Part of the Series
Moyers and Company
Bill talks to Karl Marlantes – a highly-decorated Vietnam veteran, Rhodes Scholar, author, and PTSD survivor – about what we on the insulated outside need to understand about the minds and hearts of our modern warriors. Marlantes shares with Bill intimate stories about how his battlefield experiences both shaped and nearly destroyed him, even after returning to civilian life.
“’Thou shalt not kill’ is a tenet you just do not violate, and so all your young life, that’s drilled into your head. And then suddenly, you’re 18 or 19 and they’re saying, ‘Go get ‘em and kill for your country.’ And then you come back and it’s like, ‘Well, thou shalt not kill’ again. Believe me, that’s a difficult thing to deal with,” Marlantes tells Bill. “You take a young man and put him in the role of God, where he is asked to take a life – that’s something no 19-year-old is able to handle.”
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. To the story of a warrior, told in his own words. What he has to say is for all of us to hear, but especially those of us who have never been in combat.
Karl Marlantes, a small-town boy from Oregon, the son of a soldier, a graduate of Yale, landed in Vietnam in October 1968, and was placed in charge of 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. One year later he came home with two Purple Hearts, the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, ten Air Medals, and memories that screamed at him.
He finished his degree in philosophy at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and spent the next thirty years in business, all the while wrestling with the demons that came home with him.
Finally, in the late 90s, he asked the Veterans Administration for help, and began treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Two years ago he published a novel. He had been working on it ever since he came home from Vietnam; Matterhorn, the story of a young second lieutenant leading a rifle platoon of 40 marines on a remote jungle hill. Critics called it “a powerhouse: tense, brutal honest,” “unforgettable,” “moving and intense.”
Karl Marlantes has now written a second book, a nonfiction memoir and meditation on what it is like to go to war. Read it and you will be closer than you can imagine to the mind and heart of the warrior in battle and after. America has been at war for over a decade now – two million Americans have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and most of us here at home still don’t get it. Karl Marlantes and his book will help immeasurably.
Karl Marlantes, welcome.
KARL MARLANTES: It’s nice to be here, thank you.
BILL MOYERS: I haven’t been sure about how to start this interview. I’ve never been to war. I’ve never looked a man in the eye, who was trying to kill me, and kill him before he could. I’m not even sure that I can ask a question that doesn’t strike you as banal, against your experience. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s this divide between the warrior and the rest of us. And that divide can’t really be crossed, can it?
KARL MARLANTES: No. But I think that what has to change is this inhibition that we all feel about asking. You know, you come back and there is this code of silence, you know? And both, I call it the civilian and the veteran have it. And it gets in the way. And it’s all done out of trying to be kind. But you know, it’s like, “Well, I don’t want to say something that upsets him. Or I don’t want to—” and the fact of the matter is if someone would genuinely ask, “Well, you know, can you talk about it?” I think most guys would be delighted, you know?
And sure there are those who are going to say, “I don’t want to talk about it.” You know, the classic. And there are going to be those. So then you wait a year or two and ask him again. And believe me, at some point, they’re going to want to talk about it. I mean, it’s a horrendous experience that people just need to talk about, to connect. And there is this divide, our culture reinforces it.
BILL MOYERS: So I’ll start with this. When you have killed, for the rest of us, are you ever to feel that you are one of us again?
KARL MARLANTES: That’s a great question. There is a sense of alienation that I think most veterans deal with. And it is because you have done something that most people think is horrific. And the fact of the matter is, if you were a proud soldier or Marine, you felt good about it. And then you say, “Hm, maybe I should feel bad that I feel good about this.” And so you get these moral reverberations going around in your head that you’re sure that no one else is going to understand. I think that that’s probably not true. I think people with a certain amount of wisdom can certainly try to understand it. But you do have a sense of alienation. I think it’s one of the issues of trying to reintegrate.
BILL MOYERS: Talk a little bit about that further, about that estrangement. Is it guilt? Is it… what is it?
KARL MARLANTES: Well, it’s hard to say that it’s guilt. Because I’ve killed people, more than one. And I feel sadness about it, a great deal of sadness. That’s different than guilt. And— but I think that if someone’s going to talk about it, you have the fear that they won’t understand what you’re saying. And that they’ll judge you badly.
And so why open yourself up to that kind of a wound? Just, you know, it’s just better to just keep it quiet, because if they do misunderstand what you’re really trying to say, how you really felt when you were 19 and pulled the trigger, and they don’t get it, then you’re in this morass. And then maybe you’ll lose a friend. And maybe the girl won’t like you. And I mean, there’s all these things that when you come back for more, most people, like Vietnam veterans were 19 and 20 years old. And so, you know, you’re worried about, you know, whether your hair looks right at that age. So, you know—
BILL MOYERS: Were you able to tell your friends why you were no longer like them?
KARL MARLANTES: No, I didn’t talk about it. It was just— that was the code. And it was, again, that war was highly politicized. We were just a little bit afraid to, you know, at least I was to just— to come out, because a lot of my friends were virulently against that war. And how would they judge me, you know, if I let them know?
