Title: Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
Author: Karl Marlantes
Release date: March 2010
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Karl Marlantes was a decorated Marine officer in the Vietnam War and, in his time there, he earned two purple hearts and more than a dozen medals. Marlantes draws on this experience to put together this intensely personal (but nonetheless fictional) account of the Vietnam War. Carefully crafted over many years, the book was no doubt painful to write.
The novel features a young Marine lieutenant, Mellas, who has just begun his 13-month tour in Vietnam. With his upper-class background and college education, Mellas is an atypical Marine.
Racial tension in Mellas’s platoon is high. Many of the black soldiers wear nooses around their necks to show solidarity with one another and support for the black power movement. Many of the white soldiers are openly racist and want the blacks to get back in their place at the bottom of the army’s hierarchy and that of society as a whole. Mellas often attempts to appear fair to everyone, and thus several times finds himself in an untenable middle ground.
The relationship between Bravo Company and their superiors is also carefully chronicled. Colonel Mulvaney is an old school Marine, who cares about his men but is generally ineffective as a staff officer. Beneath him is Lt. Colonel Simpson, who uses his radios to try to micromanage the companies in the field. His adjunct, Major Blakely, is an ambitious young officer, skilled at deflecting blame onto subordinates but lacking any compassion for the troops doing the fighting.
The book follows Bravo Company as they defend a small hill in northwest Vietnam arbitrarily named Matterhorn. Before long, they leave the confines of their bunkers to embark on a mission in the jungle, where they face starvation, exhaustion, and the phantom enemy.
But the progress of the company is secondary to the characters involved.
Jackson is a young black soldier who wants to be his own man, but always seems to find himself subservient to the whites in the army or the leaders of the black power subculture within the unit. Vancouver is a big Canadian soldier who, for reasons he only half understands, volunteered for another country’s war. He now seeks to embody the ideal of the fearless Marine and volunteers for the most dangerous jobs to keep up the persona he’s created. Arra is a dog handler who keeps reenlisting because his canine companion, Pat, will be put to sleep if Arra returns to the US.
These are the soldiers who make up the army, and by the novel’s end, you know them intimately enough to feel their pain and sacrifice.
This is Marlantes’s first novel, and it is an impressive achievement. According to the Tucson Citizen and other sources, he originally submitted a manuscript of 1,600 pages, but the book has been edited down to a still-hefty 600 pages. At times, the novel does slow down, but his character development pays off. As the reader grows more familiar with the characters, he cannot help but empathize with their plight. This doesn’t make the book any easier; the book is downright unpleasant at times. But the pain and sacrifice of these fictional characters is accentuated by the knowledge that it is based on a real war that affected so many.
I cannot comment on the accuracy of this novel, but it is a gripping account of a Marine’s time in Vietnam. Warfare has changed dramatically since 1970, and that is starkly apparent in this novel. While it would seem that many technological advances would provide comfort to the soldiers, instead they seem only to add to their misery.
Helicopters can ferry out the wounded, but are rarely available to an outpost as remote as Matterhorn, so the wounded typically languish until their situation becomes life threatening. Radios provide contact with the outside world, but mostly serve to allow Lt. Colonel Simpson to demand the company meet arbitrary checkpoints and timelines.
While many war books portray a divide between officers and enlisted men, this book instead emphasizes the disconnect between the men on the ground and the men behind the lines. The lieutenants are portrayed as the bearers of bad news, who have no choice but to embark on the most dangerous missions or be dismissed as a coward when they order someone else to do what they will not.
Mellas is clearly a stand-in for Marlantes, and I give the author credit for making his avatar so unsympathetic. At first he is frightened and opportunistic, eager to do anything to advance in the ranks and keep himself out of harm’s way, with little concern for the unit. As he grows into a man and a leader, he realizes the error of his ways, but even then remains a flawed person, wracked with insecurity and often unable to relate to others.
The echoes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can already be seen in Mellas, and the book only covers the first three months of his tour. And that in itself is an allegory for the lingering impact the Vietnam War had on America.