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What It is Like to Go to War

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  8,608 ratings  ·  767 reviews

From the author of the New York Times bestseller Matterhorn, this is a powerful nonfiction book about the experience of combat and how inadequately we prepare our young men and women for war.

War is as old as humankind, but in the past, warriors were prepared for battle by ritual, religion and literature -- which also helped bring them home. In a compelling narrative, Marla

Hardcover, 257 pages
Published August 30th 2011 by Atlantic Monthly Press
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Oct 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Those interested in military history and psychology
Recommended to Lawyer by: Jake Reiss, Owner, The Alabama Booksmith
I am of the age where I could very well have been a veteran of the Vietnam War. Or, I could have died there. But I was spared that, first by student deferments and then the timeliness of the Paris Peace Talks. However, I know and have known many men who fought there. On the surface, they seem fine. Their silence about their experiences is uniform. Yet, I know one man who cannot stand to be touched. He has an exaggerated startle response at the slightest contact. And a good lady friend had a leng ...more
K. Elizabeth
Aug 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This wasn't an easy read. But then, nothing about war is easy, much less the psychological and spiritual effects of war on our combat vets. This was as thought provoking, challenging, and emotionally draining as any solid book about war should be.

A few caveats to add context to my review of the book:

1) I won this book through Good Reads.
2) I am a civilian.
3) I am a US citizen.
4) I am an opponent of the vast majority of wars that we have participated in.
5) I am a counselor; the counseling p
"Warriors must touch their souls because their job involves killing people. Warriors deal with eternity."
- Karl Marlantes, What it is Like to Go to War

description [my little brother in Afghanistan]

An exploration of war. Part memoir of a Marine (Vietnam War), part Joseph Campbell/Jungian exploration of the warrior, part critique of policy. The book is also written directly to those men/boys (and yes, women I guess too) preparing for war. Having suffered PTSD from Vietnam, Marlantes uses this book to instruc
Sep 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: borrowed, memoir
So, if a lifelong pacifist liberal says a book about how to train our soldiers is a "must read," it must be full of peacenik bullshit aimed at undermining the military, right? Believe me, though, when I say that's not the case with Karl Marlantes' What It Is Like to Go to War . Marlantes brings experience and knowledge to bear on something about which I know little to nothing. Yet I find the book so profound that I do call it a "must read," an appellation that rarely passes my lips.

The list o
Sep 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
I first encountered Karl Marlantes while watching Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War. I was impressed by what he had to say, and after reading What It Is Like To Go To War I can see that my first impression of him was the right one.

This is a fascinating book - an odd but effective blend of memoir and carefully thought-out recommendations for helping soldiers to come to terms with the nature of their profession (and the killing it entails) and reintegrate with their societies when they return
Larry Bassett
Sep 10, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: war, memoir, audio
After the warrior returns home from the initiation of combat, he becomes a member of “The Club” of combat veterans. It has always been a club with its own secrets and its own and societally-imposed rules of silence. Traditionally, it has been a club tied in with the mystery of gender because being a warrior was tied in with manhood. This ancient mystery combined with the silence forms an intriguing and powerful combination for attracting future members, particularly boys. You don’t join this cl
Susan (aka Just My Op)
The author of the popular Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War has turned his talents to writing a nonfiction book about his experiences in Vietnam, how present-day warriors are not trained to emotionally and spiritually deal with the jobs they physically must do, what we've done wrong, what we need to do better. He looks at the history of war and warriors in ancient cultures and mythology, and how the wars we fight are changing every day. He has advice for warriors, those who are serving now, ...more
I didn't intend to read this book, but my boyfriend recently got it as an mp3 through the library, and since he never follows through on things he gets from the library, and the other mp3 I wanted to listen to was broken, I snagged this one on my way out the door one day because I have to listen to something while I walk the dogs or else I get sad.

This was a bad choice to avoid sadness.

About 20 mins into the walk I wanted to scrape my face off the sidewalk. I felt this heaviness in my chest and
Daniel Villines
Jul 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
There’s a reason why I tend to avoid autobiographical works. I have a preconception that they will be self-serving, arrogant, and opinionated. What It Is Like to Go to War proved to be an exception. While possibly a bit too spiritual to be realistically applied to the multitude of teens that typically occupy our trenches in times of war, the book was predominantly dead-on serious and true.

What It Is Like to Go to War is written in a genuinely honest tone. There is a degree of self-degradation m
Jaclyn Day
Dec 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes wrote this haunting nonfiction book about the realities and after effects of combat, in the context of both historical conflict and modern-day war.

