares and Aphrodite.  Marlantes finds explanatory categories in Jungian archtypes and Joseph Campbell’s myths; the Temple of Mars becomes his touchstone.

Both find the roots of war deep in the soil of human nature, but add nothing to revealing them more sharply. Marlantes wants only to channel and control “the fierce and wild forces;” Gray has a glimmer of hope that a small but decisive change in men’s hearts can alter everything for ” the impulses that make killers are not so different  in kind from those that make lovers.”  Both mention creativity as a means of finding transcendence outside the field of battle.

Gray devotes a chapter to the emotion and practice of love during war, offering surprising categories of the carnal as well as recognition of love’s spiritual power –anchored by his own desperate journal entry that he “must love more.”  Marlantes, interestingly, has little to say of love.  Focused so sightly on the personal experience of the “warrior” it is interesting that this does not appear.  Though soldiers in Vietnam were never met with the cheering crowds of liberated citizens and kissing girls in Europe, experiences of prostitution along genuine affection and love in Vietnam were common.  How might recognition of that have informed Marlantes’ reflections on the warrior experience?

It is clear that Marlantes, in his one year, was exposed to more intense, personal combat and killing than Gray in his four years.  Although Gray experienced the terror of landing in Southern France under bombardment, and a desperate German stand at Alsace, his work was in intelligence, not in jungle combat.  The up-close-and-personal extremes he experienced were with prisoners of war, some of whom were brutalized under questioning, though it seems, not by his hand.  Perhaps it is this which allows him to be more aware than Marlantes of the suffering of  non combatants, caught in the war.  His journal entries, and later recollections are of  refugees on the road,  a French collaborator who is sent by Gray’s own French Army colleague back to the partisans, with a recommendation of death, even while he treats her with personal kindness.  Most interestingly, and much ahead of his time, Gray remarks

“That the butchering of each other was almost easier to endure that the violation of animals, crops, farms, homes, bridges and all the other things that bind man to his natural environment and provide him with a spiritual home.” 

They both have circles of concern.  Gray’s are wide around him; Marlantes’ are tight and close, those who fought in his own units.

More common in What It’s Like to Go to War are descriptions of men in battle. The opening paragraph is not of the grief and terror of noncombatants but of a fire-fight “on the dark, wet ridges of the Annamese Cordillera.”

A bullet had gone through Zoomer’s chest, tearing a large hole out of his back. We kept him on his side, curled against the cold drizzle, so the one good lung wouldn’t fill up with blood.

Marlantes tells stories to the dying man to keep him awake, the first of fighting for a giant sturgeon in the Colombia River which he watches die on the decks of his grandfather’s boat.  Spiritus Sanctus is what occurred to him as a young boy, watching the fish die, and it comes back to him now as Zoomer struggles for breath, setting up one of the dominant themes of the book, that death creates a ‘sacred space,’ a temple of Mars, which must be entered only with preparation.  As he says, ‘the Marine Corps taught me how to kill but it didn’t teach me how to deal with killing.’  Learning to deal with it is what he wants to share.

Long sections of Marlantes book are devoted to scenes of  battle, at which he excels.  Matterhorn is a gripping novel taken from the same experiences.  And he uses them to press his perception of war and the sacred.

I was engaged in killing and maybe being killed.  I felt responsible for the lives and deaths of my companions.  I was struggling with a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite…

As Grey does, Marlantes wrestles with the meaning of what he did.  But because his experience was much closer to the ‘kill-zone’ than Grey’s, his demons are considerably different. 

 Killing is what warriors do for society.  Yet, when they return home society doesn’t generally acknowledge that the act it asked them to do created a deep split in their psyche, or a a psychological and spiritual weight most of them will stumble beneath for the rest of their lives..  Warriors must learn to integrate the experience of killing to put the pieces of their psyches back together again.

Marlantes finds his meaning by finding a way out of PTSD and does that by making meaning through embedding his killing of others in a meta-reality: in religion, the sacred, the temple of Mars.  He finds wisdom in Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell so that his own ‘story’ becomes one of the skein of human stories from time immemorial, and thereby is granted meaning: I killed because men have always killed;  killing creates a sacred space, into which we must enter with preparation and from which we must leave with consciousness of leaving. 

