By David Masiel
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; C01
By Karl Marlantes
Atlantic Monthly. 598 pp. $24.95
Vietnam holds a special place in the literature of war. Since that scarring conflict, it's been nearly impossible (or at least disingenuous) to depict war without getting into its murky politics. It's no accident that the great American satires of war, "Catch-22" and "Slaughterhouse-Five" -- both ostensibly about World War II -- were published during Vietnam. In the combat novels and memoirs explicitly about the era, we see a similar thread, a tragicomic refusal to justify sending young men off to battle. From Tim O'Brien's "Going After Cacciato" and "The Things They Carried" to Michael Herr's "Dispatches," the absurdity of war is never far away.
All those authors respond to the main shortcoming of traditional war stories, which show the horror of war, but invariably with the tug of adventurism and the beauty that comes through bravery, camaraderie or the glory of a meaningful death. That is precisely what makes Karl Marlantes's first novel, "Matterhorn," all the more intriguing: It reads like adventure and yet it makes even the toughest war stories seem a little pale by comparison.
The author, a highly decorated Marine Corps officer and veteran of Vietnam, wrote the novel over 30 years, while also raising a family and working full time as a business consultant. This feat of persistence pays off in a narrative born of perspective and memories that survive over time, a narrative of frustration, terror and the war-is-hell theme that lies at the heart of every war story since "The Iliad."
"Matterhorn" takes its title from a hilltop firebase near the DMZ and the Laotian border, not unlike the infamous Hill 937, or Hamburger Hill. The substance of the plot is familiar, fused in our collective memory as the futility of politicized and "limited" warfare: the taking of dubious objectives in countless missions to Search and Destroy.
It's been said that in war, all victory is fleeting, but for the young Marines of Bravo Company, it's not even momentarily satisfying. Victory means establishing a firebase on Matterhorn (and other hills), digging fortifications, abandoning them to the enemy, then taking them back three days later. They don't know what they're trying to accomplish, and in the end they don't care. They merely endure. In what might be literature's most sustained depiction of the drudgery of jungle warfare -- rivaling Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" -- the men of Bravo endure leeches, diarrhea, jungle rot, malnutrition, dehydration, immersion foot and stupidity run amok. Senior officers define their objective simply (to kill "gooks") and micromanage their troops incessantly, radios crackling with requests for body counts even in the middle of firefights.
Between maddening doses of bureaucratic incompetence, racial conflict bordering on mutiny and junior officers caught in the middle, killing is about the only thing that makes sense. But the Marines in Bravo aren't quite sure whom they'd like to kill more: the enemy out there or the enemy within. This is a war not of conquest, after all, but of attrition, where body counts are inflated like Lehman Brothers balance sheets, troop re-supply is neglected or denied outright, and the most successful officers are the politically savvy ones. Meanwhile, soldiers remind themselves of the honor-bound traditions of the Corps: Semper Fi and never leave a Marine behind. For days on end, dehydrated and starving, they carry the rotting corpses of their fallen comrades rather than succumb to a loss of honor. To an outsider, it seems at best impractical and at worst suicidal.
Second Lt. Waino Mellas, the beating heart of this multi-character narrative, is a platoon leader with ambitions: running Bravo Company, winning a medal, justifying his decision to be here, both to himself and his antiwar ex-girlfriend back home. It doesn't take long before his focus shifts to the less lofty pursuit of survival.
The novel is set in 1969, the year after the Tet Offensive and the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, a time when political tensions threaten to boil over into self-destruction. In the rear, racial agendas dominate the enlisted ranks, but in the bush, desperate Marines need one another more than they need Panthers and Klansmen. Fighting their way up the hillside of their former firebase, hatred and jealousy evaporate, even the Corps itself disappears. Every grunt bleeds red and craves only one thing -- to get out. Yet here Lt. Mellas achieves a clarity he gets nowhere else. He does his duty, not to God, country or ideology, but to the men hunkered beside him, for whom he feels an emotion he can only call love.
Ironically, the best parts of "Matterhorn" aren't the battle scenes, which are at times rendered with a literal precision that borders on mechanical. Rather it is Marlantes's treatment of pre-combat tension and rear-echelon politics. It's these in-between spaces that create the real terror of "Matterhorn": military and racial politics; fragging that threatens the unit with implosion; and night watch in the jungle, where tigers are as dangerous as the NVA.
Given the long list of stellar works, fiction and nonfiction, to come from the Vietnam experience, one might question what more can be said about it. In some ways "Matterhorn" isn't new at all, but it reminds us of the horror of all war by laying waste to romantic notions and napalming the cool factor of video games and "Generation Kill." Marlantes denies us the heartbreaking beauty found in James Webb's "Fields of Fire," while refusing the hallucinatory madness of "Dispatches."
Lt. Mellas questions everything about the war and its prosecution, yet remains in it nonetheless. To follow him, we are forced at gunpoint down a long jungle path where no atrocity goes undescribed, where glory is reduced to a vague and senseless dream, and the theater of the absurd is decidedly unfunny. Lt. Mellas and his cohort find meaning not in death but in the most immediate realities -- kill or be killed, save and be saved -- and when you're finished, maybe, maybe, you'll get a cold beer and a hot shower and a week's R&R in Bangkok.
Masiel is a novelist who spent 10 years in the Merchant Marines and is the author of "2182 Kilohertz" and "The Western Limit of the World."