Karl Marlantes, author of the acclaimed novel Matterhorn, says young warriors need more than basic training to prepare for combat in What It Is Like to Go to War.
You say that the Marines taught you how to kill but not how to deal with the aftermath. Is it possible to prepare someone for the fallout of combat?
I think it's possible to do a better job than ignoring it. Whether or not you can succeed is very tough because you're dealing with young people. They're just going to roll their eyes because they're not at the level of maturity where this is going to seem important. But when they hit 50, they're going to start thinking about stuff like this. That's not the military's problem, that's just the way it is. But make these young soldiers aware during their training that they're going to have to come to terms later on with having killed people so when they do come back, they'll realize they're not alone, they're not the first people in the world that are facing this problem.
How has our increased dependence on technology changed the soldier's view of war and the enemy?
I think it can endanger our humanity. It's a lot easier to blow up a blip on a screen than an actual person and have his blood spattered on your hands. There's going to be far less remorse. If you say you were in the war, but you were in Nevada where you killed people onscreen and then went home to dinner, I don't think there's going to be a whole lot of sobbing when you're 50. It isn't going to change your brain; it's unlikely to alter your consciousness. The majority of our armed forces now I don't think directly engage the enemy. Being exposed to fire is different than being in combat and actually trying to kill somebody as opposed to trying to dodge an IED [improvised explosive device]. They're both horrifying, but they're very different.
You write that war is akin to a religious or mystical experience. How so?
I don't know if they are two sides of the same coin—one side being heaven and the other hell—or if war is just as intense as a religious experience. I tend to think that war is certainly an initiatory experience that's equivalent to anything any mystic goes through. My point is that the effect on a 19-year-old is just as serious as if it were a religious experience, and to expect him to come back and flip burgers at McDonald's, that's asking a lot. He's just come back from the mountain. He may not have brought back the 10 Commandments, but he's had an enormously deep, and I think psychospiritual, experience. At their roots, spirituality and war are both about death. Maybe someday someone will write the definitive book about the relationship.