Sunday, September 4, 2011


September 4, 2011:

Surrounded by six or seven thousand books--I must count them some day--it becomes hard sometimes to know which one to read, on those rare occasions, that is, when I'm not reading for a purpose, i.e. for research on a book or a magazine piece. Sometimes I think I should read systematically, finish off the classics, say, start with Hesiod and run through to Tacitus, or maybe read the Odyssey and then James Joyce's Ulysses, which I've never been able to finish. Or read Milton as a project. But then I had a friend once who told me Milton invariably put him to sleep. It's hard work to read a long poem. Or I could read Herodotus and then Thucydides and decide for myself which one of them is the greater historian. Professional historians almost always prefer Thucydides and call Herodotus "the father of lies" for his credulity. I have them both, Herodotus in several translations, Thucydides in one from the nineteenth century. This is what having a large library is for, to be able to make these choices on the spot. One thing it's for, anyway. It has other uses as well, which I'll go into some other time.

But sometimes I just pick up the nearest book, and that happened yesterday when my wife took her niece, visiting for the weekend, to the beach, I was alone in the house, taking it easy, and I found sitting on a chair near my desk chair a book called What It Is Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes, and started to read that. Marlantes made a name for himself last year with a novel called Matterhorn, about the war in Vietnam, which he attended; the novel was well received, but I didn't read it. With this book, however, it was one of those serendipitous things, you pick something up not knowing what to expect, and pow! it's terrific. Because an awful lot of us don't know what it's like to go to war, and this book delivers the news. It tells you in the most vivid ways what it's like to shoot people whose eyes you're looking into, what it's like to have to make horrible moral choices on the battlefield that you know will haunt you the rest of your life, what it's like to fight down fear and get lost in rage, to run amok, to keep a buddy with a hole through his chest alive, to get wounded and keep on fighting. And all the while Marlantes keeps his eye on the essential thing, the spiritual price soldiers pay; he knows what battle does to the soul and has the courage to talk about it. So I'm loving this book, and it's totally unexpected.

And it begins with a quote from, of all people, Thucydides, who is himself quoting a Spartan general. It reads, "The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools." I sent this to a friend of mine who's a part-time warrior and thought he would appreciate it. Most of my friends have no experience with war, nor do I, but I did spend time in the military as an artillery officer and have written about that experience, and my sense that I would have liked combat, especially artillery combat, which is less messy, more elegant than infantry fighting, came out of that experience. It behooves all of us to know who we are, to know what we're capable of. The more a people have close contact with war the wiser they become about the geopolitical realities that create war, and the human passions behind it. That's why I've always believed that there should be a draft, even in peacetime, so that we all know what it's like to serve in the war machine, and what it means. If we had a draft, we would have been out of Afghanistan a long time ago, and would never have gone into Iraq. That was all done by politicians who avoided service: Cheney, Bush and the like. They dodged every bullet that might have come their way. The thinking in that case, in other words, was done by cowards.

But there won't be a draft, so let me recommend to anybody listening that they buy and read this book. War is always going to be with us and we need to be realistic about that, and about what war entails. We need to be responsible about it, and to sand off that layer of moral superiority we all too often adopt toward warriors. Marlantes, who won two Purple Hearts, the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation medals for valor, among other medals and honors, was once spit on on a train by a woman who paused at his seat to do that. These are the people you most hope Marlantes will reach, those who take easy, simple-minded moral attitudes toward things they have no real conception of. Walk a mile in his shoes, lady: through jungle, picking leeches off your legs, hoping not to have your legs blown off by a mine, trying to keep yourself alive, your buddies, walk that mile on no sleep in two days, walk it when your best friend just had his head blown apart. The writer Jim Harrison told me once that he hears all the time from people who want to have a "wilderness experience," and he tells them, go out into the woods, kill and animal, then cook and eat it. That's a wilderness experience. We can't do the same thing with war, but we can read this book by Karl Marlantes and come close to it.