Matterhorn ~ Karl Marlantes

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.

Unfortunate. Or,

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.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Matterhorn ~ Karl Marlantes

  1. Edward Wilson

    I think Marlantes’ book is puerile rubbish. I served in I Corps, not far from Marlantes’ AO, as a Special Forces officer in 69 and 70. His account just doesn’t ring true. In an interview with Brian Appleyard, Marlantes claims a personal body count of twenty. I can’t argue with this. I wasn’t with him in his dark spaces and he wasn’t with me in mine. And no one can nay say the other. But I can argue with the actual words on the page. Marlantes uses the cliched language of pulp war comics. Shells or bullets never simply impact; they ‘crump, scream, hammer, crack and rip’. The prose is embarrassing. Marlantes hasn’t written a serious novel. He has written war porn which, like sex porn, is intended for mostly male gratification. But more seriously than his childish prose is the fact that Marlantes ignores, at least in the novel, My Lai and the fact that 98% of the casualties were Vietnamse. Instead Marlantes eyes feel with tears when whining about his own post trauma syndrome. In the aftermath of a war that killed more than 2 million Vietnamese civilians, Marltantes casts himself as a victim. Poor little diddums!

  2. Edward, thanks for your very cogent comments. It’s good to see that there’s some balance amongst the fawning.

  3. Hello Chaz,
    Marlantes was interviewed last night on BBC’s Front Row and was asked whether his story about the marine being killed by a tiger was true. He insisted it was true: ‘We found the body.’ It must have been the tiger’s body because no marine was ever killed by a tiger in Vietnam. I know that a marine was mauled by a tiger because my own brother dealt with the casualty – but this was in 1967 long before Marlantes arrived. I’ve also checked out Marlantes’ company – so far I’ve only found 3 US KIA suffered by them. I have no doubt that Marlantes saw some intense combat, but not enough to justify the chronic PTSD he flaunts in every interview. I don’t think Marlantes is a fake, but he does exaggerate enormously: the leech in the penis, badly wounded Vancouver attacking the NVA with a sword, etc. It diminishes the ‘real’ experiences of guys like you and me. Marlantes’ book is a thinly disguised egotistical homage to his own (considerable, but exaggerated) heroism. To be fair, maybe jazzing it up was the only way he could find a publisher. Remember Krebs in Hemingway’s ‘Soldier’s Home’: ‘Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie…’ You probably wouldn’t like my own novel about the war, A River May, because the politics are controversial, but the combat scenes, if slightly fictionalised, are genuine. But, personally, I prefer my later spy novels because they are more distanced from my own experiences. At least, they were less painful to write! Thanks for listening.

  4. Hi, Edward-
    Military service embellishment? Who knew? Will he be running for office? Good research!

    I saw you latest spy novel on your publishers website. After I’m done with my Booker project, I’d like to check that out.

  5. Hello Chazzw,
    Thanks for putting up with my endless rant about Marlantes. I hope you like The Darkling Spy. It’s sort of a companion piece to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – which I believe was an MI6 disinformation op as well as a novel.
    Best wishes, Edward

  6. Apologies for being a Marlantes bore again. But I have checked out the DoD casualty base and Marlantes’ company did suffer 13 KIA during the week that he won the Navy Cross. But this doesn’t qualify him to be a novelist – a stark private memoir for his grandchildren would have been more dignified.

    Challenged by London Metro’s Siobhan Murphy with my accusation that Matterhorn was ‘war porn’, Marlantes responded in a manner that was utterly chilling. Imagine his words coming from a highly decorated former soldier, like Marlantes himself, in 1930s Germany.
    ‘If you’re absolutely truthful about it, there’s a part of all us that really likes violence and killing but very few of us ever have to confront that…So if somebody has a thrill reading the novel they’re getting what a real soldier would get – it’s a horrible experience but within that, if you come out alive, believe me, you feel happy.’

    In my experience, the toughest, the bravest and most combat experienced soldiers were those who hated violence and killing the most. Maybe it was different in the marines.

