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A platoon's bravery: 'Matterhorn: A Novel' by Karl Marlantes

A monumental story of a Vietnam platoon's struggles against the enemy and the absurd orders of its commanders.

April 12, 2010|By Michael Harris

It will be interesting to see what kind of reception awaits Karl Marlantes' very fine Vietnam War novel, "Matterhorn." The American public's desire to read about that war has never been more than lukewarm. And Marlantes' epic story of U.S. Marines fighting and dying on and around a remote jungle firebase named for an Alpine peak rejects the artistic consensus that has been in place at least since "Apocalypse Now" was filmed in 1979 -- that if the Vietnam experience is to be described, ordinary realism won't do.

No, the consensus says, Vietnam was unique among American wars: disorienting and disillusioning, bitter, corrosive, surreal. We have only to glance at some of the better-known Vietnam War novels -- from Tim O'Brien's "Going After Cacciato" to Denis Johnson's recent "Tree of Smoke" -- to see how often the authors felt it necessary to tweak realism, even break free of it entirely, to convey the war's hallucinatory quality.

Marlantes will have none of this.

For him, Vietnam was only superficially different from other wars, and the old ways of telling a war story are good enough. All that's needed are honesty and clarity, attention to detail and a prose style that rarely strains for effect. The last 32 pages of "Matterhorn" are a glossary of Vietnam-era slang and military terminology. Far from trying to dazzle or mystify us, Marlantes seems to want, above all, to leave us no excuses for failing to see the plain truths he sets before us.

First among those truths is that the Marines -- and by inference, other U.S. troops -- in Vietnam were no less heroic and long-suffering than their counterparts in World War II. This violates another part of the consensus -- that a "bad" war, an unnecessary war, a war tainted by official lies and massive civilian casualties, invalidates the very idea of heroism. If the style of "Matterhorn" is a throwback, so too is its message.

"Matterhorn" is Marlantes' first novel, the product of four decades of brooding over the injustice of so much courage and sacrifice going unrecognized. The protagonist, Waino Mellas, is much like his creator: an Ivy Leaguer from the rural Northwest who heeds the values of his upbringing rather than those of his radical Princeton classmates. He volunteers for the Marine Corps and, the greenest of second lieutenants, takes command of a rifle platoon in the far northwest corner of South Vietnam during the rainy season of 1969.

(Full disclosure: I spent much of my Army tour in Vietnam a few months earlier and a few dozen miles away from the scene of the action in "Matterhorn." I was not in combat but can attest that the terrain was just as jagged and the monsoon weather just as miserable as Marlantes says it was.)

We may have to go back to Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" to find comparable descriptions of the backbreaking, soul-draining work of soldiering. Mellas and the other members of the fictional Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines -- many of them just teenagers -- labor to fortify Matterhorn, then are ordered to abandon it. They trek through nearly impassible jungle to open a new firebase, carrying their dead and wounded and going without food for eight days because fog prevents supply and medevac helicopters from landing. Then they are ordered to retake Matterhorn, assaulting the same bunkers they built, now held by the North Vietnamese Army.

They endure jungle rot, immersion foot (in World War I it was called trench foot), rain, mud, leeches, a lethal rogue strain of malaria, 70-pound packs, booby traps and ambushes, plus constant fear. Mellas, viewed suspiciously as a "politician" by the company's executive officer, Lt. Hawke, has to prove his competence in a hurry. The company commander, Lt. Fitch, is buckling under responsibilities no 23-year-old should have to shoulder. African American Marines influenced by the Black Power movement plot against white superiors they consider racist.

Marlantes paces the novel expertly, stringing together a rising series of climaxes that ends in Bravo Company's thrilling, heartbreaking assault on Matterhorn. Mellas indeed proves himself as a "bush Marine," but he learns things about himself most people never have to face. He's capable of killing. In some circumstances, he even enjoys it. And he may have shot one of his men by accident.

What, finally, does all this carnage mean? Too often, Bravo Company's ordeals have been forced on it by Marine colonels in a sweat to make general, micromanaging the troops in the field by radio. The regimental commander, a veteran of three wars, is uneasily aware that "the NVA felt they were buying something worth the price: their country. He could no longer say the same for the Marines." Mellas, in the aftermath of victory, "knew, with utter certainty, that the North Vietnamese would never quit. They would continue the war until they were annihilated, and he did not have the will to do what that would require."

Like Christian existentialists who cling to their faith precisely because it seems absurd, Mellas and his fellow Marines try to create their own meaning out of sorrow and memory and the traditions of the Corps. They turn inward and refuse to see that the antiwar movement has its own brand of courage and idealism. Even today, Marlantes seems to view the protesters as little more than rich kids hiding behind their deferments. It's a notable blind spot in a morally and psychologically sophisticated novel that does so many other things so well.

Harris is the author of the novel "The Chieu Hoi Saloon."

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