Rhodes Scholar Leads Marines into Vietnam | Karl Marlantes

[Helicopter Sound] When you were really afraid was just before you had got into a fight, because you could think about it. [Blast Sound] You could see the choppers coming in, wheeling off, and the next one would come. And it felt like this train going off a cliff, because I knew that the next time I’d step off that chopper, it would be through fire. [Shooting Sound] I was born in Astoria, Ore., which was a fishing town then, and sawmills. The football players, when they graduated, would disappear south someplace called San Diego, Marine Corps Recruiting Depot. When they would come back, they had this swagger. They would walk up the main street of the town three inches taller, and I swear their shoulders were four inches wider. And here I’m 17, I’m going like, “I want some of that. Whatever that is, I want that.” When I was at Yale, I joined a program which the Marines had, and it was called Platoon Leaders Class. The summers I would go to Quantico, Va., where we did boot camp and all of the stuff. When you get your degree, you get your commission. When I got my degree from Yale, I got a Rhodes scholarship, and I thought, “Oh, they’ll never let me go — they’re short of junior officers.” So, I wrote a letter to the Marine Corps, and got an answer back pretty quick: “Yeah, we’re very proud of you – it’s a great scholarship. Go ahead, we’ll catch you later.” Off I went to Oxford in 1967. After about three or four weeks there, I started to feel guilty. My little high school of, you know, a couple hundred boys, we lost five killed in Vietnam. And here I am sort of in the pubs drinking beer with the girls, having a wonderful time. Do you fight in a war that you really don’t agree with? But I had sworn an oath to defend the Constitution, so it was a totally perfect conflict of two valid moral choices, and that’s the worst kind. I decided to write a letter to the Marines and just said that I wanted to go on active duty. The Marines did not waste any time. I was an infantry platoon commander in Vietnam. When it’s full strength, 43 Marines, and as a platoon commander, your job is to organize these people to complete missions: Take the hill, do the raid, do the patrol, defend an artillery unit. [Shooting Sound] The radio operator is enormously important to a young officer. You’re always on that radio, so he’s with you day and night, constantly, and it’s a dangerous job because their antenna’s waving and the enemy know that that’s the one you want to shoot, because the officer’s right next to him. Charles Thomas, I think he was 19, had been there months before I got there, so he was much more savvy than I was. And I’d start to make up an order, and Thomas would – “Uh, sir – do you ever think about – da, da, da,” you know. And of course, I thought, “This kid’s right.” You know. In the beginning, he was like an adviser to me. [Helicopter Sound] We’d been together several months, and we were on a very difficult operation. It was monsoon, we were really high in the mountains. And we’d been out wet for days. And it was cold. And I came down with a really bad case of hypothermia. We all knew it kills you. I couldn’t stop shivering violently, and Thomas just took me down to the ground and hugged me and just wrapped himself around me. To this day I get choked up about that. And he saved my life, just hugging me. He was intelligent, a good, solid Marine, so I made him a squad leader. [Helicopter Sound] They choppered us in to Mutter’s Ridge. It was very important for controlling the access into Laos and back to Quang Tri. We were given the order to engage that enemy unit the next morning. I knew that there was only one escape route for the enemy. And I told Thomas to set up an ambush around the left flank of where we were, so that when we pushed the NVA off the hill, I wanted him there with a machine gun to kill the rest of them. [Shooting Sound] My blood was up, and I started shouting at him: “Get in position! You’re guarding their run and they’re going now!” And so he left the cover of the jungle to move faster, and I can remember seeing the three RPGs that hid the squad. Boom, boom. [Blast Sound] And so they were killed. And I went through his pockets. There was a letter from his mother that said, “Don’t you worry – you’re going to be home in just a couple of weeks.” Oh – I mean I carried that guilt for decades, yeah. That’s part of the problem of combat. You do sometimes make horrible mistakes. You’re really young, and you make mistakes, and you live with them. When I think back on war, I have enormous sadness. The absolute loss, the loss of health, the loss of innocence, the loss of friends. You can sort of justify it if you think that all that loss was done for a noble purpose. I think I would like to have people take away from these stories is you have to learn when you’re older to not let it take you over, and talking about it was huge. Right now, I’m alive, so I’m going to try and be more present.

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