From my very first day as the Director of the VTSC, I have been repeatedly encouraged to read What It Is Like To Go To War, by Karl Marlantes. Our trainers, my predecessors, & workshop attendees have all expressed their praises for this book. Will it live up to my expectations?
What It Is Like To Go To War is an enlightening read which is applicable to veterans (or those who are still serving), their families, or civilians who want to expand their perspective and gain a greater understanding of how to connect with veteran(s). This book is definitely worth a read. Throughout the book I found three recurring themes: deployment experiences are not pathological, combat is like a drug, and rituals are a necessity. Let’s delve into each.
- Deployment experiences are not pathological
- Combat is a drug
- Rituals, before and after deployment, are a necessity
- Bushido (Japenese moral code for samurais) required the samurai to practice daily a meditative art form, such as a tea ceremony or writing haiku
- Provide offerings to a god or goddess of war
- Mass for the deceased Marlantes not only made several references to the use of rituals, but insisted on the use of rituals—both before and after deployment. The use of rituals prior to deployment is aimed to be a preventative measure; one cannot mentally return for deployment if that return was not prepared for in advance. I found myself having a few looming questions:
- Does the American military already use rituals? [Do we need to think outside the box?]
- Can the use of rituals still help, even if it has been several years after combat?
- What would a ritual prior to deployment consist of?
Anyone shocked by this? I am, having transitioned off active duty and still serving in the Reserves, transitioning from military to civilian culture feels pathological. I can’t even imagine how transitioning with the experience of combat under my belt would feel. Karl Marlantes illustrates this concept in a variety of ways, the most powerful:
“We cannot expect normal eighteen year olds to kill someone and contain it in a healthy way. They must be helped to sort out what will be healthy grief about taking a life because it is part of war. The drugs, alcohol, and suicides are ways of avoiding guilt and fear of grief. Grief itself is a healthy response.” For those who have attended my Military & Veteran Culture 101 workshop, you’ve heard a lot of dialectics in which some behaviors are very effective in the military and are ineffective in the civilian world. This is a perfect example of such a concept. The military expects its members to be mission oriented warriors; feelings are an afterthought—if considered at all. At the same time, feelings will happen and 18 year olds generally are not equipped to deal with such feelings. Given that the prefrontal cortex does not stop developing until about the age of 25, I would also be interested in information on brain development in a military/combat context.
Marlantes also alludes to ways in which military core values conflict with our humanness. In one chapter about a particular time in which he ‘gun decked’ a report, he states that: Believe me, it is not trivial to lie in a report. I still feel ashamed of doing it. Luckily for me, the battalion commander was killed and the report must have gotten lost or thrown away by some wiser officer. The point I want to make, however, is not just that I felt I had done wrong. What amazes me to this day is that at the time I wrote it I actually believed what I wrote to be true, fervently. There are a few points of discussion here. The Marine Corps teaches core values of honor, courage and commitment. I can imagine lying on a report felt like a direct betrayal of these core values; I don’t doubt that the author is still feeling ashamed. Please also note that he very clearly states it was lucky for him that the commander was killed; contrary to what society would expect servicemembers to say or feel in that situation! The key take away for mental health providers: what is “normal” for the general population is not necessarily normative for military culture.
Personal disclosure alert: I am married to a 2x Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) veteran. Over the past six years, I have watched my spouse struggle with the mundane nature of our civilian reality. The first time I realized his struggle was due to the reality of ordinary life, I happened to have been in graduate school, learning about addiction. I was learning about the reward pathway in our brains. I had an epiphany, a theory, if you will: Combat lights up those same areas in our brain, just like drugs!
In the preface of What It is Like To Go To War, Marlantes hits the nail on the head. He states: “I also want to share my thoughts and experiences to young people as a psychological and spiritual combat prophylactic, for indeed combat is like unsafe sex in that it’s a major thrill with horrible consequences.” The idea that combat is both enticing and damaging is not a new concept.
Later in the text, Marlantes illustrates an instance where this concept played out for him. “The screaming and earth shattering artillery rounds filled the air around me with vibrant shaking noise that I felt pounding right up through the soles of my jungle boots and smashing into my face and ears from the shivering air. I’ve jumped out of airplanes, climbed up cliff sides, raced cars, done drugs. I’ve never found anything comparable. Combat is the crack cocaine of all excitement highs—with crack cocaine costs.” How do we consider this concept when working with veterans?
On the final page of the book, Marlantes leaves us with this: “I still long for the stronger feelings of war’s transcendence and ecstasy, but like the recovering alcoholic, I also know their destructive and dangerous aspects.” These are strong words; take a moment to think about the veterans you know and consider how this concept may play a role in their lives. It’s also important to bring this statement back to the point that combat experiences are not pathological. This struggle does not mean there is something ‘wrong’ with the veterans in our lives.
It is not a secret that the American military does not do the best job of reintegrating service-members into the civilian world. Through attending multiple workshops on moral injury I have come to learn that many current and past countries/civilizations heavily incorporate rituals into the entire life cycle of war. Karl Marlantes referred to the following:
Marlantes, K. (2011). What it is like to go to war. New York, NY: Grove Atlantic.
Kimberly Hardy, LMHC