Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes
"There is the guilt all soldiers feel for having broken the taboo against killing, a guilt as old as war itself. Add to this the soldier's sense of shame for having fought in actions that resulted, indirectly or directly, in the deaths of civilians. Then pile on top of that an attitude of social opprobrium, an attitude that made the fighting man feel personally morally responsible for the war, and you get your proverbial walking time bomb."
~ Philip Caputo ~
What Marlantes has done in this 600 page-long novel is not a condemnation of the Vietnam war, per se; instead he’s given us a montage of events, as they (might have) occurred to American and North Vietnamese soldiers, events and conditions that degrade human values and even civilization itself. As such, it’s a condemnation of war, under any conditions, as a social act.
It took Marlantes some thirty years to see this book into print, and I now understand why. The book isn’t a moral statement as much as it’s a documentation of war’s inescapable horrors, those of the fighting only a minority of the horrors. This isn’t the sort of book that makes one feel good about war, soldiering, or even the absence of war. In Marlantes’ hands, the Vietnam conflict has no alternatives. The peace talks are mentioned only briefly, and the idea of conscientious objection barely enters the characters’ thoughts. There’s no political distancing here, no strategic gambits – well, none that amount to anything. It’s all about killing and preparing to kill.
The story is loosely that of Waino Mellas, a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, who comes in-country and immediately enters the Marine fighting in I Corps (the northernmost sector of South Vietnam). Most of the warfare Marlantes depicts concerns a pair of fictitious mountain ridges, Helicopter Hill and the eponymous Matterhorn.
War of the type fought in Vietnam is ideological – essentially war to see whose patriotic will will blink first. Clearly, the near-anonymous NVA, while not necessarily having right on their side, have the most to gain or lose: it's their country. It’s a war with no grand design or panorama. Instead it’s a constantly fluctuating war in which ground dearly gained soon has no value as the war transforms to ever newer conditions.
Then there’s the effect the war has on the soldiers outright. In this story, Mellas’ Bravo Company is in the bush for weeks at a time, with little water, scant ammo, and – for some two weeks, bare amounts of food. They sleep little, alternately ambush and are ambushed. After a couple of weeks of this, these men – barely out of their teens, if that – are half-starved, delirious from sleep deprivation. Their uniforms are shredded by elephant grass, and the stink from constant sweat and their leaving of feces and urine in their clothes is overwhelming.
There’s animosity between the non-commissioned officers and the lower-level officers, between lower-level officers and thee brass and, of course, between white and black Marines.
Still, none of this is a condemnation of the war’s handling, nor of the Corps. Through Mellas’ eyes, it’s simply the way it is.
Marlantes has chosen, in modern literary fashion to delve into the minds of these Marines, across the spectrum, from Major General Neitzel to the greenest Marine gunner. In many instances his technique works; in others, it’s altogether dizzying as he leaps from mind to mind. Such is best handled by a skilled narrator, who knows how to direct traffic in such stories. Marlantes’ narrator seems to know few of these skills, and the effect is often chaotic.
But as with much fiction from previously unpublished writers, the writing improves as the story progresses. In fact, some of Marlantes’ writing near the end is the most moving you’ll read anywhere. Let me offer a couple of examples:
"An archaic and quintessentially Marine charge up a mountain slope leaves a Marine, Jermain, mortally wounded. Mellas thinks, “Why Jermain? Why the one who volunteered while the shit-birds stayed in the rear?...There seemed only one way out of the nightmare. The single machine gun was the way.”
Mellas has been wounded, revived, and charges up the mountain alone, coming face to face with a young NVA soldier. He’s caught between empathy and rage and finally shoots the Vietnamese kid:
“His rage was gone, and in its place an inert, sick weariness. Mellas now knew, with utter certainty, that the North Vietnamese would never quit. They would continue the war until they were annihilated, and he did not have the will to do what that would require. He stood there, looking at the waste.”
This book lives up to the inevitable hype, and Marlantes, despite the book’s few faults, deserves to have Matterhorn placed among the most important novels of this young century.
My rating: 4-1/2 of 5 stars.
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Native American culture. Education. Creative writing.