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The Book: What It Is Like to Go to War

2016-2017 Common Reading Book

What It Is Like to Go to War

by Karl Marlantes

Book Cover: What It Is Like to Go to War

New York: Grove Press, 2011
Paperback edition, September 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8021-4592-5
258 pages

Publisher's Synopsis

In 1968, at the age of 23, Karl Marlantes was dropped into the highland jungle of Vietnam, an inexperienced lieutenant in command of a platoon of 40 Marines who would live or die by his decisions. Marlantes was a bright young man who was well trained for the task at hand but, as he was to discover, far from mentally prepared for what he was about to experience. In his 13-month tour he saw intense combat. He killed the enemy and he watched friends die. Marlantes survived, but like many of his brothers in arms, he has spent decades dealing with his experiences.

In What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes takes a deeply personal and candid look at the experience and ordeal of combat, critically examining how we might better prepare our young soldiers for war. War is as old as humankind, but in the past, warriors were prepared for battle by ritual, religion, and literature — which also helped bring them home. In a compelling narrative, Marlantes weaves riveting accounts of his combat experiences with thoughtful analysis, self-examination, and his readings — from Homer to the Mahabharata to Jung. He tells frankly about how he is haunted by the face of a young North Vietnamese soldier he killed at close quarters and how he finally finds a way to make peace with his past. Marlantes discusses the daily contradictions that warriors face in the grind of war, where each battle requires them to take life or spare life, and where they enter a state he likens to the fervor of religious ecstasy. He makes it clear just how poorly prepared our nineteen-year-old warriors — mainly men but increasingly women — are for the psychological and spiritual aspects of the journey.


  • Nominated for the Indie Next Adult Nonfiction Book of the Year
  • One of’s 10 Best Books of 2011 (#3)
  • Hudson Booksellers (Best Books of 2011)
  • St. Louis Post Dispatch (Favorite Books of 2011)
  • B&N (Best Nonfiction Books of 2011)
  • The New Yorker (Favorite Books from 2011)
  • Shelf Awareness Reviewer’s Top Pick of 2011 (Marilyn Dahl)
  • HuffPost Book Club pick
  • One of BookPage’s Best Books of 2011 (#9)
  • Finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize

Critical Praise

“Karl Marlantes has written a staggeringly beautiful book on combat — what it feels like, what the consequences are and above all, what society must do to understand it. In my eyes he has become the preeminent literary voice on war of our generation. He is a natural storyteller and a deeply profound thinker who not only illuminates war for civilians, but also offers a kind of spiritual guidance to veterans themselves. As this generation of warriors comes home, they will be enormously helped by what Marlantes has written — I’m sure he will literally save lives.”
— Sebastian Junger

What It Is Like to Go to War is a well-crafted and forcefully argued work that contains fresh and important insights into what it’s like to be in a war and what it does to the human psyche.”
— The Washington Post

What It Is Like to Go to War ought to be mandatory reading by potential infantry recruits and by residents of any nation that sends its kids — Marlantes’s word — into combat.”
— San Francisco Chronicle

“In this thoughtful, literate work of self-exorcism, Marlantes tells tales of incredible bravery as well as brutality.”
— People Magazine

“Marlantes brings candor and wrenching self-analysis to bear on his combat experiences in Vietnam, in a memoir-based meditation whose intentions are three-fold: to help soldiers-to-be understand what they’re in for; to help veterans come to terms with what they’ve seen and done; and to help policymakers know what they’re asking of the men they send into combat.”
— The New Yorker

“A precisely crafted and bracingly honest book.” 
— The Atlantic

“[T]he passion and self-revealing pain of “What It Is Like” make it a must-read for anyone interested in [the Vietnam] war…. Marlantes is top-notch in describing ground combat and its morally brutalizing effect on warriors…. With an intellect as sharp and critical as Marlantes’, and a temperament not afraid to display confusion or remorse, 'What It Is Like' is more than worth the effort of any reader.”
— Los Angeles Times

What It Is Like to Go to War, for understanding what is happening to our warriors in combat and at home.”
— Bill Moyers, Summer Reading List Picks

“After coming to terms with the reality of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Karl was able to open up about his experiences serving as a Marine in Vietnam and returning to civilian life, which he narrates frankly and honestly in his new book.”
— Steve Peck, Huffington Post

“Karl Marlantes, author of the excellent What It Is Like To Go To War, cautions his audience to understand the cost to the human psyche in sending others to kill in our names or for policies decided by politicians determined to use (and abuse) the power entrusted to their office.”
— Steve Clemens, Daily Planet