BILL MOYERS: You write in “What It’s Like to Go to War” that “the violence of combat assault[s] psyches, confuses ethics, and tests souls.” This is the result, not only of the violence you suffer, but the violence you inflict?
KARL MARLANTES: Absolutely. Yes, you have to take that into consideration. I mean, we are raised in a Judeo-Christian culture. I mean, “Thou shalt not kill,” even for the atheists in our culture is a tenet you just do not violate unless you’re, you know, crazy or a sociopath or something. And so all your young life, that’s drilled into your head. And then suddenly, you know, you’re 18 or 19 and they’re saying, “Go get ’em and kill for your country.”
And then you do that. And then you come back. And then it’s like, “Well, thou shalt not kill” again. Well, believe me, that is a difficult thing to deal with. And I think what’s even more difficult is that the only being that should actually take life is the one that gives life. And that’s God. Or the gods. And you take a young man and you put him in the role of a God where he is asked to take a life, that’s something that no 19-year-old is able to handle. I mean, that’s— you know, without really, really having to stretch. And so that’s a big part of this, when you say, you know, “Is the infliction of death or pain on others part of it?” Absolutely. Because you’ve stepped into a role that ordinary people never taught you.
BILL MOYERS: You write in here the “lack of mature judgment” is what makes young men, especially teenagers, “ideal weapons of the state.”
KARL MARLANTES: Yes, absolutely. When you’re 18 or 19 years old— well, you know, you’ve had kids. I have kids. You can’t get them to put a raincoat on when they go out in the rain, because they’re not thinking that way. They don’t— I mean, apparently, we’ve got the brain science today that the part of the brain that does judgment and foresight is not even developed until you’re at least 21. And so you have these young people who have got the incredible bodies of a 19 year old, the stamina, the speed, all of that. And they don’t hesitate to do what you ask of them. Can you imagine the platoon of Marines, who are 35? “Oh, wait a second, Lieutenant, let’s think about this. Maybe we should have the Air Force come in and hit them for a couple of days before we do this.” I mean, a 19 year old is just— they’re going to say, “Take the hill. They’re going to do it.” That is exactly right.
BILL MOYERS: What makes an effective killer in combat?
KARL MARLANTES: First of all, competence with weapons. He can shoot straight. He can make sure that his weapon works. The second one, I think, is very important, is the ability to do ultimate teamwork. You lose your sense of being an individual. You are part of— I can only go back to— the hunting group— that feeling of “It’s ‘we,’ not ‘me.’” And that you are willing to sacrifice your “me ,” both as a physical body and as an individual, to make sure that the “we” of the unit gets through this okay.
BILL MOYERS: You describe a scene in which one of our helicopters has crashed on a hill, while trying to come to the relief of some of the Marines. And they’re going to be taken out, the crew’s going to be taken out, the enemy’s at— the North Vietnamese are after them. And all of you guys are below the summit of that hill. And suddenly, without even a command, you begin to act not as individuals, but as one. And you’re all moving up the hill like an organism.
KARL MARLANTES: Exactly. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: And you say it’s not “me,” it’s “we.”
KARL MARLANTES: Exactly. We are— we can’t be killed. I can be killed, but that is an important part of the infantry.
BILL MOYERS: How does that happen?
KARL MARLANTES: I think it’s genetic, in a lot of ways. I mean, you think about the way that our species evolved. The way we got protein was groups of young men, who would go out and basically be willing to risk their lives so that the group would bring back some meat. And if one or two of them were missing, well, the tribe lived.
And I think that the ones who didn’t feel that way got weeded out. Not only because— they didn’t bring the meat back, as well. So I got a feeling there’s a deep genetic component to it. And then, again, you go through training. And I think that the military can, in fact capitalize on that. And I don’t want to use that in a pejorative sense, at all.
BILL MOYERS: It’s their job.
KARL MARLANTES: It’s their job. And they, for example, in the Marines, when you screw up, you stand to the side, and everybody else in the platoon is punished. That’s the way they start to get you to think that if you screw up, these people are going to die. They don’t punish you. They punish the other guy. Well, then you, it starts to get through your head, “Oh my God, I better not screw up.” And you become part of a group that way. And that’s important training.
BILL MOYERS: So does boot camp teach you to kill or does boot camp strip away the restraints and the strictures, the corsets, so to speak, that have contained that primitive spirit?
KARL MARLANTES: That’s what I think is that it removes, I call it the “cobwebs of civilization” because they’re so fragile. I mean, there is a dark side that can come out instantly if the bonds are removed.
BILL MOYERS: You were in boot camp.
KARL MARLANTES: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: How did you go from being a Yale graduate, a Rhodes scholar, a nice guy from Oregon to a really, a killing machine? You killed. You say in your book there were twenty or more people dead because of you .
KARL MARLANTES Yes, yeah
BILL MOYERS How did you get that inhibition out?
KARL MARLANTES: I’ll have to think about that. Can you give me a second? I can remember there was, the Marines have something called pugil sticks. They’re large staves. And they have sort of a padded, like it looks like one of the old cannon ramrod things on the end of it. And they teach you how to fight another person with these. And you get knocked around. I mean, you know, they put a football helmet on your head. And away you go, okay?
