Monday, October 7, 2013

No Political Healing

"What It Is Like To Go To War,” by Karl Marlantes, 2011

This book could be used as a primer by intelligent members of the U.S. military brass on how to handle the stress of killing and being around death constantly.  It is a way for soldiers to deal with the experiences they face and heal, and if applied, could make the U.S. military a more efficient machine.  Marlantes seems to convey that this is the book’s main point.  Because of this focus, navigating around his advice on preventing PTSD among soldiers becomes harder, even for some veterans.  I am not a veteran, but I have been around members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Vets For Peace for years.  Neither of these groups is mentioned by Marlantes, and there is a pretty obvious reason why. 

At the books’ end, Marlantes says there should be “no violence except to protect someone from violence” and “the substitute for war is not peace…the substitutes are spirituality, love, art and creativity, all achievable through hard work.”   If you look at these two statements, the first rationale does not apply to Vietnam at all, and the second is merely contradictory and obscure.  Yet he volunteered to fight in Vietnam, with misgivings, and supported the invasion of Iraq both times.  He doesn’t go into detail on other wars, but no doubt he has initially supported every U.S. intervention since Vietnam, as he seems to have a fondness for invasions and interventions styled as ‘humanitarian.’ His comparison of Hitler and Sadaam Hussein is a dead giveaway.  Then he says Vietnam and Iraq II were mistakes.  At one point, he says he’d only fight if the enemy was ‘on the other side of the river’ in the U.S. mainland.    If this seems contradictory, you are not alone.  I mentioned this to a vet friend of mine, and he said Marlantes was a ‘slow learner.’ 

That is an understatement.  But I don’t think it is about learning. 

As I pointed out in the review of “The Yellow Birds” (below), dealing with war only on a personal level is insufficient.  Personal healing without political healing is inadequate for a whole society. Actually, they go together.  And political healing does not consist of constantly celebrating ‘the Warrior” in some kind of perverted Spartan worship based on Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly.  Yet this has been the ‘solution’ in the present-day U.S., something Marlantes praises.

Marlantes hides his class background, but he went to Yale, enlisted voluntarily in the military, then went on to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship while in the military – and from there decided to go to Vietnam.  So it is pretty clear he was probably a well-off kid in Oregon, probably from a small-business family.  Today he works as a highly-paid business consultant for global energy companies.  He said he joined the army – or as the literature student in him describes it – the ‘Temple of Mars’ - in a “contradictory mixture of patriotism, genetic imperative, the draft, a yearning for transcendence and escape from the hum-drum, a need to prove my manhood, and just plain self-testing and curiosity.” He says he knew the Vietnam War was ‘wrong,’ but he went anyway.  Go figure. 

Marlantes combines a recounting of his personal experiences in Vietnam around Khe Sanh as a lieutenant and unit leader. (His book, ‘Matterhorn,’ is a fictional version of that war).  He refers to the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Bagavad Gita, Krishna, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Zen, Bushido, Soren Kirkegaard, the Grail story, ancient Irish tales and Cuchulainn in the text – all in the service of both obscuring the essential political-economic reality that dictates wars and providing high-brow background in his attempt to understand what ‘warriors’ do.  It mostly adds up to a large group of conflicted ‘humanist’ rationalizations, adrift from any class understanding. 

This part of the book will be useful to ex-soldiers, as Marlantes admits to enjoying warfare sometimes and understands what happens to soldiers during war and afterwards.  He doesn’t lie to you as a reader or himself.  He is not a pacifist, and most won’t find that a problem.  Yet can the U.S. military stop turning the enemy into something less than human, something he recommends? Marlantes derides treating enemy soldiers like animals, but I doubt the U.S. military will be listening.  Marlantes points out that for the most part, the Marines did not take prisoners in Vietnam.  He recounts an incident where his unit didn’t take prisoners and explains why.  In the book “Kill Everything That Moves” (reviewed below) Nick Turse provides plenty of evidence that this was military policy. Marlantes is astute in pointing out how humans must be degraded to the level of ‘animals’ in order to justify applying extreme violence to them.  And what of vegetarians - do they pose a problem for the U.S. Marine Corps?  After all, most vegetarians have decided that animals should not be butchered.   

Nor is it about masculinity.  Marlantes seems to still have deep issues about masculinity and women in this book – as he feels women cannot really be ‘warriors’ in the same way as men. They instead are to nurture the warriors back to social health.  The ghost of Robert Bly weaves through this whole book.  

The first issue about war is whether a war is justified.  And that leads to all the rest. If you make the mistake here, the rest follows normally.  Marlantes makes this mistake serially.  The first issue about violence is when to apply it.  Defensive violence is justified.  Committing to your class is also justified.  Just as some people commit to the ruling classes’ government and its phony patriotism –committing to class war against this very same ruling class would mean the same thing.  That is what the NVA and the Viet Cong did, and they were right.  They actually were defending themselves.

The answer to war IS peace – but it is not through pacifism.  The road to peace is knowing why there are wars in the first place.  They are produced for the most part by differing economic interests, especially in a capitalist age.  The Bolsheviks understood this and took Russia out of the bloody disaster called World War I by overthrowing the war makers at home – bloodlessly, for the most part.  The Vietnamese have had peace for many years, but only after defeating the French, the U.S. and the Chinese.

Our own war makers still ride high in the saddle in the U.S., supported enthusiastically by the leadership and a majority of both parties.  Their recent defeat on the issue of Syria marks a unique moment in an almost unbroken run of war-making.  Marlantes book will be used by the military – if they make any use of it, and that is problematic - to make their military less destructive to U.S. soldiers and make war a bit more humane for the enemy.  It is the sort of tweaking that liberal imperialists would like to give the machine – perhaps just as a cover. Though he derides the alienated killing of drone warfare, ultimately Marlantes peddles the fantasy that war can be had without so much PTSD and so much brutality on the field.  This kind of advice, by itself, actually makes another war more likely.  Is that enough for you?

Red Frog
October 7, 2013

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