A young knight's quest in Vietnam
Like many others, I came of age during the Vietnam War and each night let Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley bring its horrors to my living room and later college dorm room. The military has since learned its lesson and will never again allow the public to see such raw footage, but to this day the wup-wup sound of a helicopter brings on a surge of dread and I couldn’t bring myself to read any of the novels that first came out of the war. But, 40 years later, it’s time, and Matterhorn is a great way to begin the journey.
It’s the autobiographical novel of a Marine lieutenant who served in 1969 and emerged with a Navy Cross for “extraordinary heroism” and a whole boatload of PTSD. It is not THE Vietnam War novel. For one thing, it is about Marines, volunteers not unwilling draftees, so there is not much agonizing about “why are we here.” They’re here to accomplish the mission and take care of each other and they take pride in what they do. Also they are fighting North Vietnamese regular army, not Viet Cong guerillas, so, horrific as it is – and it is -, they do not face agonizing dilemmas about whether civilians they encounter are enemy or innocent.
What it is, is the Parzival legend retold (Marlantes graduated from Princeton before enlisting): a young knight’s quest for the Holy Grail and the lessons he must learn about being a true warrior, a true man, to be worthy of it. It is a powerful retelling. It begins with author Marlantes’ fictional counterpart, 2nd Lt Mellas, arriving at a Marine outpost on a hill nicknamed Matterhorn near the North Vietnam border to take command of a platoon in Bravo Company. Not yet battle tested, he’s anxious to make a name for himself because he has political ambitions after the war. He gets more than he bargained for: the opening scene is a graphic depiction of what happens when a leech crawls up a man’s urethra and won’t come out, then one of his men gets eaten by a tiger while on patrol…and then the situation gets bad. We get all the staples of a good war novel: the disconnect between the superior officers at command headquarters who push pins in maps and the grunts in the bush who have to carry out their impossible commands; the daily grind of exhaustion, filth, thirst, hunger, homesickness, jungle rot interspersed with pure terror when under fire; the interpersonal conflicts – in this case racial conflicts – that somehow coexist with the intense camaraderie that getting shot at together brings on. Marlantes depicts it all with unadorned prose and vivid characterizations. Like all good war writers, he attempts to make real but not glorify the combat experience and to explain why men continue to put themselves through it [p. 351]
"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."
The climactic scene is Bravo Company’s assault on Matterhorn. It’s of no strategic value (the Marines had abandoned it just days before), but a gung ho colonel believes it is now occupied by a regiment of NVA and he wants a high body count to further his own career. That is the mission of this war. I defy you to put the book down once that assault begins. This is a tough read but well worth it.
This guest review comes to you from retired UW librarian and active bookworm, Helene Androski.