BRIAN LAMB: Karl Marlantes in your book, "What It Is like to Go to War," page 114, chapter 6, Lying, I want to read you first couple of sentences, "One of the greatest test of character is telling the truth when it hurts the teller. The Vietnam War will be infamous for the way those who perpetrated it lied to those who fought and paid for it."
How strongly do you feel about that?
KARL MARLANTES: Well, I feel pretty strongly about it, because I - I think that we got ourselves into a bit of morass there. One of the things that was leading off of the way statistics got inflated and, you know, body count because you - you find yourself in a situation where you're being judged by a whole - one whole set of standards that is not, how do I describe this, it's like - it's like when you - when you write fitness reports for people, sort of everybody gets - if you don't give everybody a positive, you know, perfect score then - then it hurts them. And so then you go to like well, if I don't get a positive perfect score, then it's going to hurt me and I think that - that then you've got to say well am I going - am I going to tell the truth when everybody else isn't and you start getting into this sort of morass and I think that Vietnam was - was one that got us into that.
LAMB: Well then you go on to say, lies in the Vietnam War were more prevalent, because that war was fought without meaning.
MARLANTES: Right. And that's another - another thing that I - I have thought about a lot. Why do we get ourselves in these situations when it - it's like - it's like you - I'm sort of scrambling here?
When you have no overall meaning to the - to the war. For example, an objective like we're going to defeat the enemy, we're going to gain ground where people actually can - can see that you're succeeding or that there is a way that you can justify what you're - what your actions are on the grounds of a larger over - over arching, even moral code or moral standard. For example we're fighting fascism or these people are threatening my people. If you don't have that over arching moral position, then you're going to have to find yourself justifying it.
And you find yourself justifying it. Sometimes in - in ways that quite frankly aren't honest.
LAMB: You said that you lied, and you talked about P. Dog. What's that story?
MARLANTES: That's - what I was saying is sometimes when you get into lies, you can use a lie for a good moral reason and P. Dog was a -it's a pseudonym, but he was a - a young Marine who was an excellent Marine and had been wounded a couple times and he'd come back out of the bush and I had just gotten transferred out of the bush and I was - made the what they call the watch officer for the battalion back in the rear, which means its just nighttime and you're the - you're the senior officer on - on duty there. I was a lieutenant.
And P. Dog was over at another battalion and he had gotten in trouble because he and a couple of his friends were smoking marijuana. Now this is 1969, and smoking marijuana in the Marine Corps was considered a very bad crime. I mean, it was - they were coming down very hard on this. And it was virtually mandatory that a kid would get a dishonorable discharge, if not a lot of brig time. And here I had a good kid who had fought his way through the whole tour. He was two days from going home and then he did this and I thought what am I going to do now? And so what I did is I - I - when I picked him up at the other battalion, even the - the watch officer there at NCO had said, I haven't touched these guys, they're your guys.
We left with them and they were in the back of the Jeep and I said, well, I've got to, you know, go take a leak and myself and the driver, we got out and we disappeared and we just waited for them to get rid of all the evidence and I thought great, when we get back, we'll search and there won't be any - and evidence.
We got back and - and there were three of them and they started flipping their pockets like this, P. Dog flipped his pocket and out falls a joint on the floor and my heart just sank because it was in front of about 12 or 15 guys that were working the night shift at the - at the headquarters, including a very well respected Marine NCO, a lifer.
LAMB: Non-commissioned officer.
MARLANTES: Non-commissioned officer. And I thought to myself is this where P. Dog is going to end up after serving his country for a year, a dishonorable discharge for something that kids are doing all the time and he's - he's 19. So I picked it up and, you know, my hands are like this because, second lieutenant, if I was up by that time, first lieutenant, going over to, you know, a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant or first sergeant, what happened is that they took the joint and I held it front of the NCO and I said to him, gunny this looks tobacco to me. And I didn't know what he was going to do and he was wonderful. He took that joint and he looked at it and he went around every Marine in the headquarters, is this marijuana or tobacco and everyone of them said it's tobacco, gunny and he came back to me and he said I don't know this Marine, if you say he's a good Marine, I'll say he's a good Marine, this looks like - everybody here says it tobacco and it looks like tobacco to me and P. Dog just took off - that point, I said he could go.
LAMB: And when did he get out of the service?
MARLANTES: He was probably out of the service a couple weeks after that.
LAMB: And had he - had you not done that, what would have happened to him?
MARLANTES: It's almost sure that he'd - he'd have gone to a court martial and if he didn't serve brig time, he certainly would have got a dishonorable discharge. Because that was - it was sort of like mandatory sentencing that we have now, three strikes you're out, it had gotten to that point where it was just virtually no other recourse.
LAMB: The years you served in the Marine Corps, what were they?
MARLANTES: I was in the Marine Corps - well I - I started in what was called PLC program, which is you join and go summers and they put you in the reserves as an officer candidate program that you don't have to go to OCS. And that was in '64 and I started on active duty in '68 in the - and I got out in '70.
LAMB: And what year were you in Vietnam?
MARLANTES: I was there from October of '68 until October '69.
LAMB: Go back 30 years - 30 years to write your initial novel, "Matterhorn." This took a year, this book.
