on March 25, 2010
I am not qualified, so I will not attempt a literary review of the book "Matterhorn". What I am qualified to comment on is the authenticity of this novel. I was in Vietnam at the same time the author was, our experience differed mainly in the name of our units. Marlantes was in Charlie 1/4, I was in Alpha 1/4. It's all so accurate, so real, and brought back a flood of memories from my time in the jungle. If a person wants to know what it was like to be a grunt in a Marine Corps rifle Co in I Corps in the Republic of Vietnam in the late 60's, then read "Matterhorn". I cannot express how impressed I was by this novel. Mr. Marlantes NAILED it. He wrote my story, and the story of the men I humped those jungle trails with, the men I fought, cried, and died with. Thank you Sir.
on May 29, 2009
A Story Within a Story, Within a Story.....
A review of
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
Although it's true that Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War isn't your ordinary war novel, it will give the reader an historically accurate and alarming vivid experience of the conflict that took place over 40 years ago in South East Asia. Just like other books of this type, the person who reads this 622 page book will be taken through the lives of teen boy's as they struggle with the reality of becoming a Marine, their painfully rapid acceleration into adulthood and too often their seemingly meaningless demise. As in other stories about war it has all of the usual components like the deep comradery between solders, the sorrow of loss, the intense fear of battle and the excitement of combat. Readers of this genre will not be disappointed. However, author Karl Marlantes has gone above, beyond and far deeper with Matterhorn than the ordinary war novel.
In this book about the Vietnam War, is another book about humanity and humility, and yet another about the complexities of racism. What also immerges within these pages is another story laced with subtle religious symbolism and the effects of a sacrosanct ideology. Even a rendition of a well-known allegorical tales is exquisitely presented as still another story in this winning novel.
The individually unique characters in this book grapple with meaning; the meaning of leadership, the meaning of reason, the meaning of war, the meaning of death and the meaning of life. Human dilemmas such as honor vs. cowardice, morality vs. malice, feminine vs. masculine and belief vs. doubt are painstaking studied and flushed out through the rich personalities portrayed within. It's also important to note Marlantes has captured, as only a combat veteran could, the quick wit and primordial humor present between soldiers during wartime.
The author brings you along as Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, the man character, goes through profound physical, psychological and developmental transformations.
We meet Mellas with a detailed description of his appearance. He's donned in a new flak jacket, embarrassingly shiny new boots and the "...dark green t-shirt and boxer shorts his mother had dyed for him just three weeks ago..." We also join in with his thoughts.
"Forty new names and faces in his platoon alone, close to 200 in the company, and they all look the same, black or white. It overwhelmed him. They all wore the same filthy tattered camouflage, with no rank or insignia, no way of distinguishing them, from the skipper right on down. All of them were too thin, too young and too exhausted."
Another carefully crafted character is Hawke, an older Marine at 22 with a large red moustache who is filled with the kind of wisdom born out of experience.
"Hawke had been in-country long enough to be accustomed to being scared and waiting--that came with every operation--but he was not used to being worried, and that worried him".
The relationship between these two men at first tenuous, grows with a need for survival and the kind of respect only shared by those who have endured what many only experience in their worst nightmares.
Some of the other personalities that Marlantes has expertly woven into this human drama are: Lieutenant Colonel Simpson a despicable alcoholic who the reader can't help but pity, Vancouver who has chosen to live life on his own terms, Cassidy the hard and bitter gunny, Doc Fredrickson and senor squid Sheller both who use the minimal medical supplies, their dedication and their compassion to help gravely wounded soldiers, Hippy "... a creature of unknown order, a spirit carried by crippled feat..." and the self assured Lieutenant Karen Elsked, an integral part of the parable within this story of war. These are only a few of the cast of characters superbly developed in Matterhorn.
The fine and clear word smithing in this novel brings the reader into the jungles of the Quang-Tri Province of Vietnam. You can smell the freshly cut bamboo, feel the sting of ant bites, shiver as the leeches slide under your utility shirt, and see the "...fine faint plume...darker grayish silver cloud hardly distinguishable from the overcast backdrop.." of Agent Orange. As night or rain falls you experience the wet, the cold
Reading Marlantes's vivid words have you feeling the pain of jungle rot, emersion foot, starving hunger, debilitating thirst and the pummeling of mortars.
"Another explosion hit only 15 feet from their hole, followed by four more. They winced with the pain as the concussion slapped against their eardrums. Mellas felt the air rush from his lungs. He felt he was in a heavy black bag being beaten with unseen clubs. Shrapnel hissed overhead and dirt rained down their heads, down their backs, in between their gritted teeth, and caked around their eyes, Smoke replaced oxygen. They couldn't talk. They endured".
