By Karl Marlantes
This incredible first novel by Viet Nam war veteran, Yale graduate and former Rhodes Scholar Karl Marlantes was thirty years in the making. The author obviously has brought an incredible passion to his work. He masterfully tells the story of a young Marine lieutenant named Waino Mellas who is literally dropped into the morass that was the Viet Nam war in 1969. The skeleton story is that of the taking, then abandoning and then the retaking of a strategic mountain near the Laotian border (code named “Matterhorn”) which protects the North Vietnamese supply lines. Lieutenant Mellas’ Bravo platoon suffers a similar fate to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg: they always seem to be positioned and repositioned to receive the focus of the enemy action.
The stories within the bigger story, though, really expound on the incredibly cruel and truly unbelievable circumstances that made this particular war such a miserable tactical and political nightmare. In this author’s accounting there is a near total “disconnect” between the strategists at the main bases and the combatants in the field. Soldiers are sent under-supplied and malnourished on logistically impossible missions. Officers looking for career advancement often exaggerate enemy casualty figures to impress their commanders. There are palpable tensions between the lower rank soldiers who were conscripted into service and tend to be poorly educated and from lower socioeconomic groups and the officers who are college graduates and from more affluent circumstances. The racial divide, present in the society as a whole, is mirrored and magnified in the intensity of combat. The weather and terrain of Southeast Asia are almost characters in themselves, in that they play vital roles in many of the twists and turns of plot. All of these subtle subtexts are deftly woven into the larger story.
The combat sequences are not for the faint of heart. The author “tells it like he saw it”. The injuries are horrific and the author spares no detail. Marlantes has an uncanny ability to make the reader feel the sense of futility the men have while sitting with casualties desperate for care who cannot be evacuated by helicopter in a timely fashion because of a sudden change in cloud cover. The reader feels the depression of these Marines as they are asked to go on yet another long march through dense jungle populated with everything from leeches to tigers while watching their food, water and ammunition run out. The reader can almost feel and almost understand the exhilaration of battle as the adrenalin rush kicks in and fatigue, depression and hunger disappear and rage takes over.
The author’s writing style and eloquent descriptions are fantastic. The visual images he conjures are often as frightening as they are vivid. This excerpt is from Bravo’s initial approach to Matterhorn as they try to prepare a small landing zone for casualty evacuation:
“At Checkpoint Echo, with K-bars, machetes, and Jackson’s method of throwing their bodies against the brush, they slowly opened a small patch of crumpled, twisted vegetation in the broad valley floor. Above them on all sides, the mountains towered dark and green, their tops hidden by clouds.”
His descriptions also create the atmosphere of fear, intimidation and the overall forlorn status of these troops. If there is one small criticism of this book, it is the frequent use of military jargon, abbreviations and slang terms. There is a glossary in the back which is helpful, but it does slow down the reading a bit early on until the reader catches on to the meanings of most of these. The flip side of this criticism is that the use of this military language does add to the overall authenticity of the author’s writing.
Many excellent novels have been written about the Viet Nam war. Lots of these include first-hand observations and experiences (Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried comes to mind). There have also been legions of movies about that war and its effects on the combatants (Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and Francis Ford Coppola’s unforgettable “Apocalypse Now”, for examples). None of these renderings have the level of authenticity and hard truth that Marlantes’ Matterhorn has. It is quite a remarkable novel.