MARLANTES: NO. it - it - I wish I could tell people it took a year because then I - I - I would sound like I was really quite the disciplined guy, but I mean I fall asleep on airplanes and in hotel rooms. I actually started writing this in the early '90s and I had the same problem was no one would publish it. And I couldn't get anybody to read the manuscript; same thing that happened with "Matterhorn." And I think that, again, I don't hold any - I mean this is just the marriage of literature of writing and business. These people have to make decisions about whether these books would sell and maybe in 1990 a book like this just wouldn't have sold and so it finally, after "Matterhorn" got published, then this one got published.
LAMB: "Matterhorn" was about the Vietnam War.
LAMB: And do you know how many copies sold?
MARLANTES: I am not quite sure, but if I'm - it must be over 250,000 and then with foreign copies, 300,000 plus.
LAMB: Why did it take 30 years?
MARLANTES: Same issue. I had started to try and sell it in 1978 and, again, the reaction was this is a war we want to forget, I don't want to - I don't think we can sell it. And through the '80s and up through the '90s, I would get people saying, well, you know, you missed the mark. Hollywood did it with all the movies, "Full Metal Jacket," and so we can't sell it, you know, "Apocalypse Now." And then it was like maybe if you rewrote it and put it in the Gulf War, we'd have a chance and literally, you know, in the - in the odd, well it's got a mountain in it, Matterhorn and Afghanistan's got mountains, why can't you do?
And so and again, it's just the thing I was talking about. Is it they're trying to see if - if - if the market will accept it and they never know. I mean Morgan Entrekin, who is my publisher with Grove/Atlantic, he's wonderful. He says he'll find books that are just wonderful and then he calls it the gods of the book market, you don't know if - if people are going to read them or not. And I think that what happened is the country has gotten into a situation where we're in a very similar war and because of that I think a war novel about Vietnam, which hopefully is also, you know, a good character driven novel because it's popular.
And the other thing, quite frankly, is that to baby boomers, those of us who are of - of young age when the war was being fought are now in a much more reflective state. I mean I'll go to readings and I'll get answers and questions and people starting to talk to each other about what were we doing there? Doesn't matter which side of this great divide that you were on and I think that has been a major factor in the book success.
LAMB: Go back to the "Lying" chapter, the body count lying, how did it work?
MARLANTES: Well what I was saying is that if you have no objective like - like my father, my uncles it was like, well you hit the beach at Normandy and then you get out of - out of Normandy and you hit the sand and then you hit the Rhine and you can measure your progress.
In Vietnam, it was not clear what winning was. I mean you hear phrases like, well we'll win the hearts and minds of the people, but that's, to a 19-year-old kind who's actually having to do the fighting, and I think to the military in general, it's a very difficult, fuzzy way to measure and if there's no territory to be gained or no enemy capital to end up with, in other words, if it's - if it's sort of this fuzzy thing that we're - are we in the police role or are we in a military role, it gets confused and so how do you measure success?
And they began to measure success by body count. And to me, that is not moral. You are not there in the military and I'm no pacifist, you know, I'm a very proud Marine, you're not there to kill people, you're there to stop them from doing something that's hurting your people and so, measuring your success by the number you kill gets you off kilter and then what happens, because that's the only way that your success is measured, military's run by human beings. They all want to advance, they want to make it from Captain to Major, Major and you know, just like you do in the corporation and if you can't show, you know, pennies per share or cost cutting in your department, you have body count.
And so then the tendency goes into sort of exaggerated a little bit and I kind of make fun of it in the book a little bit, it - it did work this way. You'd have a kid out there in a firefight and he didn't care. I mean he was, you know, and he just had a friend killed and his adrenalin's pumping and someone says - how many did you get?
In the jungle in a firefight, you don't have a clue, there could have been five, there could have been 15, but - so he's going I don't know, and so he says well, he talks to a couple of friends and says I think we killed two. Well then the guy says, well if you had two dead, you must have had some probable's and so then they add a couple probable's because after all I mean there should be some probable's, it's all logical. By the time it starts getting up to the top of the chain, it gets exaggerated. So it has - it has two problems, the measurement system of the people who actually doing the fighting don't really care about and like I said, I think I said it's - it's on shaky moral grounds as well.
LAMB: Did, in your opinion, that lying that went on in Vietnam have any impact on this country today? I mean is there something that's come down from there to now from what you see?
MARLANTES: You know, I really would hate to stick my neck out because, but I have a feeling that we probably are more cynical about what government tells us. We're more cynical and there's a fine line, but when I was - I remember telling somebody when I was in college, well the president wouldn't lie to American people and I got laughed at. I mean I was from a little town in Oregon, a little logging town.
Well that was naivete, and that's a little dangerous. The thing you slip into well, who knows what the you know what's in Washington are saying and what - what does it mean and - and so the sense of - of - of can we trust the truth has now, I think slipped more to the cynical side. It's like, well they just said this but who knows and so I think that' that's been a change and I think we like, I'd like to see the country get back to some kind of in the middle. We don't want to go back to total naivete, but I think that slipping into cynicism is dangerous because we're a republic and we have to vote and the people that vote have to really know what is the truth? And if we don't believe it, then what - what does that mean for our vote?
LAMB: Let's fill in the blanks about you before we go on. What town in Oregon were you born in?
