For anyone under the age of 50 or so, the Vietnam War occupies at best a dim place in the cabinet of memory. Recalled by those alive then as the first “televised” war, its grainy images have been supplanted by the 24-hour Technicolor coverage of more recent conflicts. And yet the life of the foot soldier hasn’t changed all that much in the 35 years since the war ended. In his singular debut novel, Karl Marlantes portrays with brutal candor the fear, heroism and sheer insanity that are the lot of the warrior.
Set in the monsoon season of 1969, MATTERHORN covers some three months in the life of Bravo Company, a company of Marine infantry operating in the highlands of Vietnam just south of the Demilitarized Zone. Fresh from Princeton, where he graduated second in his class, Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas commands one of the company’s three platoons. While there’s no acknowledgement of it in the novel, Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” --- the gradual withdrawal of United States forces and ceding of combat operations to South Vietnam’s army --- is underway. But before American involvement ends, some 20,000 more soldiers will die.
After they are ordered to abandon the hilltop fortress known as Matterhorn that Mellas and his troops occupy when the novel opens, they're dispatched on a jungle trek they come to call the “Trail of Tears Op.” Plagued by leeches and jungle rot as they slash their way through elephant grass and bamboo, the men watch as one of their number is devoured by a tiger and another dies of cerebral malaria, while they go eight days without food and lick the dew from their poncho liners when their supply of water is exhausted.
That maneuver flows seamlessly into the novel’s desperate final act, recounting Bravo Company’s near suicidal effort to retake Matterhorn, heavily fortified by North Vietnamese forces entrenched in bunkers dug a short time earlier by American soldiers. The scenes of that fierce battle are narrated with a rawness and immediacy that can come only from someone who experienced their intensity firsthand. No doubt it was painful for Marlantes, himself a decorated Vietnam veteran, to summon up searing memories of combat in which his comrades and friends were killed or grievously wounded, the cards of life or death dealt to them swiftly and inexplicably.
MATTERHORN is eerily silent on the politics of the Vietnam War. Mellas’s commanding officers are concerned about little more than body count when they’re not angling for their next promotion. “What was the military objective, anyway?” muses Colonel Mulvaney. “The Marines seemed to be killing people with no objective beyond the killing itself. That left a hollow feeling in Mulvaney’s gut. He tried to ignore it by doing his job, which was killing people.” Farther down the chain of command, Marlantes captures with palpable realism the sense that the “grunts” in the end are fighting “not because of any conscious decision, but because of friendship.” For Mellas, “It was all absurd, without reason or meaning. People who didn’t even know each other were going to kill each other over a hill none of them cared about.”
He understands that the fighting on both sides is motivated by similar emotions, and in that sense, the efforts of the American soldiers are no nobler than those of their Vietnamese adversaries. “Mellas didn’t hate the NVA. He wanted to kill the enemy because that was the only way the company would get off the hill, and he wanted to live and go home. He also wanted to kill because a burning anger inside him had no place to go.”
From the first page, Marlantes immerses the reader in the world of the frightened, desperate, often bored Marines. He has made a calculated gamble that readers will grapple with the military jargon that is an integral part of the story, but he makes little effort to explain or clarify (there is an informative glossary of some 30 pages at the end of the book). It’s also a challenge at times to follow the military maneuvers of Bravo Company in all their complexity. In this, it seems that Marlantes is striving to simulate the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the lives of these enlisted men and their officers.
But the novel isn’t concerned only with the details of close combat or military strategy. In a troubling subplot, MATTERHORN explores the racial tension that simmers below the service of Mellas’s unit. A black soldier’s complaints of persistent headaches are dismissed as malingering by whites, most notably by a racist gunnery sergeant who becomes the target of a fragging plot. Two other black soldiers are involved in a scheme to smuggle weapons to black activists in the United States. “Although they were all friends in the bush,” one soldier sadly observes, “here in civilization friendship was impossible.”
As ancient as THE ILIAD and as contemporary as the latest dispatch from Afghanistan, stories of war will continue to absorb and repel us. Karl Marlantes’s novel is a worthy addition to that body of literature, rising above the particularities of the conflict it describes to achieve a firm handhold on universal truth.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 6, 2011