I had put this on my to-read list after reading a review of the book that earmarked it as one of the best insights into the modern-day warrior mind that the reviewer had ever read. Although I can’t say I’ve read every book in this genre in order to make that comparison myself, I can say that this book—and Marlantes’ pers
Sep 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
Karl Marlantes and I share a good bit in common as regards the subject matter of this book. We both entered the service as Privates in 1964 ( he a Marine, me the Army), we both were commissioned as Lieutenants through OCS, and we were both rifle platoon leaders and interim company commanders in Vietnam in 1966. I am somewhat conflicted in commenting on this book. I read it principally because I read Matterhorn and and felt that it was the only Vietnam novel that I have encountered that was worth ...more
Aug 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in July and decided to chase it with Karl Marlantes' What It Is Like To Go To War.

Marlantes can write descriptively and honestly. I particularly recall one scene during boot camp when he swatted a mosquito. His drill sergeant took him to a slough and had him stand naked in a swarm of mosquitoes. I also enjoyed his description of how becoming a marine changes how he thought about danger and his abilities. These scenes were descriptive and I found them
Aug 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: giveaways
"Matterhorn" was certainly a notable book, so I had to enter the giveaway for this one! Marlantes as usual did not disappoint, and the subject matter of his book is one that everyone should be deeply concerned about, especially with the high suicide rate for out returning soldiers.

Marlantes provides a riveting account of what it is like to be sent to war and points out how ill-prepared our young men are. Previous generations spent years preparing warriors. Modern Americans should and could do mo
Probably go so far as to say there was some over intellectualising going on here, but that aside, this book gave me many a valuable moment as it unlocks much of Matterhorn. The Marlantes fiction/memoir.
Marlantes reveals in this non fiction book what you no doubt already suspected, that much of his fiction was based on truth and at times, danced very close to being an exact blow by blow of events.

Many who know me on Goodreads, know that I lay my heart on the table in my review of Karl Marlantes
Jun 24, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is definitely not a light read. However, I think it's an important read. Karl Marlantes is a highly-decorated Vietnam War veteran who recounts his experiences in the jungle. He also told of his feelings and experiences when he finally got home. He shares his thoughts on war and the nature of conflict. Mostly, I value this book for the first-hand account of what it feels as a soldier during war. He's very honest. He talked about his fears and guilt. His desire for medal and recogniton c ...more
John Turner
What it is like . . .

I have a group of about 20-25 Vietnam veterans that I lunch with monthly and have done so for almost five years. They are Army and Marine veterans, Navy and Airforce and SeaBees. They are former Army 11B-grunts, Huey pilots, door gunners, medics, mechanics and artillerymen; former officers, NCOs and enlisted men. Draftees and volunteers. Regulars who joined up. What they all have in common is that they were all engaged in direct combat with the enemy. They went belly-to-bel
One of the best books I have ever read about war and my first book about the Vietnam War. I have always avoided movies and books about Vietnam because of having grown up while the war raged. My cousin who was a helicopter commander was shot down in 1970, he and two others out of his crew of 4 died. I'll never forget the day that my family heard the news that he died and to this day that fact is still lodged firmly in my memory. While reading this book I constantly thought about Alex and what his ...more
Jessica Buike
Aug 11, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: first-reads
What It is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes was a book that I won through Goodreads, and I was looking forward to reading it. My husband is an Army vet who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on the Korea DMZ. I thought that perhaps the book would touch on war experiences of multiple soldiers and provide insight on how the war affects soldiers.

However, I found that I just couldn't get through this book. It read very slow with lofty psychological language (and I even have my BA in P
Aug 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: deep-thoughts
What an amazing book! It's part memoir, confession, ethics workshop, psychology, mythology tutorial, and war story. While Dave Grossman's much touted On Killing gets into the psychology of killing, Marlantes' book delves into the soul of the matter. It's heartfelt, raw, prescriptive, and wise. It doesn't have the "I told you so" admonition nor does it have the "I'm old and wise now, so listen up" aura about it. But it's compelling reading. Marlantes sounds like a real jerk as a young man: seeker ...more
Timothy Bazzett
Feb 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
As one of tens of thousands of readers who read and marveled at Karl Marlantes' best-selling novel of the Vietnam war, MATTERHORN, and wondered either privately or publicly how he managed to write such a viscerally real, honest and gut-wrenching fictional account of that war, here is our answer. Or at least Marlantes' attempt to answer that question. Because this "follow-up" book, WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR, reads like a cross between a psychological and sociological inquiry into the hell that ...more
Allan MacDonell
May 17, 2013 rated it liked it
What It Is Like to Go to War made me happy for two things in my life: One, that I was not old enough to have been conscripted to the Vietnam war, and secondly that I am too old to have been tempted to enlist for the military escapades in Afghanistan or Iraq. Karl Marlantes’s qualifications for writing on combat and its aftermath on the human psyche are unassailable. He was in it. He has killed; his friends have been shot to pieces and suffered unspeakable agonies and perished at his side; battle ...more
Ben Kane
Aug 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I'm a sucker for books about war, or the effect that war has on people. Until I saw this book, I had never heard of Karl Marlantes. I mentioned this on Twitter soon after starting it, and was deluged with people recommending that I read his book, Matterhorn - called by many 'the best novel written about Vietnam'. Reel back to when I picked up What It Is Like To Go To War. I was hooked within a page. Good enough reason to buy, so I bought it, and read it all in about 24 hours.