  7. There probably is some truth to this: maybe it was different in the marines

  8. If you want to know about a really good book about Owen called ‘the pity of war distilled’, have a look at my review of Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts in today’s (21 Aug) Guardian.

  9. Ted Lindsay

    Here I thought the porn was C-rat cooking.

    I guess my biggest problem with Mr. Wilson is the claim that a war novel must begin and end with accounts of American atrocities. I am waiting for a nickle/dime remaindered copy of his novel, but cannot expect much.

    That would define propaganda, socialist realism, Stalinism manque, and it seems odd anyone still stands for such a bad idea.

    But the Communist party of Vietnam is an atrocity – corrupt in the “steal from the people” sense back when the mass murder tried to mimic Stalin, and even more blatant now that the police state prevents free trade unions, capping wages for bribes. They had an ideal, and were infinitely willing to murder for it – but they tanked the ideal, and guess what, the thieves keep on running a police state.

    A while back, the party arrested a Vietnamese getting off a plane for the crime of writing a thesis on actual democracy in that very sad place.

    Marlantes is just a wildly better writer than Wilson, and his work is no more “war porn” than Bao Ninh’s “Sorrow of War.”

    Look at Vietnamese coffee beans – slave labor, unlike folks anywhere else, cannot sort the beans, so it’s only used as the lowest. quality.

  10. Ted, it’s interesting that, not having read my Vietnam novel, that you already know that Marlantes is ‘a wildly better writer’. But, to be fair, I don’t think reading my book would change your mind as it’s already made up.

  11. Ted Lindsay

    Fair point. An Amazon from the lost Elgin marbles is bearing it to me.

    Did you know your web address seems to bedazzle Google?

    As to war porn, I guess I don’t quite know what you mean. I’ve read Marlantes 2 or 3 times, so if I have a porn habit, I’d like to better grasp it.

    Are the ubiquitous computer games, especially first-person shooter, war porn, or just boys playing guns with computer help? Myself, i had to read The New Yorker article to even start to get inside that part of human experience.

    I guess the NY Review piece on recent Vietnam non-fiction is still riling me. It seems the vanguard of the peasants is polluting not just rivers and lakes, but large slices of sea. The veterans are being repressed, except those who sold out, and the NY Review author seemed to think the problem was the communists soft-pedaling US atrocities, as opposed to cadre kids literally dripping with diamonds from their European car franchises.

    Do you get “Socio-biology” Wilson e-mail, by mistake? 😉

  12. Ted Lindsay

    Mr Chazz W, I think I owe you an apology, too.

    I literally could not follow just why you found the one-sentence quotes to be proof of bad style, but then The Atlantic reviewer tried to do that to “Tree of Smoke” and disappeared in future issues. Couldn’t follow him/her, either.

    Have you tried Bao Ninh?

  13. Ted Lindsay

    Having read Marlantes before he hit the book selling trail, I am just seeing how he is re-packaged by self-marketing and reviewer reaction.

    Perhaps post-trauma is not suited to first-person narration? Joe Haldeman started and ended with a neat quote from falstaff.

    Myself, I think outsiders start with the “damaged Vietnam Vet” stereotype, and for a few, the genre of paintings of vets imagining their buddies, reflected in the Vietnam memorial Wall, opens the door to seeing you all as human.

    Myself, the helo pilot who publicized My Lai and tried to stop it in real time, is a necessary balance to Rusty Calley – who only makes sense if you start with a guy without the price of a burger volunteering, and ended up selling life insurance.

  14. Ted Lindsay

    Mr Chazz and Edward Wilson were there and did that, a starting point for useful discussion of any literary work grounded in a place and time.

    One risk is the ad hominem, focusing even of what an author says on a book tour – about as veritical as what too many men will tell a woman while trying to talk her out of her clothes and into bed.

    But how about distance?

    Myself, I wondered if Marlantes was the over weight helo pilot. He had a thoughtful, “walk a mile in your shoes” take on the cracker platoon sergeant (whose re-assignment to avoid racial tension perhaps caused a serious immersion foot casualty, when the lieutenant figure had to live without the sergeant). Wading share at Tarawa perhaps qualifies anyone to stand firmly by following orders and embodying, not just loving, the Corps.

