A few nights ago I finished the new best-seller Matterhorn, a gritty, wrenching novel about the life of American soldiers serving in Vietnam, written by a highly decorated soldier, Karl Marlantes, who took 30 years to complete it. Matterhorn was originally 1,600 pages, and his editors cut it down to a less terrifying 600 pages. I bought it after reading James Fallows’ recommendation.
Anyone who still believes it’s sweet and glorious to die for one’s country should read Matterhorn, but so should everyone else. There cannot be a more graphic and beautifully written novel about war, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that most of it is based on actual events.
With no preparation or warning, the reader is thrown right into the vile, putrid world of jungle warfare, defined by the pus-dripping sores of jungle rot and immersion foot, and the constant battle with leeches that drop from the trees and silently suck the soldiers’ blood. Marlantes wastes no time; by page eight we are hurled into one of those horrific scenarios that we know we will never forget as much as we may want to: a leech gets inside a soldier’s urethra, and if it’s not removed his bladder will burst, killing him. Low clouds and rain make it impossible to send a medevac. How the poor inexperienced medic ultimately deals with this makes for literally the most harrowing reading I’ve ever endured. You simply have to put the book down, and sometimes you want to hurl it away.
The brutality of hand-to-hand combat, the racial tension between the black and white soldiers (which results in murder), the incompetent officers who needlessly send boys without food to die fighting for nothing except “body count,” scenes of heroism and betrayal and sheer misery as soldiers literally rot in the rain forest – Matterhorn makes you feel it, and it makes you shake with rage. There is no mention of politics or objectives beyond the battle at hand. It is all about the mission, to secure the mountain they’ve named Matterhorn and clear out North Vietnamese soldiers from the surrounding jungle, a fruitless, meaningless effort with no real strategy behind it. The book’s most repellent figure, Major Blakely, sends men off to die without food and knowing he’s screwed up the layout of their machine guns. He can’t be bothered. “The marines under him would make up for mistakes like that.” He only cares about the reports he prepares. With the most restrained writing, Marlantes makes you hate this man so much you want to see him tortured and killed.
They’d fight well with the imperfect machine-gun layout. The casualties would be slightly higher, with fewer enemy dead, but the statistics of perfection never show up in any reporting system. A victory is reported with the casualties it takes to secure that victory, not the casualties it would have taken if the machine gun had been better placed. There was nothing sinister in this. Blakely himself would not be aware that he’d positioned the machine gun poorly. He’d feel bad about his casualties for a while. But reflecting on why or what wasn’t something Blakely did. Right now the problem before him was to engage the enemy and get the body count as high as possible. He wanted to do a good job as any decent person would, and now he’d finally figured out a way to to it. He might actually get to use the entire battalion at a time, an invaluable experience for a career officer.
Marlantes goes back and forth, juxtaposing the brute horrors of jungle warfare with monsters like Blakely sitting in their office and blithely sending men to their doom. And just when you’re thinking no human being could actually be this cruel, this venal, they go ahead and do even worse things. The soldiers become ghosts, living in a strange altered state of consciousness, knowing they are being sent out to die for literally nothing. Another officer, always drunk, sips Jack Daniels in comfort and orders the men to keep pushing, blissfully unaware that a tiger is biting one the boy’s heads off, while others are losing their legs from trip mines. To the officer, they are red pins on a map. They will die for the officers’ pride.
The kids filed quietly to the edge of the strip to wait for the helicopters. Other Marines stopped to watch them, wanting to say an encouraging word yet not daring to break into their private world — a world no longer shared with ordinary people. Some of them were experiencing the last hour of that brief mystery called life.
“Where’s the gold?” a young soldier plaintively asks the book’s hero, Lt. Mellas, in one of the book’s most poignant moments. What are we doing this for? Is there oil somewhere? A prize? There was no answer.
It’s heartbreaking to think a large number of people still believe the Rambo argument, that if we just had more guts and more commitment we could have “won” in Vietnam. Won what? The greatest exercise in futility the US ever embarked on, a bright shining lie and a total and unmitigated catastrophe. Matterhorn makes it raw, makes you understand the hubris and incompetency that made it all possible, and makes you want to scream, to cry, to throw the book down in hopeless frustration.
There’s a lot more to this book. It’s not light summer fare, and it’s not always easy. Marlantes introduces one character after another after another, and I had to keep flipping back to remember who was who. And he uses a lot of military jargon and alphabet soup (necessitating a glossary at the end). But you know within a few pages you’re about to embark on a terrible journey, bloody and disturbing and stomach-turning, but one you have to take if you want to truly know what our soldiers endured in Vietnam and why they came back the way they did.
Unforgettable is a cliche we throw around too much. Some things really are unforgettable, and Matterhorn is one of them. Please read it.