Because of the authors' dedication to detail and authenticity words like hooch, squid, fragging and gungy or acronyms like FAC, C-4, or 175's could leave those without a military background lost. Marlantes skillfully handles this problem with creating an easy to use "Glossary of Weapons, Technical Terms, Slangs and Jargon". He also includes a "Chain of Command" flow chart complete with radio call signs.
Marlantes's story telling capabilities evoke emotions not often accessed while reading a novel. Any reader of Matterhorn is advised to allow the story to completely envelope you in order for a true depth of understanding to take place.
Lastly, at the risk of revealing the allegorical tale mentioned earlier, it must be said that Marlantes does an exquisite job of showing the meaning of this tale. One must have compassion and live the honorable life instead of falling prey to evil. So "There it is".
Lorry Kaye, MA, LMHC
Whatever you think you know about war, about men under arms and about the war in Vietnam will be challenged by this book. It's quite simply a masterpiece.
The letter from the publisher included with the review copy of this book says that Vietnam War and USMC veteran Karl Marlantes wrote this over the thirty years after his service ended. It was worth every minute of the wait.
Marlantes presents us with a classic of American literature. That it falls into the genre of war literature is secondary to the stunning narrative, the vivid characters, and the gravity of every action depicted over more than 500 riveting pages.
"Matterhorn" is centered on the experience of a Waino Mellas, a USMC second lieutenant and infantry officer, during the first three months of his thirteen-month rotation in Vietnam. Among the conflicts Mellas is forced to comprehend at a rapid pace (and which Marlantes illustrates with precision, simplicity and unerring accuracy):
-replacements and veterans
-conscripts and careerists
-officers and enlisted
-blacks and whites
-infantry and aviation
-the differing realities of command elements in the rear and maneuver forces in contact with an elusive and determined enemy.
Some of these were unique or amplified in Vietnam, others are enduring issues in any military setting. Marlantes captures them with museum-quality clarity.
Marlantes threads these conflicts and navigates Mellas through three combat patrols as he seeks to understand his own competence as a leader of young men whose lives and limbs -like his own- are subject to the variable qualities of enemy ordnance, the decisions of leaders and their commitment to each other.
The dialog is crisp and realistic, the characters are vivid and complex (even those who could easily be reduced to stereotype or caricature in a lesser work). The heat and chill of jungle warfare...the hunger, thirst and pain of the infantryman...the dark humor grown by those who face the threat of sudden death or maiming...the bureaucratic absurdities that every war inflicts on its participants...each is superbly presented.
Marlantes presents this story in the third person, and I had my own ideas about where he would take Mellas at the end of the book. I was wrong about this and about where the narrative would end. To say anything more would deprive other readers of their own opportunity to journey to Vietnam with Waino Mellas. But make the journey with him; you'll be better for doing so.
...well, not too far. The "gestation period" might have taken awhile, like 40 years, no doubt to get it just right, and Karl Marlantes did. The quintessential Vietnam War novel has finally been born.
"There it is." The classic Vietnam expression uttered when the essential truth has been stated. All too appropriate for this novel, that never mentions Saigon. The machinations of the politicos are conveyed only as a distant abstraction. The action is shorn of all reporters whose vision was all too often refracted by, er, ah, "editorial concerns." The novel covers a two month period, in the early spring of 1969, during the monsoon season. The fighting occurs just south of an imaginary line once drawn in Geneva, to denote a temporary boundary of two years duration, until "free elections" were held to reunite the two sections of the country. Those often touted elections were never held, since the "wrong guy" would have won. And so two countries were created, at least in the West. Some of the fiercest fighting occurred in this area, around a classic misnomer, the "Demilitarized Zone," in the heart of the Annamite Cordillera where even the Vietnamese would not live: too high, too cold, too infertile and too much of the very bad malaria, the kind that felled Parker. And now the "is" was, save for the few who still carry the memories of those impossibly remote jungle valleys with them. Marlantes faithfully retained those memories, transforming them into a compelling story, for the many who were not there.
