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

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

The story is set in the spring of 1969 in the northwest corner of the country then known as South Vietnam. It revolves around a mountain named Matterhorn, a 5,000 plus foot peak so steep in some areas that ropes are required to scale it. The Marines face other obstacles also. At night it is so cold and wet that hypothermia is a problem. Much of the terrain is carpeted with leech-infested triple canopy rain forest, its undergrowth so thick as to require slashing through with machetes.

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
by Karl Marlantes
Atlantic Monthly Press, 592 pp.
CLR [rating:5]

The Definitive Vietnam War Novel from One Who Was There

In his debut novel, “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War,” Karl Marlantes achieves a rare pastiche, one of sufficient grim reality as to be forbidding yet so compelling and brutally authentic as to compel one to read on. “Matterhorn” accurately recounts the ironies and deceptions inherent in war as well as the remarkable determination of the Marines who stay the course.

The story is set in the spring of 1969 in the northwest corner of the country then known as South Vietnam. It revolves around a mountain named Matterhorn, a 5,000 plus foot peak so steep in some areas that ropes are required to scale it.

The Marines face other obstacles also. At night it is so cold and wet that hypothermia is a problem. Much of the terrain is carpeted with leech-infested triple canopy rain forest, its undergrowth so thick as to require slashing through with machetes.

The protagonist is Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, U.S.M.C. Mellas is newly commissioned, a graduate of an Ivy League school and the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course. He is placed in command of First Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment, 5th Marine Division. (The 24th regiment and its subdivisions are fictional. The 5th Marine Division is not. Its Marines have served with distinction from Iwo Jima to Vietnam.)

Most of the forty other Marines in his infantry platoon are still teenagers, “…too thin, too young, too exhausted.” The orders the Marines are given and what is required to execute them prove to be chilling examples of the disconnect that may exist between the decision makers and junior personnel. The overbearing battalion commander, Lt. Col. Simpson, is usually well removed from the site of the action. Bravo Cmpany mounts combat patrols to Matterhorn three times, taking the summit at great cost only to be ordered to withdraw. The circumstances, as outrageous and unsparing of the young Marines’ lives and well being as they are, bring to mind the historic frontal assault on Hamburger Hill a few months later.

Though the weather is generally foul, both the Air Force and the Marine Corps had all-weather air support available. In the absence of any immediacy, droppping a hundred tons or so of high explosive ordnance on the small patch of enemy held mountaintop would have been a source of great discouragement for the N.V.A.forces present as well as an act of reasoned mercy for the Marines of Bravo Company.

This is precluded by battalion comander Lt. Col. Simpson’s twisted concept of ”honor,” his ruthless ambition, his loss of a personal war with the bottle, and his gruesome willingness to pay for his hoped for promotion and medal with the blood of his Marines. For all his power and authority, he is at once despicable, yet more than a little pitiable. He is a superbly defined character.

“Matterhorn” is notable for its vivid and precise characterizations, not only of officers but of enlisted men. “Hippy,” a PFC, is a dreamer who is eventually so crippled by immersion foot that he may face amputation, yet is determined to continue the march. ”Squid,” is the platoon’s navy medical corpsman. He serves the Marines using his limited supplies and knowledge with fierce determination. He is dedicated to his mission and compassionate when dealing with wounded Marines. The company gunnery sergeant, Staff Sergeant Cassidy, a ”Georgia Cracker,” is a racist who is targeted by one of his own troopers.

At home it is a time of both the great triumphs and the excesses of the civil rights era. Inevitably, issues of race carry over to the military, these tensions providing a secondary theme, a story within the story.

Any of “Matterhorn’s” characters could readily become clichés in the hands of a less capable writer. Marlantes portrays all of them as living, breathing individuals, illustrating their fears, doubts, and above all, their transcendent courage; valor born of their devotion to each other.

Resupply problems during the monsoon season means that the Marines battle hunger, exhaustion, tropical immersion foot and a plague of parasites including those that induce diarrhea and jungle rot.

The author eloquently expresses the fatalism that envelops Lt. Mellas as well as others in his platoon. They become, “ …the dead, the living. All shadows moving across this landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things as they moved but leaving nothing changed when they left. Only the shadows themselves could change.”

Eventually, the PFC nicknamed “Hippy,” asks,

“Tell me something, Lieutenant…Just tell me where the gold is.”


Mellas looked puzzled….

“Yes, the gold, or the oil, or uranium. Something, Jesus Christ, something out here for us to be here.”

Marlantes doesn’t shy away from the deceitfulness within the military bureaucracy. With body counts, for instance, a probable became a confirmed kill. At each step of the transmission to headquarters in Saigon, the record is enhanced, so that finally the report reads, six confirmed and four probables; ten dead enemy soldiers.

“Matterhorn,” like Leon Uris’s “Battle Cry,” or Norman Mailer’s ”The Naked and the Dead” is destined to become a classic.

It is also an elegantly constructed book. There is a helpful chain of command diagram in the front. It lists all primary characters and is a helpful reference when names or rank become uncertain recollections. There are two maps; one illustrates Matterhorn, and the other delineates the movements of the infantry units. Both the Laotian and North Vietnamese borders are visible from Matterhorn. A glossary of Marine Corps slang, jargon, and acronyms is included.

