What Is It Like To Go To War?

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Do any of us really want to know what it is like to go to war? Or would we rather that our warriors fold away their wartime experience in a bottom drawer and bring it out as a line on a bio, as family history, as mere fodder for our entertainment?

I found myself thinking about that after Annemarie Dooling at the Huffington Post asked me if any of our bloggers or readers would like to take part in their online bookclub What It Is Like To Go To War. I already bought the Karl Marlantes book that marries his own wartime experience with the philosophy of war. I read the first chapter and recommended it to everyone I met. Then I couldn’t make myself read the rest of it.

Because I am afraid. I am afraid of this book. I keep telling myself that as military writer, as a sometimes-trainer of those who have been in combat, as an Air Force daughter and Navy wife and soon-to-be Army mom, as an American civilian. I ought to read this book.  I ought to know what war is like so that I can be useful to those in uniform. But every time I approach this book it is like I am walking up to a darkened house on an empty street alone.  I don’t want to go inside.

I don’t really want to know what war is like.  If I am honest about this, I know I want the service members who belong to me to come home from deployment unscathed.  I want to be able to sniff them all over for lingering signs of combat stress or undetected TBI or thoughts of suicide.  If my guys and your guys are OK in this moment, I want them to be OK forever.  I want the experience of war to leave them all unchanged.

That is fear talking.  So I picked up the book again this week.  What Marlantes points out is that it is naive to think that a person will emerge from war unchanged.  Our young warriors will be battered and overwhelmed—that is what happens in war. That is scary for me.

But you should know that what Marlantes does in What It Is Like To Go To War is to lead us by the hand through that dark house.  He turns on lamps.  He shows us how things get so scary and how warriors learn to process and what they have been through and how sacred that process must be.  He shows where the meaning of military experience emerges and what our role in that can be.  Marlantes writes:

“We must come to grips with consciously trying to set straight this imbalance of modern warfare.  What is at stake is not only the psyche of each young fighter but our humanity.”

That’s why we ought to read this book together.  Because although so few serve, the rest of us send them into war and live with them after.  My instinct is right—we ought to know what war is like so that we can be useful to our military members when they come home.  This will just be a whole lot less scary if we go into the knowing together.  Add your military voice to the discussion at the  Huffington Post book club here.


Navy wife Jacey Eckhart is Editor of SpouseBuzz and author of I Married a Spartan??  The Care and Feeding of Your Military Marriage available on iTunes, Amazon, and on www.jaceyeckhart.com.

About the Author

Jacey Eckhart
Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Military.com. Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom. Find her at JaceyEckhart.net.
  • Ex-hooah chick

    It’s not just young warriors who come back scarred. My husband was middle-aged when he deployed as a member of the RC.

    Every so often he tells me something new about his time over there. You’d think after all this time I’d know all the stories. Truth is, since I wasn’t over there and never even served in the military, I have little concept of the war experience. I know what I went through while he was gone, and I know what it’s like living with someone permanently disabled with PTSD and TBI and unable to work. That’s all I need to know. Sometimes, it’s even more than I want to know.

    That said, I think that more civilians should enlighten themselves about war. Watching M*A*S*H reruns doesn’t count.

  • Efrain Villagomez

    As a “baby boomer” and a ” Vietnam Vet”, I can tell you that today’s generation has no idea what war is and the impact to the loser. We grew up under the threat of war, and before we knew it, we were in the war. Make no mistake, there are no “reset” buttons and the trauma affects all members of the family whether they know it or not. But the worst thing is for civilians not to be involved and not receiving the survivors with honor, glory, and pride.

    • Mr. DBlock

      Efrain.. who are you to say that people dont know about war?? please.. because i have never heard your name in the history books. you sound like some army POG looking for a spot light. How about we arrange for you and me to talk about war??

      Just so you know we have been in war over a decade. and will be in Afghanistan for much longer than in Vietnam with less deaths. Does that mean “we” are better at war.. “we” can clear houses and caves better? That “we” know war.. think about what your saying because “you” have no idea what war is, sir.

      Mr. DBlock
      1st MarDiv. Motivation Enforcer

    • I realize you are talking about a specific part of our population, but I’m tired of being lumped into that population and being told I am a lazy video game playing good for nothing. I, and many of my friends, spent the better part of four years in the Iraq and Afghanistan. I understand your frustration with this generation, hell, I don’t like most of them either, but slapping a catch-all label on them doesn’t fix the problem.

  • Combat Vet

    I haven’t read the book yet, but I ordered it several days ago. I’m hoping it’s well written. I’m a Vietnam combat vet and can tell you that no amount of stories, movies, pictures or conversations can begin to convey the emotional struggles that are inherent in combat. The fear is constant, not knowing whether your next step will get you shot or blown apart; the shock of having pieces of your comrades all over you; the sense of loss and anger at losing a best friend; and the desire for revenge. Then you’re on ambush patrol at night, get 3 hours sleep and repeat the previous day’s activities all over again. We didn’t (don’t) want our loved ones to know all that. What you can do is accept that we are different, will never be the same, and love us. Healing takes time, therapy, medication and understanding. After a while (sometimes a long while), we can begin to enjoy life again..

    • oenghus

      Amen. Trying to explain it to those who haven’t been under fire or suddenly startled by a booby trap is nearly impossible.

    • E8Grunt

      As Field Marshall Erwin Rommel put it; “Combat is long periods of boredom puntuated by short periods of sheer terror.” War is simply the broad overview of that. I served with the Marines in Vietnam, Grenada and Somalia and can say there have been times that I have wondered if the American public cared what we were going through or really even wanted to know. I think personally that this book, while it will never give the ultimate knowledge of what the warriors of past wars went through..or today warriors young and old are going through, it will go a long way to helping some of our citizens, be they self-indulgent types that could care less or those with a loved one going through it, reach somewhat of an understanding of their experience and the pain they may suffer….both mentally and physically.

  • noel

    As a combat vet of the war in VietNam, I can only suggest you convince the veteran that it is his own idea to seek help, either private practice or VA. I do not believe any cure is available, however; PTSD group participation/discussions and interaction with other veterans is of great help in understanding and allows some degree of a control. The more one learns and just the fact that he is not alone helps one to realize we all share experiences and have differnt levels of what we can accept and endure, yet we of all wars are the same. It takes a patient loving spouse and family to standby the wounded love one. No shame over mental pain, healing comes with understanding and love.

  • ken

    Read it. Be knowledgeable, despite the heartbreat. Each Veteran comes home differently, and affected differently. Still it is what it is and we need TO KNOW.

  • DeltaRaider7071

    War, is a Kalidascope of Insanity, at its’ ultimate worse, and each Veteran’s experience is a different slice.

  • Zach

    I think every body on earth should know what war is like because the more everyone sees and experiences of war the less anyone will ant to go to war.

  • Jimmy

    I am a 67 year old man and a Vietnam war combat veteran. Two of the worst effects I can remember of war is the terrible effect it had on the people and enviroment of Vietnam. I can tell anyone by first hand experience we don’t want anything like war inside our country. And I can bet the warriors of the present day will tell you the same thing. It alarms me today with all the crap Obama and his cronies are trying to do with the United Nations that we are headed for war inside our own country. If he succeeds we want be fighting our troops but troops of another country like socialist Venezuela,China or Cuba to mention a few. Believe me that is the best way to destory a country within. To have another country fighting you on your home ground.