Marlantes' novel includes a few vital aides, for the few, as well as the many. There are a couple of appropriate maps, a "chain of command," with the names of the principal characters, and an excellent appendix which covers the specialized military terms, the lingo and slang unique to the war, as well as a succinct description of the weaponry used. Matterhorn was the designated American name of a 5,000 ft plus hill, in the extreme northwest corner of what was once South Vietnam. From there, on a clear, non-monsoon day, views into North Vietnam and Laos were possible. The story is, no doubt, thinly autobiographical, told through the eyes of a new `butter bar" lieutenant, Mellas. This is a novel about the Marines, and thus the war experience is much more intense than that which occurred even to most Army units in combat. Much more is, and has been demanded, of what is largely volunteers, with their famous esprit de corps, as it were, including that extra month, the 13th. Nothing underscored the intensity of the combat experience like the fact that when the novel is finished, Mellas still has 11 months left in Vietnam!
Marlantes writes well, in many ways it is a "page-turner"; but for approximately the first 200 pages there is virtually no combat. The author does pull the reader in, with the leeches. It is a dramatic beginning, since the monsoons negated the air power, and helicopter evacuation advantage of the Americans. There were the "docs" who felt overwhelmed by the task at hand, their limited resources and knowledge, yet managed despite the odds. The author develops a sufficient number of characters, of all the ranks, setting the stage for the later combat scenes. And when those scenes finally come, the relentless small unit combat, man to man, what was depicted was a small, but very real minority of the actual fighting in Vietnam, which all too often relied on massive firepower on the one side, and hit and run attacks on the other, in which one rarely saw "the enemy." The small unit infantry tactics, taught on the bases that churned out the officers, are made understandable for those who were never in the military.
So many aspects of the war that were unique to the Vietnam conflict were incorporated in this novel, and depicted with the utmost authenticity. A major sub-theme was the relationship between Black and White marines, as the former were influenced by the heady days of the Civil Rights movement. Another aspect was the "fragging" of the officers, and when it is an officer who is doing it, well, it underscores in bold the madness, and disconnection of the officer cast from the men, and what was being asked of them. There were a few, painfully real American infantry assaults on fortified hills, like "Hamburger Hill," in the A Shau valley, which occurred about four months after the events depicted in this novel. A hill taken at a very high cost in lives, only to be immediately given back to the North Vietnamese. Is it any wonder that more than a few grenades were rolled under some cots? There was the obsession with kill ratios, and although Marlantes does not attribute it, the 10:1 kill ratio thought necessary to win was derived from the British campaign in Malaya. The author has a brilliant passage when, just a maybe "probable" kill is escalated to 10 confirmed KIA's by the time it reaches Saigon. This novel is a real "outlier" for the Vietnam War; there are not "Susie Wongs." There are no Vietnamese women at all! But the author does have a brilliant scene with a "round eye," that portrayed the ache on the one side, and the impossible situation for the woman on the other with searing intensity. Even the "minor notes" of the novel were hit true: the accusation that Mellas might have been "slumming," that he had a choice of not joining the Marines, unlike the ones he was making fun of. Another: Every unit had a "numby," and they knew it, but they so desperately wanted the approbation of their "buddies," not to mention their father who had died in the Korean War, and so they took one too many chances. More than one tear in the eye.
Quibbles? In all these meticulously recalled or always lived memories, yes, there are those intervening 40 years. The 24th Marines were never at Belleau Woods (p 540)! And surely the Marines gave up their shiny metal officer bars around 1966, when the Army did, to be replaced by camouflaged black cloth. As for those sometimes sought medals for bravery, at least the Army was handing out Bronze Stars as though they were chloroquine primaquine anti-malaria pills.
I spent the same two months in Vietnam, the middle part of my "tour," in the same Annamite Cordillera, further south, in the Central Highlands. And I once fought, at night, to keep someone's temperature under that magic 104 degree level, awaiting the dawn, and medevac. The same war? No, radically different. I was in a tank unit, and although we might not have eaten well, we never missed a meal. During my orientation to the 4th Infantry Division, in September, 1968, the commanding general (who never got fragged!) said there will be no assaults on hills and fortified bunkers in his division. If stiff opposition were met, the units were to pull back, and let the artillery and the Air Force do its job. In the madness of war, all too sensible.