Karl Marlantes has created not only a telling fiction that recounts the Vietnam war in microcosm, but also a fine and perceptive take on the demands we make on our young men and women in uniform. He shows the reader Marines who are hungry and ill, “yet they dug and chopped, finding, the meaning of their actions within the small prosaic tasks, casting from their minds the larger questions that would only lead them to despair.“

In a segment as darkly powerful as the transport of Addie Bundren’s body in William Faulkner’s, “As I Lay Dying,” members of First Platoon transport the body of P.F.C. Williams out of the bush. As the trek continues for a period of four days, the body, wrapped in a poncho and tied to a pole, putrefies, increasing the stark horror of the situation.

The unique characters in this book grapple in their own way with the meaning of leadership, of honor, duty, death, and of life itself. The author also captures the often coarsely expressed yet scathing wit and humor of the Marines,

Karl Malantes showed the same perseverance in creating “Matterhorn” as he did as a youthful Marine platoon leader. He states that “Matterhorn” was 30 years in the making. It was rejected repeatedly, honed down from 1,600 pages to 622, revised, polished and refined before its marketing by Atlantic Monthly Press.

Marlantes is a graduate of Yale University and a Rhodes Scholar (Oxford). Lt. Mellas is inevitably seen as his fictional alter ego. Marlantes was highly decorated for combat valor, receiving the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals for his service. He has written a definitive work that readily earns five stars and a hearty Semper Fi.

John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He later studied medicine and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group. He practiced family medicine in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has been published widely. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine "The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online." Tianjin Grand Bridge



  1. Shabel, John Cpl B1/27 1-B 1/4 3d '68-69

    February 22, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Matterhorn is the best book written about Marine grunts experience in VN. I have re-read it three times. Some of my Jar Head friends who were there with me could not get through it because it brought back such vivid memories.
    Great work Karl!

  2. Greg Andersen

    August 15, 2010 at 10:36 am

    I disagree with John’s review. As a previous corpsman that served in Vietam in the same area and time frame that this story took place, Getting the nickname hippy could easily have taken place for nothing more than wearing a piece sign. We had a Marine in our platoon that had the nickname scribe for doing no more than read. I also believe that Marlantes made it clear in the book that the Gunny was a racist. This fact may have been fueled by his ties in the South, but a racist is still a racist. One of the points that the author brought back to me in clear detail was the frustration of the war, frustration based on the elements, but more so the senior leadership. This book was a great read and I suffered from my first vietnam nightmare in a long time after reading it. Keep them coming Karl.

  3. Ken Roberts

    June 30, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Karl, your book put me right back in Viet Nam like it was yesterday. I can smell it, feel the mugginess and while reading about the leeches I found myself rubbing my leg in a spot where one had made itself at home.

    ‘Matterhorn’ has got to be the most authentic story of what it was like for we Marines. The full alert and stress of everyday that went on and on for months and months. The seeming lack of support from the brass. The lack of decent food and water, the coffee and when we did get beer, the cans were rusted. I am sure that scumbag John, who wrote so lovingly about the first half of the book, will roll his eyes at that, but it’s amazing how important things like that can be when you have nothing. You described those things and more perfectly.

    The conflict between white and black Marines was a big issue, but when the crap hit the fan, we were all brothers. The cliche of ‘we were all green’ is about what it was like.

    I just can’t praise your writing enough. My wife thinks that maybe I should not have read it because it put me into such a funk, reliving the war, but I think it is the first time in years that I have faced my devils, so to speak. Hope that is a good thing. Now she is reading your book and I have seen tears in her eyes already, finding out what it was really like for us back then.

    Btw, I was a Sgt. with the CAG that you guys kept sending your problem children to. Appreciate that.

    Take care my Brother.

  4. NorthernCanada

    June 27, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    I believe it is the focus on the minutiae that is the point. The abstract portraits, the overall picture…that isn’t the important part, the part the needs to be remembered. This book will be the one I will give them when they ask about the Vietnam War because the politics of war are irrelevant really. They can read the political climate of WW1, WW2, Korean War, Vietnam War, Iraq1, Iraq 2 and the list goes on but that isn’t what matters….what matters is the human experience. The dirty, raw and horrible nature of war is what needs to remembered and somehow placed into our collective memory.

  5. John

    June 17, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    I’m halfway through the book and happen to disagree with your review on nearly every point, particularly your statement that the grunts are given “vivid and precise characterizations” by the author, Karl Marlantes.


    Why is the machine gunner “Hippy” given that moniker? He wears a peace sign around his neck. Yup, that’s it. That’s all the insight Marlantes feels the need to give his readers as to that character’s philosophical stance on the war he’s fighting. Hardly vivid.

    The same could be said for Sgt. Cassidy; he’s a racist because he’s from Georgia. It’s just that simple in Marlantes’s Vietnam. Why would you need to probe any further into your characters’ psyches when you have to describe the filth covering their jungle utilities ad nauseum.

    This book–and it’s author–doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the novels of Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann, Richard Currey, Stephen Wright, James Webb, or Gustav Hasford. Those authors tackle the abstractions of Vietnam, while Marlantes only seems capable of dealing in the minutiae.

    “Matterhorn” is only destined to become a classic in a world where people believe Leon Uris wrote “The Naked and the Dead.”

  6. Andy Hines

    June 14, 2010 at 1:21 am

    Excellent book! I read it yesterday and can only agree with the comments above – a must read for those interested in the Vietnam War.

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