Several weeks ago, one of the members of my weekly Vietnam Veterans group announced that after decades of silence he initiated a discussion with his adult children about his experiences as a combat veteran. He stated that now that he better understood his PTSD, he owed it to his children to explain his emotional absence, workaholic lifestyle and his surges of anxiety and anger. His announcement had surprising power; it unleashed a strong desire for others in the group to do the same. Many had not really connected with their children for decades; some were estranged and had not spoken with them for twenty-plus years. Several members who I also work with individually were inspired and overwhelmed with how to go about speaking the unspeakable- what it’s like to go to war.
With almost inspirational serendipity, a broadcast took place soon after that can assist veterans with this most challenging and powerful conversation. Bill Moyers’ interview with Karl Marlantes is extremely compelling, integrative and ambitious in scope. While Marlantes has earned recognition for his first novel, Matterhorn (considered by many to be the most eloquent description of what it was like to serve as a Marine in Vietnam) – Marlantes’ second book, which is the focus of the interview, goes several steps further.
Moyers asked some provocative questions, such as, “If you have killed for the rest of us, will you ever feel like one of us again?” Marlantes responded with absolute clarity and amazing honesty; he paused on one occasion and gave painful personal examples. He spoke about the transformation a soldier needs to make in order to kill others as well as how challenging the reverse road back to home life is. He speaks to his peers as well as to younger veterans. He did not hesitate to speak about mutilation, dehumanization, releasing the instincts and power of killing, the immediacy of rage, as well as the profound sadness he carries. His incredible disclosures give veterans and non-veterans an insight into the burden of being a warrior. He speaks about the spiritual shifts and he does not flinch with questions about evil.
Moyers manages to bring out a more complex and vulnerable Marlantes whose honesty is truly remarkable. Marlantes sets a high standard and provides a role model for those struggling to put words to things that have been unspeakable for too many generations. I encourage readers to watch this interview when you are feeling strong and supported, perhaps with another veteran or a trusted loved one. Whereas the interview has the power to flood you with feelings, it is also an amazing summary of one man’s intense journey to break the silence. Marlantes is a highly decorated combat Marine but I think his interview and writings reflect an even higher caliber of heroism.
Jerry A. Boriskin, Ph.D.