Karl Marlantes went to war in 1968 as a 23-year-old lieutenant and led a Marine rifle platoon through months of intense combat. Four decades later, Marlantes’ riveting novel Matterhorn, based on his war experiences, earned wide acclaim as a war literature classic. His second book, What It Is Like to Go to War, excerpted below, bares his most personal combat and post-combat experiences and offers profound insight on how we must prepare our youth who become our warriors for their hard and uncompromising journey through war’s hell and back home again.
In Vietnam lying became the norm and I did my part.
One of the greatest tests of character is telling the truth when it hurts the teller. The Vietnam War will be infamous for the way those who perpetrated it lied to those who fought and paid for it. Lies in the Vietnam War were more prevalent because that war was fought without meaning. Death, destruction, and sorrow need to be constantly justified in the absence of some overarching meaning for the suffering. Lack of this overarching meaning encourages making things up, lying, to fill the gap in meaning.
People lie. They lie in business, they lie in universities, they lie in marriages, and they lie in the military. Lying, however, is usually considered not normal, an exception. In Vietnam lying became the norm and I did my part.
My lying fell into two very distinct categories: the lie as a weapon and the lie of two minds.
Prairie Dog, or, more often, P-Dog, was an 18-year-old black machine gunner from one of our eastern seaboard ghettos. He and I had been in the same platoon. P-Dog got his name saving a squad that was pinned down in the DMZ. He took off on his own at a rapid crawl, cradling the heavy and cumbersome M-60 machine gun in his arms. Elbows and knees flying, he outflanked the enemy and blasted them with his machine gun, freeing the pinned squad. Such a maneuver, under heavy fire, takes more than just raw courage. The name came when a friend of his, talking about how low and fast he’d been crawling, said, “Like a prairie dog with his ass on fire.” It stuck.
P-Dog had about 10 days to go before he was due to rotate back to the States. He’d managed to wangle his way out of the bush back to Quang Tri to sit out his last week at the same time I was there awaiting reassignment to the air-observer squadron. About 11 o’clock one night we got a call from another battalion up the road. Three of our guys had been picked up smoking marijuana. Could the duty officer come over and take them into custody? That was me.
Smoking dope in those days meant a mandatory court-martial and dishonorable discharge. Any kid with a dishonorable discharge would lose his GI Bill benefits, and typically this meant also losing any chances for further education. In addition he would never be able to join a union and would therefore never be able to get a decent job. Color that kid black and you’ve just shut him out of normal society for life. In short, these three kids were had. So much for serving their nation.
I sighed and said I’d come over. I left the duty NCO, a career gunnery sergeant, in charge and took the sergeant E-5 who was in charge of the battalion office and a driver along with me.
I walked into the other battalion’s headquarters hooch and there I saw P-Dog and the two other kids under armed guard, squatting on the floor, their hands stretched out on a bench. When P-Dog saw me he turned his head away. He would look only at the floor. I began shaking inside, knowing the consequences that were going to have to follow. Applying military justice to strangers is a lot easier than applying it to a friend. We’d been through a lot of shit together, and now this was the way we’d say good-bye, with me sending him to jail and then a lifetime’s purgatory.
The other battalion’s duty officer, an old mustang, said he hadn’t searched these guys yet, because they weren’t in his battalion, but they hadn’t had their hands anywhere near their pockets. He’d already searched his own guys and they’d been put away. He was giving me an out. I took it.
I ordered the three of them into the jeep and took off. I turned to the driver and the sergeant when we were well down the dark road and said in a very loud voice that I had to piss, didn’t anyone else? We all three walked away from the jeep and stood in the dark with our backs to it. After about a minute or two of muffled scrambling and whispers from the three in the jeep, we all turned around and climbed back in.
We arrived at battalion headquarters, which like most headquarters never shuts down. In full view of the entire staff I ordered the three of them searched. All three were grinning. They started turning their pockets inside out on their own. P-Dog, ever the showman, flipped open his last pocket with great gusto—and a joint fell out onto the floor.
In the hush that followed, the duty NCO quietly reached down to the floor, picked up the joint, looked at it, and held it under P-Dog’s nose. He handed it to me. No one said a word.
