What Went Wrong In Vietnam All Over Again, Vietcong Tunnel Network

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In 1968 Karl Marlantes was a 22-year old Rhodes scholar & did not have to go to Vietnam giới. He nonetheless joined the US Marine Corps, ending up with multiple medals but also lifelong PTSD. In this interview, he recommends the best Vietnam War books, exploring its moral ambiguities, the warrior mentality & the humanity of "the enemy."


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You’re recommending books about the Vietnam War. Tell me about the first book on your các mục, A Rumor of War (1977).

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Philip Capulớn was a marine who later became a very well-known journamenu. In my mind it’s one of the first really well-written books that describe the moral ambiguities & difficulties faced by a young marine officer in this particular war. Before that you had World War II when they took Iwo Jima &, OK, there was horrendous fighting, but it was much more clear-cut. Caputo was the first one to lớn describe the terrible ambiguities. He got into lớn trouble over something that happened, I can’t rethành viên what, but he spoke very honestly about the difficult part of trying to lớn be a man leading troops in combat in a difficult war.

Moral ambiguity sounds like a euphemism for something. Are you talking about atrocities?

No. I think it’s that there wasn’t the clear-cut good versus evil that you had in the Second World War. It wasn’t clear. We were involved in fighting the North Vietnamese, who weren’t nice! They committed terrible atrocities themselves. And we were involved in supporting a government, the South Vietnamese, và they weren’t nice và, obviously, getting thrown inlớn the situation when it’s like – what really is going on here?

“I wake up every day and I think about death, dying, things I did every day. It doesn’t go away.”

And, quite frankly for my generation, when we were little boys in the 50s we were raised on the knights in shining armour idea – we’re going to lớn go và defeat evil Nazis. Vietphái nam didn’t have sầu that. That’s what I meant by the ambiguity. There were no white knights on either side any more.

That must have been terribly distressing.

It was difficult, yes. But what happens — & I think it’s important khổng lồ underst& that when you commit to lớn something lượt thích joining the military — these issues are important, but when you’re actually fighting you are no different from World War II soldiers. My own father was in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge & my uncles fought in Italy và the Pacific và they all said that we didn’t think once about whupping fascism or anything of the sort. It was just: ‘How vị we get out of this alive sầu và help our friends get out of this alive và not let them down?’ It quickly boils down to lớn those around you so there’s a point at which the issue of who’s the white knight disappears.


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Your next book is a classic of Vietnam giới War books, The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O’Brien. 

I lượt thích this book because it was his second book about Vietnam giới. The first one, Going after Cacciato lớn, was very surreal. It was about a patrol looking for Cacciakhổng lồ who was going khổng lồ Paris, so they followed hyên ổn to Paris. I don’t know O’Brien but my feeling was that it was an attempt by an author lớn try and have some artistic expression of what, at that time in our history, was looking pretty surreal. Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam giới. It’s a surreal movie mix in Vietphái nam but it could have sầu been World War I. But when O’Brien wrote The Things They Carried he came down to lớn absolute real brass tacks. It was no longer surreal, it was like here’s a các mục of what a grunt carries, an infantry soldier…

A grunt?

Right. Because infantry soldiers carry so much weight. That’s where the nickname came from because these people carry from 80-1đôi mươi lbs on their backs. It’s the same now in Afghanistan và Iraq. There have been enormous technological changes but that infantry soldier on the ground, who actually is the sharp end of the stichồng, carries a lot of stuff — from pictures of girlfriends to lớn ammunition. The Things They Carried is a series of short stories involving those things, things that bring you khổng lồ reality.

It can be the most poignant thing about a soldier’s death – a little object that appears khổng lồ sum them up. 

I think because it snaps you between the two worlds. When you’re in the world of combat it’s a totally different psychic space. I don’t know what else lớn gọi it. The first time I lost sometoàn thân, one of my guys, I had to go through his pockets lớn get his personal effects, and in his left breast pocket was a picture of his high school girlfrikết thúc. He was just out of high school, of course. And the bullet had gone right through her face. And I just started lớn tremble… it was so… here’s a high school girl in his pocket with the bullet obliterating her face. It was just so bizarre. And then I had to get an artillery mission organised because they were landing too cthất bại to us & quickly you’re baông xã inlớn the… there’s no time to lớn contemplate or mourn. It’s just like: ‘Oh God the shells are coming in…aaaaaargh.’ And you’re baông xã into the other space. That’s why these poignant little bits are so…

The psychic space is interesting. Obviously Vietphái nam was a long time ago and you’ve written a novel, Matterhorn, now. What bởi you vì with the space for 30 years?