“This absolutely unique and lucid personal account and analysis will be read with profit by scholars, general readers, and most particularly, by veterans of close combat…. The author is qualified by experience, education, temperament, and skill as a writer to make penetrating observations. Many are graphic, bold, and shocking. Some are erudite; some are ethereal; all are worthy of careful consideration…. His method is to reflect on a point important to him, to illustrate it with an anecdote or a combat experience, and to mull it over in sparkling prose that has the reader hanging on every word…. Mastery of our language and the creative use of poetic devices and images make his pronouncements memorable…. Marlantes has joined a short list of authors whose experience, sensitivity, and skill enable them to share wisdom with those among us who would understand.”
— Henry G. Gole, Parameters

What it is Like to Go to War is already considered by many a modern classic…. The former Marine has three main goals in this unflinchingly honest look at what it means to be a soldier in a war: to let potential soldiers understand what to expect, to help veterans better cope with what they’ve experienced, and to help policy makers truly comprehend what it means when they send combat troops into a war zone.”
— Fran Barba, Bradenton Herald

“Marlantes is the best American writer right now on war and the extreme costs to society of sending young men and women off to combat without much of a safety net for them when they land back home…. With What It Is Like to Go to War a second Marlantes book resides on the top shelf of American literature.”
— Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead

“A gutting look into the psyche of a soldier, adding flesh to the often flat and stereotypes personage. Humanizing, empathetic, and wise, this reading experience will light corners in the human experience often judged dark.”
— Library Journal

“[Marlantes] wants …a recognition of the moral damage we all suffer when we send our fellow citizens into battle, and a willingness to talk about it — good, bad, and ugly.”
—Tony Dokoupil, The Daily Beast

“[I]ntense, thoughtful…vivid and hair-raising…indelible and cinematic…For anyone — civilian or otherwise interested in gaining a more thorough and nuanced understanding of the role of the military in American society, “What It Is Like” is required reading.”
— The Capital Times

“Marlantes knows what he writes…. Raw, unsettling honesty pervades the work.” —

“Marlantes has written a sparklingly provocative nonfiction book…. He is an exceptional writer and his depictions here are vivid.”
— BookPage

“A gripping, first-person plea to consider the impact on the human spirit of being a soldier.”
— Huffington Post

What It Is Like to Go to War 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.”
— Vietnam Magazine

“With war such a part of contemporary American life, this book is deeply important, as timely and urgent as contemporary on-the-ground reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq.”
— The Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A sound debunking of anything smacking of the glory of warfare — but written with compassion, honest and wit for men and now women who fight and for all of those who care about them.”
— St. Louis Dispatch

“A slim spiritual guide…. Marlantes’s book is a sincere plea for better soldiers and veterans.”
— Seattle Weekly

“To say that this book is brilliant is an understatement — Marlantes is the absolute master of taking the psyche of the combat veteran and translating it into words that the civilian or non-veteran can understand. I have read many, many books on war and this is the first time that I've ever read exactly what the combat veteran thinks and feels — nothing I have ever read before has hit home in my heart like this book.”
— Gunnery Sergeant Terence D’Alesandro, 3rd Batallion, 5th Marines, U.S. Marine Corps

“[Marlantes’s] research and rationale form a voice of reason with a reason to be heard…. Those who support the troops will read this book and will better understand what it is like to go to — and come back from — war.”
— Air Force Times

“[C]athartic…. I remember learning about how to go to war, but there was little discussion about what it was like to go to war and its place in the human experience…. [A] compelling testimony for the contemporary warrior.”
— U.S. Naval Institute 

“Karl Marlantes seeks to tell the truth about combat…. What It Is Like to Go to War is both a memoir and a meditation…. It’s also peppered with heartfelt stories about his fellow Marines.”
— Boulder Daily Camera

“With unflinching honesty, bestselling author Karl Marlantes tells us What It Is Like to Go to War in his compassionate, powerful narrative on Vietnam. Marlantes does not shy away from recounting experiences that, outside the arena of war, are horrifying or embarrassing… He tempers the brutal truths of fear, power games, and courage with a thoughtful prescription for our soldiers’ well-being; caring for our soldiers and their families differently will benefit society as a whole. Marlantes sets a new standard for understanding the experience of war.”

“Wrenchingly honest…. Digging as deeply into his own life as he does into the larger sociological and moral issues, Marlantes presents a riveting, powerfully written account of how, after being taught to kill, he learned to deal with the aftermath.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A valiant effort to explain and make peace with war’s awesome consequences for human beings.”
— Kirkus Reviews

Book information on this page courtesy of Grove Press.