Vietnam Vet Karl Marlantes on 'Going to War' and How He Wrote 'Matterhorn'

Karl Marlantes with Marines in background, Oceanside, CA. (PBS)

"Going to War" is a new 60-minute documentary about what it means to train for, serve in and return from war. It features journalist and author Sebastian Junger, author of "The Perfect Storm" and director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Restrepo"; and Vietnam War veteran Karl Marlantes, author of the best-selling Vietnam combat novel "Matterhorn" and the non-fiction "What It Is Like to Go to War." The film will air on Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, at 9pm ET on PBS stations .

The film is definitely aimed at an audience that doesn't have any direct experience or contact with the military. For some of our readers, it can serve as a reminder that lots of folks have no idea what's going on with the men and women who serve and offers some idea of how they can be educated about the issues faced by the military.

Karl Marlantes was one of the most insightful interview subjects in the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS documentary "The Vietnam War" and he wrote "Matterhorn," a book many consider to be the finest war novel published this century. Karl's thought long and hard about the moral issues faced by those who fight and he's got a lot to say that's worth considering.

Give some background on "Going to War." What is it, and who is it for?

The show started with my book, "What It Is Like to Go to War."  An executive at Twin Cities Public Television named JoAnna Baldwin Mallory read it and thought it would be very interesting to do a documentary that explored war, in general.  Not, you know, the Vietnam War or the Gulf War or whatever war we’re in now.  War is a huge part of the human experience.  

JoAnna was the one behind the documentary and PBS is airing it.  And they got funding, they got a lot of funding from Freddie Smith, a Marine. [Fred Smith, founder of Federal Express - ed.] I know Sebastian Junger because his book, "War," came out at the same time that "Matterhorn" did.  Since then he's done another book called "Tribe," which I highly recommend. That came out just after "What It Is Like to Go to War."  

They've got us as talking heads in this one-hour documentary coming out for Memorial Day.  The film is basically three parts.  It’s how society prepares people to go to war, the experience of actually going to war, and then the return from war.  It’s three major phases and it’s roughly 20 minutes of each.  

Karl Marlantes and Colonel Kazmier Oceanside, CA. (photos courtesy Laura Snow)

My first response when watching was that this was something that you could have taken ten hours to explore.  

Oh, yeah, I know. They wanted a three-hour film for this funding but the filmmakers managed to get one hour out. In my opinion, America does very badly with engaging with the very concept that we’re an aggressive nation. Most people really don’t think they're involved. 

One of the things that I like to point out to people is that the military is this big rifle that Americans pay for with taxes. The fact that we don't realize that is part of why returning veterans feel alienated.

People who learn 2nd grade arithmetic from teachers design the weapons and farmers grow food to feed factory workers who make them. There's this huge interrelated chain.  A the very end of that long chain, some 19-year-old pulls the trigger.  But we all say, "Oh, he did the killing."  While he didn’t all of the killing, he was certainly responsible for his part.  

If a republic doesn’t believe that it’s at war and realize that people are responsible for the country going to the war, they're always surprised that when kids come back from war that they feel a little bit out of it. That's because no one really believes the war happened.  

One of the things Sebastian was saying in "Tribe" is that back in the day, when the hunters went to war, the tribe didn’t eat any meat. Everybody understood that they were at war.  Now, we’ve become very insulated from it. I think it’s a major consciousness issue, so it’s nothing something you can pass a law to fix. We need to beef up our responsibility for this.  Whether we agree with it or disagree with it, we live in a republic. The issue needs to be debated, and we need to understand that there's killing going on in our name. That’s a major aspect of what I'd like to get across. 

Recruit during Crucible, Oceanside, CA. from "Going to War" (photo courtesy Laura Snow)

Americans have no real memory of war on our own soil. The 9/11 attacks were a wake-up call but we've prosecuted the war overseas. It's been 150 years since the Civl War.

I read somewhere that if you took the percentage of people that died in that war and scaled it to today, it would be over five million. It was horrific.  

Then we wonder why people in the Middle East don’t just have a democracy, why don’t they just have a Constitution? We forget how very difficult it was for us to get these institutions organized. We were a nation that enslaved people. It took a huge amount of work to get to where we are today. I hope we don’t lose it.

People who are active duty or consumed with military culture are going to watch this documentary and find out that it's very much an introduction to these issues for people who haven't bothered to think about them.

That’s right. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do is in fact get across to people who generally are going to be PBS viewers. It’s a certain subset of the culture who don’t usually think about it.  