MARLANTES: I was born in Astoria, which is right at the mouth of the Columbia River and I grew up in Seaside, which is about 15 miles south of there.
LAMB: And how long did you stay there?
MARLANTES: Well I was there until I graduated from high school that was 18 years.
LAMB: Then what?
MARLANTES: Then I got a scholarship to Yale and so I left and I joined the Marines out of high school and went to Yale, and like I said, they had this program called PLC, Platoon Leader's Class, so I would go summers for training and then I owed the Marines three years when I got out, but I would be commissioned as a second lieutenant and I got the Rhodes Scholarship in - well it was for '67 when I graduated and I thought the Marines wouldn't let me go because they were short of junior officers at that point. They were wonderful.
They let me go, they assigned me some kind of inactive status in London but I felt guilty. I mean I had friends that I had gone through training with that were over in Vietnam fighting. I had, I'd been told five kids from my high school died over there. I knew certainly that I had friends from high school fighting there and here was drinking beer in England and you know running around with the girls and the war was looking dicey, I mean this question of what is the truth, did they really attack us in the Gulf of Tonkin or did they not, dah, dah, dah, and I'm going,
I'm getting a little bit wobbly here but that paled in significance to just my feeling of you're either - you're either in the boat or you get off the boat altogether and that meant deserting, going to Sweden and that just isn't in my constitution. So I gave the scholarship up and I sent a letter to the Marines and I think it took them about a week to get me to Quantico and that's - that was how I got up there.
LAMB: But you did tell us how you - what'd you go to Africa or you took a trip - a side trip?
MARLANTES: Right. Yes, well I was trying to - I was, you know I was 22-years-old and I was struggling with a very difficult moral issue, which we were all struggling with - with that war. You know, where - where in this hierarchy of values do you actually come out? Loyalty to your friends? Loyalty to an oath you swore to the - to the president in protecting the Constitution? Or what happens if you think it's a immoral war and you can't - you can't make your minds up about which of those values is true and which isn't and - and I just had to go with my heart, so I took off to Africa, quite frankly took - took the money from the scholarship and luckily I was forgiven for that and I just spent, I don't know a couple of months trying to make my mind up. And I don't know how that works with - with humans, but one - I mean that thing just worked on me and worked on me. And one morning I woke up, I'm going and I hitchhiked up to a Navy base. and it's a humorous story because I - by this time I had down to hear and all I had was one of these camel hair jalabas and yellow shoes and I walk into this Navy base and, you know, into the - they send me to the personnel office and there's some young J.G. there and - and I say well, Lieutenant Marlantes, U.S. Marine Corp reporting for active duty. And this guy just looks at me, I remember him pushing his chair back from the desk and he goes like, why me?
LAMB: what'd he tell you?
MARLANTES: Well he - he said is there any way I can get out of this? I said I don't know. He said well where's your duty station? Well they signed me to London. He said go to London and tell them you want to go on active service. So I did. I hitchhiked back up to London and, you know, wrote the letter and - and like I said it was a very short time, I was on a plane to Quantico.
LAMB: But there was a girl friend in there. Meg.
MARLANTES: Yes, there was a girl friend.
LAMB: Is that her real name?
MARLANTES: No, that's not her real name. yes, I was, it was probably the first time I was really deeply in love and this was very difficult because she was opposed to the war and I was struggling with this question about whether I should go or whether I shouldn't go and I didn't talk with her about it because I had the feeling that it didn't want to burden anybody with my problems. Well she had just the opposite view of things and which now that I'm older, I can quite understand which is she anted desperately for me to talk to her about what I was trying to decide and it hurt her that I kept my mouth shut and we basically split up. She sent me a letter when I was in Vietnam saying it's over and it - it was a very difficult Dear John and I see her side of it now and I hope I wrote it fairly in the book. It was - I cut her out.
LAMB: But you have a footnote in here where you got back together.
MARLANTES: We did.
LAMB: Meeting her years later. When was that?
MARLANTES: That was about four years ago, five years ago and ...
LAMB: But you're married now.
MARLANTES: Yes, I am married, very happily.
LAMB: How many kids?
MARLANTES: There are five kids between the first wife and second wife. And, yes, I'd - I'd written to - to Meg and I - I said, you know, I was going to be in the Northeast and she lives up there now and could we get together just to sort of talk about this painful, poignant part in our lives because it was painful to her as well because I had tried to get back together with her and she was not having anything to do with it and I know there's one phone call, the only one that I had with her, which was are you all right? I said, yes, I mean you know, I mean I got hit a couple times, but I'm fine. She said I don't mean that way. Again, see, typical guy I'm off on the physical and she's off on the emotional. And she said I'm glad that you're OK and I hadn't - didn't - didn't make contact with her for 30, 40 - 40 years. And we had this wonderful meeting and she had pictures from that time and we just talked about it. That whole time, being for the war, being against the war, being confused about the war, why did you do this, why did I do that. And we just agreed that we were a couple of kids that hurt each other because we just didn't know how to articulate what we were going through.
LAMB: How had she changed?
MARLANTES: She has a very successful law career and now married and she's, you know, had gone to the Cordon Bleu Cooking School and - and quite frankly I don't think she'd changed much at all. I think she's still a pretty wonderful person. The only - only difference was she was talking to me this time.
LAMB: And you live now where?