You’re young. You’re very strong. You’re fast. And you’ve got a whole bunch of people in a circle around you. And when we were in high school, we used to have kids fight like that. I mean, the champions would fight and the people would be in a circle around them. It was identical. And I remember saying, “Okay, one of us is going to lose.” And I just went wild. I mean, I remember, I think I terrified the guy.
I mean, they— I think I won, because I just started screaming. I just let this stuff out. And I’ll tell you, it was an unbelievable feeling, this raw, raw animal that had been sitting there a long time. I mean, it was just, it felt wonderful. I just beat the hell out of this guy.
BILL MOYERS: In boot camp?
KARL MARLANTES: In boot camp. And I went, “Wow, that felt good. And it was like suddenly I didn’t care if I hurt him. One of us was going to lose and one of us was going to win. And that’s all that went through my mind. And so it wasn’t like I was taught something. It was like I was put in a situation where you either have to do it or you’re not going to do it.
And when you get in combat, you’re going to die if you don’t do it. And believe me, the old civilizing things that’s saying, “Well, let’s be nice. Let’s see if we can be good to the guy and stuff.” It’s like when it’s your organism at stake, all that stuff finally disappears. And that’s why I think there’s a deep genetic component to us. That we just don’t want to admit. It comes out. Carl Jung talks a lot about shadow, how we have a violent side of us that we don’t like to talk about.
BILL MOYERS: So that moment the North Vietnamese soldiers, young men like yourself stood up opposite you, about to throw a grenade at you. Do you think there’s a correlation?
KARL MARLANTES: I think there is.
BILL MOYERS: What did you do?
KARL MARLANTES: Well, the thing was, I can remember— we were in an assault. And suddenly, we could see what we call CHICOMs, these potato masher hand grenades, flying through the air. And I got knocked down and blinded in one eye. And my radio man was hurt. And so it was serious. And we threw grenades back. And they threw some grenades back. And finally, I go like, “We’re going to run out of grenades.” So the lieutenant finally gets his brains working. And I said, “Okay, you throw some grenades.” There’s three guys that were with me. “And I’m going to sneak around the side. And when these two guys pop up, I’ll get ’em. When they pop up to throw the grenades back at us.”
I got around in the position. And I could see that one of them was already dead. And they were young. Same as our guys, just, you know, I guess they were 17, 18 years old. And the one who was still alive was wounded. And I was wounded. And I was laying on the ground. And had him across the sights of my M-16. And I remember clearly wishing I could speak Vietnamese. I couldn’t.
And I can remembering whispering out loud, “Don’t throw it. I won’t pull the trigger. Don’t throw it. I won’t pull the trigger.” And the kid snarled at me, literally, like that. And he threw the grenade right at me. And I pulled the trigger. And the feeling was, like, “Okay, we’re in this fight. One of us is going to come out.” And so I killed him. And it was years later that I was driving down I-5, which is the interstate that goes through Oregon and Washington. And, dark, middle of the night. And, you know, I love country music on the radio. And nobody bothers you, you know? You’re just, everything’s under control. And his eyes appeared in the windshield.
And I’m psychologically aware enough to know that, “Uh-oh, this guy is coming back. And he’s coming back. And you need to deal with it.” And that was the genesis of that second book. I started to write down what I was really trying to think about to reconcile, “What was that?” I mean, there we were. He would have killed me. I would have killed him. And both of us probably didn’t want to do that.
I mean, as soon as we got out of that situation, we’d go, like, “What was this all about?” And especially the Vietnam War, you never knew what that was all about. He at least had the moral, whatever the word is, side of saying, “Well, these guys are in my country. And we want them to leave.” But it astounds me how young men will get into that situation. And they’ll do the job. Both of us were going to do it.
BILL MOYERS: Both of you going to do the job. One of you will win.
KARL MARLANTES: One of us will win, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Was that the first time you felt any emotion at having killed?
KARL MARLANTES: Yeah, no, it wasn’t. It was one of. The first time that I ever felt the emotion about killing, I was in one of these sort of typical California groups, where everybody’s, you know, sharing their deep experiences. And the leader of the group asked me—
BILL MOYERS: A therapy group? A therapy—
KARL MARLANTES: A therapy group, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Were you in therapy?
KARL MARLANTES: Well it wasn’t therapy. It was, you know, we were a bunch of hippies. I mean, you know, we were sort of, you know, sharing our deep experiences. You know, I mean, God, it’s hard to remember the ’70s. But that was part of it. And my wife had said, you know, “This is a good thing. We should go to one of these things.” And so I was there. I’m game, you know? And one of the group leaders asked me to imagine telling the mother and sister of somebody I’d killed that I was sorry.
BILL MOYERS: You mean going to the Vietnamese family and saying—
KARL MARLANTES: So I started to imagine that. And I fell apart. I mean, I fell apart. I started sobbing. I started, I mean, I couldn’t stop crying for three days. And then I got it under control. And I shoved it back down again. And it wasn’t until that night that this specific guy came back again. And you can only shove it down so long. And it finally comes out.
BILL MOYERS: And you had felt no emotion at the moment you had killed him?
