Book Review: Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam WarMatterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“First of all, you can’t fall into hating the people you are killing. Because you’ll carry that hate with you longer than you will the actual killing itself. It is only by the grace of God that you are on one side and your enemy is on the other side. I often think, ‘I could have been born in North Vietnam.’”

Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes, August 20, 2010 The Times (London).

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War launched onto the bestseller lists in 2010, when United States was entrenched in two unpopular wars in ill-understood and seemingly hopeless places: Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither of these wars is comparable to Vietnam in terms of tactical warfare, terrain, volume of casualties and mis-treatment of vets by their fellow citizens, but the cultural divisions at home, the politicizing of the conflicts and the anger and sorrow over the loss of soldiers and civilians remain the same.

Matterhorn tells the Odyssey of Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas as he leads Bravo Company through the jungle near Vietnam’s border with Laos, just beyond the DMZ. The company’s mission is to secure a remote hilltop base: the fictional Matterhorn. This novel is a living thing. It breathes and pulses, it horrifies and heartens. It is a brilliantly written tribute to combat veterans and a searing examination of the fog of war.

Bravo Company becomes a collective Sisyphus, at the mercy of the gods of the Fifth Marine Division. It spins in circles in the jungle, trying to make sense of the quixotic orders of base commanders more concerned with their careers than the lives of the young men in their charge. The soldiers of Bravo Company endure the unbearable: jungle rot, immersion (or trench) foot, man-eating tigers, near-starvation and dehydration, and of course, the horrific wounds of war: bullets, grenades, mines and shrapnel cut down the company throughout their journey.

The narrative has many themes: the adventure of battle and the camaraderie of soldiers; the value of a well-trained militia in sharp contrast with inherent unjustifiable nature of war; the racial tension between black soldiers and white that brings the conflicts of home to the battlefields of Vietnam; and the truth of military politics – the power struggles between reserve and regular officers and “lifers” on the ground and with their commanding officers, who adjust casualty numbers and keep up a pretense of victory to look good to their superiors and to the press at home.

Marlantes writes with clarity and authenticity, in a style that is raw, vivid and surprisingly readable. Matterhorn flows with fully realized characters whom you come to love or revile with ferocity, your heart breaking with each loss. He provides breathtaking detail; the combat scenes are rendered in a minute-by-minute reel and you experience the soliders’ fear, adrenalin and pain.

It took Karl Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran and accomplished civilian (Lieutenant, USMC; Rhodes Scholar, Oxford) thirty years to write, rewrite and find a publisher for Matterhorn. Although I would not wish such an arduous journey to publication on any writer, I believe that telling this story now, in a new century, to a generation for which the Vietnam War is an anecdote or a chapter in an American History textbook, benefits the book’s readers and its subject.

Among the most precious and devastating aspects of any war are the soldiers’ stories. No one who has not served in combat can understand what a soldier suffers physically and emotionally. For Vietnam veterans, who returned home only to face insults and shunning, the stories remained locked inside. Writers who record their stories speak for the millions who cannot. In 1977, journalist Michael Herr published Dispatches, an account of his experiences in Vietnam in 1967-68 embedded with platoons; Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien offered the beautiful and compelling The Things They Carried in 1990. Twenty years later – and thirty-five years after the end of the war in Vietnam – Karl Marlantes reminds us that the stories of young soldiers in the jungles of Southeast Asia are as devastating and relevant now as they were to a generation once removed – our fathers, brothers, uncles and grandfathers  – who still live with these experiences tormenting their hearts.

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