Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

by Robert A. Parker

This 2010 work is a magnificent novel, the best war novel I have read in decades. It is equal to the best of Mailer and Jones. It is the novel of Vietnam. It reportedly took the author 30 years to write this novel—far longer, that is, than it took Hemingway to write his about World War I. This was undoubtedly because of the scope of this novel; and the result, for me, surpasses even A Farewell to Arms, since that novel was more concerned with the experience of one soldier. In fact, this novel surpasses, for me, even Mailer and Jones, because of its emphasis on man’s humanity,

Matterhorn tells here the experience of a Marine company, Bravo Company, and a second lieutenant and platoon leader Waino Mellas. Indeed, it comprises in the adventures of this one company a capsule of the entire Vietnamese war. Even while author Marlantes reduced his manuscript from 1,600 pages to about 600, he narrowed in on representative exploits. And so, we first meet Bravo Company out on patrol, not knowing where the enemy is or when and how it might attack. We immediately grasp the uncertainty, the fear, the silence, the darkness, and the moral and physical discomfort of fighting in a strange land.

This is also the story of many men in Bravo Company. Of First Lieutenant Fitch, in charge of the company; of Second Lieutenant Ted Hawke, all of 22, second in command; of second lieutenants Mellas, Goodwin and Kendall, in charge of its three platoons; of its squad leaders, corporals Connolly, Fisher, Jacobs, Jancowitz, and Jackson; of Corporal Mallory who has mysterious headaches that no one can diagnose; of Sergeant Cassidy, the artillery gunner, who antagonizes the blacks; of Private Vancouver who always wants to be on point, the most dangerous assignment; of Private Arran and his scout dog Pat; of privates China and Henry, black Marines who duel to become the leader of mutinous blacks; and finally of the devious and ambitious battalion officers, Lt. Colonel Simpson and Major Blakely, whose mission is to kill NVAs, North Vietnamese Army regulars, rather than to occupy Vietnamese territory.

Bringing strategic perspective to the extensive field action are Simpson and Blakely, back at headquarters, who push Bravo in order to earn promotions for themselves, and who realize the way to do so is to probe for and kill those enemy troops. But then comes an irrational decision from Saigon that is symptomatic of the military bungling to come. After Bravo has established defensive positions atop Matterhorn Mountain, it is ordered to abandon them, because headquarters generals want to impress visiting politicians by shifting troops to a distant attack at Cam Lo.

Bravo’s new mission is to trek through the jungle in the novel’s first dramatic sequence. It is a powerful one, as men we have met begin to die, sometimes horribly, such as from a malarial disease or a mauling by a tiger at night. The new orders prompt Bravo to probe bamboo forests and elephant grass, then plow through river canyons and climb high cliffs, all the time being told to exaggerate body counts as its soldiers search for an NVA ammunition dump whose position is a vague point on a map. And, after they succeed, their gung-ho commanders send these exhausted men on another forced march, this time to establish an artillery outpost on a distant hill.

Thus, Bravo confronts a two-week hike, the first half on short rations and the second half with both no food and no sleep, all the while headquarters demanding that they move faster. And their horror is compounded by carrying the decaying body killed by that tiger, plus black soldiers planning to revolt against the discrimination they feel.

This is where this novel begins to dig deeper than mere warfare. Because we grow to understand the field officers’ loyalty to the men of their company, and the enlisted men’s loyalty to each other and to their mission. We realize that this novel is about more than war, about more than the trauma of Vietnam. It is about the impact on these human beings of fighting in a strange world in which the enemy lurks behind every leaf, or is hidden in the night. It is about the politics of getting along with one’s superiors, which Fitch and Mellas learn to do but not Hawke—and which the black Marines also fail to do. And, for all of them, it is about the dream of home.

The humanizing of Mellas continues as he volunteers for a dangerous patrol before leaving the artillery outpost. He wounds an NVA, only to feel guilt because he cannot kill the enemy soldier, instead leaving him to suffer. Complexity increases when they return to headquarters, and the black soldiers force the transfer of a belligerent Cassidy for his own safety, then nearly riot in a movie theatre. Also, Mallory, the black private, is back with his headaches; and he attacks, in frustration, a doctor who cannot cure him.

Mellas’ reaction to headquarters life includes getting drunk with his fellow officers, all trying to forget that new orders will again send them into the bush. And when it comes, they are ordered to helicopter out to save a reconnaissance team outnumbered by the NVA. The initial mission succeeds, but Simpson and Blakely need more NVA dead, and so order Bravo to attack Helicopter Hill and Matterhorn. And the irony, of course, is that the US had earlier abandoned these hills after building strong defenses there.

Despite a lack of surprise, of superior numbers, of artillery support, the lieutenant colonel orders the attack, thinking that if Bravo gets into trouble, it will be re-enforced and the NVA body count will rise. The result is the major and climactic two-part battle of the novel, a battle in which many of the Marines are killed, Marines whom both Mellas and we the readers have come to know. It is a painful reading experience, but perhaps not truly moving because it is described so precisely, so clinically.

