Just finishing up Karl Marlantes’ What it is Like to go to War (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press). It is not an easy book even as it is a quick read. There are many psychological frailties brought to the surface that should unnerve any reader, and not just those who want to know about war changes a person. One such human foible, lying, gets a whole chapter. After describing types of lies we tell, he has this to say about why we lie,
We lie because we find ourselves in positions where it appears the truth will hurt us. But a truth isn’t a thing like a flying rock. So by “hurt us” we must mean it will hurt some goal toward which we strive. And we’ve managed to confuse that goal with a definition of ourselves. “Hurt our ability to achieve our ends” equates to “hurt us.” Worse, we have such a large number of goals to use to define ourselves that we rarely know which to apply at any particular time. I want to be a hero. I want to stay alive. I want to be a good officer. I want my troops to like me. I want to defend my commanding officer. I want his job. I want to tell the whole world how incredibly difficult a time I have just had. I don’t want to look like a crybaby. I want to uphold the honor of my service. I want to get even. (p. 132)
I think Marlantes nails us all here. We might not struggle with the same wants but surely we can find ourselves in the same sort of struggle between hero and self, between getting what we want and doing the right thing. And we get confused as to what will get hurt if we tell the truth. Though we lie to ourseves that our lies are to protect others, mostly we lie to protect our own self.
Just began reading Karl Marlantes’ What it is Like to go to War (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011). If you have loved ones who have served in combat I highly recommend you read this to understand a bit of their experiences. Karl Marlantes is a veteran of the Vietnam War and in this book details the spiritual and psychological impact of killing and combat. While his view of God would vary from most Christians, I think most believers will find his descriptions of war’s destruction on a person very accurate.
Marlantes considers the spiritual nature of war,
Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. 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.
Most of us, including me, would prefer to think of a sacred space as some light-filled wondrous place where we can feel good and find a way to shore up our psyches against death. We don’t want to think that something as ugly and brutal as combat could be involved in any way with the spiritual. However, would any practicing Christian say that Calvary Hill was not a sacred space? (p. 7-8)
Just prior to this quote he tells of a harrowing experience where he was in charge of a small band of men defending US interests with no opportunity for backup. Decisions he made led to the deaths of enemies and fellow marines. In a break in the action, a chaplain was flown in bringing, “several bottles of Southern Comfort and some new dirty jokes.” (p. 7) He tells how this “help” wasn’t what he really needed,
I felt responsible for the lives and deaths of my companions. I was struggling with a situation approaching the sacred in it terror and contact with the infinite, and he was trying to numb me to it. I needed help with the existential terror of my own death and responsibility for the death of others, enemies and friends, not Southern Comfort. I needed a spiritual guide. (p. 7)
Consider the book if you live with, love, or work with a veteran of combat.