This outstanding book by Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes is notable to Religion in the Balance because what it’s like to go to war, from Marlantes’ perspective, can be ecstatic in a way that is akin to religious ecstasy. To wreak violence and destruction– to kill– is to exercise godlike power. It is to be transported from the mundane into the experience of a barely-filtered, almost-pure transcendence, marked by the animal immediacy of “kill or be killed.” It is to enter the amoral Nietzschean region, beyond good and evil.
This book, however, is not a glorification of war. Much more interestingly, it is an unvarnished account of– and a clear-eyed assessment of– the emotional and pycho-spiritual realities that soldiers must face. Marlantes’ argument is that, if we’re going to have war (and, he says, we are going to have war), then we need to do a better job of preparing warriors to deal with crossing the threshold into the transcendence of destructive power, and returning home again. Our current military training, and our larger cultural practices and religious rites, do not sufficiently recognize the psycho-spiritual powers with which soldiers come into contact, when they engage in violent destruction and killing.
The larger lesson at the heart of this book– at the same time both its reiteration of a timeless theme, and its helpful insight into the age we live in– is that we are creatures who seek transcendence. We want to be up with the gods, whether we’re building wings of wax to fly high (too high!), or building towers in order to steal a place in heaven. Whether we can marry our fiery moments of transcendence with the grounding anchor of humility– AND whether we can achieve the transcendence we desire through godlike creativity rather than godlike destruction– are at the heart of the religious quest in our time and place.