I remembered reading glowing reviews of Matterhorn, and although I'd had non-fiction in mind, I reached for it. When I'd read A Tale of Two Cities, I thought it was about the best account of war I'd read in some time. We mustn't underestimate the truth of fiction.
Karl Marlantes was a decorated Marine veteran, and his experiences in Vietnam were the fodder for this novel. It took him 35 years to write this book, and his battle to complete it may have been on a par with the challenge of living it.
In his review of Matterhorn for the Guardian, Robert McCrum opens with Marlantes' drive to write the book.
In the summer of 1970, Karl Marlantes, a recently demobilised Vietnam veteran posted to US Marine Corps headquarters after 13 months of highly decorated active service, found himself walking some sensitive military papers across to the Capitol. He was challenged by a group of young anti-war protesters "hollering obscenities", chanting "babykiller" and waving north Vietnamese flags.
"I was stunned and hurt," he recalls, speaking to me during a recent visit to London. "I thought, you have no idea who I am… yes, I wanted to shoot them. Six weeks before, I was killing North Vietnamese guerrillas in combat." As his immediate rage moderated into puzzled anguish, Marlantes found himself wanting "to explain myself to those kids. I just wanted to tell my story.""...rage moderated into puzzled anguish" -- the challenge of explaining the ferocity, intensity and insanity of his Vietnam experience to Americans who objected to the war on ideological grounds seems insurmountable. But then, Matterhorn (the code name for a mountain in northern Vietnam) also seemed insurmountable when the VNC had captured it and set up a base there.
Damn the war if you will, and damn the politicians who entered into it, Marlantes' account is one of the stunning, infuriating, gut-clenching accounts of combat that most of us will never experience. In his slower moments, he reduces us to tears with the relationships between soldiers.
We've all seen video footage of American troops pressing forward through the dense jungle, knowing that land mines, tiger traps, ambushes, venomous snakes and tripwires abounded. Add powdered Kool-Aid mix to compound the horror.
The point man would suddenly crouch, eyes and ears straining, and those behind him would bunch up, crouch, and wait to move again. They would get tired, let down their guard. Then, frightened by a strange sound, they would become alert once again. Their eyes flickered rapidly back and forth as they tried to look in all directions at once. They carried Kool-Aid packages, Tang — anything to kill the chemical taste of the water in their plastic canteens. Soon the smears of purple and orange Kool-Aid on their lips combined with the fear in their eyes to make them look like children returning from a birthday party at which the hostess had shown horror films.Animals that serve in war-time are all in vogue now, and Marlantes gives us Pat, a service dog who accompanies the Marines as they trek through the jungles, sniffing for missing wounded and enemy troops. Pat is sent off for some R&R when he is too exhausted to function, but his handler, Arran, also pays the price of loyalty.
It was well known that Arran had extended his tour twice because the scout dogs couldn’t be transferred to other handlers, and when their tour was over, they were killed. Someone back in the world had declared them too dangerous to bring home.Waino Mellas is Marlantes' protagonist -- a 2nd Lieutenant fresh out of Yale, struggling to find the balance between his intellect and his instinct. Neither he nor his comrades know where to place him at first. Can he function? Where does he fit within his unit? Can he fight? Mellas has none of the answers; he finds them as he goes.
Mellas was transported outside himself, beyond himself. It was as if his mind watched everything coolly while his body raced wildly with passion and fear. He was frightened beyond any fear he had ever known. But this brilliant and intense fear, this terrible here and now, combined with the crucial significance of every movement of his body, pushed him over a barrier whose existence he had not known about until this moment. He gave himself over completely to the god of war within him.And then, after the fury and the fear comes the time of reckoning.
Victory in combat is like sex with a prostitute. For a moment you forget everything in the sudden physical rush, but then you have to pay your money to the woman showing you the door. You see the dirt on the walls and your sorry image in the mirror.Marlantes excels at putting faces and souls behind the uniforms. The black Marines are huddling together, somehow connected to their brothers in the States, and their rage at their white commanding officers sometimes grows muddled during battles with the North Vietnamese. It's almost as if they're fighting a war on two fronts, unsure of who is the more menacing enemy. Goodwin is another lieutenant who refers to everyone, regardless of rank, as 'Jack'. It saves him having to remember names, which is probably a waste of time, especially in these circumstances. Goodwin doesn't have Mellas' academic background, but he has good combat instinct. Sometimes it's easiest not to know the historical details, or the political details.
“You’ve got to hand it to them little fuckers,” Goodwin said to Mellas, waiting for the next volley of mortars. “They’re fucking pros. Too bad they ain’t on our side.”
“Just wait a while,” Mellas said. “They were on our side twenty-five years ago.”
“No shit. Who switched sides, us or them?”
“I think it was us. We used to be against colonialism. Now we’re against communism.”
“I’ll be goddamned,” Goodwin said matter-of-factly. “Whatever we’re against, Jack, they’re fucking pros.”And when he's in an untenable situation -- kill or be killed -- Mellas gets down to brass tacks. His commanding officers, at least one of whom is an incorrigible drunk, has sent his team on more than one wild goose chase in nightmarish conditions for self-serving reasons. Mellas is enraged; as his loyalty to his comrades intensifies, his hatred for others scatters like buckshot.
Mellas didn’t hate the NVA. He wanted to kill the enemy because that was the only way the company would get off the hill, and he wanted to live and go home. He also wanted to kill because a burning anger inside him had no place to go. The people he had hated—the colonel, the politicians, the protesters, bullys who’d shamed him in childhood, little friends who’d taken his toys when he was two—weren’t available, but the NVA soldiers were. At a very deep level, Mellas simply wanted to stand on a body that he had laid low. Watching Goodwin with more than a little envy, he had to admit that he wanted to kill because part of him was thrilled by killing.The troops who were out in the field confronted the same natural environment, regardless of which side they fought on. It's popular myth that the Vietnamese were comfortable with jungle warfare. In fact they were an urban people who were as ill at ease in the jungles as the Americans. Mellas is adept at geography and cartography; he reads his maps almost compulsively, almost as a meditation. He achieves an all-encompassing vision of nature that is timeless. Distinctions vanish -- between us and them, us and the land, us and the sky. For at least a moment, Mellas understands the utter absurdity and futility of the war.
He watched the mountains subtly change under the shadows of clouds cast by a waning moon as it moved across the sky until the shadows began to fade with the coming of light in the east. He tried to determine if there was meaning in the fact that cloud shadows from moonlight could move across the mountains and yet nothing on the mountain would move or even be affected. He knew that all of them were shadows: the chanters, 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.