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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

Matterhorn, a first novel by Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes, was some thirty years in the making and it was only published after Marlantes cut about 1,000 pages from his original manuscript. Despite the cuts, the book still comes in at close to 600 pages in length and it tells a story that will be stuck in the minds of its readers long after they have turned the final page. This one, too, is a reminder that the written word almost always tells a story more powerfully than the same story can be told on film.

The life expectancy of newly minted second lieutenants dropped into the heat of the Viet Nam War was not a long one. Marine Lieutenant Waino Mellas, a young officer with dreams of wartime glory he could later parlay into a nice stateside career, was one of those men. Matterhorn, written in the third person, focuses on what happens to Mellas during his first two months in the country. It can be seen as a coming of age story of sorts, an experience shared by the thousands of young men (“kids,” as Marlantes refers to them) who were forced to scramble for their lives in the jungles of Vietnam.

Lieutenant Mellas finds that all of his training has done little to prepare him for what he experiences leading a small group of men deep into the bush in search of hidden weapons and enemy soldiers. The old adage that “experience is the best teacher” makes perfect sense to him; he only hopes that he will live long enough to gain that experience. In two months, by the end of Matterhorn, Mellas will be much wiser about the ways of war and the nature of those who fight it – and, just as importantly, he will be wiser about the nature of those who call the shots from the safety of their desks.

Most of the novel’s action takes place on, or around, a strategically well-located hill the marines have dubbed “Matterhorn.” Initially, the men work themselves to the point of exhaustion digging bunkers, patrolling the surrounding jungle, and otherwise transforming the hill into a suitable base for American artillery. To the company’s dismay, changes in strategy soon result in the whole area being abandoned to the North Vietnam regulars who are happy to claim the fortified hill for their own purposes. Predictably, for a war in which victories are claimed by winning the “body count,” the company is ordered to retake the hill because battalion commanders see the large number of enemy soldiers atop the hill as a prize not to be ignored.

Matterhorn is not easy reading for those who lived through this period in American history. It is a stark reminder of how difficult this political war was on the soldiers having to fight it. These young men had to fight more than the enemy. They endured torrential monsoons, snakes, leeches, malnourishment, jungle rot and exposure to chemicals like the now infamous Agent Orange. They prayed for heavy fogs to lift long enough for helicopters to evacuate the wounded and to resupply the rest of them with food, water and ammunition. And tragically, they faced a black power movement within the ranks that sometimes ended in murder by hand grenade.

Karl Marlantes vividly brings this 40-year-old war back to life, a war filled with lessons about how not to fight our next one. My only quarrel with the novel is the pace of its ending. What happens in the book’s final three pages happens at such an abrupt quickening of pace that its impact is lessoned, and some readers will find themselves questioning whether a company commander would react to the book’s climax the way Lieutenant Mellas reacts. Personally, I found the lieutenant’s reaction to be not so much out of character as unrealistic.

Rated at: 4.5

(Review copy provided by publisher)
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