There were parts of The Naked and the Dead: 50th Anniversary Edition that were brilliant, but I've always had a problem with Norman Mailer, and his calculating choice as to which front in the Second World War would produce the better novel. Marlantes novel is much better, much more authentic and comprehensive. There is no sense of "calculation" in the author's motives; one senses that the story simply had to be finally told, and he did it so well. 5-stars, plus.
on June 20, 2011
Though I am writing this review more than two years after the book was published and after more than 300 Amazon reviews have already been posted, I still wanted to add my comments. I read the novel primarily because I had served as an Army infantry lieutenant in Vietnam during 1967 and 1968. Generally I prefer to read non-fiction and have not read a novel of the Vietnam War since Tim O'Brien's 1979 novel, Going After Cacciato. I found myself becoming immersed as the author was dealing with similar issues such as gaining the respect of his men upon his arrival. There were some errors to my mind, such as the cotton bandoliers that we wore diagonally across our chests held seven magazines -- not twenty, or claymores were not detonated by "pulling a cord," but rather by squeezing a handheld electrical detonator (clacker) when we were out on ambush, though if were inside our company perimeter at night we would simply rig our claymores to trip wires (before inserting the blasting cap into the top of the mine); additionally, Dapsone was not used to ameliorate against jungle rot, but rather was taken in conjunction with Primaquine to mitigate against Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum malaria, but these are simply issues of detail which are probably only of interest to Vietnam vets, and Marlantes is writing a fictional account for which the story is paramount. Still I feel that Marlantes truthfully depicted the youth of the Marines in his dialogues, who for the most part were nineteen and twenty years of age. Marlantes was awarded the Navy Cross, which earns my respect. Up in the Central Highlands of Vietnam where I served until September 1968 I did not observe any racial problems out in the bush, and the majority of the soldiers in my platoon were blacks. Morale in the Army up through 1968 was actually quite high. Marlantes is describing the war during 1969, a time when morale had begun to plummet after the introduction of Nixon's "Vietnamization" Plan, as soldiers no longer wanted to be the last man killed in a war from which our political leaders intended to disengage. I fought in a different war, up in the Highlands, through 1968, the bloodiest year of the entire war, we soldiers out in the bush on our search and destroy missions still believed. We sincerely believed we were fighting the good fight and beating back the communist onslaught, and that our comrades had not died in vain. To my mind Marlantes accurately portrayed the Marine experience up along the DMZ. I'm pleased that Vietnam Vets are continuing to tell their stories, each of which adds another layer of understanding for students of history -- after the Veterans are gone.
A. T. Lawrence, author of Crucible Vietnam
on July 6, 2009
I was visiting Cannon Beach Oregon and found this book as a "staff pick" in a small bookstore. Now I know why as it's author lives just up the road from Cannon Beach in Seaside Oregon. I picked it up and began to read and was immediately captivated by the story and the protagonist, Lt Waino Mellas. Lt Jim (Jayhawk) Hawke was bigger than life and the guy everyone wants to be like. I've read a lot of books on war (required in AF professional military education courses) and particularly the Vietnam War as I am a veteran of that particular conflict. The Things They Carried and Going after Cacciato, both by Tim O'brien are lightweights compared to this book and both are considered classics. James Webb's Fields of Fire, while good, also cannot compare Matterhorn and it too, is considered a classic. This book is so real that the pain, the hunger, the thirst, the mental anguish, and yes the joy of it's characters becomes tangible. I find it particularly haunting and have not been able to stop thinking about it since finishing it several days ago. The idiotic mistakes and the egos of the Majors, Lt Colonels, and Generals all in the interest of advancing their own careers were totally repugnant and also true to life based on my own 20 years of experiences in the military, - I was fervently hoping that the author would kill some of them off at the hands of the enemy.
As I understand it this book has been taken out of print and will be replaced by a Hardback version in November of 2009 - well deserved recognition - in my mind it is a classic. I plan to reread it many, many times.
on April 17, 2010
I also served in VN during 1969, albeit with an armored cavalry regiment much farther south (III Corps). My war was a bit different than Marlantes' in its particulars, but it was the same bloody business in its essentials. The author has caught the full flavor of the whole experience, especially-- and vividly-- the crisis of combat and its brutal effects on those who fight.
I appreciated very much his full-bodied characterizations of the leaders and the led at all levels. No one is demonized; all are portrayed in wholeness as real people (people very much like many I personally knew). If there be villains, they are off-stage: the country's political leaders and "the best and the brightest" who advised them, who got us into an unwinnable war which they had no clue how to properly conclude. All these many years later I bear much bitterness and anger at the loss of some incredibly good men to hubris and arrogance. I am grateful to Mr. Marlantes for telling it like it was, and shining a strong light on the nobility of men under fire in situations no non-combatant will ever understand. This book is destined to become a classic, and should be read by anyone who considers sending young people into such a situation ever again.
Those were the good ole days.
Glad they'll never come again.