Everyone just looked at me. I was representing the commanding officer, conducting an investigation of what was considered a serious criminal offense that had been recorded in the logs of two battalions. In front of at least a dozen witnesses P-Dog had popped a joint out of his pocket. All I could think of was mandatory court-martial and dishonorable discharge.
I told the other two kids to get out. They looked at P-Dog, frightened for him, really saying good-bye, and then scrambled out the door.
I looked at P-Dog, then at the silent group of clerks and radio operators, and then at the duty NCO. He was a lifer. These men are the core of the system. They love it, and they maintain it with pride, often savagely. He was also a man I respected immensely.
I looked him in the eye as square as a young lieutenant can look at a man with 20 more years in the Corps than he. I said, “I know this man. He was with me in the bush. He’s a good Marine.” I paused and held up the joint. I wished my hand weren’t shaking. “This looks like tobacco to me, Gunny.”
The duty NCO looked at P-Dog. P-Dog was as white as a black kid can get.
“May I have that, sir,” he asked quietly. I handed him the joint. He said to P-Dog, “Lieutenant Marlantes says you’re a good Marine. He must know something I don’t.” He took the joint over to the sergeant. He held the joint up in front of him. “This looks like tobacco to me. You agree, don’t you, Sergeant?”
“Yes, Gunny. It’s definitely tobacco.” The gunny then walked the joint around the room, with that wonderful career NCO and former drill instructor’s flair for drama, and asked everyone in the room whether it was tobacco. No one disagreed. He handed it back to me. “We all agree with you, sir, it’s tobacco.”
When I saw P-Dog later that night I expected some thanks. I didn’t get any. He was too angry over the fact that he could have gone to a naval prison and had a dishonorable discharge after, as he put it, “leaving a couple pint a my own blood in this shithole place.” This was one of the reasons he was a particularly good fighter: He didn’t let the target get obscured by sentiment.
That deliberate “lie as weapon” is one I’m still proud of, and I’m proud of all those that night who lied with me. Lying, in rare cases, can actually exhibit good character.
I used the lie as a weapon on other occasions. Shortly after the incident with P-Dog I was flying as an air observer, forward air controller, and naval gunfire spotter. We did a lot of low flying in hazardous conditions. As long as we felt this was justified, such as when troops were in trouble or there were big targets, we risked our necks. There were occasions, however, when we just felt abused.
One day we caught a glimpse of something that indicated a bunker complex. We didn’t have any Marine or Air Force aircraft on station, nor were we sure how big the target might be, because of the NVA’s normally excellent camouflaging, so we didn’t want to scramble a flight up from Da Nang. We also knew there was a lovely Navy cruiser off shore. We asked if it’d like to take on the target.
If you lob a shell from a bobbing ship, through a lot of air currents, in a long trajectory several miles high, and you are good, you will hit somewhere in the area of where you’re aiming. By somewhere I mean to within tolerances of a few meters over distances of miles. This is, by any count, highly accurate. It is not, however, a smart bomb going through a ventilator shaft. It is virtually impossible to destroy a bunker set into the earth with a shell coming in at a low trajectory. Even land-based artillery, which has a much steeper angle, has to hit directly on the roof to have any effect. In short, if you hit the bunker, you’re lucky. If you land all around the bunker and don’t hit it you’re as accurate as you can be, and you’re unlucky. This ship was unlucky.
The cruiser plastered the bunker complex. Shell after shell piled in there; dirt, smoke, tree limbs, the whole place was plowed up. We were delighted with the accuracy and told the crew so. Then, naturally enough, when all the shooting was over with, they wanted to know how they did.
This is not a trivial request. To go in low over a bunker complex in an unarmed kite like an O-1-Charlie, after you’ve just brought the whole world down on the inhabitants’ heads, is like the dog sticking his shiny black nose into the hole of the hornets’ nest after master just stirred it up with his walking stick. We obliged, however. It was our job.
We took a considerable amount of automatic weapons fire going in to assess the damage. We pulled up out of the danger zone and I radioed back to the cruiser. “You were right on target. Great shooting. Unfortunately, you didn’t get any bunkers. They’re all uncovered though and we’ll get some aircraft in and blow hell out of them. Thanks much.”
