Saturday, August 7, 2010

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes - a review

With all the pre-publication publicity about this book, I, like most, could not wait to get my hands on it -- not only because it was another salute to my generation, but because of the author's history in getting it published. If you are a serious writer today, you must marvel at the perseverance of Mr. Marlantes. It is my understanding that he began writing the novel in the seventies and finally published thirty plus years later. It is a lesson in tenacity as well as a lesson that publishers today don't know a great story when they see it. Take heed, fellow writers!

That said, I felt it was not an easy book to get into; it took several chapters for me to begin to bond with the characters and really feel the anguish of losing close friends, the pain of deprivation and the anger resulting from the abuse of these dedicated grunt Marines by their superior officers. But once I did, it was as though I were there, breathlessly climbing the mountains gaining purchase for an LZ or alternately digging holes in which to bury myself. I was being dropped green and scared into a hot combat zone just as was Lt. Waino Mellas. And much as he did, I soon came to love these guys and envy their camaraderie in battle, their loyalties and dis-loyalties and eventually become a part of it all. I marvel that today they can live "normal" lives with these experiences buried deep within them. Yes, I know the book is fiction but the facts are real.

As readers, I think we all experience the gamut of emotions of this novel: fury in witnessing the stupidity and arrogance of command that results in the deaths and mayhem of the members of Bravo Company, the emotionally wrenching realization one feels when he understands the total irrelevance of their efforts. They deplete themselves building bunkers atop Matterhorn and then are extracted before they can use them, leaving them conveniently vacant for the now powerful NVA to occupy and having to go back weeks or months later to recapture them in a battle that takes the lives of many of the main characters.

Mellas is the protagonist and he and the other grunts perform with valor. Their world, however, has been reduced to that company, that platoon, that unit, and to that small hole in the earth that protects them and their brothers from death. Yet, death almost becomes a welcome companion when they are trapped again and again behind enemy lines with no hope of food, water, ammunition or the evacuation of their wounded friends. I could have read the entire book in a day, except for the length of it, so involved was I in their struggle -- one gritty page after another, one heart-breaking, back-breaking hump after another. Bravo to Bravo Company and to Karl Marlantes not just for the medals but for the insight into what it was like back then.

Matterhorn is not a perfect book (I take issue with his repeated use of "kids" while referring to the Marines as it suggests to me at least, the narrative voice is viewing the action from a perspective of forty years rather than from a foxhole occupied by Mellas). But it is an important one, as it portrays war as raw and brutally heartless instead of the glorified Hollywood rendition of it. Referring to the thousands of Vietnamese who perished as "gooks" annoyed and offended me, yet I understand that I am viewing a very unpopular war from a revisionist frame of mind; I realize this intellectually but can't help recoiling from it.

Aside from these reservations, it might be a good book for young people today to read. Some of our coddled youth should come to appreciate what their fathers and grandfathers endured in order for them to live the lives they live. And for the others -- those who are fighting now in war zones around the world and those who are contemplating it -- take a moment and consider what this book reveals, that's all I ask.

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