KARL MARLANTES: Other than exhilaration, because now he wasn’t going to throw any more hand grenades at us.
BILL MOYERS This happened in 1968-69. It’s years later that you go to the therapy group. And then you have this apparition appear before you in the car. But it’s 30 years later or so before you seem to really come to terms with it. Were you wrestling with this trauma? With, I think, its unhealed wounds?
KARL MARLANTES: Yeah, that’s right. Not really. What was happening is that I was exhibiting behaviors that had indicated that I wasn’t wrestling with it. I mean, I was doing— things would start happening that would puzzle me. I mean, one day I can remember I bumped my head against the cupboard in the kitchen. And I turned around and took the thing out with my fists.
I mean, there was shattered crockery and tin cans all over the kitchen floor. And the cupboard was shattered to shreds. I beat it with my fists. And then I came back from that. And I was like, “Huh, wow, I was really mad.” You know? So but I didn’t for a moment think that it had something to do with the war. Well, it’s a classic post-traumatic stress reaction. You are taken by surprise. And you aren’t thinking.
The way that PTSD works is that most casualties occur early in a person’s tour. Because his brain hasn’t adapted to combat. And the way it adapts to combat is we think, okay, hear a noise. “Oh, wonder what that is? Is that a bird? Or is that the wind? Maybe it’s the NVA” Well, by the time you’d gone through that process—
BILL MOYERS: North Vietnamese.
KARL MARLANTES: North Vietnamese. It’s too late. You’re dead. So what happens in extreme adrenaline modes is that the wiring changes so that it no longer goes through the frontal cortex. You hear the sound. It goes immediately to the amygdala, which is fight/flight/freeze. There’s no thought anymore. You just turn toward the sound and fire. And after you’ve gotten into that position, you are likely to survive way more than someone who hasn’t.
The trouble is you can’t turn it back. Because you’re now rewired. And that’s why it’s so difficult for combat veterans. So you get surprised like that. You get, you hit the cupboard. There’s no thought. “I wonder what happened?” I just hit the cupboard. The cupboard was destroyed before I finally started thinking again. I wasn’t thinking.
And I mean, it’s sort of funny. But it’s pathetic at the same time. I remember a guy came up behind me in an intersection. He honked his horn. Because I was slow off the mark. I was trying— I had my little girl with me at the time. Sophie, one of my five children. And when I came to my senses, in other words, when I started thinking again, I was on the hood of his car trying to kick his windshield in.
I had jumped from the car, out of the door, back to this, you know— name any expletive you want, and I was kicking on his windshield. I went, “Holy moly.” I mean, this is weird. And I didn’t for a moment think, so I wasn’t dealing with it. All this stuff started happening. And then finally I figured out that, “Oh, something has to be done.”
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn in combat about heroism? You were a brave man.
KARL MARLANTES: Yeah, I got medals. And, they’re medals that I can go into any Navy base or Marine base and get free drinks with. They’re that good. And— two things. The first is how do you deal with the fact that you get such a high medal? Navy Cross is the highest medal that the Marines can hand out. A Congressional Medal of Honor is handed out by Congress. It’s like being the halfback on the football team.
If you’re a little narcissistic, you actually think you made the touchdown. But if it weren’t for ten other guys blocking, you wouldn’t have made the touchdown. And so the guy that gets the medal is the one that gets recognized. But he’s alive because there were a bunch of other people that were doing their jobs. And they didn’t get medals for it. So that’s the first thing.
So I kind of, I like to wear that medal thinking about the rest of them. More importantly, and I had personal experience with this, this is one of the things that troubles me, is that I wanted a medal. I saw my dad’s medals from World War II. And they were nothing big, but to an eight year old, they were bigger than life, you know? And I want one of those, just like my dad and my uncle. They got medals.
So I wanted that. And when I was 22 years old, I still wanted one. And we got into a situation where we were assaulting a hill. And one of the kids had— his rifle was jammed. And he couldn’t get it to fire. And he was just shaking and nervous. And so I’d been there while by that time, I was pretty experienced. And I knew right away that he hadn’t seated his magazine properly. So I just grabbed it from him and I seated it properly and I fired a round.
I said, “Okay, now don’t go up there.” Because I could see that the NVA had cut away the brush about two foot off the ground. So that there was probably a machine gun uphill. And what they would do is they’d see the legs and they’d shoot the legs. And then you’d fall down into the— where the machine gun fire was going. That was plain as day to me. I said, “Just don’t go up there. There’s a machine gun up there. Go around this way.”
And I figured, “Okay, he’s on his way. We’re fine.” I was on to the next task. And he sprinted up the hill, right up where that stuff had been cleared away. Why? He was embarrassed that he had jammed his rifle. I don’t know what it was. He was going to show me. He just lost— anyway, he got shot.
And I heard him go, “I’m hit.” Because the machine gun had opened up. And I wait and I wait and there’s no sound. And my former platoon sergeant was there. And so I said to him, I said, “This kid’s hit. And I’m going to go get him.” He said, “Don’t go get him, you’ll get killed.” I said, “Look,” and I got sort of this, like, “I’m in a movie,” feeling.
