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Originally published Saturday, September 10, 2011 at 7:03 PM

Book review

'What It Is Like to Go to War': Karl Marlantes' unvarnished account of the highs, lows and tragedy of war

Woodinville author Karl Marlantes' "What It Is Like to Go to War," a collection of essays on themes of war, loyalty and heroism, strips the veneer of fiction off the topics he explored in his best-selling novel "Matterhorn." Marlantes discusses his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Barnes & Noble in Seattle's University Village shopping center.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Karl Marlantes

The author of "What It Is Like to Go to War" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble in Seattle's University Village Shopping Center (http://store-locator .barnesandnoble.com /store/2573; 206-517-4107).
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'What It Is Like to Go to War'

by Karl Marlantes

Atlantic Monthly Press, 256 pp., $25

The thrill of battle doesn't last. But the damage does, Karl Marlantes contends in his new book, "What It Is Like to Go to War."

"Combat is the crack cocaine of all excitement highs — with crack cocaine costs," the former Marine and decorated Vietnam vet writes, addressing the emotional double-whammy of not only going to war but also — and no less important — returning from it. Although he doesn't address the issue directly, recent reports of the high suicide rate among troops at Fort Lewis-McChord and elsewhere haunt these pages as Marlantes details his own search for understanding.

His book, really a series of essays on such themes as loyalty, heroism and "The Enemy Within," strips off the veneer of fiction that served him well in his best-selling novel, "Matterhorn." But it offers the same riveting detail as he explores the divide between a society far removed from war's realities and those like himself who have seen it close up.

"War is society's dirty work, usually done by kids cleaning up failures perpetrated by adults," writes the Woodinville resident, who spares no mercy for the higher-ups who literally called the shots when he was a platoon commander in Vietnam.

But don't look to Marlantes to advocate that the lion lay down with the lamb. In his view, the "Temple of Mars," a classical allusion to the warrior's sphere, should not be eliminated or even reduced but, rather, better aligned with the world that the rest of us know.

Soldiers need counseling as they come and go from the battlefield. They deserve worthy causes, which he defines as stopping murder and torture of other human beings as well as terrorism and threats of mass destruction to their own people. "Troops won't fight for oil," he claims. But when is it their call?

Marlantes, an Oregon boy, went to Yale and then Oxford before duty called. First came the shock of being tossed into a situation where conventional norms no longer applied. The second jolt, he writes, was returning to a country that often seemed hostile to his sacrifice.

He found solace in the Mahabharata and Carl Jung. He expunged his postwar demons with a Mass for the Dead. In one of the book's more fascinating vignettes, he shared his grief and guilt with the Jungian lecturer Joseph Campbell after they met by chance in a hotel bar.

Over drinks and dinner, Campbell listened as Marlantes told him of feats that brought him multiple awards for heroism yet also caused the death of more than 20 people.

At the end, Campbell asked: "Did you intend right?"

When Marlantes nodded, the world's most famous mythologist granted him absolution with a wave of his hand.

"What It Is Like to Go to War" is best when Marlantes tell his own story. It gets wobbly when he turns to the larger implications of his experience, where it's caught in the unresolved tension between the oath he swore and his acute awareness of war's tragic consequences.

Rather than question policies that entrust decisions to politicians and generals while consigning the "dirty work" to a slim swath of volunteers, he turns to the codes of the past to find a connection between killing and compassion — a debatable union, at best, but one made more difficult by the destructive powers of modern technology.

Marlantes, unable to close the gap, ultimately appeals to a personal sense of honor.

"I understand why Jesus said, 'Let the dead bury their dead.' It's the future killing that counts now. All any of us can do is wrestle with our own noble and ignoble intentions so when we are asked to consider life-and-death issues, we'll do it honestly."

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."

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