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Karl Marlantes: Why I Chose to Go to Vietnam

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 13, 2023 3:02 am

Karl Marlantes: Why I Chose to Go to Vietnam

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 13, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, in the late 1960s, Karl Marlantes was presented with a choice. Serve in a war that he saw as unjust, desert to Algeria or Sweden, or stay at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship and hide behind that privilege as his high school friends fought and died in the jungle of Vietnam. Marlantes chose to serve. But why?

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But in 1967, Carl was far removed from the chaos of battle. In a position of privilege, here's Carl to tell the story of why he chose to join the Marines and why he later chose to go to Vietnam. There was a series called Landmark Books, and I can't remember who put it out, one of the big publishers, and it was like the story of Betsy Ross and the American flag, the story of Thomas Jefferson and all those sorts of things that were written for about 10-year-olds or 12-year-olds. And I remember reading one called The Story of the U.S. Marines, and that just fascinated me, you know. But more importantly, it was this thing, I mean, like the guys on the football team, the good athletes, the good runners. When they left high school, they would go down to some mysterious place called San Diego, MCRD, Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, and they'd come back, first of all with suntans, which we never saw where we lived. And they would, I swear to God, they looked like they were four inches broader in the shoulder and two inches taller, and they would literally swagger up and down the main street of our little town, Seaside, Oregon, which was a logging town, a little town about 2,500 people. And I'm 15, 16 years old, and I'm just thinking to myself, I don't know what that is, but I want some of that. So I went to the Marine recruiter, and, you know, I'm talking to the Marine recruiter, I'm 18, and I asked, I say to him, I said, you know, I've read, you know, books about the Marines, and I've seen John Wayne, The Sands of Iwo Jima, and I know what the Marines do.

They land on beaches and all that sort of stuff, but I said, do they do anything else? And he looks at me, he says, oh, yeah, he says, we guard all the embassies all over the world. I went, really? You mean like in Paris? And he said, absolutely. And I can swear to God, this is what went through my mind.

I went, well, the odds are you won't get Paris, but you'll surely get Madrid or Rome. Sign me up. So it's a combination of those things. And then there was the draft. It was patriotism. I mean, I grew up in a time when virtually everybody's dad and uncle was in what they called the service. We don't call it that anymore. We call it the military today.

And I think that that's an enormously important change in our language. Now, that was when your dad was in the service. That was when your uncle was in the service. And there was that sense of, you know, the draft was like the income tax. No one likes to pay their taxes.

Nobody wanted to get drafted. But you sort of felt like you owed your country. You know, it's like, you know, the country won't operate unless you pay your taxes.

We don't, you know, the roads don't get fixed unless you pay your taxes. The country isn't safe unless you, when they draft you, you go and do your bit. That was the feeling at that time. And that was the late 1950s, early 1960s.

So there was that. And there was the fact that, you know, I wonder if I can do it. It's sort of a young man, you know, challenge.

Can I make it? So I joined when I was 18 in a program called PLC, Platoon Leaders Class. It was a classic Marine Corps program.

It was like they didn't give you any money. You joined as an enlisted in the reserves and then you went off to Quantico in the summertime. And if you survived what was just the same as boot camp, then you got to go to college. But they didn't pay you.

And you just went back in the summer again. And at the end of that, you got a commission if you graduated from college. I went to Oxford on a scholarship in 1967.

I thought that that would be something the Marines wouldn't let me do because the Marines were really short of junior officers. And they were great. They said, go ahead. It's a great honor.

I got a Rhodes. And after about six or eight weeks over there, having a wonderful time. I just felt guilty because this little high school I grew up in, six boys died and about 70 served in the Vietnam War. And the high school was about 400 kids, 200 boys. I mean, it was pretty amazing. And I just felt guilty. I wasn't pulling my oar.

I wasn't contributing like they were. They were putting themselves out there and I was hiding back. And I was always raised never to do that.

I mean, that's just something that you don't do. You know, if your friends are risking themselves, then you go there with them. And I was choosing not to do that.

I was letting them take the risk. And I felt like I used the word I was hiding behind the privilege. Most of the guys I went to high school with, they didn't even go to college. That's why such a large percentage of them served in Vietnam, because in those days the draft was very unfair. You could get out of service if you got a doctor to say that you had a bad knee or if you could say that you were gay or you could say any number of things. And the other one was the legitimate one, which is for a long time called the 2S deferment.

If you were in college, they wouldn't draft you, which is horribly skewed toward the wealthier part of the country. But it didn't make sense to me. I mean, it was a war that was just not making sense. That just was looking, you know, what's the word, problematical, unethical? I mean, we were getting into, you know, trying to measure the war by how many people we killed.

That's not a moral situation. Killing people in the military is a consequence of trying to get something else done. That's the objective, and if people get killed on the way, that is warfare.

But an objective of just killing people is, in my opinion, immoral. And we didn't have an objective other than, you know, well, save the South Vietnamese government. But that was looking a little dicey, because it was clearly a corrupt government.

On the other hand, I mean, I could see that the North was a totalitarian government. That didn't look good. It was just a mess, and it was a moral mess. And so, you know, you'd say, well, then you shouldn't go. But I had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. And I took my oath seriously. I mean, I swore to God that I would uphold the Constitution of the United States. And the Constitution of the United States says that the President of the United States is the Commander-in-Chief of the military. Civilian control of the military is absolutely essential. And if the military decides that it doesn't want to do what the civilians ask it to do, you've got a banana republic. And so you can't have a military where individual people say, I don't think I'm going to, I don't agree with the President. To uphold the Constitution of the United States, you either have to, you know, resign or do what you're told. But now all of a sudden we're fighting a war, which, you know, the civilians in control decided to put us into. Well, now I've got two moral issues, both of which I agree with, which is that the war is wrong, but I'm already in the military. And I swore an oath to do what the Constitution had set up. That was my moral dilemma, and I was very acutely conscious of it. My girlfriend at the time said she'd go to Sweden with me. She didn't want to go to Algeria. Algeria was taking deserters, and I wouldn't have been a draft dodger, I'd have been a deserter. That's one step above that. So I have to admit that that's a little bit scary, too. So, you know, that would have hindered me a bit.

My friend was just deciding to turn in his draft card as a protest. And we spent this really long night just, like I tell people, I have the feeling that we were sort of hovering over a single candle. I know that's not true, but the feeling of it was the two of us, just the two of us in this single light in this dark room, us trying to decide what to do.

We're 23 years old or, no, I was 22 then, I think. And we're trying to decide what to do. It's a terrible dilemma. And believe me, a Rhodes Scholarship, there's nothing that you throw away. We didn't throw them away.

We gave them up with a great deal of reluctance. But we made the decision that I'd send my letter into the Marine Corps and I'd go to Vietnam. And he turned his draft card in and got out of England and got to Canada. So he took off, I think, a couple days after that decision. And I was, you know, back in America in the Marine Corps and on active duty.

I admire him greatly. Everybody else just sort of hid behind the privilege. A lot of people ask me, how do you feel about the guys that went to Canada?

I'm going, like, they at least acted, most of them with honor. So I think that the issue was being true to your moral position. But it wasn't easy.

And I think, you know, people would like to think that those kinds of decisions are easy. I just felt, ultimately, I just couldn't stay there hiding and look myself in the mirror. And a terrific job on the production by Monty Montgomery. And a special thanks to Carl Melantes for sharing this remarkable story, service versus the military. The difference between the two, honoring your moral code, and how two young men took very different positions. And in the end, well, Carl had respect for both of them.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-13 04:38:38 / 2023-11-13 04:44:36 / 6

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