There was a quick “Roger that.” We turned for home, as we were low on fuel. The bunkers were dead ducks because we had them totally exposed. The pilot was already radioing in the target to the next air observer coming on station from Quang Tri. He would have enough fuel time, and a fat enough target, to scramble and direct some Marine A-4s or Air Force Phantoms from down south.
Then a new voice comes up on the radio. “Uh, Winchester, this is Round Robin, uh, are you sure about that no-hits damage assessment?”
“Roger that, Round Robin. Good shooting. Bad luck. We’re out of here. I’m bingo fuel.”
There was another pause. I figured we must have the fire control officer on the hook instead of the radio operator. “Look, uh, we fired off a whole lot of rounds at this target. You sure you didn’t see anything? You know, would you mind going in for another check?”
Now this guy is asking us to risk our necks for a second look. But we’re good campers. We don’t want to upset anyone. So without either of us even talking on the intercom the pilot sighs and heads the plane back toward the bunkers and I tell the guy we’re heading back in.
We came in low from the west, trying to take the NVA by surprise. It’s hard to sneak up on someone in an airplane with no mufflers on the engine. We got plastered, taking several bullets through the wing. I’m glad to say the NVA were as unlucky as the Navy that day. We climbed for altitude and I radioed back in—great job, blasted the entire area—no bunkers destroyed. Sorry. Now we’re heading home for sure.
Two minutes later there’s a third voice. “Winchester, this is Round Robin Six Actual. This damage assessment is totally unacceptable.” Now “Six Actual” means the skipper of the ship, which, since it happens to be a cruiser, means this is no small potatoes. Even sarcastic, arrogant Marine lieutenants get nervous when senior Navy captains get upset. “I’m making a formal request for a serious damage assessment, and I expect it to be complied with. Do you copy?”
I said I copied. Given the kind of guy I was dealing with, that was probably put on record. This captain had just shot up a whole raftload of ammunition with nothing to show for it. Never mind that he’d just exposed the target for an easy creaming by the Air Force; the stats looked bad. And that’s no way to make admiral. Especially when cost effectiveness was a primary way up in a war where black-shoe Navy didn’t get much action.
I now had some choices to contemplate. I could go in again and hope three wasn’t the charm as far as ground fire was concerned. This would also risk not making it home before running out of gas. Or I could refuse the request and face the chickenshit that would almost certainly come down the chain of command. This would cause the pilot and me considerable pain as well as embarrass our own commanding officer, who would be honor bound to go to bat and defend my decision, but at the risk of his own career and an unbelievable amount of paperwork. Or I could lie.
I lied. The request was stupid, and it risked two lives and an airplane for an unworthy objective. We continued to head toward home while, after a suitable dramatic pause, I radioed in hundreds of meters of trench line destroyed, five bunkers destroyed, two secondary explosions, and a major road intersection completely put out of commission. (A road intersection?)
Everyone involved had to know it was a total fabrication. But I was the only official liar. The captain got what he wanted. So did the statistician in Washington. In fact Washington got double pleasure because, of course, it got added to the Air Force’s report of the actual destruction, which occurred later that morning. (Two road intersections! Call the Washington Post.) If the public had only known the irony in these kinds of statistics. A “bunker” can mean anything from the Guns of Navarone to a rectangular hole in the ground covered by logs and dirt. These happened to be the latter, like almost all bunkers in that war.
Had there been some strategic objective being pursued by the ground forces in the immediate vicinity, which happened to be an Army armored infantry division, this bunker complex would have caused a lot of damage and death. The fact that a Marine naval gunfire spotter got lucky and saw something suspicious in an Army tactical area of responsibility, that the Navy shot away all the camouflage, and that the Air Force came in and pasted it when it was totally exposed could have been seen as a great example of interservice cooperation, professional coordination, and military savvy. But because all the Army was doing there was replacing the Marines, who by this time didn’t know why they had been sent there in the first place, because everyone was being judged on numbers of enemy killed and lineal feet of trench line destroyed, objectives no decent fighting individual would care to pursue, everything had turned into competition, lying for promotion, cynicism, and a total misrepresentation of what was actually going on. And I deliberately added to the confusion.
