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.