Most war novels are burdened by the literary landmarks which came before them. Writers like Erich Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Tim O'Brien set the bar almost impossibly high for contemporary writers.
Karl Marlantes' debut novel attempts to meet the challenge of its predecessors with sincerity and authenticity. His tale of a Marine company in Vietnam, Matterhorn, puts the reader in the thick of combat like few others I've read. It comes as no surprise to learn that Marlantes served with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam and, as a lieutenant, was awarded the Navy Cross for leading an assault on a hill just south of the DMZ in 1969. Marlantes started writing Matterhorn in 1975 and worked on it steadily for the next three decades until a galley (which originally weighed in at 1,600 pages) caught the eye of Grove/Atlantic editor Morgan Entrekin.
The novel mobilizes an ambitiously large cast of characters as a depleted company of Marines overtakes and holds a hilltop against a much larger force from the North Vietnam Army:
The hill, one of many similar unnamed hills in the area, all of them over a mile high and shrouded by cold monsoon rain and clouds, had the misfortune of being just a little higher than the others. For this reason, a staff officer sitting fifty-five kilometers to the east at Fifth Marine Division headquarters in Dong Ha had picked it to be flattened and shorn of vegetation to accommodate an artillery battery of 105-millimeter howitzers. The same officer had also named it Matterhorn, in keeping with the present vogue of naming new fire support bases after Swiss mountains.
Despite the attempt by military brass to instill a sense of alpine peace among the men with the name Matterhorn, the hill soon becomes little more than a patch of ground pocked with rocket craters and soaked with American blood. In the course of the novel, the Marines are ordered to take, abandon, and then re-take this piece of land that "none of them cared about."
At the center of the novel is Marlantes' alter-ego, a lieutenant named Waino Mellas, whose combat experience is as green as his uniform -- something he is all too keenly aware of:
As Mellas plodded slowly up the hill, with Fisher next to him and Hamilton automatically following with the radio, he became embarrassed by the sound his boots made as they pulled free of the mud, fearing that it would draw attention to the fact that they were still shiny and black.
A Marine recruit fresh out of high school, Mellas feels "awkward and incompetent" once he arrives in Asia, unable even to remember his soldiers' names. He's politically ambitious, dreaming of the day when he can take command of a company -- even though it may come at the expense of the current commander being killed.
The first casualty in the novel, however, is a Marine's manhood. Literally. Marlantes tells how a leech crawls inside a sergeant's penis, leaving the company medic to take desperate measures, described in excruciating thoroughness. As squirm-inducing as such moments may be, the vivid details of combat experience are what propel Matterhorn forward. For instance, when the first battle scene arrives, nearly 100 pages into the novel, Marlantes succinctly describes how it begins: "Then the jungle ripped apart. It was as if someone had torn a sheet of solid sound." Or this, about a platoon on patrol: "They walked with a constant feeling of irritation and frustration. A piece of gear catching on a branch became a monstrous injustice. Bumping into someone from behind because of fatigue-dulled senses brought out unreasonable anger rather than the usual sarcastic comment."
Matterhorn aims much of its fire at the blinkered generals moving units around a map like so many chess pieces. The Matterhorn is, essentially, a useless hill and has little strategic value; but the senior officers plotting the war from 50 miles away don't care about real estate, they're more worried about body counts. As one officer says, "It's attrition that counts in this war. Turf doesn't mean jack shit." The fate of a company and its men hangs on the brainstorming back at headquarters. The difference between a man walking out of the jungle alive or getting blown to fleshy bits often rests in the political ambition or tactical stupidity of the well-fed colonels wearing starched uniforms in their cool, dry headquarters.
While Marlantes is skilled at conducting large battle scenes, he sometimes falls short at the level of his sentences. One wishes he would relax enough to trust the reader; instead, he (or his editors) feels the need to define every acronym and military term as they appear in the narrative -- despite the fact that there is a 30-page glossary at the end of the novel.
