Early in his tour, Lt. Marlantes led a small patrol in high mountains near the border with Laos. Their job was to destroy enemy supply bases and hospitals. On this mission, he had with him a forward observer, a young lance corporal, whose job was to radio in coordinates of enemy positions to nearby artillery units. Even a small patrol has an enormous amount of killing power.
The young F.O. thought he heard something and, after a couple of minutes of listening, informed Marlantes that there was enemy activity nearby. "It's a gook transportation unit," the F.O. whispered.
Knowing there were no trails for miles and sensing, because he was a new guy, there was some kind of joke at hand, the author asked the young Marine how the enemy was moving these supplies. "Elephants," he answered, grinning. "The gooks use them for packing gear." It was a legitimate target, so the coordinates were radioed to a nearby fire-support base. Within minutes, artillery rounds came screaming overhead, blowing up and maiming the terrified animals in the jungle. Their cries of pain sickened Marlantes, and he called an end to the artillery mission.
In one scene, he describes coming upon a bunker just as a young North Vietnamese soldier pops out, holding a grenade. They lock eyes and Marlantes secretly wishes the kid will just give up. Instead, he starts to pull the pin and Marlantes has to shoot him. This could be a central point to his narrative. The easiest way to justify killing in war is to depersonalize the people on the other side. You give them nicknames that eliminate their humanity. Then you don't think of them as someone's son, brother, father, or husband.
The U.S. military in Vietnam could not measure military success in terms of territory taken from the enemy. Often after capturing a mountain or village, we left and gave it back to the enemy. Instead, success was measured in body counts, that is, the "kill ratio" - how many of them we killed vs. how many of us they killed. If the numbers weren't high enough, the brass back in the rear demanded a recount until they got the numbers they wanted. This was probably the biggest lie of the Vietnam War.
Referencing Carl Jung, Marlantes writes: "War and destruction is the shadow side of creativity. The opposite of who we wish we were." According to Jung, there are several kinds of what he refers to as "atrocities" that manifest themselves as a result of these shadow emotions. When Marlantes killed the young soldier, that was what Jung would call a "white" emotion, carefully reasoned because it was a "him-or-me decision." The opposite is the "red" emotion. This is driven by pure rage and anger. The author cites the murders at My Lai as an example. Finally, there is the "atrocity" of what Jung calls "the fallen standard." This would be the behavioral standard that is acceptable back home vs. what is expected by superiors in the field.
In some ways, the last was the worst of the three "atrocities." In peacetime, advancement in the military is difficult, if not impossible. Careers stagnate. During wartime, promotions speed down through the ranks like cars on a superhighway. Military necessity was not always the reason for sending young men to their deaths. The author saw this firsthand, and it sickened him. What happened to duty and honor?
Five years after his discharge from the Marine Corps, in a chance encounter in a hotel bar with famed lecturer and mythologist Joseph Campbell, Marlantes shared his feelings of guilt over what he had done in Vietnam.
"Don't you see the other guy's fate put him on the opposite side of you?" Campbell asked.
"So, there you are. Now, what you had to do was fill out your side of the bargain with a noble heart. It's your intentions and your nobility in how you conduct yourself in this world of opposites that you've got to think about. Did you intend right?"
The author writes that his eyes started to tear up. "I could only nod my head in assent."
"Then, pheww," Campbell answered.
"He dismissed my problem with a wave of his hand," Marlantes writes.
While Joseph Campbell may have offered him a kind of bar-stool absolution, it would take Karl Marlantes 35 years to work his way through his personal demons from the war in Vietnam, and to accept that in war, duty and honor can coexist with evil.
Inquirer photo editor Bryan Grigsby was awarded a Silver Star during the Vietnam War while serving as a U.S. Army combat photographer with the Department of the Army Special Photographic Detachment, Pacific Area Command.