Here’s a great story. I was at a reading and a woman came up to me. She was about my age and was sort of doing a little bit of the embarrassed shuffle. She asked me to sign a copy of "Matterhorn." She said, "I was in college during the Vietnam War and I just hated that war, I protested that war, I went to rallies to protest that war, I thought it was a terrible war. And then I read 'Matterhorn.' I never knew you guys slept outside."

She was a college-educated woman. I know there is an enormous gap between the civilian side and the military side, but that’s a story that exemplifies that. I bet you most people in this country can't tell you whether a platoon is smaller or larger than a company and whether a destroyer is smaller or larger than a cruiser.

The educated classes are certainly underrepresented in the military, except for the warrior class who generation after generation go to the academies. For a large group of citizens, the military is the jobs placement program for rural America.

Yeah, I agree. I have two things to say about that. I went to Yale and there's a place called Woolsey Hall, where on the wall are literally hundreds and hundreds of names of dead Yalies who died in World War I and World War II. Not that I wish a war death upon anybody, but I don’t think we lost more than two or three in the Vietnam War and I don’t think Yale has lost any in the last 17 years of war. I think it's typical of Ivy League and elite universities that people just don’t join the military.  

You're absolutely right. The military no longer is the image of the ghetto kid. They can’t even get into the military today. You have to have a solid high school education and no criminal record. You don’t get in if you don’t have that. But it does devolve down to the people whose mom and dad work at Walmart and not the people whose mom and dad are partners in some big city law firm. It’s a huge, huge gap.  

This is your second big moment of being on PBS in the last year. You seem to have a knack for it.  Did you realize that before you appeared in the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Vietnam War documentary?

Before I became the war guy? No, it never occurred to me. I guess I can sort of BS okay, but I'm glad for it because it’s been useful, good work and I've enjoyed meeting these people. I was very proud to be involved with the Ken Burns project. They're the A-team. They are really fun to work with and they're talented and it was quite a privilege. For this PBS production, it’s the same kind of people. We’re very lucky to have these people in this country. 

Do you think the Vietnam War accomplished anything?  Did it change the conversation at all?

I think it was a watershed in American culture because it was the Vietnam War where we became cynical about authority in government.  I can remember I was at Yale and I was in the hall arguing with people at 2:00 in the morning and they were saying how the president was lying to us.  And I remember sputtering and saying that an American president wouldn’t lie to Americans.  And they all laughed. It was the first time that I was hit with that.

I'm from this logging town in Oregon. I never believed that an American president would lie to America. Now, maybe they did, but we didn’t, as a country, distrust the government.  Now, if I tell that story to my kids, they just roll their eyes. Well, he's a politician, of course he lies.  

The Vietnam War was a watershed in terms of authority and the government’s credibility. That is a consequence that I think is real important. I don’t think that we accomplished anything geopolitically, I think we got it wrong, but I'm not one of these people that say that people who served were stupid.

Think about the guys who were running the government. Kennedy, Rusk, McNamara, they were all World War II veterans. They fought serious dictators who really were trying to take over the world. Their world view was "here it comes again, monolithic communism."  

We were just ignorant. We didn’t know who Ho Chi Minh was. He tried to contact our government several times. He copied our Declaration of Independence. He was not a monolithic communist. He was an anti-colonialist who happened to be a communist. He just got a lot of help that way.  

I think that there were a lot of dead people who could have been saved from a war that could have been solved diplomatically. I come down pretty firmly on the side that the war was a mistake, but I don’t blame people for it or think it was stupid, because they just got it wrong. People are human and they get things wrong.  

Our leaders should have gotten out of Vietnam. Where I find blame is that you have this memo from McNamara in 1965, when we had about 2000 dead, that said this war is unwinnable. No one would step up to the plate and just say, "We’re gonna call it off." We ended up with close to 60,000 dead because the politicians were afraid they wouldn't get reelected if they looked like they were soft on communism or if they were weak.  

If you're a president of the United States or a secretary of defense, those foibles will get people killed. You know you wanted that job. You have to take into consideration that your human weaknesses have way more consequences. If you are a little bit self-serving or a little bit greedy, your action have more impact than if you worked for Microsoft or the local school board or something.  