Moreover, any writer engaging imaginatively with the history of American soldiers at war has a double problem. On one side are the pop-culture clichés and stereotypes which have been crammed into our heads by war movies, National Guard recruiting ads, and video games. Marlantes largely steers clear of these, but the question of Matterhorn's literary heritage is a tougher issue. It's a book which most obviously lives in the shadow of Mailer's debut, The Naked and the Dead, and while Marlantes reaches for the brutal power of Mailer's sentences, his book never quite matches the visceral punch of that World War Two classic.
But once he hits his stride (and most of the military jargon has been exhaustively defined), Marlantes displays all the confidence of a veteran who knows what he's talking about. For all the complexities of the Matterhorn battle, Marlantes explains tactical operations -- from the briefing room to the battlefield -- with precision and clarity, rarely dumbing it down for the reader.
Marked on every page by the blood, sweat, and fears of combat, Matterhorn calls us to once again confront war's dreadful appeal to the imagination, and its even more dreadful price in real lives.
Read an Excerpt
MATTERHORN A NOVEL OF THE VIETNAM WAR
By KARL MARLANTES
Atlantic Monthly Press Copyright © 2010 Karl Marlantes
All right reserved.
Chapter One Mellas stood beneath the gray monsoon clouds on the narrow strip of cleared ground between the edge of the jungle and the relative safety of the perimeter wire. He tried to focus on counting the other thirteen Marines of the patrol as they emerged single file from the jungle, but exhaustion made focusing difficult. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to shut out the smell of the shit, which sloshed in the water that half-filled the open latrine pits above him on the other side of the wire. Rain dropped from the lip of his helmet, fell past his eyes, and spattered onto the satiny olive cloth that held the armor plating of his cumbersome new flak jacket. The dark green T-shirt and boxer shorts that his mother had dyed for him just three weeks ago clung to his skin, heavy and clammy beneath his camouflage utility jacket and trousers. He knew there would be leeches clinging to his legs, arms, back, and chest beneath his wet clothes, even though he couldn't feel them now. It was the way with leeches, he mused. They were so small and thin before they started sucking your blood that you rarely felt them unless they fell on you from a tree, and you never felt them piercing your skin. There was some sort of natural anesthetic in their saliva. You would discover them later, swollen with blood, sticking out from your skin like little pregnant bellies.
When the last Marine entered the maze of switchbacks and crude gates in the barbed wire, Mellas nodded to Fisher, the squad leader, one of three who reported to him. "Eleven plus us three," he said. Fisher nodded back, put his thumb up in agreement, and entered the wire. Mellas followed him, trailed by his radio operator, Hamilton.
The patrol emerged from the wire, and the young Marines climbed slowly up the slope of the new fire support base, FSB Matterhorn, bent over with fatigue, picking their way around shattered stumps and dead trees that gave no shelter. The verdant underbrush had been hacked down with K-bar knives to clear fields of fire for the defensive lines, and the jungle floor, once veined with rivulets of water, was now only sucking clay.
The thin, wet straps of Mellas's two cotton ammunition bandoleers dug into the back of his neck, each with the weight of twenty fully loaded M-16 magazines. These straps had rubbed him raw. All he wanted to do now was get back to his hooch and take them off, along with his soaking boots and socks. He also wanted to go unconscious. That, however, wasn't possible. He knew he would finally have to deal with the nagging problem that Bass, his platoon sergeant, had laid on him that morning and that he had avoided by using the excuse of leaving on patrol. A black kid-he couldn't remember the name; a machine gunner in Third Squad-was upset with the company gunnery sergeant, whose name he couldn't remember either. There were forty new names and faces in Mellas's platoon alone, and almost 200 in the company, and black or white they all looked the same. It overwhelmed him. From the skipper right on down, they all wore the same filthy tattered camouflage, with no rank insignia, no way of distinguishing them. All of them were too thin, too young, and too exhausted. They all talked the same, too, saying fuck, or some adjective, noun, or adverb with fuck in it, every four words. Most of the intervening three words of their conversations dealt with unhappiness about food, mail, time in the bush, and girls they had left behind in high school. Mellas swore he'd succumb to none of it.