I would still not expect anyone, especially myself, to put his life on the line for a corrupted measurement system. I probably should have spent more effort trying to change the corruption than bitching about it, but I was young and very jaded.
Then there are the “lies of two minds.” An example of this, of which I’m still ashamed, had to do with a very common battlefield myth—the enemy tying wire around themselves so they wouldn’t bleed so fast. It’s plausible. It is told of the battles against the Moros in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century and was probably true there, although vines were used instead of wire. The Persians probably said that the Greeks used grapevines. It’s usually an indication of how desperately the enemy was defending the position, which enhances one’s own esteem if one happens to have taken the position away from the enemy. I, like most people, could always use some more self-esteem. The more you have, the less you lie.
The action took place during the last days of the worst fighting I experienced. We took a heavy licking in casualties and deaths. When I returned from the hospital ship to the company I recognized only about one in five people. Since I seemed to be the talker in the group, the company commander asked me to write something in order to begin the process of putting the company in for some sort of unit commendation.
Unfortunately, we had a very large problem to overcome. The numbers looked bad and instead of thinking of putting us up for a unit citation some officers on the battalion staff were thinking of relieving the skipper because he’d lost so many men without enough enemy dead to show for it. Taking the hill meant nothing in the overall scheme of things. Here was the morale effect of the overriding strategy of the war in a nutshell. We who had done the fighting all felt immensely proud of what we’d done. We were proud we held the hill. The staff, however, was stuck explaining a poor kill ratio, the only number that supported the overall strategy of the war. The staff members didn’t know the facts about the actual fighting; they didn’t witness any of the actions—understandably, given that they weren’t there. What they needed to look good, and to make the company look good, was body counts way in excess of KIAs. Unfortunately, we timid types, who were there, never particularly wanted to leave the perimeter—under fire from an enemy who’d dug in all around us—to count bodies so the staff could get their numbers. So we had bad numbers. Somebody had to be responsible. (But we held the hill. We won, didn’t we?)
It so happened that our company commander was a first lieutenant of 23. He was cocky and more than a bit brash and had managed to get his picture in the papers several times already for previous actions. Many of the older career officers would have given a left nut to have a company in combat on their records and here was one being wasted on a hotshot ex–fraternity president who was probably going to go back to America and develop real estate. He was the easy choice for scapegoat. I, of course, was firmly with my company commander and very much wanted to give my version of the facts, so I was doubly motivated in this report to strike a blow for justice and truth. The skipper said we should write up the entire company for a unit commendation, so by God I was going to do a good job of it. I’d overcome those bad numbers.
I had been told by some of the kids that they’d seen wire wrapped around the NVA bodies. I never saw any. I wrote it in the commendation as if it were a fact. I was going to get my guys that commendation no matter what.
This may seem pretty trivial to a civilian reader, decades after the war, but the reader must realize how much the ideal of professionalism and honor means to the military. Believe me, it is not trivial to lie in a report. I still feel ashamed of doing it. Luckily, for me, the battalion commander was killed and the report must have gotten lost or thrown away by some wiser officer. The point I want to make, however, is not just that I felt I had done wrong. What amazes me to this day is that at the time I wrote it I actually believed what I wrote to be true, fervently. I’d have fought anyone who called my troops liars or me a liar and thrown my honor right on the line. I had convinced myself that NVA soldiers had wrapped barbed wire around themselves to slow their bleeding while making a fight to the death of it. This made our struggle for the hill that much more heroic. “In the face of a fanatical enemy… etc.” Yet, when I wrote it, I also knew it wasn’t true.
I call this the lie of two minds. “I” convinced “myself.” The I that did the convincing was the one who needed desperately to justify the entire experience, to make it sane and right and OK and approved. Myself was convinced as the moral self, the part of me I would want to be a judge in a legal system. This moral part of us, however, in these extreme situations, is vulnerable to the overwhelming force of that part of us that needs to justify our actions.
I am ashamed of this lie because it was done for nothing more than self-aggrandizement. There was no greater cause, such as saving lives. Also, in both of the previous examples of lying, I wasn’t of two minds. I didn’t believe what I was saying for a moment. I was in control. With this lie I’d lost myself. Perhaps this too adds to the shame.
It is the lie of two minds that is the most dangerous.