It was odd. I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll go get him, but if I get him, will you write me up for a medal?” And I was joking. But I really wasn’t joking, either. I mean, I kind of wanted a medal, you know? And I thought, “This is a good chance. I’ll pull a guy— I mean, I saw that— you know, John Wayne did that, right? And so I should be able to do that.
And I remember this guy. I mean, you know, he was an old man, as far as I was concerned. He was probably 25. He said, “Sure, Lieutenant. I’ll write you up. It’ll be posthumous. But that’s fine.” And I went up to get this kid. And I had to fire my rifle to keep the machine gunners heads down. And so I was firing my rifle. And he was laying with his head down this way toward me, feet uphill, head down.
And I got up there. And I couldn’t move him. He was bigger than I was. And so I finally got him sideways and I started to roll down the hill with him, just me wrapped around him, to get him. And the machine gun was firing at us. And I can remember going like, “If they hit us, I hope this guy’s on top.” That was going through my mind. It’s like, “I hope he’s on top, not me, when the bullet hits.”
I got down and we fell over a little ledge. And there was a Navy corpsman there that started to work on him right away. And he— you know, I mean it’s just so amazing when I think about this scene. It’s just— talking about it. The kid was vomiting. And this Navy corpsman was taking the vomit and spitting it out and then blowing air into him. And taking the vomit and spitting it out and blowing air into him.
And— then he stopped. And he looked me and said, “There’s no use, Lieutenant. I just saw this.” And he held the kid’s head. And there was a bullet hole right in the top of his head. And I thought, “Well, okay, he’s dead.” And I went off, I was busy. That night, after the battle was over, I thought, “How did that bullet get in his head? He was laying face down, head down, toward me. And I was shooting uphill, over the top of his body to try and keep the machine gunners’ heads down. Maybe I put it there.” Well, believe me, I got a medal for that. Now what was wrong with that medal was that I had personal ego needs intertwined with what was the real function of a hero.
BILL MOYERS: You write about how there is some mystical quality about killing. And that brought me up short, because it’s hard to imagine anything so brutal and so cruel as killing having any kind of religious or spiritual ecstasy with it. What did you mean?
KARL MARLANTES: Well, there’s two things that are involved here. The first is that our idea of religion, in this culture, is pretty much all sweetness and light. We like Christmas. We don’t like Good Friday. And other religions have terrible demons. I mean, you think about the Aztecs or some of the Native American cultures that the religions had ritual torture.
There were dark— there’s darkness to religion that our particular culture doesn’t want to encompass the whole breadth of the spiritual experience. That’s the first thing that is worth remembering. The second— in other words, it’s like the mystic may see heaven and maybe the soldier sees hell. But it’s the same kind of experience.
And I’ll explain why I think it’s the same kind of experience. I don’t know if it is the same experience. But if you look at all the mystics, they have four things that they strive to do. One is they are always aware of their mortality. Don Juan says death is always over your shoulder. Soldiers for sure. Second, they’re always in the present moment. In combat, there is no thought about the future or the past. You are completely focused, completely focused on the terrible present moment.
The third thing that mystics do is they overcome their own sense of ego in terms of seeing that they have to move beyond that to the good of others. And in combat, time after time after time, you see people sacrificing their lives or their limbs to help their friends. It’s the same thing. And then the fourth thing is that almost all of these mystics are part of a group. They’re, you know, in a convent or a monastery. They’re part of the Sangha, if they’re Buddhist. They’re a part of the Umma if they’re Muslim. They’re part of a larger group.
BILL MOYERS: A church if you’re—
KARL MARLANTES: A church, absolutely. Yeah. And what is a soldier? He’s part of a larger group. So these things are very similar. But as I said, maybe it’s just the vision of heaven and hell, which Blake said was sort of the same thing, as well. And I think that that’s what we’re dealing with.
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn in war about evil?
KARL MARLANTES: You know what I learned about evil is that it is a real something that exists. And that it’s always possible for us to tune into it. It’s like it’s part of being in the world. We personify— the Christians came up with the concept of the devil. And I don’t believe it that way. But I do believe that we are in a world of opposites. And that somehow we have to make our choices. And that evil exists.
I had an experience with it that was pretty profound for me. I had gone to a mass for the dead with a Capuchin monk, talking to my friends that had died and talking to the enemies that I had killed. It was a very moving experience. When that was done, I went back home. That night, there was a presence that came into the room that absolutely terrified me. I mean, it was beyond anything I had ever encountered in my life. It was the archetype of all shadow.
It was— it felt like it filled the room. And it was going to get me. And I did everything I could. I mean, I reverted to a five year old. I had a crucifix. And I was like, “Don’t get me.” You know, I was going to, you know, strike his heart with a wooden stake. I mean, I didn’t know what was going on. But it was something that I felt that was absolutely real.
Now some people could say, “Oh, well, you were just projecting your own darkness out on the—” I don’t care which way it happened. It was a very real event. And so it is there. It’s waiting.
BILL MOYERS: What came of that experience that night?
