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Karl Marlantes: Matterhorn

Marlantes spent over thirty years writing this novel and then had difficulty getting it published, as no-one wanted another Vietnam War novel. Finally, a small publisher picked it up, before a major publisher finally recognised it as a potential seller. Since then it has sold well and generally received excellent reviews. Some have claimed that it is the Great Vietnam War novel. It isn’t. If that title goes to any novel, it is Tim O’Brien‘s Going After Cacciato. But this is still a very fine novel, telling a long story about a small part of the Vietnam War – Bravo Company, operating in an area in the North-West of South Vietnam, close to the Laos and North Vietnam border – and telling it entirely from the perspective of the men (in this case, a group of US Marines) who fought the war. Marlantes has said that one of the reasons for writing this novel was because, when he returned to the United States after his tour of duty in Vietnam, he saw the anti-war demonstrators and wanted to explain to them what it was like. So this is not an anti-war novel, though it certainly is a war is hell novel. While much of what Bravo Company does seems pointless both to us, the reader, and to the men themselves, there is a strong element of pride in their achievements, both on the part of the men and, of course, on the part of Marlantes who, presumably, is writing at the very least a semi-autobiographical tale.

The hero, for want of a better word, is Second Lieutenant Mellas, who is presumably Marlantes’ alter ego. He arrives a green young lieutenant, goes through the hell of war, losing many men and many friends, being hit and injured more than once, seeing the futility of it all but coming out a survivor and ready, at the end of the book, for yet another assault on another hill. It is Marlantes’ skill to give us individual portraits of the many men up to and including the colonel and show their differences – the lifers vs. those just passing through, the officers vs. the men, the blacks vs. the whites. Marlantes’ point, of course, is that they are all Marines, all brave men, all doing, more or less, what they are told to do and all heroes in their own way.

Marlantes tells a good story as well. We follow the men as they traipse through the difficult jungle, suffering not just from attacks from the Vietnamese (called both gooks and Nagoolian, a corruption of the Vietnamese name Nguyen) but from jungle rot, immersion foot, leeches and the other torments of a tropical jungle. One man is killed by a tiger. All suffer extreme thirst and hunger. And, of course, many are killed or injured by direct attack, grenades, mines and friendly fire. Their humour, their determined resolution, their stoicism and their obedience sees them through – at least those that survive – though at a cost. But they live in a small world where survival and killing the enemy are the two main features. There are virtually no women in the book, apart from some nurses near the end, and though many of the men think of women, it is not a key part of their existence, at least not as described by Marlantes.

The main enemy is, of course, the North Vietnamese Army but there are other enemies. Firstly, the war is politicised, which limits their ability to fight the enemy. The North Vietnamese can just retreat back into Laos, where the US troops cannot go. Secondly, there are too many officers eager to make a name and career for themselves on the back of the men, even if means killing many of the men. This is a key theme of the book. Thirdly, there is the rising black power movement. This is a key topic among the black men and they are divided into two camps – those eager to fight for the black power movement and those less eager to do so. Weapons are stolen and shipped back to the United States to help the Black Panthers. Fragging – throwing a grenade into the tent of another soldier – is suggested on more than one occasion and carried out twice, mainly because of racism. Both Mellas and other sympathetic officers discuss the issue with the black soldiers but the growing divide between the white and the black is certainly very strong.

This is a fine novel, well told and a good and gripping story. I do not think it a great novel but Marlantes clearly understands the men who fought there and what they went through and shows us the full picture with no holds barred. That war is hell we know from many fine novels and this certainly adds to the list of such novels. However, many of the war is hell novels show us the sheer futility of war while in this novel we do see that it is futile but also feel that Marlantes is not necessarily entirely of that view.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by El León, Berkeley