When warriors come home

By Jan Adams
Feb 25, 2013

My partner teaches college students about the intersection of ethics with service in the community. Every once in awhile she has newly discharged vets in her class; they often discuss war (she has experience of one). One Iraq vet with whom she developed a friendship urged her to understand:

"If anyone comes back from Iraq or Afghanistan and tells you they are undamaged, don't believe them."

I think Karl Marlantes would agree.

If you are a US combat veteran, or you love one, or you worry about what war after war is doing to the people who fight those wars and to the ethos of your country, you should read Karl Marlantes' What It Is Like to Go to War. Yes, that is as unequivocal a recommendation as I ever make. The book has flaws -- one of them personally upsetting to me -- but this is one of the most clearly-argued, heart-felt, intelligent volumes I've ever read. Marlantes is a Vietnam-era Marine Corps combat vet who brings to his subject the agonizing of a lifetime. Although the Marine Corps proudly let him take up a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford in 1968 instead of calling him up after he completed the college education they had paid for, he volunteered to join his peers in the jungle. He came back with a chest full of medals, little sense of accomplishment, and a lot of anger. Soon thereafter, he remembers being spat upon by a civilian woman when traveling in uniform on a stateside passenger train. (He says such incidents, which have iconic status for the US right, were actually quite rare.) Though he apparently successfully resumed civilian life for a couple of decades, he eventually blew up and was diagnosed with PTSD. This book is his prescription for what recovery might mean for damaged soldiers. Our wars go on, yet they are remote for most of us. We need to be reminded of some truths about sending soldiers to fight:

Warriors deal with death. They take life away from others. This is normally the role of God. Asking young warriors to take on that role without adequate psychological and spiritual preparation can lead to damaging consequences. It can also lead to killing and the infliction of pain in excess of what is required to accomplish the mission. … the more blurred the boundary is between the world where they are acting in the role of God and the world where they are acting in an ordinary societal role, the more problematical the reintegration becomes.

Perhaps in other times and in other places, fighters might have an easier time negotiating the transition between the devastating horrors we ask of them and the civilian moral order. But little about US life helps them. Hidden behind our two oceans and cushioned by our collective wealth, by and large we haven't a clue about what we put combat veterans through. Marlantes shares an anecdote about the sort of help he needed and didn't get from early in his tour as a platoon leader. He had survived his first fire fights in northwestern Vietnam, near the DMZ, where Marines fought the North Vietnamese Army over rugged hills and vertical valleys. He had seen his men wounded and some had been killed.

Two days before Christmas the fog lifted just enough to allow a single chopper to work its way up to us, a dangerous journey, squeezing beneath the cloud ceiling just a few feet above the jungle-covered ridges. Along with food, water, mail, and ammunition came the battalion chaplain. He had brought with him several bottles of Southern Comfort and some new dirty jokes. I accepted the Southern Comfort, thanked him, laughed at the jokes, and had a drink with him. Merry Christmas. Inside I was seething. I thought I'd gone a little nuts. How could I be angry with a guy who had just put his life at risk to cheer me up? And didn't the Southern Comfort feel good on that rain raked mountaintop? Years later I understood. I was engaged in killing and maybe being killed. I felt responsible for the lives and deaths of my companions. 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 death of others, enemies and friends, not Southern Comfort. … I had no framework or guidance to help me put combat's terror, exhilaration, horror, guilt, and pain into some larger framework that would have helped me find some meaning in them later. Maybe if the right person had shown up for me that Christmas in Vietnam, he might have started me on an inner journey that could have saved me and my family a lot of grief.

Marlantes believes that today's combatants are in some ways worse off than his generation of soldiers. In World War II, units came home together, usually by ship, and the process took a month. They had some chance to work their experiences through together. In Vietnam, individual soldiers flew home, often hours after leaving firefights. Today, Marlantes worries that frontline fighters never get separation from home at all.

I am not against hot turkey at Thanksgiving. I would have loved some. … Today a soldier can go out on patrol and kill someone or have one of his friends killed and call his girlfriend on his cell phone that night and probably talk about anything except what just happened. And if society itself tries to blur it as much as possible, by conscious well-intended efforts to provide "all the comforts of home" and modern transportation and communication, what chance does your average eighteen-year-old have of not becoming confused? … When it comes time to leave the world of combat behind for the world of "ordinary life," it is going to be more difficult to do the more we blur the two worlds together. How can you return home if you've never left?

This author also breaks one of the veteran clan's great taboos -- he tries to explain to us, the home folks, what killing means to the combat soldier who does it.

When people come up to me and say, "You must have felt horrible when you killed somebody," I have a very hard time giving the simplistic response they'd like to hear. When I was fighting -- and by fighting I mean a situation where my life and the lives of those for whom I was responsible were at stake, a situation very different from launching a cruise missile -- either I felt nothing at all or I felt exhilaration akin to scoring the winning touchdown. … it makes me angry when people lay on me what I ought to have felt. More important, it obscures the truth. What I feel now, forty years later, is sadness. … it is unlikely young soldiers will feel about killing in war the way I felt, decades older… it just goes against the nature and level of development of the mostly young people who will do our nation's killing. ..So ask the now twenty-year-old combat veteran at the gas station how he felt about killing someone. His probable angry answer, if he's honest: "Not a fucking thing." Ask him when he's sixty, and if he's not too drunk to answer, it might come out very differently, but only by luck of circumstance -- who was there to help him with the feelings during those four long decades after he came home from war. It is critical for young people who return from combat that someone is there to help them, before they turn to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. 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 the sorrow of war. …

In addition to urging that all returning combat vets need counseling, Marlantes also has a very concrete picture of how the civilian society that sent them might help them make the transition.

There is a correct way to welcome your warriors back. Returning veterans don't need ticker-tape parades or yellow ribbons stretching clear across Texas. … There should be parades, but they should be solemn processionals, rifles upside down, symbol of the sword sheathed once again. They should be conducted with all the dignity of a military funeral, mourning for those lost on both sides, giving thanks for those returned. Afterward, at home or in small groups, let the champagne flow and celebrate life and even victory if you were so lucky -- afterward.

It is not the soldiers that keep us from adopting this sort of respectful welcome for our returning combatants; it is our fantastical attachment to the illusion of effortless world dominance.


About that painful flaw in this book that I mentioned at the outset: Marlantes found his route to healing through adopting a Jungian understanding of existence. I have no quarrel with that, but the Jungian paradigm includes what I think is junk essentialism about men and women, our inexorably different roles and potentials. That stuff, I just can't stomach. Gender is more complex than this paradigm in ways we only begin to understand. When women take full part in combat, we will probably learn more about this -- for good and ill. But read the book. Cross posted at Can It Happen Here?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jan Adams has worked with WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras since its beginning, coordinating distribution during the three years when the organization published an antiwar tabloid newspaper. She is a lifelong political activist who has worked for justice in Central America (Nicaragua and El Salvador), in South Africa, in the fields of California with the United Farmworkers Union, and for racial and economic equality with electoral and advocacy campaigns in many areas of the United States.

More by Jan Adams:

Add a Comment

Dear Reader: Please help us keep our comments section a safe space of respectful and healthy dialogue that furthers the work against militarism and toward justice. Comments will be moderated.


WT Comments