KARL MARLANTES: Well, this was fascinating. I went back to the Capuchin monk. And I said— and he said, “Whoa, I think we’ve been messing with something that might be bigger than we are.” And he called a guy up from his order, who was in the Vatican someplace, who was more familiar with the particular ceremony. And he said that, you know, “If you’re going to break evil’s hold on someone’s soul, evil’s going to fight back.”
And he said “This is probably what’s happening.” In other words, I had gone through this ceremony where I was beginning to distance myself. And I was beginning to understand. And I was no longer acting in this unconscious way, like, jumping on people’s— you know, hoods of their cars and kicking their windshields in. And it was sort of like he used this metaphorical language. Evil was fighting back.
And what was so funny about it is that I was in a veterans’ group at the time. And was a Chumash Indian named Bear who was in the group with us. And he was a long-range patrol veteran from the Army. And I was a little bit shaky, you know? And so Bear comes up to me after the meeting. He says, “What’s the matter with you today? You’re jumpy as hell.”
And I start telling him about this experience I had. Then he looked at me and said, “Oh, evil spirits. We know what to do with that.” So we went to his uncle, or great uncle, who was a shaman. And he came back with a bowl, I mean, this was, you know, took a few hours. He said, “Just wait here.”
And he came back and he had a little tape recording. His uncle had made a little tape recording. And he had some sage and stuff like this. He goes, “My uncle says just go back to your house and light this stuff on fire and play these chants and sing along with it. And the evil spirits are going to be taken care of.”
So I went back and I did that. And it all evened out. And I was like, “What is this all about? It’s just this symbolic, ritual stuff that we ignore in our current culture. That gets into some very deep parts of our soul that the Chumash Indians did understand. And I’ll tell you a funny ending to this is that actually, after this experience, I joined the Catholic Church. And I told a friend about it. And he said, “Marlantes!” He said, “Why didn’t you become a Chumash?”
BILL MOYERS: The paradox to me is this side of you that you’ve just described versus the other Karl Marlantes, who not only killed in Vietnam, but as you say in the book, burned men with napalm, spewed burning white phosphorous that burned deep holes right through their bodies. And then you go on to say, but this was not like killing humans. This was like killing animals.
KARL MARLANTES: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: It was when I finally killed one very young fellow that I realized I had killed the enemy.
KARL MARLANTES: Right. Again, if you are raised not to kill another human being, how you psychologically get around that — I use the word “pseudo-speciation.” It’s a large word, but it means you basically turn someone else not into a human, but into an animal. And we’re very good at this, in our culture. We have all kinds of names that dehumanize people. “Kraut, nigger, gook—” you know, you can name them, “towelhead, haji.”
And what that does is that that suddenly makes that person not human anymore. It makes that person an animal who’s not only trying to kill you, he’s trying to kill your friends. Well, it’s way easier to kill an animal than a human. And so there’s this sort of thing where you just slip into it. They aren’t human anymore. And you get the job done.
The trick is to come back. And we don’t deal with that a lot in military training. There was none when I was in the military. This idea of slipping into the point where you’re killing an animal and then saying you’ve got to come back. And a couple of things happened to me. One is kid who broke through that. But there were some guys that had cut off the ears, I mean we had been fighting for days. And their friends had been killed. And the dead bodies laying around the hole. So they cut some ears off.
BILL MOYERS: Of the corpses of the enemy?
KARL MARLANTES: The corpses of the enemy. And they stuck them to their helmets. And like I said, these are 18-year-olds. So it’s like a high school letter. “Hey, look, I shot these two guys.” You know? And I said, you know, “You can’t do this.” You know? And so I punished these two kids. And I said, “You’re going to bury those bodies.”
And this is not trivial, because we were still being shot at. There was a sniper around, who kept, you know, dinging at us. And so they had to go down below the lines and dig a hole. And they both started crying. And I went, “This restored—” I didn’t know that, at the time. Twenty years later, I’m remembering it. That restored their humanity. They realized they were burying another person. And they felt sadness.
Again, I don’t think the word is guilt. Those people were trying to kill us. But the sadness that those people were there just like we were. They were 18. We were 19, 18. And there we are killing each other. That broke through for that moment. And that’s how you get around it is that you kill them when they’re animals. And then you have to try to come back. If you don’t, then the atrocities can start. I mean, you think of My Lai. You think of any of the atrocities, whichever enemy has contributed to them. It’s because you’re no longer seeing humans.
BILL MOYERS What did you think when you read that story back in the early part of this year? Sergeant Bales in Afghanistan went on a rampage and killed, I think 17—
KARL MARLANTES: Seventeen.
BILL MOYERS: —civilians, many of them were kids or children. Did anything flash through your—
KARL MARLANTES: Oh yeah. The first thing that flashed through my mind is, “What in the world is that guy doing over there on his fourth tour?” I mean—
BILL MOYERS: Fourth tour?
KARL MARLANTES: Fourth tour. And he had been wounded. And he was from the Stryker Brigade, which is at Fort Lewis, near where I live. These guys consider themselves elites. And they are not the kind of person that wants to— that says, “Well, I think I’ll stay back this time.” They want to go with the unit. They’re an elite Army group.