In the first phase, Mellas betrays mixed motivations, as he first charges out of a safe position to join Bravo in its attack on Helicopter Hill, and then bargains for a bronze star recommendation if he can save Pollini, a wounded private. But in trying to save him, he fires his rifle over Pollini’s head and later thinks he might have killed this man by accident. The sense of guilt hangs over him a long while after the hill is taken.

But with 13 US troops dead and 40 wounded, and only 10 NVA killed, the colonel needs more NVA bodies. So he orders an attack on Matterhorn itself, not knowing how many enemy troops are there, and knowing fog prevents US supplies coming in or the wounded being evacuated. After the attack fails, supplies do arrive and some are evacuated, but the fog returns, and only 97 men are left to continue the fight.

That night, the Marines are surrounded, and Mellas thinks he is going to die. This prompts him to think of God and death and fate, and the irony of fate. “He was the butt of a cruel joke. God had given him life and must have laughed as Mellas used it to kill Pollini, to get a piece of ribbon to show proof of his worth. And it was his worth that was the joke.” Later: “He cursed God directly for the savage joke that had been played on him. And in that cursing Mellas for the first time really talked with his God.”

Overall, the NVA is moving three regiments up three valleys from Laos into South Vietnam. A weakened Bravo Company, low on water and ammunition, is the only US force in its way. Fog continues to prevent supplies and re-enforcements, and relief companies are a two-day hike away. A discussion of racism at this point seems meant to mirror race relations back home, to underline the sacrifices of blacks in Vietnam, to remind the reader of the enemy being of another race, and finally to stress the humanity of everyone that is fighting in Vietnam. These intervals give texture to the Vietnam war but also humanity to the novel’s characters. Even Simpson and Blakely, in fact, are given their moments of self-knowledge, of humanity.

At this point, the puppet strings of author Marlantes are faintly visible. For Hawke, Bravo’s former executive officer now back at headquarters, organizes supplies, pleads for pilots, and joins a helicopter relief of his old company, bringing in 40 men and new ammo. Yet his effort is presented so naturally, and he is so sincere, that it works.

Bravo is ordered to attack Matterhorn with these re-enforcements in order to, in the colonel’s eyes, restore company pride. But things still go wrong. The fog clears, but US planes miss their target. Nevertheless, Mellas stands, shaking, and walks up hill toward enemy lines. Others follow, surprising him with their respect of his leadership. But as he is pinned down and then wounded twice, Mellas decides that the NVA are never going to quit fighting, and he sees no sense in their attacking and killing each other. It is the novel’s one direct anti-Vietnam statement.

As Mellas, blind in one eye, awaits medical evacuation, he decides that by killing the enemy, who have people back home who care for them, he has participated in evil, and that without such caring there would be no evil. “The jungle wasn’t evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man has added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares.” It is such thoughts that add richness to this novel, that stretch it beyond the level of other works of warfare.

Mellas is evacuated to a hospital ship, where he encounters regimental discipline but also a sympathetic nurse, a nurse who recognizes the humanity in him. For me, this connection between two human beings, my soft spot, results in the most moving chapter in this novel.

Back in headquarters, Lieutenant Fitch, the company commander, is transferred, and Lieutenant Hawke is given a bronze star and made company commander. But then a dummy grenade is tossed by black Marines, and Bravo troops are ordered to give up all their arms. The dramatic repercussions of this act create the novel’s final impact, but Mellas keeps silent about the perpetrators because of his loyalty to the company as a whole, and his desire to keep it as an effective unit.

The violent deaths that follow help to round off this novel, but they seem originated by the author as much as by the rebellious black troops who have been a presence throughout the novel. Marlantes then lends substance to his novel by concluding with a three-page chapter in which Mellas muses: “He knew there could be no meaning to someone who was dead. Meaning came out of living, Meaning could come only from his choices and actions. Meaning was made, not discovered. He saw that he alone could make [a friend’s] death meaningful by choosing what [that friend] had chosen, the company. Things he’d want before—power, prestige—now seemed empty, and their pursuit endless….he would not look for answers in the past or future. Painful events would always be painful. The dead are dead, forever.”

This is one message of this novel, a message that takes it beyond a novel about war. But there are two other messages in the final chapter. When the soldiers chant that if each one’s death is good enough for that person, it is also good enough for them, they are cohering as one unit. (And the races as well?) Meanwhile, Mellas recognizes that both he and they have been like shadows passing across a landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things but leaving nothing itself changed.

Karl Marlantes is a highly decorated veteran of the war in Vietnam. One senses that his experience in Vietnam filled the rest of his life, as he put all of himself into this work. His thoughts about life and death, about God and fate, about caring and meaning certainly suggest this. As a result, this would appear to be the only novel that he will ever write, which probably satisfied him at the moment of its publication. On the other hand, there might well be an editor who one day will persuade him—or his heirs—that another novel (or novelette) might be found in those 1,000 manuscript pages that were deleted from this work. If such a work is found that will stand on its own, I will not begrudge its publication. I think may be quite good. (February, 2015)

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