This black kid wanted out of the bush to have his recurrent headaches examined, and some of the brothers were stirring things up in support. The gunnery sergeant thought the kid was malingering and should have his butt kicked. Then another black kid refused to have his hair cut and people were up in arms about that. Mellas was supposed to be fighting a war. No one at the Basic School had said he'd be dealing with junior Malcolm X's and redneck Georgia crackers. Why couldn't the Navy corpsmen just decide shit like whether headaches were real or not? They were supposed to be the medical experts. Did the platoon commanders on Iwo Jima have to deal with crap like this?
As Mellas plodded slowly up the hill, with Fisher next to him and Hamilton automatically following with the radio, he became embarrassed by the sound his boots made as they pulled free of the mud, fearing that it would draw attention to the fact that they were still shiny and black. He quickly covered for this by complaining to Fisher about the squad's machine gunner, Hippy, making too much noise when Fisher had asked for the machine gun to come to the head of the small column because the point man thought he'd heard movement. Just speaking about the recent near-encounter with an enemy Mellas had not yet seen started his insides humming again, the vibration of fear that was like a strong electric potential with no place to discharge. Part of him was relieved that it had been a near miss but another part acted peeved that the noise might have cost them an opportunity for action, and this peevishness in turn irked Fisher.
When they reached the squad's usual position in the company lines, Mellas could see that Fisher could barely contain his own annoyance by the way he nearly threw to the ground the three staves he'd cut for himself and a couple of friends while out on the patrol. These staves were raw material for short-timer's sticks, elaborately carved walking sticks, roughly an inch and a half in diameter and three to five feet long. Some were simple calendars, others works of folk art. Each stick was marked in a way that showed how many days its owner had survived on his thirteen-month tour of duty and how many days were left to go. Mellas had also been anxious about the sound Fisher had made cutting the three staves with a machete, but he had said nothing. He was still in a delicate position: nominally in charge of the patrol, because he was the platoon commander, but until he was successfully broken in he was also under the orders of Lieutenant Fitch, the company commander, to do everything Fisher said. Mellas had accepted the noise for two reasons, both political. Fitch had basically said Fisher was in charge, so why buck Fitch? Fitch was the guy who could promote Mellas to executive officer, second in command, when Second Lieutenant Hawke rotated out of the bush. That would put him in line for company commander-unless Hawke wanted it. A second reason was that Mellas hadn't been sure if the noise was dangerous, and he was far more worried about asking stupid questions than finding out. Too many stupid comments and dumb questions at this stage could make it more difficult to gain the respect of the platoon, and it was a lot harder to get ahead if the snuffs didn't like you or thought you were incompetent. The fact that Hawke, his predecessor, had been nearly worshipped by the platoon did not help matters.
Mellas and Hamilton left Fisher at Second Squad's line of holes and slowly climbed up a slope so steep that when Mellas slipped backward in the mud he barely had to bend his knee to stop himself. Hamilton, bowed nearly double with the weight of the radio, kept poking its antenna into the slope in front of him. The fog that swirled around them obscured their goal: a sagging makeshift shelter they had made by snapping their rubberized canvas ponchos together and hanging the ponchos over a scrap of communication wire strung only four feet above the ground between two blasted bushes. This hooch, along with two others that stood just a few feet away from it, formed what was called, not without irony, the platoon command post.
Mellas wanted to crawl inside his hooch and make the world disappear, but he knew this would be stupid and any rest would be short. It would be dark in a couple of hours, and the platoon had to set out trip flares in case any soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army-the NVA-approached. After that, the platoon had to rig the claymore mines, which were placed in front of their fighting holes and were detonated by pulling on a cord; they delivered 700 steel balls in a fan-shaped pattern at groin height. In addition, the uncompleted sections of the barbed wire had to be booby-trapped. If Mellas wanted to heat his C-rations he had to do so while it was still daylight, otherwise the flame would make a perfect aiming point. Then he had to inspect the forty Marines of his platoon for immersion foot and make sure everyone took the daily dose of dapsone for jungle rot and the weekly dose of chloroquine for malaria.