And yet he raised his hand. And he said, “I don’t— this’ll be my fourth tour. I don’t feel too good about this. I’m a little shaky. Things are not going well for me right now.” And that’s a cry for help. And someone should have listened to that.
So they sent him anyway. And I think he snapped. Clearly he snapped. And I think about, there’s sort of several ways that the mind can go. In World War II, there was only— several ways out. The war had to be over or you had to be wounded bad enough that they never sent you back or you could die. And about a quarter of the casualties were psychiatric. A quarter.
What that’s telling me is that the mind says, “I’ve got to get out of here. This is just not good for me. This is not good for me. How am I going to do it? I’m going to go crazy. That’s how I’m going to do it.” And how did they solve that? They said, “We’re going to give them all a length of service, so that they know when it’s over.” Vietnam, you know, the Army had 12 months, the Marines had 13 months. The psychiatric casualty rate dropped to something like two percent.
But afterwards, the PTSD rates and all that stuff were just as rampant as they ever were. But it’s because of that psychological thing. “There is a way out. All I have to do is survive this long.” I think if a guy goes over there, he either can commit suicide or he can go crazy.
BILL MOYERS: I was going to ask you if you thought suicide was a way out in their minds? Because as you probably know the rate of suicides of our troops is now back up. It’s about one a day, so far this year. And that’s higher than it’s been in several years. Now I know every example is different. But generally, from your experience, what do you think about the rising number of suicides in our troops today?
KARL MARLANTES: Well, I’m with you. I mean, who am I to say? But I have my theories. And I’ll be happy to tell you. First of all, I think it is because we’ve laid an enormous burden on a tiny percentage of the population. I was at Fort Bragg— actually, Fayetteville, North Carolina, and a young man and his wife came up to me. And they looked like they were four years out of high school. I mean, they were young. She had a baby in one hand and a toddler in the other. And she starts crying at the signing table. And finally, she gets it under control. And, “What’s the matter?” And she turns to her husband and she says, “Well, he’s shipping out again tomorrow.” So I turn to this young man. I say, “Wow, is this your second tour?” “No, sir, it’s my seventh.”
BILL MOYERS: Seventh?
KARL MARLANTES: Seventh. Is this a Republic? We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. And you lay that kind of a burden on—
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean “is this a Republic?”
KARL MARLANTES: Well, who’s participating? And why should someone do seven tours? I mean, aren’t there other people that could at least do two or three, you know?
I mean, you think of the percentages of people that are actually engaged in combat as part of the military is very small. And so it’s not just that the military, which is about, I think, a half of one percent of the population. Within that, the people who are actually doing the majority of fighting are a tiny percentage of that, as well. And the whole weight and the whole burden falls on those people.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, before Vietnam, it was called “combat neurosis,” “battle fatigue,” “shell shock.” Then your generation gave us the post-Vietnam syndrome, which now we know as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Have you thought about how combat was different from what’s happening in Afghanistan today or in Iraq over those last—
KARL MARLANTES: Oh yeah, I’ve thought about it. And you think about the average World War II veteran. I mean I don’t have my stats, but it’s something like 40 days of combat in a three and a half year war for our side.
And they would go into combat, like the Marines would take an island, fierce, ugly, terrible stuff. And then they’d pull them out. And they would be safe. They’d go to Australia or someplace to refit. And then they’d hit another island. In Vietnam, it was the first time that when you finish a firefight, you were still there. You were— there was no safe place to go.
And so you were always on alert for the entire time you were there, if you were a grunt. Afghanistan and Iraq are just more of the same. Because again, there’s no place where you’re safe.
If you need to go on the road, well, you’re going to get an IED. And it’s going to, you know, kill you. And you have no control over that. You don’t know where it is. You can’t fight back. There’s no enemy to sort of take the hill from. You’re just suddenly blasted and dead or, you know, serious brain trauma. And then the next day, you know, if you’re one of the l— survivors, well, then you’re back on the road again. And so again, the number of days that you are exposed to the fear is way higher. Way higher.
And I think that the inability to see that you’re making progress, you have this sense that we’re just here doing this every day and nothing is changing. How do you know when you’ve won the hearts and minds? My dad knew when he crossed the Rhine. He knew that they were making progress. My uncle knew when they when they went to the Philippines and they got one island than another one. It’s like we’re making progress here. Vietnam was the first war where the goal was just not clear. So you’re in combat all the time. And there’s no sense of what are we trying to accomplish? So the meaning gets hidden. And I think that’s an important part of it.
BILL MOYERS: Once upon a time, everyone knew someone who had been or was at war. And I can’t tell you I know anyone today who is fighting in Afghanistan or even the family of somebody who’s fighting in Afghanistan. That has to have some effect, does it not, on the social contract that we all share?
KARL MARLANTES: Oh, I think it does. I think it has an enormous effect on it. I went to Yale. And there’s Woolsey Hall, which is a big hall in Yale. And it has a bronze plaque that’s a massive size that has the names of hundreds of dead Yalies from World War I, World War II, Korea. One, I think, died in Vietnam who I knew. And I don’t know if any— I don’t wish it on any. But the elites do not send their kids into the military anymore.
