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Book Review: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

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The number of novels about American soldiers in the Vietnam War is a large and wide-ranging genre. From the ultra-patriotic retelling of battle victories to the cerebral searching for meaning in the midst of death, most readers can find any number of books to fit their preconceived notion of war. As the dust settles certain writers have emerged as literary voices in the jungle, notably Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, Michael Herr, and a few others. Caputo may best strike the balance of critic and patriot, but O’Brien’s works, especially The Things They Carried, have become the essential source for many readers.

Entering into this realm is Karl Marlantes, a Marine veteran who has published Matterhorn 40 years after his time in Vietnam. Actually, Marlantes finished his first draft in the late 1970s, but it took over 30 years to find a publisher who would print it the way he wanted. It is worth the wait. By adding years to his reflection Marlantes has given us a story with experience of the immediate and wisdom of the decades. As a result we have a novel which will lay its claim as the book to read about the American war in Vietnam.

The novel centers around Waino Mellas, an Ivy-league graduate repaying his debt to the Marines with a tour in Vietnam. He signed up at age 17 to get help with the costs and maybe some honor, but four years later he is deferring Yale Law School to serve his time. We quickly find him to be a person struggling with his role in life and in the war. While on the one hand he makes every move with the intention of moving up in the ranks to further his post-war career, he also recognizes his motives are not exactly admirable or even ethical.

What changes Mellas is not the war, but the people. Marlantes quickly sketches out a range of characters who defy the stereotypes we build around them. Mellas originally sees many of his company as stereotypes, but as he gets to know them he realizes the complexity of each person. In a jarring move, Marlantes at times shifts his third person point of view from Mellas to someone else, showing us Mellas as others see him. It is rarely positive at the outset, but Mellas continues to improve his reputation both to himself and others as the story progresses.

The book’s title comes from Marlantes’ fictional Vietnamese hill that Mellas’ company has out the outset, is told to abandon, and soon after return to reclaim from the Vietnamese troops who have moved in. The battle scenes are confusing and chaotic, no doubt intending to reflect the reality. But Marlantes’ offers enough points of reference to keep the reader anchored. The book even includes two maps of the conflict, a flow chart of officers, and a 31-page glossary of terms (in case you do not know the difference between “fragging” and a “frag order”).

Much of what Marlantes accomplishes here has been done before, but where this book takes us forward in this genre is his honest exploration of racism and politics in the war. Many veterans note the racism prevalent within the American troops (Wallace Terry’s oral history of African-Americans in Vietnam, Bloods, has long been a great source of information), but few address it so clearly as Marlantes. There is no resolution here. Mellas, on an evening before it appears they will all certainly die, engages one black solider, Jackson, in an effort to understand the struggles he faces. Jackson tells Mellas that everyone is racist, but with one difference. “Being racist helps you and it hurts me.” Mellas has to acknowledge he benefits from a racist society at the expense of others, including those dying as he moves forward.

But Marlantes’ does not stop with this acknowledgment. He shows the struggles within the black soldiers who are judged by other black soldiers on how they respond to different situations. The soldiers are caught in a Catch-22 on a daily basis, being hassled by various sides on every action they take. In addition, some black soldiers talk about racism and power, but are really interested in dealing drugs and weapons.

There are no right and wrong people here. Everyone is right and wrong. This holds true for his description of political will seen throughout the story. Mellas and his company are simply part of a struggle by those in command to keep those above them happy. One soldier notes that the Vietnamese leaders are set for life, but the U.S. leaders need to get reelected next fall so patience is not an option. Mellas becomes so enraged as he begins to understand that his dead friends have been used as pawns that he attempts to kill the commanding officer. While thwarted by a friend, he later sees the pressures that commander was dealing with and realizes all of them are part of a system they cannot control.

Marlantes gives us a Vietnam War novel with it all. Battle scenes with horrifying deaths, racism and politics showing themselves as forces of war, and soldiers simply trying to live to the next day. But we also see soldiers committed to their country and to each other, where honor is still important and where friendship means you never leave a fellow soldier behind. It is, in a sense, a patriotic novel which avoids sentimentality by showing the realities of war. Those who have not fought in Marlantes’ war cannot understand all he experienced, but this novel brings us close.

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