MARLANTES: I live in a little town, well I don't live in town, I live just outside of a town called Duval between Woodinville and Duval, Washington, state of Washington, about an hour east of Seattle.
LAMB: And what have you done - we're going to go back to the war here in a minute, but what have you done for a living all these years?
MARLANTES: I was in business basically. I went to work in the lumber business and then wanting to write books, I thought well, I'm going to have to try and do something so I had this bright idea that I'd do consulting and managed to get myself going in the consulting business where I did strategy for large corporations and ended up focusing on energy. But the problem with my strategy about that, was that I thought well in between consulting jobs, of course I'll - I can write books except that in between consulting jobs, you're spending all your time trying to find the next good consulting job, so it didn't quite work out the way I had planned.
I ended up running a corporation in Singapore that made batteries and I was the managing director of the corporation there and so then moved into international work and so all the time I was writing both of these books, "Matterhorn" and "What it is Like," I was basically either in my own consulting business or running a corporation.
LAMB: How big a deal, you're not the one to ask this, I'm going to ask it anyway, is getting the Navy Cross?
MARLANTES: Well, getting the Navy Cross, I can go to any Navy base or Marine base, probably in the world and have - never pay for a cup of coffee or a drink, its - it's - it is the highest award that - that the Navy - the Department of Navy give out. The Medal of Honor is higher and that, of course is up to Congress. So it - it's quite a - it's quite a big deal and I talk about medals in this - in this book a lot because you never know what to make of it. I don't know what to make of it. I mean it's - it's - somebody writes you up and goes up the chain of command and out the other end comes a medal and it's a difficult process, how do people make judgment calls about what somebody did.
And as I even say in here in the book, I myself, and I know that people I've talked to really aren't sure sometimes about the medal and I - we - most people who are thoughtful about it realize there are people out there that have done more brave things than I have who went unrecognized. They either did it when nobody was looking or they did it and combat was going on and people forgot about it or didn't - or didn't write them up or - I know one guy who had gotten written up and the paperwork got lost. So things like that happen and so when you - when things like that happen, you get pretty humbled about the particular medal that's on your chest and like I said, you always - you always have this sense of, I don't know if I did as well as the guy - that guy that earned it and there are people that may have a medal that they didn't earn. You don't know. And I said this just to the individual.
LAMB: What day do you remember that you got this?
MARLANTES: Oh, I remember it very clearly. It occurred over several days. We had - we had made an assault on a hill and - and we were surrounded and ended up taking a lot of casualties, you know, ion a second assault where we lost most of the officers and so I ended up taking over a couple of platoons and combined them under my command. I was company executive officer and the particular day was a final assault on Mutter's Ridge called 484 and where I say that - that I won the medal is that we all were in a wood line waiting to go and the prep from the aircraft missed.
It was cloudy, it's monsoon season and they hit the wrong hill and then the clouds were coming in and they said you're going to have to go without an air prep. This is - this is a very difficult thing to do, going up against fortified positions up hill like this and we got out in the open and got taken under fire by machine guns and everybody went to the ground, me included.
And then it occurred to me that if - if we stay here, they had been mortaring us for days and so I knew they had mortar positions all around us. If we stay here exposed like this, the mortars are going to start coming in and we're going to get really waxed. There's only two ways to go, you either go backwards, Marines don't do that or you go frontwards.
And where I say that I was - what I was proud of that day was standing up in the middle of a fire and going up the hill after the bunkers - there was one particular bunker right there in my position that was - that had a machine gun that was holding us down. And I thought I was by myself and caught a glimpse of something moving out of the corner of my eye and I rolled on the grounds because I hadn't quite reached that bunker, I was going to try to get it with a grenade, and I realized it was one of - one of my fire team leaders and then I looked behind him and here they all came.
I mean I can get teary about it to this day. That whole line of Marines had stood up right behind me and came right up the hill with me and one of the things that I - I kind of kid people a little bit is in - they say, you know, I took out four bunkers, that's true, I mean I did go down the line once I got around the side, go down the line throwing grenades, I wasn't all by myself, though. The way the medal reads is like I was up there all by myself. I mean all these Marines were coming with me. One, you know, just a couple seconds behind and so where I - where I feel proud about the Navy Cross is just that moment of standing up and some people would say well that's what a leader's supposed to do anyway, why give him a Navy Cross for that?
LAMB: I have the citation, I just read a little bit of it because I put you in context of the Marine Corps and what group you were with, "The president of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to First Lieutenant Karl A. Marlantes, United States Marine Corps Reserve for extraordinary heroism while serving as Executive Officer of Company C, First Battalion, Fourth Marines, Third Marine Division Reinforced, Fleet Marine Force in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam.
During the period of 1 to 6 March 1969, Company C was engaged in a combat operation north of the Rock Pile and sustained numerous casualties from North Vietnamese Army mortars, rocket propelled grenades, small arms and automatic weapons fire."
Where's the Rock Pile?
MARLANTES: The Rock Pile is probably, well if you go from the city of Quantree west, there's a road called Route 9 and it's just about right in the middle of the country at the edge of the flatlands that are cultivated in the high mountains in the jungle covered mountains and it was - it was an incredible geographic, I don't know what you'd call it, a formation, absolutely just straight up like this and I can't remember how high it was but you couldn't - you - you can barely get to the top. I mean you could only get on and off the top of it with choppers and we had a recon team up there that would often be stationed there to do observation, but it was a landmark that everybody could see for miles and so they used that when the referenced it.
