Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes, Grove Press, May 2011, 640 pp)
Of the fifty-three books on the US Navy’s 2021 reading list, there are only three novels, and Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes is one of them. The author is a graduate of Yale, played college-level sports, and received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. In 1968, Marlantes interrupted his studies at Oxford to join the Marines (1st Battalion, 4th Marines) as an infantry officer and serve in Vietnam. Besides a Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten Air Medals, Marlantes was awarded a Navy Cross for his actions leading an assault on a hilltop bunker complex—presumably the fictional Matterhorn of the book.
“It don’t mean nothin’” is an expression that emerged from the Vietnam War. The refrain was used by American soldiers as a means of coping with the horrors they witnessed and the injuries they sustained while escaping death. In that vein, Marlantes adds, “There it is.” In Matterhorn the men repeat the phrase when they realize how fruitless their efforts are as they fight a ruthless and cruel enemy, and how ignorant the orders from the commanding officers are as they relax with a cocktail or two at the combat base far from the action, or incomprehensible the unceasing demand for body counts is regardless of the impact on the men in their shallow holes on the side of a hill.
Lt. Mellas is the protagonist and a stand in for Marlantes. Like Marlantes, Mellas is a graduate of an Ivy League college (Princeton) with a promising career ahead of him if he can make it back to the “world.” At the start, Mellas is, as we imagine Marlantes and most young men sent to the war were, inexperienced, naïve, and frightened. As a “boot” he is determined to learn quickly and later to teach what he has learned to the newly arrived replacements.
With each chapter, Marlantes unveils another troubling aspect of the war:
- Commanding officers bark over radios for body counts in the midst of fire fights
- Seemingly senseless surrendering of a hard won hill only to be askedto return to take it again
- Racial strife and fragging incidents
- Units becoming separated and then lost
- Fighting disease and leeches in the jungle which seems always to be in the midst of a downpour.
He also tells of the respect and admiration the young lieutenants have for the more experienced enlisted men who know the ropes. And, Here and there, Marlantes interrupts the battle to share descriptions that stay long after the page has turned.
“The light died. Voices were silenced. Darkness and fear replaced light and reason. The whisper of a leaf scraping on bark would make heads turn involuntarily and hearts gallop. The surrounding blackness and the unseen wall of dripping growth left no place to run. In that black wet nothingness the perimeter became just a memory. Only imagination gave it form.”
Then, without hesitation, he returns to the action. With dozens of combat terms (from arty and dee-dee, to lifer and squid, and on and on) and a constantly switching point of view, the story is jarring and the reader is forced to turn to the dictionary Marlantes provides at the back of the book, then hurry back to the action, perhaps reread a page or two and then rush to catch up with the men climbing through razor-sharp elephant grass, slipping in the mud, and dodging mortar fire to reach their target. It is that disjointed telling that – whether by accident or intent – gives the reader a sense of how difficult and frustrating the war was.
There it is.
A wrenching read, but one that any young man preparing for combat (and for that matter anyone who wants to have an inkling of what war is and how it has been fought) should take time to digest.
Rona Simmons is a contributing writer to DODReads. She is an Atlanta-area freelance writer and author. Her latest work is A Gathering of Men, with a unique perspective on the Second World War. Simmons’s stories, articles, and interviews have appeared in regional and national literary journals and in online and print magazines and newspapers.She can be reached through her website (ronasimmons.com).