Our current HuffPost Book Club pick is "What It Is Like To Go To War" by Karl Marlantes. We are talking about different aspects of the military experience over on our Book Club page; this entry was created as part of the discussion; go to the page to have your say.
"As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them. I've done my part."
-- Karl Marlantes, "What It Is like to Go to War"
American popular culture thrives on shock value. We have come to accept and even expect to be offended by talk radio, rock stars, comedians and YouTube videos.
Yet when it counts the most, in real life we demand at all costs not to be offended. When it comes to faith, politics or war, we've learned we must water down our own truth. Better yet keep our deepest convictions to ourselves, if those convictions carry the slightest potential to offend. Meanwhile, the definition of what is offensive on these subjects gets broader by the news cycle.
So, what passes for entertainment sears our national conscience while the depth of our national discourse is limited by those with the thinnest skin. This imbalance is intrinsically unhealthy. It has been particularly damaging in the past decade, while our military, a small segment of the population wages wars the rest of the country would prefer to condemn or forget. Just change the channel to "Celebrity Apprentice."
Into this dichotomy of sensitivity comes Karl Marlantes second book, "What It Is Like to Go to War," offering his truths about how warriors can wage and survive war emotionally and spiritually. Born of jungle combat and decades of study, self-examination and survival, Marlantes' book presents his story almost without apology, certainly without equivocation. He has earned the right to speak hard truths, to offend if necessary, but his presentation is not offensive. He writes honestly about his own faults as well as the horrors of war, simply relating his lessons learned.
Marlantes assures his readers that 1. Evil is real. 2. Everyone has a potential for evil. 3. War is sometimes necessary (for reasons, see one and two.) Most Americans, for whom war is an abstraction or a news blurb, have the luxury to choose philosophical views about why there should be no wars. Those for whom war has been reality, either for themselves, their spouses or children, cannot get by on abstraction or John Lennon songs. Marlantes education came from the jungles of Southeast Asia and the halls of Yale and Oxford. He examines his war experience and analyzes how philosophy, faith and ritual could help warriors survive battle, rather than trying to fit the reality of war into a framework of abstract philosophy or worse yet platitudes.
He asserts that a healthy warrior, before, during and after combat, requires a spiritual frame of reference. Without specifying a particular faith and referring to many, Marlantes says a connection to something greater than self is necessary for a warrior to give meaning to chaotic experiences, to keep him from doing more harm than necessary and to help him readjust to life after combat.
He tells a story about a chaplain who risked his life to bring alcohol and dirty jokes to a combat zone on Christmas Day in 1968:
"I was struggling with a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite, and he was trying to numb me to it. I needed help with the existential terror of my own death and responsibility for the deaths of others, enemies and friends, not Southern Comfort. I needed a spiritual guide."
Marlantes compares this to visiting a dying friend and talking about the weather. We in the military community recognize this chaplain and his shortcomings. We can condemn him because he certainly should know better how to treat the human soul. Yet we can sympathize because we know the environment in which he must operate. In a political climate that dictates no one should be offended, the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion has been turned against warriors in the U.S. military, threatening instead to deprive their community of the spiritual frame of reference Marlantes advocates. Marlantes book suggests ways to incorporate ritual and spirituality into military training before and after war. What he may not realize is that these suggestions run counter to modern military culture.
Today's military command structure must avoid offense and litigation by even the appearance of advocating one faith or any faith at all. Commanders are instructed to shun any training that mentions faith or refers to holy writings. Instead they are instructed to leave that to the chaplains, and keep the chaplains where they belong.
Another of Marlantes' passages illustrates that spiritual guides who are separate from the fighting force have little credibility to minister to the warrior's spiritual needs. If spiritual guidance is compartmentalized rather than integrated, it will have little effect. As Marlantes points out, when warriors are encouraged to think their actions in war have no spiritual context, when they return from combat, they have more difficulty putting their actions into any context at all. Some atheist groups within the military are currently seeking instatement of chaplains to represent their beliefs. Perhaps they, like Marlantes, recognize a need for a similar context within own ranks.
We of all faiths and of no faith should be less concerned about what offends our personal convictions and more concerned about what fulfills our human obligations to our fellow citizens, particularly those who fight our wars. Offering one another empathy, forgiveness and understanding violates no valid principles or belief systems.
I would recommend this book to warriors, to those who lead them and to the spouses who love them. It is also an excellent guide for anyone who wants to know what it is like to go to war and how to fully and compassionately bring our warriors home.