BILL MOYERS: I wonder if that has some effect on the suicides, the feeling, “What does it matter? You know, who cares?” Because soldiers, I read, sometimes feel double crossed, twice. Once when they go and discover they’ve been lied to about the war. And then when they come home and find nobody gives a damn about what it costs them.
KARL MARLANTES: Exactly. No, I think it does have an enormous amount of— because it’s the sense that you’re carrying the entire burden. And no one is aware of it, no one wants to cop to it. I mean, you think about what it takes to get a soldier over to Afghanistan. You and I have to pay taxes. People have to train scientists to build bombs. People have to finance factories to do the building. Everyone in this country is involved in that war.
What the soldier did is at the end of an enormous long chain, he pulled the trigger. That was his part. But we all like to believe that he did it. We didn’t do it. And that is going to alienate a person right away. It’s like, “Yeah, I did it. And I’m the only one that is responsible for this? Why are you laying it all on me?” That’s one big problem. And I think it’s a problem of alienation, when people come back, and they realize that nobody really cared. And they don’t even want to take responsibility for the fact that they were part of the enormous machinery that had all this take place.
So I do think that it’s important. And I think that these people are proud. They’re proud to be in the military. They are volunteers. And they generally want to do a good job and all that. But I can’t think that they’re not getting a bit resentful. Seven tours? It’s like, “What are you guys doing to help here? Aren’t we supposed to all be rowing the same boat?”
BILL MOYERS What do returning veterans need?
KARL MARLANTES: Here’s my ideal of a return. First of all, they don’t need cheering. It ain’t football. And I think that a lot of non-veterans think that they’re supporting the troops by doing, you know, hullabaloo and “Let’s cheer. And let’s salute the flag and fire off a few cannons and some fireworks.” What they need is recognition that what they’ve just done is something that should be thanked not cheered.
If you’ve got a guy with a leg that’s got gangrene, and a surgeon is called in to clean up the mess, and he has to cut the leg off. Do you cheer the surgeon? No, totally inappropriate. What you have on your hands when a veteran comes back is that the adults in the society have failed to come to some kind of an agreement with the enemy. Whose fault it is doesn’t make any difference. There are times, I’m not a pacifist, when you cannot convince the other side to come to terms.
Osama bin Laden is not somebody you can reason with. That’s where you say we have to send them in. But what you’re doing is that you’re sending them in to clean up a mess. It’s a failure that they’re being sent in to clean up, to try and bring back to some order. And when they come back, that’s not something you cheer about. What you should do is there should be a solemn parade. The rifles should be put upside down over their shoulders so that the sense of sadness can come through. And then what they need to be is to be hugged and thanked. “You just did something for us that was incredible. And we appreciate this.” Cheering just trivializes it and puts it in a whole different context.
BILL MOYERS: Is the war finally over for you?
KARL MARLANTES: Yes. I think that now I’ve pretty much worked it all out. And I don’t have the— I still get, my wife will say, “Well, you know, you were thrashing around last night.” I still have that. But it’s— you know, and my eyes will start darting, I mean, you know, because I’m still in that mode that I no longer am troubled by it. It’s almost become sort of like, “Well, have you had your meds today?” You know, I take medicine for PTSD And it’s part of who I am now. It’s a part of my life.
But it no longer troubles me. And these two books have done it for me. I’m through with it. I want to write more fiction, but none of it’s going to be about war.
BILL MOYERS: So whatever the clinical definition, however it varies from one warrior to another, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is all those unhealed wounds you bring back?
KARL MARLANTES: Yes. It’s the wounds to your psyche and to your soul that you bring back. The wounds of war are certainly apparent. You see someone coming back without limbs. But you don’t see these hidden wounds. And yet they are carried. And they’re a huge part of it. And they’re a part of it that, again, when we decide as a nation to go into war, when the peace treaty is signed, if there even ever was a declaration of war, which I haven’t seen since World War II— the war isn’t over.
The people that fight it are going to be fighting these battles, these spiritual, psychological battles most of their lives. And they need help. And I think that we have to be prepared as a nation that if we’re going to commit a 19 year old to war, we’re going to have to give him some help. And we’re going to have to give his family some help. I mean, for every soldier with post-traumatic stress, there’s a wife that is sitting there wondering what in the hell is happening to her husband. And why is this— what’s going on here? She needs help and the kids need help.
I mean, I dedicated my first book to my kids. Because I said, it’s “to my children who grew up with the good and bad of having a Marine combat veteran as a father.” And there’s some good, you know, discipline and that sort of stuff. But there’s a lot of bad, which is crazy behavior. And gosh, you know, go in and wake up dad and scare him, you know? You’re apt to get the lamp thrown at you.
And this is something that a five year old has a terrible trying to come to terms with. That five year old needs help. So we need, as a nation, to remember that it ain’t over when they come home. Now we have to also deal with what their struggle is still going to be. It’s not against the enemy anymore. It’s against their own psyches that they need help with.
BILL MOYERS: The first book was Matterhorn, a novel, a true novel. The new book is What It Is Like to Go to War. Karl Marlantes, thank you very much for sharing these experiences with us.
KARL MARLANTES: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
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