“What It Is Like To Go To War” by Karl Marlantes

This is the third book that I read as part of the Huffington Post Book Club. I was a little hesitant about this book, mainly because I didn’t think I would be able to relate to it, never having served in the military. But I figured I would read it with an open mind and gain insight into an experience that I never had. Lo and behold, there was a lot in this book to which I related.

The book is not just a collection of “war stories,” although they are there. It is more of an introspective view of the spiritual, psychological, and emotional effects that warfare has on an individual.

Marlantes asserts that going to war can result in deep religious and mystical experiences:

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. (p. 19)

But there is a danger to this type of intense experience and the transcendent effect that it has on the psyche. How can someone go back to everyday life after going through an experience of that magnitude? And here is where I connected with this book. During my life, I had some intense spiritual experiences, and I found it very difficult to step back into my mundane life afterwards. I found it even more difficult trying to express these experiences to others. Each time I did, I found myself feeling like an outcast. I am now reticent to speak to people about anything spiritual or religious, even after getting to know someone on a level where I feel I won’t be judged. Veterans face the same dilemma every day. How can they talk to someone who has not shared the experience of war about what it was like? You might as well try to describe a flower to a blind person.

I reached the point once where I felt the need to deny the validity of my spiritual experiences. I questioned whether they were genuine because of the extenuating circumstances associated with them. When I spoke to a friend about this, he wisely reminded me that spiritual experiences are rare and one should never discount them simply because they occurred when intoxicated. I wonder if Marlantes ever questioned the validity of his spiritual experiences because they occurred under the stress of combat.

I definitely recommend this book to everyone, if for no other reason than to gain empathy for people who served in the military. I also feel that this book can help you deal with the challenging issue of morality. I hear way too many self-righteous people asserting their ideas of what is and what is not moral. On that note, I’ll close with one more quote from the book: “When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” (p. 129)

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