This is a great piec
I've met Karl Marlantes a couple of times now, and each time I've been deeply impressed with his intense intelligence, his ability to tell a story, and his bravery to talk so very honestly about war, what he did in it, what he got out of it, and what he wishes were different, then and now. This book is very much like having a long conversation (albeit with footnotes) with the man himself. He opens up about everything which requires a depth of bravery that far surpasses that of a traditional warr ...more
Michael Beggs
Nov 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Quite possibly the best book written about the subject, at least the best I've ever read. I admit that as a contemporary of Marlantes, I had more than a passing interest in the subject, as a combat veteran Marine Corps officer myself. If I ever wanted to take the easy way out to try to explain my post-war self to my children, I'd simply hand them this book.

Marlantes gives not only a "this is the way it is" narrative, but also a rather in depth philosophical look at the way American boys are (or
Mar 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
This was an interesting companion to Matterhorn, Marlantes' novel about Vietnam. Here Marlantes further examines the preparation and repercussions of serving in combat. Pulling from his own experiences and historical references Marlantes offers suggestions for the military to better prepare soldiers - before and after. I found Matterhorn to also be well written but had more of an emotional punch. I would recommend this to contemporary memoir readers and those interested in combat and impacts of ...more
Aug 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
I was a Goodreads First Reads winner of this book and I was fortunate to have this book land in my possession.

First, I appreciate that the author is writing about something he knows first hand about. (I get upset when people write or talk about something they have never experienced.) I felt Marlantes' experience was explained appropriately and held my attention without being over the top in bloody details.

Second, I want to thank all veterans who have served our country in the past and pre-thank
Aug 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I received What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes as a Good Reads First-Reads Giveaway

I was so pleased when I heard I had won this book. It took me a few days to read but that was because I needed time to let each bit I had read sink in. Some parts were harder than others but only because my heart ached for the soldiers. In my life I have heard stories from teachers, family and friends who honorably served in different branches of the military, however nothing compares to the sheer hones
This book was tough to read, but phenomenal. I myself am a civilian, but I grew up in a military family (my father was in the Air Force) and I currently work with veterans as part of a legal clinic at my law school that represents veterans in attempting to get benefits, discharge upgrades, etc. My main client through the clinic is a Vietnam War veteran who has suffered from severe PTSD since his time in combat, and I've been on a mission to read everything I can about Vietnam, war, the military, ...more
Philip Virta
Oct 26, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I appreciate Mr. Marlantes' book and how it puts the human experience of war in context. Everyone should have to read this book and get a better understanding of what we ask our soldiers to do, to commit to. Perhaps then there would be a bit more compassion and support for soldiers at home, in the field, and those just returning. For someone who has, thankfully and especially thanks to soldiers like Mr. Marlantes, never had to go to war, I appreciate the perspective he provides. His book offers ...more
Jan 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
I was a huge fan of Marlantes' MATTERHORN, which is one of the Great War Novels, up there with NAKED AND THE DEAD, THE THINGS THEY CARRIED (which is, I know, a collection of stories), CATCH 22 and SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. I admired this work of non-fiction from Marlantes and found a lot of interesting and often powerful insights into what it means to be a soldier. Most of the book is an outstanding meditation on not just war but what it's like to be a human being. The aspect of it that kept it from ...more
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A graduate of Yale University and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. He is the author of Matterhorn, which won the William E. Colby Award given by the Pritzker Military Library, the Center For Fiction's Flaherty-Dunna ...more

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“We all have shit on our shoes. We've just got to realize it so we don't track it into the house.” 21 likes
“Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one's own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people's lives above one's own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell. Whether combat is the dark side of the same version, or only something equivalent in intensity, I simply don't know. I do know that at the age of fifteen I had a mystical experience that scared the hell out of me and both it and combat put me into a different relationship with ordinary life and eternity.

Most of us, including me, would prefer to think of a sacred space as some light-filled wonderous place where we can feel good and find a way to shore up our psyches against death. We don't want to think that something as ugly and brutal as combat could be involved in any way with the spiritual. However, would any practicing Christian say that Calvary Hill was not a sacred space?”
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