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

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It’s 1969 and ex-Princeton ‘boot’ second lieutenant Waino Mellas has arrived in Vietnam at the start of a thirteen-month tour.  The Matterhorn of the title is not the alpine mountain, but the codename for a strategic hill in South Vietnam close to the Demilitarised Zone and the border with Laos (a time when the Americans’ illegal bombing of Laos was still secret) that is being used as a fire-support base.  Mellas, who has volunteered to serve in the Marines for reasons he cannot quite articulate, takes command of a platoon.  What follows is an epic account, told over nearly 600 pages, of the folly of war in general and this one in particular.  Karl Marlantes was himself a highly-decorated marine commanding a platoon in Vietnam, and while this is his first novel, having taken many years to produce, he writes about what he knows.

The result is tense and atmospheric, and the book’s length allows the reader to get to know the individuals in Bravo Company, First Battalion, Twenty-fourth Regiment, Fifth Marine Division, the appalling conditions they experience, and the pointlessness of much of what they are ordered to do.  The absurdist nature of war demonstrated in the book is shown most clearly in the narrative arc.  The novel opens with Bravo Company being told to build unnecessarily reinforced defences on Matterhorn, before promptly having to abandon them, then later being obliged to retake the hill after well-trained North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars have occupied the well-constructed defences inherited from the marines.  In the meantime they are sent on an extensive hike through the jungle with inadequate provisions; when one man is killed by a tiger, they carry his body while it putrefies, a symbol of their own physical deterioration.

For much of the time, the NVA is the least of the marines’ worries.  There are the hardships of living in an unforgiving environment, the skin complaints, threat of trench foot, and infected cuts caused by the constant damp in the rainy season.  They experience chronic sleep deprivation, squalor, and a terrible diet, or even malnutrition, caused by the difficulties of resupplying troops.  In one scene the marines are sprayed with a chemical by an aeroplane and learn that they have been accidentally doused with Agent Orange.  It’s all part of a day in ‘Nam.  Worst of all are the leeches; the novel’s opening is difficult to get past as it deals with one of the company who has a leech crawl up his urethra.  The description of how his growing agony from an inability to urinate is dealt with by a field medic with little training and no specialised equipment will make male readers squirm.

As if having to confront the enemy in such circumstances isn’t enough, there are racial tensions that mirror those in the US generally.  There is a feeling among some of the black marines that they actually have more in common with Vietnamese peasants than they do with their own racially-prejudiced society.  Inequality is more readily contested than before, and black consciousness, often of a radical kind, is gaining in confidence.  Colour is subordinated to common hardships during an operation, but people don’t leave their attitudes behind, and while some find that familiarity with those from different backgrounds is an antidote to racism, bigotry is still present, and the resentment it causes can break out in violence.

The language used, the slang and the radio codes, sounds authentic (fortunately there is a useful glossary, but anyone who is easily offended by bad language should steer clear of the book). The novel has a documentary feel, but this is no abstract celebration of manhood tested by fire.  Rather, there is a bubbling anger, often directed at callous senior officers safely ensconced in rear areas who make self-aggrandising plans and set often pointless objectives with no understanding of how difficult it is to carry them out on the ground.  They treat humans as automatons and have no empathy for those under their command, overestimating what even an elite unit can do.

Senior offices are shown to be capable of malice, withholding helicopter medevacs and supplies as punishment for what they consider laziness, rather than acknowledge that they had set unrealistic goals.  There is jealousy of junior officers they feel have had too much limelight, and scapegoating of individuals – Fitch, Mellas’s company commander, is eventually sent to Japan in disgrace because his inability to meet the unrealistic expectations of his superiors had caused them to look bad in front of their superiors.  Errors of judgement at senior level are covered up by making subordinates suffer the consequences, then blaming them when things go wrong.  All this is hypocritically turned into concern about maintaining the Corp’s honour.

Marlantes shows the fantasy involved in justifying what was going on, all revolving around looking good rather than offering an honest depiction of results achieved.  In order to justify actions, and to make sure the ratio of friendly/hostile casualties looked reasonable, there was an inflation of the numbers of enemy dead.  As reports proceeded up the hierarchy, numbers of ‘definites’ and ‘probables’ increased until they bore no relationship with what had happened in the confusion of battle.  Meanwhile heavy company casualties could be diluted by classifying a company action as a battalion action.  The result of these manipulations must have been to create a false sense of the effectiveness of what senior officers describe a number of times in the novel as a ‘war of attrition’.

The Marine Corps is shown as effectively a bureaucratic corporation, with the same disincentives for individuals to raise justified complaints that might create resentment further up the chain and have negative consequences for the complainants.  It is riddled with politics, decisions tending to be made on the basis of how they will look to the top brass and the Washington paymasters.  NCOs and junior officers are reluctant to speak out because of the damaging effects on their careers, even fearing that poor reports will follow then into civilian life.  In this toxic environment nobody will challenge injustice through the ranks, even though it means following stupid and sometimes suicidal orders.

The phrase ‘a meditation on war’ is perhaps over-used, but Matterhorn is a thoughtful account of how men behave in near-impossible circumstances that mix the threat of danger with physical discomfort and periods of boredom.  Mellas sees the waste and the stupidity, but he finds comradeship and meaning in a group living and working together in difficult conditions and reliant on each other for survival, when any larger sense of purpose is reduced to the desire to fight for the man to the left and the man to the right (or perhaps more accurately the man in front and the man behind).

The narrative is a Bildungsroman showing Mellas’s growing maturity and confidence as he develops from a novice out of his depth to seasoned combat veteran. Marlantes emphasises how young these men were when they went off to fight for their country.  Most of the privates are teenagers, Mellas is twenty-one, and the other junior officers are of a similar age.  Mellas reflects on what these men would be doing at home, and that would be living the normal lives of young men on the cusp of life, rather than seeing terrible things and confronting death on a near-daily basis.

There is a key moment when Mellas, face to face with an NVA soldier, realises that the Americans cannot win and will go the way of the French, because the Vietnamese are implacable, and will refuse to give up the armed struggle whatever the cost.  It was a tragedy that the US government could not see the same until much later, after the loss of so many lives on both sides.  Despite the occasional lapse into didacticism, Matterhorn is a gripping and often moving read, and leaves a feeling of sadness at the waste of it all.  We can deplore the conflict itself while retaining our admiration for the bravery and sacrifice of people like Karl Marlantes and those with whom he fought.

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