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

Fiction Reviews

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

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



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