    Joe Haldeman went for “War Year” (essentially his letters home to his gracious and lovely wife) to “Forever War.” He invented a super high IQ draft, perforce coed. As the boots would no doubt have lots of sex, he imagined rosters assigning who would sleep with whom each night. Painting the rocks white, yes? So far, our all volunteer coed force has fought off the temptation, though the Abu Ghraib principals were sleeping together in part to force an earlier rotation home.

    James Webb – is “Fields of Fire” war porn? – started with himself walking I Corps, though without the actual copy of “Catch-22” in his pack. His Annapolis cycle added distance and insight, and his latest, set in communist Vietnam flirted with closure.

    BTW, Webb saw that the PAVN military cemeteries looked to equal or exceed the 2,000,000 Vietnamese casualties number, and wondered if the infamous body counts actually did understate the casualties PAVN accepted.

    If we can forgive Webb’s recent oped about “if we really mean post-racial, Baptists deserve affirmative action as much as blacks,” he has added a WW II style GI education entitlement, and sounds serious about a radical re-write of federal criminal law.

    If there is a reductionist refusal to look at people as people, I’d say the FT reviewer gets the cake. He seemed to think it enough to call Marlantes “odd” for volunteering as well as for heroism. Worshipping death, like an Islamist killing himself and counting his white grapes (if we use the Aramaic original), does not seem to me helpful if the topic is a platoon who simply put one foot in front of the other, carrying a buddy’s decomposing body as well as the far heavier ammo boxes.

    I’d say again that Marlantes-hatred starts with a radical rejection and dehumanization of everyone who served with US Forces in Vietnam, and mostly illuminates the fear and hatred of those who reject.

    In case you forgot, if all the drunks who never went to Vietnam but endlessly parade their atrocity stories were ever assembled in Vietnam, there’d be no room left for the Vietnamese.

  15. Hello, Ted, thanks for your remarks. I appreciate the fact that you realise the issues are very difficult and complicated. Despite Hollywood’s attempts to make it seem so, conflict seldom is a simple matter of heroes and villains. Nor is it a matter of simply Rambo-esque battles.

  16. Wm Babbington USMC (Ret)

    Completely agree with Ed Wilson,Matterhorn is a crazy-quilt collection of hackneyed ,supposed ‘Grunt speak’ and rehashed USMC sea stories. The characters no doubt existed in one form or another but they do not reflect the grit,determination or professionalism of the Marines I served with and he takes poor advantage of the passage of time to infuse them with political and societal insights that they just did not have at that time. While I certainly respect Mr Marlentes’ service which is reflected in his Navy Cross citation I do not accept this book as a true telling of the Marine Corps story in Vietnam. For that I recommend the now out of print novel -“Sand in the Wind” by Robert Roth and to a lesser degree Jim Webb’s “Fields of Fire”.

  17. Kasper

    Edward,

    Marlantes’ book is fiction, albeit based on some actual events that happened in Quang Tri province. He writes a book that is interesting to read, in a language that suits a fictional novel and explains the every day life of every day soldiers. He doesn’t talk about politics, My Lai or stuff like that. He speaks about fear, death, racism and fragging the Lt. because he sends you and your buddies to their death.

    I wonder if your ‘beef’ with Marlantes is really about the truthful representation of Vietnam in his book…. or about the fact his book did so much better than yours.

    Sad to see veterans still fighting their own personal war after so many years.

    I wish you all the best and peace of mind.

    Kasper
    The Netherlands
    Europe

  18. I am a Vietnam veteran (9th Inf. Div., 68-69), and I could only stand to read about 30 pages of Matterhorn. Do you know the feeling that you get when you read or hear something that just doesn’t seem right? I had that feeling very strongly when I tried to read Matterhorn. It seems to me that there were numerous technical errors that should have been caught and corrected, and that the book does its readers a profound disservice. Anyone who expects to gain genuine insight into the nature of the Vietnam War would be well advised to go elsewhere.

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