From Homer to Norman Mailer, the novelist and Vietnam veteran chooses books that tell the ‘numbing, confusing, occasionally thrilling’ truth about combat
A still from Terrence Malick’s film version of The Thin Red Line
After studying at Yale, Karl Marlantes served as a marine in Vietnam and was awarded numerous medals including two Purple Hearts. In 1977 he began writing Matterhorn, a novel about his experience of combat in the jungle. The book ended up taking Marlantes 30 years to write while raising a family of five children and working full-time in energy consultancy.
“It seems to me that a great war book must speak the truth about war; that it is mostly tedious, numbing, confusing, occasionally thrilling, filled with love for your comrades, and ultimately leaves you sad. Then, of course, there is the constant authorial challenge to keep the reader turning the pages – a challenge fully met by all of these tales.”
1. The Iliad by Homer
I have to confess I first read this in a Classics Comic Book version. What struck me then – I was about eight or nine – was that the author actually thought that the Trojans weren’t morally any better or worse than the Greeks. Maybe a little better, in fact, but I’m half-Greek so that was hard to swallow. It was only after I’d been in a war myself that I read the actual epic, and I did it in both Robert Fitzgerald’s and Richmond Lattimore’s translations. On those readings I was struck by the changelessness of the experience, no matter the technology, and the utter randomness of it all, in Homer personified by the intervention of the gods.
2. The Red Badge of Courage by Steven Crane
This one I read because it was required in school. I suspect it got on the required list in part because our teachers thought it was short enough to at least encourage us not to reach for the Classic Comic Book. It is of course notable for the understanding of fear, cowardice, and slaughter from a man who wasn’t in combat. This is rare, and I have to admit that I’m highly suspicious of any novel about war that is written by someone who hasn’t experienced it.
3. Egil’s Saga
I was taken by this ancient tale’s authentic celebration of the dark joy of being on the winning side. It’s also just a very good adventure that takes place in a time that tends to get romanticised. Here, by contrast, you get the feeling that it’s a pretty tough way to make a living. Full disclosure, my grandfather was a Norwegian and I was fairly predisposed to overlook some of Egil’s more pathological mental states.
4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I’ve read this twice and am going through it for the third right now with the new Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation. This man’s genius is to handle a huge cast of characters and points of view, from an Olympian historical analysis, to the minds of dictators and generals, to the minds of individual soldiers. When I read how Prince Andre felt when he went down mortally wounded, seeing the concrete nothingness of the sky, I actually had to stand up and take a walk it hit me so profoundly.
5. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry
Here we get the true feeling of senseless mechanised slaughter, the terror of artillery shellings and poison gas that, supported by rail systems and industrial economies, could go on and on until minds broke, and the numbing degradation of life in the trenches. These poems also made it clear that the day of the individual warrior who could significantly influence his odds of survival through skill of arms had truly come to an end.
6. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
Graves expressed so clearly the aftermath of combat, the wounds to the mind and soul. And he told of the actual experience in chilling understatement.
7. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
This is the first novel I read where “the con” of patriotism was fully revealed. I have nothing against patriotism; it’s a good thing. It’s just that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
8. In Parenthesis by David Jones
This small novel is very close to poetry in its spare and beautiful use of language and its use of symbols. Being a mythology nut, I relished the inclusion of the old Welsh epics and myths in the text. He also captures, as does his title, the way the intensity of combat is bracketed between versions of “normal life”.
9. The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Here is a book written by a soldier with a soldier’s eye and sensibility. I think Jones captured jungle warfare brilliantly. He also captured the nerve-shredding anxiety of nothing happening.
10. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
Here is war writing that focuses on a group and the interaction within that group. It is the small unit of friends that provides the meaning of war to most veterans, not the sweeping generalisations of the politicians. This is not to say that some sweeping generalisations aren’t true – it’s fairly easy, for example, to agree that destroying fascism was a good cause. But when my uncles and father and their friends could be persuaded to talk about their experience of the second world war, to a man said they never thought once about “the cause” when they were actually fighting. They thought about their friends.