Well, raise five kids? No, I worked on the book for 30 years. Not out of choice, but because nobody would publish it or even read it. So I kept saying: ‘Well, I can make it better.’ In some ways it was a two-edged sword. A typical way of dealing with war và trauma is khổng lồ go lớn the bar or bởi drugs and shift jobs every six months. I would go into lớn the basement và work on my novel and I think that was healthy. On the other hvà, while I was working on the novel, I would get inkhổng lồ certain scenes that were very cthua trận to things I had witnessed & it would trigger memories and the unconscious and my post-traumatic căng thẳng disorder — which goes by a thous& names but has been with us since The Odyssey. If you read The Odyssey, Ulysses has every symptom when he has that banquet. Fascinating. Homer obviously understood post-traumatic bao tay disorder. The other classic mô tả tìm kiếm of it is by Robert Graves in Goodbye khổng lồ All That.


Next on your danh mục of Vietphái mạnh War books is one written from the perspective sầu of the Viet Cong. Tell me about The Sorrow of War (1987), by Bao Ninch.

This is a great piece of writing và the guy is obviously a talented writer. What struck me about it is the similarity of the feeling between people who just by the grace of God, by luchồng, were on different sides. He was born in North Vietnam, I was born in a logging town in Oregon. We kết thúc up in the same war on different sides & yet the experience of it is so similar for the individual soldier. He, of course, talks about the havoc wreaked on his country, which didn’t happen on our side. But I had a sense of the humanity of ‘the enemy’. We love to pseudospeciate our enemies – in a way you can’t get the job done if you don’t. But reading this piece of writing about an individual soldier in a war on the other side was just very moving for me.

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We’re now at book number 4 of your Vietnam War books. This is Fields of Fire (1978) by James Webb. 

This is a book I lượt thích because Webb understands the warrior mentality. I’m not one. I’m a citizen soldier who gets drafted and I’ll vì my bit và then I want out. But there are warriors born inkhổng lồ the world, và thank God we’ve got them – I’m no pacifist. And the anh hùng of this book, it’s what he wanted khổng lồ bởi vì since he was a child. He’s Scots-Irish and Webb is proud of his heritage & the Marine Corps is filled with these people, disproportionately from the Southern states which is where the Scots-Irish settled. So he explores that aspect of the human psybít – a guy who wants to be a warrior. Then, obviously, as a warrior, he runs inlớn all the issues a warrior runs inlớn & he’s a thinking warrior. Webb is someone who does think, in spite of the fact that he’s a politician (it’s hard for me to swallow that contradiction), & he’s a good writer. A lot of people lượt thích khổng lồ think that we all hate war, and warriors hate war too, but there’s something in them that makes them good at it, that makes them think: ‘I can’t wait for the next one.’ That’s the way they are và you can’t lay a moral judgment.

Is it not addictive sầu as well? Once you’ve been in that psychic space, as you put it, it’s very hard khổng lồ get out again. 

Well, I’ve sầu read recent stuff about addiction to war, particularly correspondents, và someone actually wrote a Reviews of my book calling it war pornography. I’ve never heard that before but I guess if that makes Tolstoy và Wilfred Owen pornographers then I’m in good company. I think addiction khổng lồ war gets bandied around. I think you can get addicted to lớn adrenaline và work that out in many ways. One of the ways you get addicted to adrenaline is lớn be in combat and I myself know a great many Marine friends in civilian life who vày extremely dangerous snow- & ice-climbing, surfing, sky-diving. I don’t think any of them want khổng lồ go back into lớn combat. I’m sure, though, that there are people, a few, who learn to lớn lượt thích it, but my guess is that they are damaged. Psychotic people lượt thích to kill people & we’re not talking about normal people any more.