Recruits taking rest, Oceanside, CA in "Going to War" (courtesy Michael Epstein)

You went right to the core issue, which is you fought in a war that you now think was a mistake.  There are certainly Iraq veterans who have questions about the missing WMDs that were the motivation for that war with WMD’s.  How do you reconcile for yourself your service in a war that maybe shouldn't have been fought and how do you communicate that to a culture that doesn’t understand service in the first place?

Okay, I have some ideas on this. The first thing is that in terms of meaning, you can't find your meaning in we beat communism or we beat fascism. I talked to my dad and my uncles who were all World War II combat veterans. And I said, "Well, did you guys feel good about beating fascism?"  And they just laughed at me. They didn’t didn’t think about it once. They just wanted to get home alive.  

The experience of being at war is an individual experience, even though the reasons that you're at war are often concocted by politicians who were sometimes trying to do the right thing and sometimes got it wrong.  

I always come down to the meaning of that war. What did it mean for me as an individual?  What did it mean for the development of my own soul? And it meant a lot that way.  

I joined the military when I was 18. I signed up in '63 and didn't deploy until '68, but I was in. I swore an oath to the Constitution. I will defend the Constitution of the United States. That means doing what the commander in chief says.  

And that is a moral good. You can't have a military whose individual parts decide whether they want to work or not on a certain day. You'd get a banana republic. You have to have a military that obeys the law. And the law is handed down by what the Constitution says.  

It would be better if the Congress sent us to war instead of the president, because the Congress is sort of a bell-shaped curve of the country. Congress has been sort of terrible at oversight. 

You have a conflict of equally valid moral goals. If you're in, you defend the Constitution, you do what you're told. And that’s appropriate. You shouldn’t be in if you're not willing to do that.  

On the other hand, when people send you off to stupid wars, and I think that has happened recently, then it’s a very difficult conflict because you’ve taken this oath. And the other perspective might be that we shouldn’t be in this war, we should fight against it, and protest it, and all those things which are valid in a democracy. 

With Vietnam I was stuck right in the middle of those two. I decided to go, it was very simple, I went because my friends went. I couldn’t not be with them in the fight. It came down to, again, a very personal choice. I felt guilty that I was over in Oxford having a good time drinking beer in the pubs with the girls.  

My friends, who I'd gone through training with, were high school friends. My little high school, about 200 boys, lost five who killed in the war. I thought I couldn't hang back, so I'm gonna go. I'm going to do my duty, which I swore I would, and defend the Constitution. So it was two moral goods competing with each other. It’s a terrible situation and sometimes people get into it.  

Can we talk about "Matterhorn"? It's a truly great novel. How did you go from your service to being a writer?

Being a writer is sort of like being a musician; you just can't help it. I always wrote things. I started writing my dreams down when I was eight years old. I remember I wrote a Black Mass when I was in high school about how bad God is because there's suffering in the world. My dad made me burn it.  But I was always writing and thought that someday I’d write a novel.  

When I came back from the war I thought, well, now I'm going to write the great novel about the war. And I literally sat down in England,and I wrote out 1700 typewritten A4 pages. And I said, "This is easy." It took me about three months.  

I went away with my girlfriend to Ireland and I came back to sit down and read the great American novel.  And it was just crap. It was like journaling. There were four pages about wet socks. I thought, "Mmm, maybe there's some craft to writing novels."

So I started doing normal things, reading books about plot structure. I outlined plots and I outlined Louis L’Amour. And believe it or not, Danielle Steel because, those are two plot masters. I started to learn about that, how to develop character. I even switched it from first person to third person so I wouldn’t get back into this journalist thing about how pissed off I was about things that went wrong.  

The real draft of "Matterhorn" came in probably about late 70’s and then I couldn’t sell it. So I had to do other work. I've got five kids, so that’s a lot of teeth to straighten. I just kept plugging at it and after 30 years, finally, it got published.  

I used to think I was crazy. I'd go down to the bookstores and I'd pull books out and say to myself, "Am I as good as this writer? Yeah, I'm as good as this writer. I'm not crazy." 

So the book that you finished in the late 70’s is pretty much the same book that finally got published in 2009?

The big difference is that I didn’t touch the racism in those earlier drafts. I was afraid of it. I'm from a little logging town in Oregon and, honest to God, our racial tension was after the dances at the labor temple, when the Swedes and Norwegians would fight the Finns.

I didn’t know a Mexican until I joined the Marine Corps. I mean there's a great story there, too. I've told it before, but Delgado, who unfortunately was killed in Vietnam, his mother sent him a care package and we’re all hovering around, "What do you got, Delgado?" And he pulls it up and I said, "What are those?" And he looks at me and he says, "These are tamales. Do you want to try one?" And I said, "Sure."  

