The Books Interview: Karl Marlantes

Why do you think your novel, Matterhorn, which is set during the Vietnam war, had such an extraordinary reception in the United States?
I think it was because the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam are uncanny. Just go down the list: they can run across the border and we can't; the government, which is on our side, is corrupt; we stick out like sore thumbs, and they don't; we don't know how to speak the language. What are we doing? We went over there to get Osama Bin Laden, who wasn't there. Well, now what?

And I think the other reason it's resonating so much is that the baby boomers are now mature and they're starting to wonder: "What the hell happened?" I think that, whichever side they were on of that horrible chasm which split our country, people are now trying to reconcile.

Were those arguments about the war in your mind when you fought in Vietnam?
By the time I was there it was 1969. So, yes, they were. I was from a little town in Oregon and I still had high hopes that the president wouldn't lie to us. But you get over there and you don't know what you're doing except killing people, and that doesn't sit right. The novel isn't really a political book - it's about kids growing up - but the politics were part of the zeitgeist.

So you took the fraught politics of the US in the late Sixties into the jungle with you?
Absolutely. Our brothers and sisters were back home on the streets rioting. My own brother, for example, figured out how to dodge the draft. He managed to do it because he was an extraordinarily good football player, an all-state quarterback.

How tense were the racial politics out there?
Vietnam was the first time that Americans of different races had to depend on each other. In the Second World War, they were segregated; it was in Vietnam that American integration happened in the military - and it wasn't easy. There were over 200 "fraggings" [murders of superiors] and almost all of them were racially motivated.

There was an enormous amount of tension. Think about what America was experiencing then. Watts was going up in smoke; Detroit was burning down; in Newark they had snipers shooting; you didn't know if the Black Panthers were gonna take over the country. And there you are in Vietnam. If you think you had racial tension in America, take 19-year-olds [to the jungle], give them all automatic weapons and say, "Here, live together," when they'd never lived together before. Holy shit!

What are the differences between the experiences you and your characters had in Vietnam and those of US troops today in Iraq and Afghanistan?
There's a huge difference. Where the marines were - I was where the novel is set, in the mountains north of Khe Sanh - we were just facing the North Vietnamese army. If there was something moving in the bush and you knew it wasn't your guy, you'd just shoot it. Today, you're asking teenage kids to make decisions that are beyond belief. Somebody shows up and they don't know if they're the enemy or not. Adults shouldn't put kids in situations where they don't know who the enemy is.

Were you never in that situation yourself?
I was very fortunate, in that I never had that psychological problem of wondering if I'd killed someone who was not my enemy. It's bad enough when I think back about people I killed. I think it over and realise that they were just children. It's circumstance. I could have been born Vietnamese, and I could be dead by now.

Do you think often about the people you killed?
I think about the war experience daily and I think about dying all the time - two or three times a day. Before the war, I didn't have that. I'll be having a wonderful time with my kids, and then all of a sudden I'll be aware that this is temporary and I'm going to die. If I think about the war, I don't think about the people I killed. But every now and then it comes up, and I start thinking about it and saying to myself, “I did a lot of damage." I don't believe it's guilt - I believe it's sadness. Because they were trying to kill me. But for what? Vietnam's going capitalist and now they're fighting with China.

Karl Marlantes's "Matterhorn" is published by Corvus (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture