This is a remarkable book. I haven't read a lot of military literature, fiction or non-fiction; I have no personal connection to the military and never served. But I am a high school teacher, and every year I see some number of students -- sometimes more, sometimes less; quite a lot more since the economy sank in 2008 -- leave high school and go off to serve their country. I wanted to get some perspective on what they were in for, and perhaps a better idea of why they did it, why they signed up when the conventional wisdom is always for young men and women to go to college.
I got that perspective. And much more. I got a real glimpse into a soldier's heart and mind, told with clarity and great intelligence and heroic honesty; if for nothing else (and of course there is much), Marlantes should be honored for his willingness to delve so very deep into his own experiences, and to share them with the reading public in stark, perfect detail, hiding nothing. It made the book difficult to read at times, an experience that I can only think would be a thousand times more intense for fellow soldiers, but it made the book that much more necessary to read.
I also got led through an insightful plan for how a modern nation should treat its soldiers, how they should be trained, how the officers should deal with their commands, how the public should treat their warriors before, during, and after combat. This is where the author's intelligence and education shine: calling on mythology, psychology, sociology, history, and of course his own experiences, Marlantes lays out a set of suggestions for the military that made me think this book should be not only required reading for past and future soldiers (which it should be), but also required reading for elected officials who intend to send soldiers into harm's way -- whether they themselves are veterans or not. The basic concept is that we must give our military men and women time and tools to adjust, both before and after combat, both in the short and long term. Soldiers must be prepared for what they will have to face -- all they will have to face, the fear and the excitement, the heroism and the honor and the horror and the lies -- and they must be given the chance to work through what they have dealt with afterwards; Marlantes shows how asking soldiers to return from the field to civilian life in as little as a 24 or 48 hours, as happened to Vietnam veterans like Marlantes, is perhaps the largest root cause of trauma for all involved, especially since neither our government nor our society have policies in place to help soldiers make that difficult transition. It's a shame, and it should be changed.
I wish the book was a little easier to read; it gets a bit academic and complex at times, when the author is working through some difficult concepts -- such as the enemy within, or the idea of heroism, both in abstract and practical terms -- and some of the students I'd like to give this book to would have trouble following it. But I'm going to give it to them anyway, and they're going to be fascinated by it, as I was, even if there are some small bits they struggle with (Hey, I'm an English teacher; I'll help them through the hard parts.). Almost everything in the book is so real and so well-told that anyone can follow and appreciate it.
And this book should be read.