Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
Publisher: El Leon Literary Arts
Pub date: April 2010
Source: eBook

I’ve been thinking about reading Matterhorn since it came out in April.  What pushed me from thinking to reading is that Karl Marlantes is coming to Chicago.  He’s speaking at the Pritzker Military Museum on Thursday, April 23, at 6pm.  If you’d like to attend, click here to make a reservation and for more info.  Just like reading the book before seeing the movie, I like to read the book before seeing the author.

Matterhorn is a novel about the Vietnam War, primarily the experience of Marine Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas and the men in his unit.  Much has been made about the fact that Marlantes spent 30 years writing this novel.  It’s a big book, and not just in subject matter: coming in at 690 pages it might be intimating for those who haven’t read any or many war novels.  But this one is worth your time.  If you’ve been thinking about reading a novel about the Vietnam War–or any war–I highly recommend it.  [If you really, really don’t want to commit to 690 pages, but want to read a novel about Marines in Vietnam, I highly recommend James Webb’s Fields of Fire which weighs in at 360 pages.  And you should also read Webb’s A Sense of Honor.  But I digress.]

Marlantes is a highly decorated Marine combat veteran who fought in Vietnam.  He earned the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals.  He’s also a graduate of Yale University and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, which makes me think of Craig Mullaney, another Rhodes Scholar who wrote an excellent nonfiction book about his experience at West Point and leading a combat platoon in Afghanistan called The Unforgiving Minute.

At the beginning of Matterhorn, Mellas is a green second lieutenant in awe of the combat hardened veterans of his unit and embarrassed by his clean uniform and shiny black boots. There’s an unforgettable leech scene that kicks off the book’s action.  Leeches are everywhere in the Vietnamese jungle, but the consequences of this particular leech are life-threatening.  It doesn’t take long for Mellas to become exhausted and hardened like those around him.  And in a short time, he, too, is legend to fresh green troops who later join his unit.

Marlantes describes much that you see in other war novels: lack of food and water, hours and miles of marching with heavy packs and equipment, bugs, diarrhea, ringworm, crotch rot, immersion or trench foot, malaria, and jungle rot.  He doesn’t present these hardships gratuitously, but in a way that makes vivid what these men endured day in and day out in addition to fighting the enemy and carrying out the often ridiculous orders of seemingly incompetent higher ups. 

One of the things I liked about this book was how it showed a variety of types of men, particularity the new lieutenants, and how they adjust (or really don’t) to life as combat leaders.  Mellas doesn’t come off like a shining star in the beginning or even as someone with potential.  He’s not just insecure, either.  In fact, he has moments of being a whiner and initially wants to be behind the lines, away from the action.  He’s jealous of the other new lieutenant that starts with him because the other guy adjusts faster, gets along with his platoon quicker, etc.  This is what made the book and Mellas seem so real to me.  The military is a strange place and arriving at a new unit is challenging with all the names to memorize and figuring out who does what and wondering how you’ll fit into the mix.  I can’t imagine how heightened that confusion is during a time of war when you’re also supposed to be one of the guys in charge.

Marlantes also explains or explores the racial tensions between black and white troops.  He doesn’t just show the tension and quickly explain them away as spill-over from civilian society and the fight for Civil Rights and the rise of the black power movement.   Racial tensions in the military were exacerbated by rank, following orders, and the need for leadership.  The issue is deftly woven throughout the novel by characters whose experiences are revealed to the reader by the narrator or shared through dialog to help understand some of the characters.  Mellas, freshly graduated from Princeton, supports equality.  However, he has a hard time understanding and negotiating the racial tensions within the unit and figuring out how he’ll manage it.  There is also an interesting struggle between two enlisted black Marines, Henry and China, who have very different philosophies of how blacks can gain equality/power.

The bad guys in the novel are Lieutenant Colonel Simpson and Major Blakely.  In every military novel I’ve read there is at least one officer who is clueless, power hungry, glory seeking, or insane.  Usually it’s a combination of these flaws and, unfortunately, it’s always the guy in charge.  Matterhorn is no exception.  Simpson is the battalion commander and Blakely is his executive officer.  They’re responsible for directing the action of the companies and think that moving around in the jungle should be as quick and easy as dragging one’s finger across a map.  Thanks to the modern miracle of radio communication they also micromanage the hell out of the platoons.  They don’t believe their lieutenants when it comes to things like the need for food and water, the number of confirmed enemy dead and wounded, the need for medivacs, or the time it takes to hack their way through the dense jungle and up and over foothills and mountains to get from position to position.

Simpson and men like him want what they want when they want it without understanding the conditions it takes to get the job done.  But it’s not like war is ever easy or without casualties and those on the ground doing the work (“kids,” as they’re repeatedly called) don’t get to see the big picture.  What was heartbreaking and soul crushing for the grunts in Vietnam was that it wasn’t even a war of real estate–they’d take a hill at great cost and then get orders to abandon it.  Vietnam was a war of attrition.  The body count was supreme.  As one of the characters says, the decision to act will be either considered a fuck up or a brilliant tactical move depending on the body count.  Of course–and this is the understatement of this post–there were also politics and bureaucracy involved.

One thing that I didn’t particularly like about the novel was its representation of women.  There are two women characters in the novel and the other women–2 or 3 more?–are talked about or are in flashbacks.  Women are good when they’re being soft and sexy or at least compassionate listeners or wearing skirts that hug their hips.  But if they’re doing their job they’re “fake men.”  Granted the book is set in the late 1960s and I’m keeping that in mind.  I also served in the Marines and I’m familiar with the attitude of military dinosaurs.  And I get that Marlantes was trying to show the need for human connection, being mothered/nurtured, and the desire for live-affirming sex in a time of war.  It just would have been nice to have one women who could be professional and garner some respect without having to let down her hair and show leg.  But that’s not the book that Marlantes wrote, so I’m not busting his chops.  I’m just saying. 

There are many conflicts within the novel.  Here’s a quick list off the top of my head:

  • blacks v. whites
  • lifers v. draftees/one tour enlistees
  • veterans v. newbies
  • officers v. enlisted
  • grunts v. fliers
  • Marines v. Navy
  • academy grads v. ROTC grads or mustangs
  • murder v. killing
  • WWII/Korean era Marines v. current fighters

Marlantes does an excellent job of presenting the bone-numbing exhaustion, boredom, and the futility of war.  You think, who would ever want to sign up for that?  But it is the surviving and the getting through it and mainly the camaraderie that keeps kids signing up generation after generation.  And Marlantes does a smooth job of showing that camaraderie and how respect and love grows between men.  The kids always think they’ll be the ones coming home with medals to tell the stories and write the books.

Overall, Matterhorn is a book that’ll put you through the ringer.  I was fortunate to have some large chunks of time to read the book in a few sittings and that really made me feel like I was in it.  When I was younger such books got me pumped up about war and the military and my love-hate for the Marines.  Now they just wear me out and make me wonder if war is hardwired into humanity or if it’s a social construction that humans can actually outgrow.  If you’re wondering why I read the book, it’s because I think it’s important to read about the experiences of the warriors who fight our wars, whether or not I agree with the waging of any particular war.  It’s a part of understanding American history, current events, and fellow citizens.


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