He and Hamilton stopped just in front of Bass, the platoon sergeant, who was squatting outside the hooches in the rain making coffee in a number-ten can set over a piece of burning C-4 plastic explosive. The C-4 hissed and left an acrid smell in the air but was preferred to the eye-burning stink of the standard issue trioxane heat tabs. Bass was twenty-one and on his second tour. He emptied several small envelopes of powdered C-ration coffee into the boiling water and peered into the can. The sleeves of his utility jacket were neatly rolled into cuffs just below his elbows, revealing forearms that were large and muscular. Mellas, watching Bass stir, set the M-16 he had borrowed from Bass against a log. It had taken very little coaxing from Bass to convince Mellas that it was stupid to rely on the standard-issue .45 pistols the Marine Corps deemed sufficient for junior officers. He pulled off the wet cotton ammunition bandoleers and let them fall to the ground: twenty magazines, each filled with two interwoven rows of bullets. Then he shrugged out of his belt suspenders and dropped them to the mud, along with their attached .45 automatic, three quart-size plastic canteens, pistol ammunition, his K-bar, battlefield compresses to stop bleeding, two M-26 fragmentation hand grenades, three smoke grenades, and his compass. Breathing deeply with relief, he kept watching the coffee, its smell reminding him of the ever-present pot on his mother's stove. He didn't want to go check the platoon's weapons or clean his own. He wanted something warm, and then he wanted to lie down and sleep. But with dark coming there was no time.
He undid his steel-spring blousing garters, which held the ends of his trousers tightly against his boots as protection against leeches. Three leeches had still managed to get through on his left leg. Two were attached and there was a streak of dried blood where a third had engorged itself and dropped off. Mellas found it in his sock, shook it loose onto the ground, and stepped on it with his other foot, watching his own blood pop out of its body. He took out insect repellant and squeezed a stream onto the other two leeches still attached to his skin. They twisted in pain and dropped off, leaving a slow trickle of blood behind.
Bass handed him some coffee in an empty C-ration fruit cocktail can and then poured another can for Hamilton, who had dumped his radio in front of his and Mellas's hooch and was sitting on it. Hamilton took the coffee, raised the can to Bass in a toast, and wrapped his fingers around the can to warm them.
"Thanks, Sergeant Bass," Mellas said, careful to use the title Bass had earned, knowing that Bass's goodwill was crucial. He sat down on a wet, rotting log. Bass described what had happened while Mellas was out on patrol. FAC-man, the company's enlisted forward air controller, had once again not been able to talk a resupply chopper down through the clouds, so this had been the fourth day without resupply. There was still no definitive word on the firefight the day before between Alpha Company and an NVA unit of unknown size in the valley below them, but the rumor that four Marines had been killed in action was now confirmed.
Mellas tightened his lips and clenched his teeth to press back his fear. He couldn't help looking down onto the cloud-covered ridges that stretched out below them into North Vietnam, just four kilometers away. Down there were the four KIAs, four dead kids. Somewhere in that gray-green obscurity, Alpha Company had just been in the shit. Bravo's turn was coming.
That meant his turn was coming, something that had been only a possibility when he had joined the Marines right out of high school. He had entered a special officer candidate program that allowed him to attend college while training in the summers and getting much-needed pay, and he had envisioned telling admiring people, and maybe someday voters, that he was an ex-Marine. He had never actually envisioned being in combat in a war that none of his friends thought was worth fighting. When the Marines landed at Da Nang during his freshman year, he had to get a map out to see where that was. He had wanted to go into the Marine Air Wing and be an air traffic controller, but each administrative turning point, his grades in college, his grades in Basic School, and the shortage of infantry officers had implacably moved him to where he was now, a real Marine officer leading a real Marine rifle platoon, and scared nearly witless. It occurred to him that because of his desire to look good coming home from a war, he might never come home at all.
Excerpted from MATTERHORN by KARL MARLANTES Copyright © 2010 by Karl Marlantes. Excerpted by permission.
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