LAMB: What's the difference between "Matterhorn," and by the way, what was the highest it got on the Best Seller list?
MARLANTES: Number 7 on the New York Times list.
LAMB: What's the difference between "Matterhorn" the novel and this book, "What it is Like to Go to War?"
MARLANTES: Well the first difference is that a novelist can get inside the heads of people who aren't himself and can set scenes that he wasn't physically at so most of the things, I mean virtually all of the things in "Matterhorn" I'd seen or I had close friends that had seen them and by creating characters, you can allow a reader to actually experience the - the - the experience you're trying to write about because they get involved in that character, they begin to see the - what's going on through those character's eyes. And you don't know as a novelist which particular character they're going to identify with.
Whereas in - in nonfiction, you can only comment about what you know personally and you - and you can't, you know, well I mean there have been people who have pretended to make things up and they've gotten in to trouble over it because they actually weren't there and so you - you have to keep to your own viewpoint and I think that the reader then understands that everything that's going on in the nonfiction book is from this one - one viewpoint, the author's viewpoint. And - and that's - that's different.
And of course there's this difference between the two kinds of truths. This is sort of a nonfiction is sort of the truth on the outside and - and fiction, you know, you can say well it's all made up, it's not true, but it's actually true on the inside.
LAMB: What are - are your parents still alive?
MARLANTES: No, they both died within about five years ago.
LAMB: And what did they do when there were alive?
MARLANTES: Well my dad was a high school teacher and then later became the principal, much to my chagrin because I was high school then and he was the principal.
And my mother waited tables and was a bookkeeper.
LAMB: Where did you get your interest in writing, do you think?
MARLANTES: You know, I think that I probably got my interest in writing from four high school English teachers. I just was blessed with four English teachers that were extremely important and I acknowledge them in "Matterhorn." They would - they would take my writing and I'd write something and they'd say, you know, you ought - you ought to think about doing this, I mean had you ever thought about, you know, being a writer. And I hadn't. But - but they would encourage me and they would help me. They would - they would, you know, say well you know it would have been better if you had done this. So that was the first time I started getting people who actually were taking an interest in - in that.
I had been writing. My cousin and I wrote a quote novel about space invaders taking over the world and being - the world being saved by two 9-year-old boys, which just happened to be us. But I don't know what happened to that. So I had been interested in it, but it was really these English teachers that - that started to get me serious about maybe I can do this.
LAMB: What role did your diary that you kept in Vietnam every day play in your ability to write both books?
MARLANTES: Well, you know, I don't think it played much because first of all, I can't find it. It's gone and I - I - I have no idea where it is.
LAMB: When was the last time you saw it?
MARLANTES: Probably eight or 10 years ago. And it was a diary that - and we were busy and so I wasn't writing in it, you know, every day. I would - when I would get out of the bush, I'd sit in there and I'd write things down.
So the value it had, I'm quite sure is that writing things down as soon after they happen has probably helped get it in my head and I do know that when I was writing earlier drafts of "Matterhorn," I - I would look at that diary and I would try and remember what was I feeling like when I wrote that? And so that - it was valuable then. I just - who knows where it is. I wish I could find it.
LAMB: Twenty rejection letters or more for "Matterhorn" from publishers?
MARLANTES: Oh, way more. I mean I - I - I stopped - I started throwing them away. At first I'd keep them, sort of go like, you know, but after awhile I - I have no idea. Thirty or 40, it was 35 years of - and I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't keep doing it. I would - I would go up to the point where I'd get 15 or 16, 20, I don't know and then I'd quit. I'd say well it's not going to go this time and then I'd go about four or five years, maybe sometimes more, working on it, making it better, because I'd get comments saying, well, you know, we can't sell large fiction and so I go like well maybe I need to try and cut it. And quite frankly I'm glad because the book got way better because I got more mature. I couldn't have - I couldn't have dealt with some of these characters when I was 30 years old. It wouldn't have been as good a book and so I look back on it, I used to feel very sad because I'd rejected, but I look back on that now, if I hadn't have been rejected, it wouldn't be the novel that it was.
LAMB: Who bought it first?
MARLANTES: A little outfit in - in California called El LeÃ³n Literary Arts, which is two people, Tom Farber is the publisher and his senior editor and his managing editor, his everything editor is Kit Duane and a friend of mine knew Tom and he called me and he said, you know, Tom might be interested, why don't you send it to his editor, Kit Duane, she'll take a look at it. And I told my friend, I said you go to be kidding me. I said this is a novel about Marines in the Vietnam War and you want me to make a $50 copy of it and send it to a woman in Berkley, California? He shamed me and he said, well I'll pay for it and I said no it's alright. So I sent it and Kit read it and Kit loved it and Kit, of course, gave it then to Tom and Tom loved it and they decided to publish it.
It's a nonprofit house. They go out and find money for projects and the idea is that it's so hard to get good literature into the commercial market place that if they give the writer a product, instead of a manuscript, that actually has an edited book, you have a better chance of then going to something, you know, New York and - and selling it. And they made 1,200 copies and my pay was 123 copies that I could do whatever I wanted with. And that's the first publisher.