What makes this novel so extraordinary is that the author carries the reader back to those times(a few chapters in & it was like I went through a time machine), and then he purposely moves you into the very fires of the crucible of war. A war that was forging a warrior soul, while tearing his view of humanity to shreds. This reader found himself transforming with the author's finely drawn characters as the war confronts them with impossible choices and outcomes. This journey allowed me to relive some of the past through the benefit of present 20/20 hindsight, and not only of my experiences, but the added benefit of the author's brilliant reflections about what war is and what being human is. His characters' reflections are immediate and damning in their truths and utterly gut wrenching humanity. Many times I found myself holding back the tears and then at the next moment laughing out loud. Like the rollercoaster of war I found myelf reading along knowing there is no happy ending, just a dream that perhaps someday, somehow, so many hearts will not have to be broken once again. That so many lives will not be wasted once again. But the hell of it is, as the author so elequently puts it/...the dead, the living. All shadows moving across this landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things as they moved but leaving nothing changed when they left. Only the shadows themselves could change.
Many substantial points were made in the telling of this outstanding work of literature. One was that the war had become too technical and this one in particular had become too political. Or the dialogue that has a charater saying that things have changed since truman left. The buck's been sent out here. Another charcter relates that it won't hurt you. It's just to kill plants. It's called Agent Orange.
Many details on every page like the M16's magazine was supposed to hold twenty, but kids had died learning that the springs came from the factory too weak to properly feed the twenty that was specified.
One character's observation hit me particularly hard: It used to be if you were out in the bush operating independently no one would second-guess the skipper. They didn't have radio back then. Now they do, and the Brass think THEY'RE out on patrol...Now the Colonels and above are running the show right down to this river canyon and we're in politics too. And the better the communication systems/the worse it will get.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED !!!!!!!
P.S. War-profiteering is not an aberration, it is the very purpose of war.
P.P.S. The irony is that in the process of affecting a 'system of systems', digitizes the armed forces down to the individual soldier - this 'evolution of the battlefield' will strip even command of the battlefield decisions - too slow, too complicated, too human/the weak link in the kill chain.
google Fall of the Republic youtube
on June 26, 2010
As a decorated and twice wounded combat infantryman (199th LIB and 101st ABN), I've read more books than I can count on the Viet Nam conflict. While I generally prefer nonfiction, Matterhorn is truely an exception to my bias. For example, though the author frequently employes a writing style that can best be described as an abundant use of minutia and detail, such a style is necessary and helpful in this situation, I believe, to succinctly capture the day-to-day emotions and life experiences that grunts (combat infantrymen) endured in VN. My interest was further peaked because my unit, the 101st ABN Div, opereated in the same Matterhorn Area of Operations (AO) during my tour-- The Ashau Valley, which we referred to as the valley of death. Perhaps, this is why I frequently felt I was in the midst of the actual combat situations and day-to-day life experiences depicted by the author. Mr. Marlantes' Matterhorn account is a great read, "right on," and exceptional.
Lastly, I gave this book four stars instead of five. I only did this because I prefer books that present and describe actual combat firefights and extensively elaborate on such encounters. Though Matterhorn reflects some fictional jungle encounters with the enemy as well as firebase attacks, it generally addresses relationships among the principals and their collective day-to-day experiences leading up to the end of the book. Still, such descriptions give the reader a realistic and emotional look at what combat soldiers endured during Viet Nam. Hats off and kudos to Mr. Marlantes and Matterhorn!!!! BUY IT AND ENJOY!
on June 27, 2011
I normally don't write reviews but considering that a war novel of this size may seem daunting to some readers, I wanted to share my experience. I'm a 25 year-old girl, I love to read and am always trying to broaded my horizons, so when I stumbled across this book I decided to try it out. I read the entire thing over a span of 3 days (at the beach, but still).
I know virtually nothing about war or being in the armed forces, but I found this book to be incredibly fascinating and convicting. It is so important, as an American, to know what it's like for those men and women who die for our country. It's not pretty, it's not poetic (well, not all the time), but it is absolutely a story that everyone should read.
I should note that I read the entire glossary (located in the back of the book) before I started. There are so many terms and definitions that most of them went in one ear and out the other, but it was a great way to set the tone of the book and familiarize myself with some of the language. This book is a page turner. It's not a love story (well, not a bou-meets-girl one anyhow), but I was unable to put it down.
Anyway, the point of this review is to let intimitdated potential readers know that this books is amazing, and you shouldn't feel turned off by the subject matter or the length. Buy it, read it, be surprised by how much you loved it.
And to the author, Karl- Bravo, sir!