Sunday, April 15, 2012

2012 books, #35

What it is like to go to war, by Karl Marlantes [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Rearsby, Leics. : Clipper, 2012.

This merits a post on its own.  I think it's probably the modern equivalent of The art of war, and was certainly an excellent thing to be reading over Easter.

Karl Marlantes went to war in Vietnam, and wrote a novel called Matterhorn, which was made into one of the first Vietnam films.  He also writes with the perspective of someone who left a Rhodes scholarship to go to Vietnam and returned to it later; and with the perspective of someone who believes there's a spirituality to war, completely divorced from any individual faith - he calls it the arena of Mars.

This is a considered book, with perspective right up to last year's Libyan conflict, which aims to analyse and give advice on how government, society and the armed forces should look at the very young people who wage war on our behalf.

Marlantes believes we should prepare young soldiers psychologically for war before they are deployed - he asks "Why put on the armor after the war?".   He has interesting things to say about very modern warfare; there are people who are commuting daily to their homes while deploying drones flying in and out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations, for instance; soldiers in the field can be shooting at insurgents at 7pm and be talking to their friends and family via Facebook at 8pm.  In Marlantes's opinion, this makes the likelihood of post-traumatic stress greater, because there's less of a distinction between being at war and not being at war.

There's a chapter on the honesty, or lack of it, in reporting of war.  Lying covers up the lack of meaning of war.  Body count statistics count more than strategic importance, and at least in Vietnam, there was no way of independently verifying the field reports.  Within that, there's the idea of standards rather than ideals; everyone knows what the ideals are, but standards can be steadily eroded by the experience of war.

One of the more moving chapters was an account of how Vietnam soldiers were returned to their families, discharged before they returned home, and (until the current post-9/ll fervour) were largely ignored or an embarrassment.  Marlantes fervently believes there should be "some sort of commitment to the future we are returning them to", with a ceremony of handing over weapons and compulsory psychological assessment.

Above all, Marlantes remains a warrior, with the knowledge that in the heat of situations, there's something beyond the individual which needs to be acknowledged in the current bureaucracy.  I'm probably not explaining this very well, but to my mind, when I finished this book on Easter Sunday, the statement that "Some people obviously rate victory as greater than their own death. This does not make them irrational" made a lot of sense to me, while also terrifying me because yes, this is the justification suicide bombers will also use.

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