This much hyped “Novel of the Vietnam War” tackles nearly all the cogent issues of the war except the central one: Why the fuck was this war waged in the first place? Karl Marlantes adds much to our understanding of “what it’s like”, and for that the writer is to be commended. But I can’t say much about his writing style, which descends to an almost florid level whenever he tries to get philosophical. Had Marlantes stuck to the basics, it would have been a much better novel – although due to the repetitive nature of some of his thoughts, it sure could have used additional editing. I sympathize with Marlantes’ struggle to get this published. By the time he finished it, the reading public probably had had enough of this war. Better to relegate it to the dark background of American follies (Marlantes would differ here).
Marlantes and I are the same age. Marlantes and I both served in this particular war. Marlantes and I were there the same year (1969). We had vastly different experiences. Given Marlantes’ experiences, could he retrospectively view the war in any other light?
Although Marlantes (through his alter ego Lt. Mellas) rails against the brass for their stupid mistakes and ignorant decisions, he retains a certain (misplaced to me) loyalty to the Marine Corps that prevents him from real political criticism. Decisions are made to further careers, jump up in rank, get good performance reviews from superiors. Like in the corporate world, the shit rolls downhill. This is about as close as Marlantes gets to political concerns. Speaking of the Marine’s hatred for the ARVN troops:
…hating them because their very existence served as part of the lie that had brought American troops to Vietnam in the first place, It was easier to hate a visible part of the lie than it was to hate the liars, who, after all, were their own countrymen: the fat American civilians and rear-area rangers who flitted back and forth with briefcases, sweaty faces, and shiny unused pistols.
The Marine Corps has its rigid conditions. One of them being the belief that every platoon commander should have a minimum 90 days in the bush. This may make them all “marines”, but it’s not necessarily in the best interests of the troops on the ground in the front lines.
The flaw in the general’s logic was that after a non-infantry officer had made the inevitable mistakes of any new officer in combat, all of which were paid for by the troops under his command, he would be transferred back to his primary military occupation in the rear, subjecting the troops to breaking in yet another new officer and dying because of the new officer’s mistakes.
One of the notorious facts about the Vietnam War was the assessment of killed and wounded. The higher the number, the better it looked all around. The higher up the numbers were reported, the more pressure there was to report higher numbers. A vicious cycle which I saw some of first hand during my time at USARV-Long Binh. And shit rolling down hill again. After a firefight, Mellas (still new in country) reports one enemy probably killed. That’s all he could honestly verify.
So the one probable became a fact. Fitch radioed it in to battalion. Major Blakely, the battalion operations officer, claimed it for the battalion as a confirmed, because Rider said he’d seen the guy he shot go down. The commander of the artillery battery, however, claimed it for his unit. The records had to show two dead NVA. So they did. But at regiment it looked odd-two kills with no probables. So a probable got added. It was a conservative estimate. It only made sense that if you killed two, with the way the NVA pulled out bodies, you had to have some probables. It made the same sense to the commander of the artillery battalion: four confirmed, two probables, which is what the staff would report to Colonel Mulvaney, the commanding officer of Twenty-Fourth Marines, at the regimental briefing. By the time it reached Saigon, however, the two probables had been made confirms, but it didn’t make sense to have six confirmed kills without probables. So four of those got added. Now it looked right. Ten dead NVA and no one hurt on our side. A pretty good day’s work.
The politics of it all is not all that different from the “real” world. Lt. Hawke explains to Mellas why it is that the Company Commander (Lt. Fitch), though a good marine, is lacking in the ‘political’ arena.
“…Fitch doesn’t know how to play the fucking game…He’s a good combat leader. I’d literally follow him to my death. But he’s not a good company commander in this kind of war. He got on Simpson’s bad side because he got his picture in the paper too often and never gave Simpson credit, which by the way he doesn’t deserve, but that’s the point. The smart guy gives the guy with the power the credit, whether he deserves it or not. That way the smart guy is dangling something the boss wants. So the smart guy now has power over the boss.”
One of the recurrent themes that Marlantes does well is the racism that was part and parcel of American society back in the sixties and how the racial unrest of the day had manifested itself in the Marine Corps. This is his best subject, treated with rigorous detail and understanding. The tensions are not ‘black and white’. There are as many factions amongst the black marines as among the whites. Lt. Mellas is the go-to guy for many of the black marines, since he has shown a certain “sympathy” for their cause. After a particularly bad episode with a virulent racist, Mellas is confronted by a “committee” of sorts.
There was silence. Mellas wondered if he should tell them he used to be a member of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized students to go to the South for voter registration when he was a freshman at Princeton. That was before Stokely Carmichael threw the whites out and Mellas found other things to do with his time, like driving to Bryn Mawr.
Fragging and mutilation (“”What’s that on your helmet?”. “An ear, sir,” Jake said offhandedly). are also addressed as part of the war.
But the novel is ultimately marred by some sketchy writing and sentimental clap-trap that is oft repeated:
Some of them were experiencing the last hour of that brief mystery called life.
If he made it out alive he’d carry this doubt with him forever.
Repeated several times, or,
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.
Say what? or,
This stopped the shelling, but it also stopped any further medical evacuations.
Hard to say how many times this fact of life was repeated.
It’s hard to find any negative reviews of this book, so I’m in the minority here, to be sure. It has its advantages, but as a literary work, it leaves a lot to be desired.