So he hands me a tamale and I start chewing it and  I'm thinking, no wonder these Mexicans have such brilliant white teeth, my God these things are hard to eat. And he and his friends are just laughing. I hadn't taken the cornhusk off.  

That gives you an idea of how isolated the races were in 1968. I mean Mexicans and African Americans, whites, we all kept to ourselves. Again, I think the war was important because that was the first time that truly integrated units fought together. Truman “integrated the military” in 1947. But African Americans didn’t start showing up in the elite units until early 60’s.  

In Vietnam, everybody got involved, of all the races, and we learned not to be afraid of each other. We learned that, God, this guy is as good a machine gunner as that guy. And the Civil Rights Movement was enormously important. There were brave people that got the laws changed. But I think where the rubber hit the road was in the military in Vietnam.  There were over 200 racially motivated fraggings. That’s serious racial tension and the military got through that. I think the military was a big part of moving the country forward.  

Marines at Eagle, Globe and Anchor ceremony, Oceanside, CA in "Going to War" (courtesy Laura Snow)

It’s always interesting to me that the military seems to be the laboratory where a lot of social progress happens in the United States.  

Yes, that’s because they salute. I mean somebody in Congress says that we want to do this, they get the Congress to finally go along with it, and where’s the first place that you can actually make it work? You can't tell a corporation how to do things, but you can tell the military.  

The military is a huge personnel machine. I mean the vast amount of the military is people, so I think it makes perfect sense. I take my hat off to the military. They have dealt with very difficult social issues. They've been dealing with gays in the military, now it’s LGBT issues.  Back then it was race. Sometimes they’d go kicking and screaming, but they’d salute, and that’s the point.

Even now, though, it seems the military may be ahead of the rest of the country on a lot of this stuff.

I think they could well be because they work with it. I was at Quantico when they got rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And everybody was just nonplussed about it, not even a ripple. It was like, oh, yeah, okay, well, that one is just now official. That was really interesting to me and way ahead of time.  

Back to the creative process. You finished this novel and no one wants to publish it. Does that affect your writing? Do you keep writing while you're raising your family?

Well, yeah. I kept writing my dreams and that was always an important job. I kept revising the novel. I was raising a family, so I'd get vacations and I'd take my book with me. The kids would say, Where's dad? Oh, he's down in the basement with his book."  

In a way, it was a gift from the garbage because it got better and better. Quite frankly, I got older, more mature, so my characters got deeper and more mature. I think that if Matterhorn had been published with that first draft, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near the novel that it is today. So having to delay getting it published, I just kept improving it.  

I laugh, I'm a little bit worried about my next novel, which I hope is gonna come out in the winter. I didn't have 30 years to perfect it. So I'm gonna tell people, if they say, "Oh, it's not as good as Matterhorn," I'm going to just say, "Well, I was rushed."

You just keep at it. It’s like I said, you can't help yourself. I would have felt I had abandoned my own integrity if I just said, "Well, I'm just going to stop writing." It was just something that I had to do. 

Do you plan on making anymore documentaries after this one?

I certainly don’t plan on it. I'm not a documentarian, but I think if one comes along that is appealing, I certainly am not going to say no. But I'm really much more focused on getting this next novel out. And it has nothing to do with war. I feel like I've done a good chunk of work on the military. I feel happy. I mean the Marine Corps has both books on the Commandant’s Reading List. All the young sergeants and young officers read both books. And, well, that’s an impact that I feel proud of.  

The generals, three-stars and above have a quarterly meeting at The Navy Yard. And they invited me to go there and talk about "What It Is like to Go to War." I spent almost two hours talking with all these generals about the book.  

And they're serious about it. They're trying to deal with moral injury. All these guys have seen combat. They get it and they're struggling with it, trying to figure out what do you do in training to help prepare people for this rather awesome thing you're asking 19-year-olds to do, which is taking a life.  

That’s been a change. When I was going through training, no one cared at all about how you felt about killing. They just taught you how to do it. I don’t fault them for that. Consciousness is a real slow development.  

I often tell people that military culture is the Queen Mary. And then I'm some novelist with a 3 ½ horsepower Seagull engine on the bow trying to change the course. At first, nothing much happens, but if you remember your vector physics, a vector in some direction, if it just keeps applying pressure, eventually the bow starts to move, even if you don’t notice it.

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