The rest of the day Mellas raged inwardly against the colonel. This gave him energy to keep moving, keep checking on the platoon, keep the kids moving. But just below the grim tranquility he had learned to display, he cursed with boiling intensity the ambitious men who used him and his troops to further their careers. He cursed the air wing for not trying to get any choppers in through the clouds. He cursed the diplomats arguing about round and square tables. He cursed the South Vietnamese making money off the black market. He cursed the people back home gorging themselves in front of their televisions. Then he cursed God. Then there was no one else to blame and he cursed himself for thinking God would give a shit.
(from Matterhorn, page 212)
If you only read one book in the new year, it should be Matterhorn. It’s fitting that I spent the last morning of 2010 finishing what is, hands down, the best book I’ve read this year. It took Karl Marlantes, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran and a Marine, 30 years to complete this book, and his attention to detail and perseverance have certainly paid off. His first-hand knowledge of Vietnam and the Marines shines through.
Matterhorn is set in 1969 and centers on Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas as he learns the ropes as a platoon leader in Bravo Company. Mellas has an Ivy League education and is very ambitious. He overthinks every decision, wanting both to impress his superiors and earn the respect of his men. He makes it quite obvious that he wouldn’t mind being company commander at some point. When the book opens, Bravo Company is on the fictional hill Matterhorn building a fire-support base. An operation in Cam Lo that serves mainly as a public relations stunt in which the U.S. troops team up with the South Vietnamese army forces the evacuation of Matterhorn, and Mellas gets his first taste of war.
Marlantes does a great job introducing numerous characters from the different platoons and squads of Bravo Company. Some we love, some we hate, but we grieve with and for them as the days go on and they move their way through the jungle. At times, the men face more danger from the climate, the leeches, the jungle rot, the immersion foot, and the lack of food and water than the North Vietnamese. Many times the weather keeps the helicopters from dropping off food and other supplies, removing the wounded and dead, or taking the men back to base camp.
Life in the bush is hell, and Marlantes engages readers’ senses to drive the point home. We can smell the unwashed bodies and the rotting uniforms. We can see the oozing sores all over their bodies. We feel the fear and the tension as they hump through the jungle not sure whether the enemy is waiting for them up ahead. We feel their anger when the high-ranking officers withhold supplies when they fail to reach a checkpoint on time because they haven’t eaten or drank in days. We hear the sounds of the bullets and grenades, and we feel their sorrow when they lose one of their own. Marlantes’ writing is that good, so brilliant, in fact, that I wished the nearly 600 page book was longer.
But Matterhorn is about more than the battles and the hardships of war. Marlantes uses the novel to highlight racial tensions among the soldiers and the politics of the war. One alcoholic colonel makes one bad decision after another as he seeks to become a general, and Bravo Company pays the price. The number of confirmed kills is inflated, and when the number of dead U.S. soldiers exceeds that of the enemy, the loss is downplayed. As Mellas sees, hears, and experiences all this, his outlook of the war and the Marines is changed.
Matterhorn drives home the point that many of the soldiers were teenagers, and the lieutenants tasked with making life-or-death decisions were not much older. This is emphasized through their poor decisions — signing up for another tour to have 30 days R&R with a bar girl, for instance — and how they walk through the jungle with Kool-Aid stains on their lips. Many times throughout the course of the book, the men question why they are there and what they are being forced to do.
Marlantes’ writing flows so easily, and even though there is an extensive glossary at the back of the book, he defines certain military terms in the narrative without bogging the story down. Obviously, Matterhorn isn’t a happy book, and most of the time it is devoid of hope, but there’s also humor here and there. There’s harsh language and graphic violence, but that’s to be expected. It’s not a book for those with weak stomachs. At times it was almost too hard to continue reading, and even though I expected that some of the characters I’d grown to love would die, I wasn’t prepared. At one point my heart literally hurt, that’s how involved I was in this book.
Matterhorn is a book that comes alive, that feels authentic, that takes readers on an intense journey. After I turned the last page, I wanted to bawl like a baby, and then I wanted to start reading it all over again. This is the best novel of the Vietnam War that I’ve read so far, and it’s definitely earned a special place on my shelf and my list of all-time favorites.
**Serena and I hosted a read-a-long for Matterhorn to coincide with the challenge. We held a discussion every Friday during the month of December. If you’re interested, check out week 1, week 2, week 3, and week 4.**
Disclosure: I received a copy of Matterhorn as a gift from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.
© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.