In 1968, Karl Marlantes, already a Rhodes Scholar and a newly commissioned Lt. in the United States Marine Corps, entered the Vietnam War as a platoon commander with 1st Bn, 4th Marines. The video at the end of this article is of him describing just one of the events that he experienced during his 13 months in Vietnam. During that year he would be awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during an assault on a hilltop bunker. But that is another story for another time.
The power of this video is in the sheer intimacy of its perspective.
Karl Marlantes was born in Astoria, Oregon, a beautiful seaside town on the northwest coast of Oregon. It is a small town where fishing was one of the major industries. Marlantes graduated from high school there and was accepted at Yale University in New Haven, CT. While he was there, he joined the Marine Reserves and attended the Platoon Leaders Classes that were offered on campus. In the summers he went to Quantico Marine Base for boot camp and Officers Training courses. When he was about to graduate from Yale he was awarded the very prestigious, Rhodes Scholarship, to attend graduate school at Oxford in England, which presented a practical dilemma in terms of his immediate Marine Corps obligations.
Marlantes wrote the Marine Corps about receiving this prestigious scholarship and was surprised when the Marine Corps responded by saying that it was proud of him and to go for it, that they would see him on his completion of that program.
This was in the mid-60s and the opposition to the Vietnam War was heating up. Marlantes was also aware of the fact that five of his classmates from his small high school in Astoria, OR, had already been killed in action in Vietnam. Being an intelligent and thoughtful young man, Marlantes struggled with a profoundly paradoxical moral dilemma: should he participate in a war that he was not in total agreement with, and the fact that he had already taken an oath to defend the Constitution. He made the decision to honor the latter and was soon commissioned and not long after, on his way to Vietnam.
This is where the video picks up his own very personal, very intimate story, telling of his own experiences as a platoon commander with 1st Bn. 4th Marines. The power of this interview is in the intimacy, the experience of war at the level of a single platoon, even that of a single relationship in the midst of a war that had worldwide implications.
When he begins telling us about his radioman, Charles Thomas, you know that this story is going to be very personal. The relationship between the radioman and the officer in command is by nature one of close proximity, a matter of physical nearness in the field. That antenna sticking up from the radio can be seen by the enemy and the enemy knows that the officer is nearby. But you get more, too.
War makes for an intimacy of human relationship that is rooted in the reality of living every moment in the realm of immediate danger and the potential of swift death. Marlantes reveals this when he talks about the relationship that developed between himself and Thomas.
At one point Marlantes shares an event that reveals this bond and this commitment that men at war develop toward one another in that strange and life threatening environment. He tells of being on a mission during the monsoon season up in the highlands and coming down with severe hypothermia. This is a deadly situation. Radioman Thomas saw Marlantes shivering uncontrollably and without hesitation put him down on the ground and wrapped himself around Marlantes to warm him up. This literally saved Marlantes’ life. That is the kind of thing that was common among those of us who saw combat together and why we remain close even now over five decades later.
Sadly, in a battle at a place called Mutter’s Ridge, Marlantes would lose his radioman. Thomas had become a kind of experienced “advisor” to Marlantes since his arrival as a “newby” wet-behind-the-ears Lieutenant. That loss still brings tears to Marlantes’ eyes, as you will see.
If you think you have heard the name Karl Marlantes before, you may recognize it from one of his very highly respected fiction and non-fiction books about Vietnam, “Matterhorn” or “What It Is Like To Go To War.”
This is what it is like to go to war. Marlantes’ account here is a clear description in unadorned words of the intimacy of war for the individual Marine and the individual unit. It says nothing about the “politics” of war, either global or national. It makes no attempt to define the moral questions. Such things are at a whole other level of consciousness than that of the wild, immediate intensity of battle. It does, though, speak volumes about the personal, soul-searing reality of the warrior who finds himself at the border of life and death in an up-close-and-personal fight for one’s own survival and that of his brothers.
Listen carefully to Karl Marlantes’ words, his tone of voice and see his face, his tears, his hesitations. Those memories are still there. The sharp edges have been worn down by time and by his having “talked” about them, looked them in the face and written them down on the page to get them out into the open, where they can be finally owned and put away as deeply human lessons learned.
Hear his words with the ears of your soul and you may start to understand what every combat veteran knows in his or her soul, what he or she carries, filed away in their memories.
To Karl Marlantes, we say thank you for telling our Vietnam story so powerfully and beautifully. We thank you for making our story more intimate, more human, and not just a metaphor for political rationales, or as amorphous, anonymous, too simple targets of social protest.
As an FMF Corpsman who served with Marines in Vietnam, we all say to you, Semper Fidelis! We are “Fratres Aeterni!”Whizzco