What happened and it was interesting, it was series of women starting with Kit. My wife said, you know, I was - I would do the same thing instead of career letters I now had a book, I still got the same reaction. It was like, it's too big, it's about something nobody's interested in. so my wife said well the problem is no one will read it. I said yes. So why don't you send it to contests? So I called Tom up and he said well we don't have any staff to do that, but if you guys figure out the contests, we'll send them. And it went to the Barnes & Nobel Discover Great Writers contest and the woman reader in one of their Midwest stores loved the book, sent it to New York and a woman named Jules Lamar loved it, sent it to her boss, a woman named Cecily Hensley and Cecily's their chief fiction buyer and she knew that if they picked it, this tiny house in Berkeley, just, you know, wouldn't keep up and houses have gone broke borrowing money to make a print run and then of course it doesn't sell and the retailers send the books back.
So she took the book to her friends in New York and when Cecily Hensley walks into your office and says I like this book, everybody, you know salutes and Morgan Entrekin and Grove/Atlantic, he said he read about half of it and he was on the phone to Tom Farber asking what - what kind of deal could he get.
LAMB: There's a pattern, you just put more to the pattern than I realized, but you talk about your first wife, is it Giselle?
MARLANTES: Giselle, yes.
LAMB: And you brought back the Vietnam War to her, or you married after the war and - and but you brought back PTSD.
MARLANTES: Oh yes.
LAMB: And explain, where did you meet your first wife and what impact did PTSD have on the relationship?
MARLANTES: Well, I met Giselle in Washington because I was - after the war, I was assigned to Headquarters Marine Corps.
MARLANTES: Here in Washington, D.C. and she was teaching yoga here, and so I fell in love with my yoga teacher. And PTSD is an actual physical change in your brain. We didn't - I hadn't even heard of it back then. And if you read literature, Odysseus had it, if you read the "Odyssey" and when the ask him when he's at that banquet of Nausicaa's father, tell us about the war in Troy, he exhibits every symptom of PTSD, you could have had the DSM-4 say this is - he's got it.
But I had never heard of it and, you know, Giselle and I had four kids and I started getting increasingly flakey, I mean rages, moving constantly, you know, nightmares, thrashing around, startled, crazy things, I mean, you know, I remember once I bumped my head against the cupboards in the kitchen and it startled me and I took the cupboards out just with my fists. Well that's going to scare somebody, you know, and my, you know Giselle didn't know what was going on, the kids didn't know what was going on. It was very difficult and Giselle had finally after some years of this craziness said it's - said there was - there was a local group of psychologists that were doing stress and they say come into a workshop, free workshop on job stress. And so I went to - to that. Giselle said you better go, I think you've got a lot of stress.
And I started telling this guy about my symptoms, you know, jumping up in the middle of the night, running outside without even know what was going on, you know, car would honk behind me, I'd be out of my own car and just angry, just attacking the car behind me. And he said to me, he says have you ever been in a war? And that hit me so hard. I'm in the middle of this room with, I don't know, 80 people, I started bawling, snot coming out of my nose, I - I - it was just have you ever been in a war, it was that simple. And when he finally got me back into some semblance of control he said you've got PTSD, have you ever heard of it? No.
This was in the mid-90s and he said, he took out a card and he wrote Larry Decker, Department of Veteran's Affairs, Santa Barbara and he said take this card and - to this man no. not tomorrow, not this afternoon, I'm calling him on the phone. You walk down there and you see him and that was the beginning of getting healed, but the marriage didn't last. It had gone too long with the - the symptoms which families get destroyed with this and we - we need to prepare our families when veterans come back - combat veterans. They're changed physically, the actual way that you process input changes. It goes from the cortex, instead of the cortex like what's that sound, oh is it a leaf? Is it - is it the wind? Well by that time you're dead.
So what happens is that the brain under extreme adrenaline shifts the input out of the cortex straight to the - what is it, I can't remember. It's not the medulla it's another - it's a primitive part of your brain, the reptilian part of your brain - sound, boom. So you're not thinking anymore. So from then on, you get startled out comes this sudden rage because the body thinks that its - its life is in danger. You're not in control any more and you can - you can get - you can overcome it. You can learn how to - how to cope with it, which the V.A. was - I was lucky, the V.A. did very good skills with me. It's like you know 9, 8. 7, 6 - I mean I just had been taught sort of like they're not trying - no one's trying to kill you here, it's just OK, you're safe and all those things have made life a lot smoother, not just for me but for all the people I live with.
LAMB: Where id you meet your current wife?
MARLANTES: I met her when I was living in Seattle. I was living there with my - my youngest daughter, Sophie, she was - she was going to Seattle Community College and I met her on an Internet date - dating service and I'm not - yes, it just worked out beautifully.
LAMB: When did you marry.
MARLANTES: I married about four years ago.
LAMB: You know, if I were able - if she were right here right now and I'd ask her what's the residual on the Vietnam War with your husband, what would she say?