No, I suppose not, but when you’ve sầu experienced the very extremes of life — including the bonding with the people around you & the loss of them — then the mundanity of most people’s lives can be difficult to lớn cope with. 

Absolutely. I often think about kids I knew who were 19 – they were squad leaders, they were making life-and-death decisions và having unbelievable experiences. Then they come baông xã and they get a job making hamburgers? It’s going lớn be crazy-making. It’s probably why we need so much more help moving combat veterans baông xã inlớn the civilian space again. We don’t do a good job with that. It’s not just PTSD, it’s also this existential lachồng of meaning. You’re a 19-year-old & you realise that if you don’t show up & get your job done then the machine gun you are supposed to lớn be taking out will kill a lot of the other guys in the company, people you love sầu. You are extraordinarily important and life has meaning, in the sense that your success and failure is life & death. You don’t show up for work at McDonald’s, who cares?

People you love sầu. These extreme situations are so passionate that even the positive feelings are so much greater than you would get in ordinary life. 

Totally. I try hard lớn give the reader a feel for that in my own book và that is one of the enduring positive sầu aspects of war. When veterans get together, they’re not getting together khổng lồ talk about their exploits or remember the war, which is the cliché, they are trying to lớn experience that feeling that they did experience when they were younger & in that situation. To try to lớn retouch that love sầu, that comradeship.


But if you talk lớn one of the 14 amputation cases & realise this is a real human being, with a real story about how he got there, it gives you this perspective sầu. The next time you read the paper and it says, ‘We took light casualties’, you can take the next step & think: ‘I wonder who they were, I wonder what happened to lớn them, I wonder if they kept their leg or they didn’t.’ So I was already in the reserve sầu when I read this but it was like: ‘Oh my God, this is real stuff.’ It’s just an army doctor showing the human side of the word ‘casualties’.

Were you injured yourself?

Yes. I got two Purple Hearts. One was an easy one and one was a tough one – I ended up on a hospital ship, from a hand grenade.

So, tell me more about your book, Mattherhorn.

Well, where bởi vì I start? It was a book I just had lớn keep working on because of this need to lớn be understood. I always used to lớn grate at words lượt thích ‘casualties’ và ‘the enemy’ và the ability of us lớn abstract away from those we’re talking about. You hear people talking about Marines và the image is of these grizzled 35-year-olds, but the reality in Vietphái mạnh và mostly today too is that they are 19. They’re not grizzled, not cthua. They’re competent & well-trained but they’re kids & what they’re interested in is girlfriends and fast cars and drinking và that’s who they are. They have lớn grow up and assume enormous responsibilities at an age when, quite frankly, most people are not prepared for that. So how vày they manage that? I wanted khổng lồ write a novel that meant that, when someone who’s read it sees in a newspaper that the Marines have sầu landed, they’ll go: ‘I know who that is. Not the ones in the movies. The ones in Matterhorn. That’s who’s doing the job.’ The book is about combat. It’s very focused. I don’t get inkhổng lồ the politics of the war. I don’t talk about anything that these characters wouldn’t think or talk about – getting the job done, racism, class issues, unfairness. People have sầu said about my book: ‘He doesn’t talk about the suffering of the Vietnamese.’ But my characters wouldn’t have sầu thought of it. They just didn’t.

Have sầu you found it cathartic or are you mourning the loss of it now the book is out?

That’s a funny question. I was telling someone the other night: ‘I lived with this book for 35 years.’ It’s lượt thích living with your wife for that long và you agree that it’s time, it’s over, but then you see her with another guy it’s lượt thích – waaaaaah!

But do you feel as if you’re supposed lớn have finished thinking about Vietnam?

No. I’m happy it’s done. I’m done with that. What I remember from Vietphái mạnh has little to lớn vì chưng with the novel. I wake up every day và I think about death, dying, things I did every day. It doesn’t go away. You don’t talk about it. It flits through your mind while you’re doing your daily work. Luckily for me I’ve had lots of help with PTSD & I’ve got medicine and it just sort of comes in one side & goes out the other side. There it was, there it went. But you go on with your life & it will be with me until the day I die.

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