Decorated War Vet Discusses History Channel's ‘Vietnam in HD’

Navy Cross honoree and bestselling author Karl Marlantes hopes miniseries, which premieres Tuesday, while highlight an era that's still “shoved under the carpet”

History Channel follows up its Emmy-winning "WWII in HD" miniseries Tuesday night with the premiere of "Vietnam in HD," a three-night, six-hour documentary in which real Vietnam War veterans — complimented by voiceovers from actors including Armie Hammer, Blair Underwood, James Marsden and Edward Burns — share their powerful, often painful, memories of Vietnam combat.

Thirteen veterans recall the traumas of the war and its aftermath, including Barry Romo, a gung-ho soldier who returned home disillusioned with the war and the way its veterans were treated; and Joe Galloway, an embedded reporter who recalls witnessing horrific fighting, and breaks into tears sharing the death of one particular soldier.

And hour four (Wednesday night) of the special features Karl Marlantes, a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was awarded a Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam.

Read more: Ken Burns Working on Vietnam Documentary for PBS

Marlantes is also the bestselling author of the 2010 Vietnam War novel "Matterhorn," as well as the recently released non-fiction book "What It Is Like to Go to War," which details his first-hand experience with "reconciling the moral conduct we are taught … with the brutal acts we do in war."

Marlantes chatted with TheWrap about "Vietnam in HD," and why he decided to participate in the documentary that made him feel like he was "watching history that I participated in."

Why did you participate in "Vietnam in HD"?
I've always wanted to tell our story, our story being what it was like being 19-years-old and having to grow up over there in that time period. It's been a watershed in our country. So many things changed because of Vietnam … political parties re‑aligned. Class structures were exposed. I mean, it's just an incredible period of time, and quite frankly, I think that it's been kind of ignored, shoved under the carpet, so to speak.

It's a wonderful format for actually explaining that incredibly short time period where the whole country went up in smoke and settled down again.

What do you hope people take away from the miniseries?
Well, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is you get the feeling of the war, the music, what's going on at home, what's going on in the war there. All of that is something that (TV) can do very well … just trying to get an understanding of what did it feel like, that kind of confusion.

And then, I think a picture is worth a thousand words in terms of showing people this is what was going on, and then having the veterans reflect on it. I think you get some sense of the emotions. (When) you see some footage that a war photographer takes, there are no emotions in it. You talk to a veteran … quite frankly, when they were interviewing me, it brought up a lot of stuff I didn't want to think about. It was like, 'Hold on, Karl.' That is a huge difference, and that's part of the feeling of the war, too. You can't get an idea of what it's like if you leave the emotional component out.

Read more: Our Very First Vietnam Movie

As painful as talking about some of those memories must be, did you have hesitations about making this documentary? Or was it just cathartic?
Oh, yes. As I say, clearly veterans want to talk about their experience, but we've always been sort of afraid to talk outside of our own little group because, particularly Vietnam veterans … I mean, you do horrible things in war. And then, if you tell somebody about it, you're just afraid they're going to judge you and think you're some kind of mad man. And so, if you just keep quiet, there's sort of a code of silence.

Something like this is an opportunity to finally just break out of that, and I think that it's very positive. I'm delighted to participate in it. And hopefully people will then start talking about it. If one of the kids of a Vietnam veteran sees the television show, he just might ask dad, 'What was it like?'

Here's a vignette: I was 50 years old, 50, when I found out my father was in the Battle of the Bulge.

That's amazing … did you get the chance to talk to him about it then?
Actually, that's common. And yeah, I did. It was because I was writing this novel about Vietnam, and we started talking. That's when he said, 'Oh yeah, I was in the Battle of the Bulge.' I said, What?! You never told me that.' (Laughing) He said, 'Well, you never asked.' How classic. But that's how strong this code of silence is, and it's just not healthy for anybody.

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Do you think the documentary has the power to change some perceptions people have or have had about the Vietnam War?
I think the country has changed and for the better, no doubt about it. I think that people are now beginning to separate the warrior from the war and the policy makers from the 18 and 19‑year‑olds that go carry it out. It's a major step forward. I think it's really good to see. It took a while, but change takes time.

Much of the footage we see in "Vietnam in HD" was collected from soldiers who filmed it themselves … any of your videos in there?
No. I only have a couple of pictures that were taken, with me getting some medals. No, it's really sad. I don't have a thing from the war.

Is it exciting, among other feelings, to see this as a viewer?
Yes, exciting is only one of them. But, no, absolutely. I saw a rough cut. And yeah, it sort of brings it back in a form that I don't know how to describe … I'm sitting there watching television, and here's somebody showing footage of something I actually went through. It's a very odd sort of feeling to be watching history that I participated in. I don't know how else to describe the strange sort of surreal quality to that. You expect someone who's done that to be dead already.

"Vietnam in HD" airs Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 9/8c on the History Channel.