MARLANTES: Oh I think she would say that he gets - he gets pretty flakey around the 4th of July and she knows I - I take medicine. I take Wellbutrin and Ritalin. Somehow that combination keeps me from - from going completely - she called it feral. But she'll know if - if I haven't had - if I don't take my meds, she'll just - she'll just say I can see it in your eyes because you're starting to do this again, it's that scanning, it's that combat veteran scanning, it just - I - it just happens. And she won't let me see war movies. She said if it's an important one, we'll watch it in the daylight together, but - and so she - but she's been fortunate because she knows about PTSD. She also a psychotherapist and - and so when I do one of my numbers, which I still do occasionally, she knows that it's not her and that's what's so hard on these families is that these poor women that - the guy explodes and then it's like what am I doing wrong? Well they're not doing anything wrong. The guy's exploding because that's the way it is and so she's - she's sort of able to step aside and say, it's the war, it's not me.
LAMB: Were you drawn to her on the Internet because she's a psychotherapist?
MARLANTES; No, I actually she went through - got her degree while - while we knew each other. I'd turned into a soccer dad with her daughter while she was going to college and no, I was drawn to her simply because we just were very compatible in so many - so many areas that the usual just compatibility - just sit with her and it was like, hm, this is comfortable. This is easy, you know, it's not even - I don't even have to make a decision about this. So it's - it's - it's - you know it's - it worked out just fine.
What's the answer to the question, I know there's a full book here but what's the answer to the question on your book, what it is like to go to war? What would be your first thought when you try to answer that?
MARLANTES: That it is a life-changing experience that in its intensity and maybe in its actuality approaches the spiritual - a spiritual experience that is beyond ordinary life, normal life and it's very difficult to come back down from it and - and function in society. It's remarkable how many veterans do. I mean a the majority of veterans return from the experiences and function, some better than others, but most of them do raise families and - and get the job done but a large number commit suicide, a large number end up on drugs and alcohol and it's those that - that we need to look after.
LAMB: How many of your fellow Marines did you see killed or wounded and how many of the enemy did you see killed or wounded? Is there any way to quantify that?
MARLANTES: Well, certainly, I mean I've never added it up, but of my own Marines, 30 or 40 anyway in that one battle where we - where I got the Navy Cross, I think we lost 17 killed and, you know, double that at least wounded. So over the course of the time, quite a few.
Of the enemy, it's interesting, it's harder to tell because there's just - there's jungle and of course they're trying to save their friends and pull them out of danger so - so the bodies get moved but definitely - I know that it probably - I killed 20 because I've seen the bodies as a result, not of me just shooting them directly but hitting them with Napalm or with bombs or bringing in artillery and once that's over then you can walk around and count the bodies.
LAMB: What's the difference between your first kill and your last kill, in your own head.
MARLANTES: I don't think there's any difference because you get numbed by the combat in the beginning. I think that well - I might have to second guess myself. You get increasingly numb. So as - as you're there longer and longer, I think that on the spot you are not as shaken by it as the first one or two but when you get back from that situation, you get in your, mid life you know 40s and 50s, then it becomes not different at all.
I mean the one that kept haunting me was one that was right in the middle of - of the numbers of people that I had killed and for some reason he had - he had broken through - he was trying to kill me with a grenade and - and his eyes locked with mine and that's rare and - and he was human and most of the time when you're killing in combat, I call it pseudo-speciating it - it's psychological protection. We're raised if you're decent, you're raised not to kill people. And then you have to figure out how you're going to do it to get the job done. Well you kind of make them not human and so you - you go at it that way and that's just numbness that - that sets in or this, you know, other - they're a Towel Head, they're a Gook, they're - they're a Jap, they're, you know and - and then when you get older you realize what you've done and then you have to learn to deal with it.
LAMB: So what's been the impact on you about war in general? You mentioned earlier about that you felt the Vietnam War was a bad idea. What about the Iraqi situation? You say you supported that and the Afghanistan, but you've changed your mind on that?
MARLANTES: Well in - in Afghanistan I was all for going after Osama Bin Laden and I think we should have and we did eventually get him. The problem happened was that he wasn't there when we tried to get him the first time and I think that we got ourselves into a situation that the British got in two, four times, the Russians got into one time, which is this interminable civil war that's going on between the northern tribe and the Pashtuns and there we are stuck in the middle of it and suddenly again, what's the objective? The objective was get Osama Bin Laden. That's clear. Now it's like get stability in - in - in Afghanistan. When - when is it stable? I mean how do we know when we've won? And if we pull out, even if - even if it finally ends up the way we wanted, could we not have achieved that some other way?
I often argue about apartheid in South Africa, we - no one intervened militarily there, but because of pressure, all kinds of economics, social, you know you can't play rugby with us, we managed to make a big impact. They had to do it themselves, obviously, but the help of the world community made it easier for the anti- apartheid people. I think we probably could have done it differently and still achieved it, if we're ever going to achieve it.
Iraq, I was very careful because I - I wanted to say I don't want to be a second guesser and I remember writing it down. Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, he has used them against the Kurds. He has used them against his own people. He is a dangerous man and if I'm in the chair in the White House, I need to protect the American people. I will go to war to try and stop this man from doing what I think he's doing. Turned out that there weren't any.
So I would have voted to go and then I would have been disappointed when it turned out that they weren't there.
LAMB: I'm going to try this, it may not work because we don't have a lot of time, but I'm going to read the - the headings on each of your chapters, so maybe we can get through, we only have about eight minutes left. And see if you can just give us you know a 30 second synopsis so people can get an idea of where you went in this book.
LAMB: "Temple of Mars."
MARLANTES: There it's that we discount the spiritual side in this experience and it hit me once that mystics - mystics all have this experience of death. They understand that death is imminent. They are in the moment, totally in the moment. They - they - they get to the point where their ego is subsumed into the good of other people. They live in a larger group, the sanga, the church, the oolam, the monastery. Every one of those things is extent in combat and it started me thinking what did happen.
LAMB: Chapter two, "Killing."
MARLANTES: Well killing, that's what we're talking about some of the question that you were - you were asking which is that what warriors do is take life and we often get people involved in - in - in the military under the most false pretenses, you know, to learn a skill, we'll help you through college. That's all good those are - but that's not what it's all about and I want to make sure someone who read this knew.
LAMB: Chapter three is "Guilt."
MARLANTES: Guilt, you have to deal with it. You're raised in this culture Judeo-Christian culture, good people don't kill people. Thou shalt not kill. And - and you know, unless you're a sociopath, you always will feel that way. Yet your government says now it's time to kill people, OK and then you come back, gosh, how do I deal with that, it's tough.
LAMB: We'll skip over four because it's "Numbness and Violence," and we talked a little bit about that. Chapter five is "The Enemy Within."
MARLANTES: What I talk about there is basically the Jungian concept of shadow and it's - and it's - what gets us into trouble I think in atrocities when the rage comes out, it's our own inner beasts and until we recognize our own inner beasts and stop projecting it on someone else, we get ourselves into - into deeper trouble and that's what that's about.
LAMB: We'll skip chapter six which is "Lying," which we talked about. Chapter seven is "Loyalty."
MARLANTES: Loyalty is an interesting issue because it's loyalty to whom? And you find yourself sometimes as cross purposes. Suppose you get and order from a higher authority that you disagree with and your loyalty though would be to support the higher authority because you're - you're in the structure and you're supposed to support it. But on the other hand, if it's going to hurt the people below you is my loyalty to them and at some ultimate point, loyalty to yourself. When does it devolve down to just that? Should I just run?
LAMB: Chapter eight is Heroism."
MARLANTES: We talked about that with the medal, which is the - you have to go at it with the right attitude. I got a Bronze Star, I was - I was just, you know, I was brave. I pulled the guy out from under the machine gun, but I - I went after him in part because I wanted the medal and he ended up dying and it may have been, I will never know, because when I was - in an attempt to - to rescue him it me that put the killing bullet through him because he was on the ground up hill from me and I was trying to get the machine gun's head down to get to him. Had I gone in there with the right intentions, I would feel less bad about it.
LAMB: Why did you want a medal?
MARLANTES: I think that you want a medal because of self-esteem. You want to just, I think that that's what I talk about is why do people want to be recognized for what they do. There's - because you write that you want to be professional and every - everybody knows you did well. Bu the other reason is, is that it's sort of like I can go back and I can show somebody that I've done something they haven't. So there's - there's mixed reasons for wanting medals.
LAMB: Chapter nine is "Home."
MARLANTES: coming home is a big part of the war experience and I think that we've handled this - we certainly handled it badly in Vietnam. We're learning to handle it better, but I think that we have a long to go as a culture about how to actually bring veterans back so that they can become members of the larger group.
LAMB: Chapter 10 is "The Club."
MARLANTES: When I was a kid, all the dads and uncles were in World War II and those who had been in combat had known something that I didn't know and I wanted to know what it was and I call that the club.
LAMB: Chapter 11 is "Relating to Mars."
MARLANTES: This is a summary chapter which is what is the proper way to be a warrior in the modern world an dhow - what is an ethical warrior and what is - what is an unethical warrior? And where do you - where do you - how do you stop short of moving into unnecessary killing?
LAMB: You start the first sentence in your book in the Preface is, I wrote this book primarily to come to terms with my own experience of combat." Have you done it?
MARLANTES: I think that it has - yes, I'm quite satisfied. I - I - there will be no more books for me, I think about war. I - I think this is it - this is - this is - well 20 years getting - or 15 years plus a lot of time before so, I feel fairly satisfied now that I've - I've come to terms. I recognize where I was - I fell short and I recognize where I didn't.
LAMB: How old are your kids?
MARLANTES: Thirty-three, 30, 25, 24, 20.
LAMB: Have they read your books?
MARLANTES: yes, except I don't think a couple of the girls have read this - this - this recent one, but the others have read both of them.
LAMB: Can you summarize the impact on them?
MARLANTES: I think that - that it helps them understand being raised by a combat veteran like, oh, I know why dad did that. I understand why he behaved like that. I think that's been a big impact on them.
LAMB: What's your next book?
MARLANTES: My next book, if I get time to write on it is about a woman who's a labor organizer in the logging camps of the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the last century. And I - I deal with this conflict in our culture between being an individual and being part of a group and we - we flip-flop with that one.
LAMB: What's your schedule on that one?
MARLANTES: Right now, there's no schedule. I - I - I'll be off this tour and then I'm going to start writing it and when I get it done, that's all I can say.
LAMB: The name of the book is "What it is Like to Go to War," author also of "Matterhorn, a Novel," Karl Marlantes, thank you very much for joining us.
MARLANTES: Thank you, it was a pleasure.END