What It’s Like to Go to War (With Ourselves)

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Karl Marlantes is the author of the acclaimed novel, Matterhorn, which was inspired by his experience as a combat Marine in Vietnam. In addition to that novel, Marlantes also wrote What It Is Like To Go To War, a very candid and profoundly personal reflection on the experience of combat and its effects on soldiers. As he puts it in the afterword: “I have tried to explain what it was like for me to go to war: why I went in the first place, what happened to me while I was there, and how it was when I came home.” This memoir captures Marlantes’s efforts to keep his soul intact long after he last walked out of the jungle.

Soul keeping is a worthy exercise for us all. In that vein, many of Marlantes’s reflections speak surprisingly, not just to the experience of combat on the battlefield, but also to what it is like to go to war with ourselves. Character is forged in the hard space between what we face and what we want to be. Following are a few samples (along with my comments) that illustrate this all-important struggle.

On evil:

You can’t be a good person until you observe how bad you are. It is only when the evil is conscious that it can be countered. Marlantes rightly points out that we endanger our souls when we refuse to acknowledge that our goodness is a very thin veneer. The first step to becoming a good person is to acknowledge the darker impulses that run just beneath the surface. Evil is not confined to the battlefield; it shows up in the ordinary round of life. 

On ideals:

Behavior sets standards, not ideals. Ideals are invaluable, but until they’re translated into action, they have no power. What we do reveals more about who we are than what we say we believe. Developing a list of core values is a worthless exercise unless our behavior conforms to those values. The old adage is spot on: actions speak louder than words. 

On truth-telling:

One of the greatest tests of character is telling the truth when it hurts the teller…. Sometimes truth telling generates a lot of blowback. How much are willing to bear? Unless we know who we are and why we are, we will shrink from telling the truth when the practice will be costly. We will then find it convenient to take refuge in the easy lie. 

On empathy:

The bottom of the pile is the best place to learn empathy. We really don’t have much of a feel for what it’s like to struggle until we ourselves have been brought low. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells us that a Samaritan was “moved with compassion” at the sight of the beaten and wounded man left to die beside the road. If we read between the lines, it’s likely that the Good Samaritan went to extraordinary lengths to help because he had been in the ditch himself.

In sum, we don’t become people of integrity without some sacrifice and struggle. This is the war all of us have to fight even if we never don a uniform. Gaining our souls requires that we engage in some inner combat and go to war with our worst selves in order to become our best selves.

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