His sense of being returned to meaning by coming to understand killing as a way of the world, not his singular experience, is oddly illuminated by a story he tells of meeting Campbell one day.

I talked about my feelings of guilt. … He said “Look, you just found yourself on one side of the world of opposites … Don’t you see that the other guy’s fate put him on the opposite side from you?  … So there are you are.   What you had  to do was fill out your side of the bargain with a noble heart.  It’s your intentions and your nobility in how you conduct yourself in this world of opposites that you’ve got to think about.  Did you intend right?”  My eyes teared. I could only nod my head in assent. Then, phew! ! he dismissed me with a wave of his hand…. Absolution.”

He finds grounding  in reading  the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic.  Following Krishna’s injunction to Arjuna, caught in an existential dilemma of killing or not killing his cousins, Marlantes cites “what I consider to be the whole point of the story.”  That by “acting in the name of universal spiritual, ethical, or political principle,’ one’s own ego is taken away from the fight.  Those who dedicate their actions in this way…will suffer less than those of us who fought in Vietnam for a less clearly defined cause.”

Gray find his meaning elsewhere.  Driven by different demons than Marlantes he is working out the dangers of forgetting [of moving on too quickly as we might say now] not only to those who have been to war, not only the soldiers, but the peoples of the nations at whose behest they fought.   In querying his own guilt he sets it against the surprising lack of guilt he finds in those around him.  His quest is not for a less traumatized re-entry out of war but for a way through the traumas of a world which, forgotten too fast the previous one, is engaged in building weapons for a more terror-filled one.  He is writing in 1959.  The atom bombs had dropped on Japan 14 years before.  From that time through 1958, the time of his writing,  192 US open air atomic bomb tests had taken place, 75 in 1958 alone.

In the end, despite interesting accounts of war and deeply felt observations, both books fail to fully satisfy, perhaps more because of my expectations unmet than failures on their part. My feeling when I left the navy was that the war in Vietnam was dirty, despicable business, that the elected leadership of the country had lied to the voters, and the voters had been incurious about the assertions of danger and necessity.  While WW II, during which I was born, seemed to be a more ‘necessary’ and more defensive war on the part of the allies, the burning coal of question was, and still is, how did human kind get to that point? And what must we do better to not get there again? Had President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, not dubbed the Japanese as “honorary Aryans” and encouraged their aggression against Korea, China and Russia, would the Pacific Theater of WW II ever happened?  I was hoping that two soldiers, reflecting, would have similar questions.

Marlantes does not.  Though he says “the warrior has to be very careful about whom the politicians make out to be devils.  We have to chose sides with limited information and limited self-knowledge,”  he does not reflect on the choice he, himself,  made when he left Oxford in 1967  to fight in Vietnam.  Many of his age did, including the six of us talking to the students at Juniata.  For us, the vital question is, why do so many, over so many centuries, make choices almost sure to bring disaster; why do so few insist on other choices?  

Rhodes Scholar or not, Marlantes did not then, and seems not to have now, “awakened into freedom,” as Gray calls it, into the appearance, and growth of, conscience.  Even though he Marlantes uses almost identical language about conscience and moral feeling, he uses it only applied to the ‘warrior’ in battle. 

You are conscious that you have a choice to make about killing that other person,  You have to choose to do something,  Even refusing to think deeply about it is choosing to do something.

And yet, nowhere does he imagine that at that point, of killing, the necessary choice has come to late.  We who resisted, imperiling our futures, our relationships with the military, the state, our friends and families, all found ourselves with an identical choice, but before it was about another person’s death — in the moment.  Because, we knew that if we didn’t make the choice to resist, now,  we would inevitably, have to chose, or not, to kill. Marlantes own best friend, chose to go to Canada instead of join Marlantes in armed combat, yet he never speaks of him, or his choice again.

What Marlantes spends the bulk of his book on is not about that fundamental question but to argue that those who follow him should be better prepared, spiritually and psychologically.  I don’t have a real quarrel with this.  It may be, as he claims, that with such preparation there would be fewer atrocities.  To my mind, however,  a surer way to lessen the atrocities is to read the history, understand the motivations and prepare ourselves better not to repeat what we so clearly know.

Gray does a better job of moving from his war and post-war reflections to thinking about an end to war’s disasters.  He does not, however, find in what he has seen, a way forward.  Instead he leaves us with a “hope” to share — that

“…a transformation of a deep-going inner sort will have to come over men before war can be vanquished.

In earlier chapters I have described  [this] as an awakening, a coming to oneself, a discovery of friendship, a falling in love.  Human nature, the ultimate source of all hostility, must be converted from its present state of hatred and fear in order to liberate powers within us the existence of which is suspected only by the tiny minority.”

Fair enough.  It’s just that what he has seen and understood does not get us there. Both men leave us the unpromising field of human nature to till hoping to change its fruits to less catastrophe, more creation.

Beyond my unmet expectations, however, is another problem both men share: the a-historical nature of their ruminations.  In different ways both project the behavior of men in “their” wars onto the way men have always been in war.  More narrowly, they project their own experiences onto those around them.  It is odd in the extreme for Marlantes to give examples — from mythology no less– of Cuchulain’s re-integration into his clan as an example of what re-entry rituals could do for American soldiers returning from Vietnam or Iraq.  It isn’t even clear from his analysis what the constituent parts of PTSD are. Has it existed for all fighting men in all cultures in all times?  Did the warriors of Genghis Kahn have PTSD?  Or, closer to home, what is the incidence of it among Vietnamese soldiers, north and south?  Are the behaviors similar or dissimilar?  Has being welcomed back, appropriately, had anything to do with its lesser, or different, manifestations?  Or, did the stronger belief in fighting for liberty and freedom held by the American ‘enemy’ keep post-war nightmares at bay?  I don’t criticize Marlantes for not having such an analysis, only for embedding his proscriptions in universalist archetypes without slowing to ask if such universalism can be true.

Gray is less extreme in his generalizing from his own experience onto that of others but when he narrows his discussion to the feelings of the conscientious or sensitive soldier one gets the impression he is talking about one soldier and one soldier alone.  Or, when he says

“Most soldiers in wartime feel caught in the present so completely that they surrender their wills to their superiors and exist in the comforting anonymity of the crowd”

I am uneasy.  On what basis does he make such a sweeping judgment?  And when he claims that there is a ” growing unwillingness to glorify war and the military virtues,” I wonder about  both his perceptions and his prognostications.

And, it seems to me, he misses an opportunity here.  The heart of his ‘reflections’ are the growth of his conscience, in his example of his own disobedience to an order he felt was both unjust and injurious to intelligence gathering.  How did this possibility grow in him?  How might it grow in others?  How did the strength grow in him to resist the tug of group loyalty to act on his own truth?  This is what we all need, rather than a sliver of hope for “a transformation of a deep-going inner sort.” Not a road map but an honest exploration of the surfacing of conscience and its nurturing when so many weaken their sense of belonging, or loyalty, to others trumping the call to conscience.

A chance both missed, in speaking about the fascination war has for so many, is the image of drug addiction.  Both use the analogy.  Neither pursue the idea.  If men, and women, are born with war-addictive personalities, or if each generation introduces those following into its delights, what can be done?  Has it been done successfully anywhere [Scandanavia?] and if so, what can those still addicted learn?

Several books on my shelf might take up the question of why we so love war and help me to some kind of answer.  I had set A Terrible Love of War, by James Hillman, aside some years ago but am ready, perhaps, to take it up again.  Working in the same Jungian mode that Marlantes found explanation in, I’m surprised it went unmentioned in his book.  Another, whose author is closer to my own sensibilities, is Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Blood Rites.”  In it she offers the thought that what we do as “the result of millions of years of evolution” in Marlantes’ words, comes from the vast preponderance in those millennia of being prey, not top predator.  If it could be shown, that our “surplus aggression” is for shadows of dangers long since passed, perhaps a reconfiguring through education and practice could get our fingers off the hair-trigger of our fears.

I don’t know.  I’ll report when I get more of the argument under my belt.