book reports: two memoirs by Vietnam veterans
This summer I read Loon: A Marine Story by Jack McLean, when I went on a war history bender. Last week, when I brought my kids to the library, I have a bad habit of sitting on the floor in front of the history section of the "New Arrivals" and checked out What is it like to go to War by the fellow marine Karl Marlantes. I no longer have the books in hand, so I won't have long quotes, but both are terrifying and heart wrenching tales that point to the primary battlefield in a soldier's soul. Nate Self's account of his battle experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan in Two Wars, which I reviewed in the spring, also has many of the same overlapping themes. The biggest theme is the ongoing injury of the soul called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both men suffered through it, as did their families. Both Vietnam vets are highly educated, McLean went to Harvard after his tour of duty (the first Vietnam vet). Marlantes left Oxford to go on his tour of duty. They write very well. They wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Marlantes gives himself a more ambitious task of trying to explain humanity's warlike nature. One thing new to me, was his admission that in the middle of the battle, the warrior enters a transcendent state. He describes the sensation of a 20 year old toting a powerful weapon, surrounded by men at their physical peaks also toting powerful weapons with a high degree of competence, working as a team whose collective force is overwhelming, who can then call in air support and artillery support in the midst of a deadly firefight. That sense of power, he says, can make a 20 year old drunk with power. But this exposes an important component of training for the modern American warrior, the spiritual. He looks at other cultures and through history at the rituals used by warriors to acknowledge and assuage the spirit. Marlantes believes that spiritual preparation could greatly reduce the wounds on the hearts of surviving warriors today.
I hope he is listened to and that the military takes his suggestions seriously.
This overdue book report was prodded by this observer's notes from a military Skype station overseas.
update Feb. 2012 - a great blog post by a Marine who had served in Afghanistan and responded to the video of Marines urinating on dead Taliban, Respecting the (Enemy) Dead by Tom Neven