Karl Marlantes was one of the speakers on a rainy Saturday this month when the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial was dedicated at Seltzer Park in Seaside.
The granite monument at the Cove honors the Seaside High School students who went on to serve in the war.
“It’s a public statement by a small town,” said Marlantes, Class of 1963. “I said it when I stood up and talked to my fellow classmates, most of them: We came back to a country that basically spit on us, literally and figuratively. And that didn’t happen in Seaside. I was always grateful for that. Seaside just didn’t do that.”
Born in Astoria, Marlantes grew up in Seaside, played football for the Gulls and was a national merit scholar. He signed up for a U.S. Marine Corps training program but went to Yale University and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford before volunteering to go to Vietnam.
Marlantes documented his combat experience as a decorated Marine in “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War,” a New York Times bestseller.
He also wrote “What It Is Like to Go to War,” a nonfiction account of Vietnam that outlines his struggles with trauma, and “Deep River,” a novel about Finnish immigrants who build new lives in the logging community along the Columbia River.
The author, who lives outside Seattle, has a home in Cannon Beach.
In an interview, Marlantes talked about what Seaside was like in the Vietnam War era, trauma, the value of small town memorials and whether the United States keeps making the same mistakes.
Q: What was it like in Seaside during the Vietnam War era? As a young man, did you sense there were any deep divisions about the war or the social changes taking place across the country?
A: Seaside was pretty isolated from it. For starters, pretty much the entire town was from the same socioeconomic class, and that made a big difference.
Kids that were going off to college were more involved in protesting the war. Oddly enough, the kids that were getting drafted weren’t as involved. It may have been, well, if I’m serving, I’m not going to protest ...
I do think that the one thing we have to remember is that Seaside was a logging town back then. That’s what you did after high school. I was an exception, going off to college. People were wondering, ‘Why would you do that? You could be making $13 an hour in the woods.’ That was like 70 bucks an hour in today’s money.
Those times have gone. I love ‘Deep River,’ it talks a lot about how we cut down God’s own forest, which is what we were living off of.
I remember my older brother thought the war was stupid. My older brother was a very smart guy, and he did everything he could to stay out of it.
On the other hand, I had joined the Marines right out of high school when I was 18. The feeling then was you’re going to get drafted if you’re not in school, and most of the kids weren’t in school. And so then it was like, well, if you volunteer you get to choose your branch of service.
And to put it bluntly, all the great athletes joined the Marine Corps. I used to laugh because they would disappear. I mean literally — I’d be 15 or 16 — they’d go away to some place called San Diego and they’d come back with suntans, which we never saw.
They’d literally swagger up and down Broadway. They were 4 inches wider in the shoulders and, I swear, 3 inches taller. There’s something about it, and when you’re a young man — 15, 16 years old — you’re going, ‘I want some of that.’
So the draft and that and then — everybody served.
It’s an interesting change in our language. Back in the day, it was called the service. That was when your uncle was in the service. That was when your dad was in the service. And virtually everybody’s dad or uncle was in the service.
And all the women in town knew that a platoon was smaller than a division and a destroyer was smaller than an aircraft carrier. But today, that’s all gone.
So that was a big difference. In 1965, (Adolf) Hitler had only been dead 20 years. I mean, that’s how close we were.
Today, we call it the military. I think that our language shifts a lot and when we were being raised it was the service.
So it’s a whole different attitude.
Q: Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t officially recognized until after Vietnam. Even now, there seems to be a reluctance to accept how life experiences can cause trauma. How can we be better — both as people and a country — on mental health?
A: First of all, I think that there is just a real lack of education. There’s a real lack of education about brain physiology. People don’t understand things like bipolar disorder. It’s not a moral issue. It’s just that something goes different in the brain and then has to be dealt with.
And post-traumatic stress is exactly the same. Your brain, because of the intense adrenaline loads, alters. The actual neural pathways change. You no longer think, when there’s a sound. It goes to the amygdala and you shoot it. If that didn’t happen, you’d be dead.
So your brain is altered. We didn’t understand things like that, that brains are plastic. The old idea was that you were born with all your brain cells and then they went away until you died. It’s not that way, but that’s ignorance.
The other thing is, quite frankly, if the education about mental illness changes then the politics is going to have to change. We’ve got to fund things ...
There’s no funding because there’s no political will. There’s no political will because we don’t understand it.
Q: Over the past several years, there have been some difficult discussions nationally about how we tell our history and who gets to tell our history. What do you see as the value of the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial in Seaside, particularly to a small town?
A: I think it’s about honoring and thanking service. It’s a public statement by a small town.
I said it when I stood up and talked to my fellow classmates, most of them: We came back to a country that basically spit on us, literally and figuratively. And that didn’t happen in Seaside. I was always grateful for that. Seaside just didn’t do that.
Now, there were a lot of people who thought the war was dumb, including my brother. But I didn’t feel we got blamed ...
The other thing is, it’s about memory. That monument is where we all surfed as kids. I mean, it’s quite frankly where we made out and learned about each other’s bodies. The Cove was the nice, dark spot, you’d see the light’s twinkling down. What a spot to remember a generation and the enormous number of kids from the high school that served.
That monument is going to be there a long time, probably several hundred years if the earthquake doesn’t happen. And people are going to go, ‘Wow, way back then, look at all these kids from this high school that served.’
There isn’t going to be any history books. I mean, our contribution to the war is not going to make history, OK? But in our little town there’s something that people will look at and it will jog a memory.
Q: The United States ended the war in Afghanistan this month after two decades of second-guessing and disappointment. Some have drawn parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam. Do you fear we will keep making the same mistakes?
A: I hope not.
After the Vietnam War, you had the Powell Doctrine (a list of questions that have to be answered before military action is taken, such as a clear objective and public support), which is, I thought, very important. And then we forgot about it.
I think that one of the problems is, is that the people that made the decisions about Iraq, Afghanistan, most of them never fought, they had no idea what they’re doing in terms of the pain that they’re going to inflict.
I mean, up front and personal, a combat veteran really knows it. I think that they’re less likely to go to war than people who haven’t been to war. It’s an abstraction for politicians ...
I’m reminded of a couple of quotes. One is Yogi Berra. He said it looks like ‘deja vu all over again.’ And the other is that old Pete Seeger song (‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’): ‘when will they ever learn?’
So I fear that without consciousness — and that might be one of the reasons you have memorials. It’s a way of making sure history is right in front of people’s faces.