MATTERHORN was my favourite book of 2010 so I was very excited to see a new Karl Marlantes book scheduled for this year. I was even more intrigued when I discovered it was a non fiction book. My immediate assumption was that WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR would be a biography of Marlantes’ Vietnam War experience and that it would be an insight into what true experiences shaped the magnificent novel that is MATTERHORN. But this book is much more than military biography.
As a bookseller I am forever classifying books. From where a book is shelved to what categories we give a book to where it fits in the context of a newsletter or catalogue. While there are definite biographical elements to this book this is not a biography. This is very much a philosophical look at what going to war means intellectually and spiritually. Marlantes’ own experience as a Marine in Vietnam is the core of the book but he also explores the warrior of today in Iraq and Afghanistan and traces the warrior back through World War Two and back to the Ancient Romans and Greeks.
It is obvious that the issues Marlantes addresses in this book are ones he has grappled with for decades and as a reader you also grapple with them. Marlantes looks at how warriors are prepared for and trained to go to war but are never prepared or trained to come back from war. He examines what being a hero really means and how the desire to be a hero can corrupt. He also looks at some of the root causes to atrocities that are often carried out in war. Marlantes is not saying he has the answer to the issues, he just want people to think about them; from political leaders down to ordinary voters in democratic societies.
It is a cliché to say a book is a ‘must read’ but if you are a reader who, like me, has been fascinated by military history, in particular from “the soldier on the ground’s” perspective, this is definitely a must read. I am a huge fan of Stephen Ambrose and Antony Beevor as well a fiction writers like Tim O’Brien and James Jones. These writers have all opened my eyes to war in one way or another but this book is the only book that has really opened my mind and has truly made me think about war and it’s consequences in a different way. This is a book to make you think and book to make you talk. Sometime a cliché is a cliché for a reason. This is a MUST read.