This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
At its heart, stripped of its brutal detail and long list of characters, Matterhorn is a story of how one young Marine Corps Lieutenant, Waino Mellas, a platoon leader, is transformed by his experience in Vietnam and gradually absorbed into the permanent fabric of the Marine Corps. Taking place during just a few short months at the beginning of his deployment, Matterhorn is a story of transformation. Success is survival. You play the game or die. What emerges is a brilliant and unforgettable account of the Vietnam war and the men who fought it ± a cross-section of Americans, compressed and thrown together into the most traumatic conditions imaginable to fight people they knew nothing about, in an alien, Asian jungle far from home. As a green officer, fresh out of Quantico and assigned to lead an infantry platoon, Mellas scrambles from a helicopter under machine gun fire onto the landing zone of Matterhorn, the name the Marines call a mountain outpost in northwest Vietnam, near the DMZ and Laos border. A Princeton graduate, clever, resourceful and savvy enough to downplay his ivy league education, Mellas slowly wins the respect of his platoon and fellow officers. Like many officers, Mellas harbors an ambition that surfaces from time to time, but he recognizes that an overt display of ambition would be futile. But it¶s complicated. As an officer, an instinct for survival serves ambition; the higher you rise, the further from the front you are likely to be. And, in war, all too frequently, promotion derives from attrition, or put more plainly, the death of one¶s superiors, not to be celebrated, but on the field of battle, if one is honest, secretly welcome. Yes, it¶s complicated. The list of characters is long. There is a helpful diagram of the chain of command in the front of the book to help keep things straight. But not everyone is listed there; we¶re only invited to get to know well the original cast, the men Mellas gets to know best. In the early chapters of the book, the character development is thorough. When someone dies you will feel loss. As the book progresses, Marlantes intentionally retreats from developing fully the characters he throws into the fray. No longer are they richly drawn, with names, backgrounds, and distinct voices. Gradually the replacements deployed almost become faceless. Marlantes wants you, the reader, to feel firsthand the dehumanizing effect of war, just as Lt. Mellas or any soldier1 would have experienced it. And, just as Mellas felt distress and guilt after his first
While some Marines may object, I use the word soldier rather than Marine when I am speaking generally and referring to Marine, Army and Naval personnel.
enemy kill and, of necessity, recovers to kill again, so too does he gradually become immune to the deaths of those fighting beside him ± not indifferent; their deaths just become less painful, less personal. Eventually, the loss of a soldier becomes a tactical loss. The natural consequence is that Mellas gradually becomes less inclined to want to get to know the green replacements beyond what is necessary to use them affectively. This is the inhuman transformation dictated by battle. For most, there is a profound loss of innocence; eventually replaced by a sort of euphoria of battle, as epitomized by Lt. Hawke, who can¶t stand being away from the action and breaks regulations to return to Matterhorn. This dehumanizing process can go so far as to nullify the value of ones own life ± what else explains the sudden urge to stand up and run at the enemy, screaming on full-automatic, Marine and M16 both, racing head-on to a certain death? Some celebrate it and call it valor. I¶d call it the endgame in a natural process, where life, even one¶s own, ceases to have any value at all. At first, Mellas¶ platoon patrolled the jungle surrounding Matterhorn, occasionally engaging the enemy, and reinforcing a defensive perimeter, stringing barbed wire and building up bunkers with sandbags. But Lt. Mellas also had to work at maintaining peace inside his platoon, especially between black and white Marines. The men brought with them all of the prejudices and anger, certainty and doubts of the population at large, along with an expanding list of grievances. This was 1969. How could they not be affected by the chaos at home? The doubts, the peace marches, the assassinations, the dissembling, the music and, certainly, the drugs. To be sure, when faced with a determined enemy, there emerged a truce and a semblance of cohesion. But between patrols and battles grievances bubbled to the surface, as certain as the ever present fog, rain and leaches that fall from the trees. Unlike today¶s all-volunteer armed forces, in Vietnam the average age of the men (boy really) was 19. The ³old man´, Colonel Simpson, a Korean War veteran, was all of 39! All are convincingly represented here - black (splibs), white (chucks), navy medics (squids), short-timers, red-necks, officers, non-commissioned officers (NCOs), gung-ho enlistees, hapless draftees, lifers, literate and illiterate, men from ivy league schools (a few), others from undistinguished state colleges, laidback farmers, hardened city boys, alcoholics, drug addicts, larcenists, the addled and the sane, the humane and the murderous (³fraggers´.) It would be amazing to think you could form a cohesive team with such men, much less fight a war. Certainly, the goal of boot camp is to erase all vestiges of the individual, but soldiers revert quickly, given half a chance. For most ± draftees ± it was count-the-days (and, for the short-timers, the hours too). Others ± lifers, NCOs, career officers ± sought recognition ± combat metals, promotions, a bigger command, the respect and admiration of fellow Marines. The successful leaders, those who rise through the ranks, learn quickly that lives you command are commodities. If you don¶t push your men, you¶re soft ± a slacker. Void of a credible justification, Vietnam devolved into a numbers game. When the nightly news on TV leads with body counts, day after day, it doesn¶t take long for the men on the front lines to conclude that that is the measure of success. As body counts were reported up the chain of command, estimates of ³confirmed and probables´ grew with every retelling. Everyone looked good. Body count was king.
When Colonel Simpson ³grimly´ issued an order to attack without knowing the strength of the North Vietnam Army units they was up against, Major Blakely, his executive officer, thought to himself, ³If the NVA reinforced during the night, an assault by Bravo Company would surely go badly, but those were the breaks. They were there to kill gooks.´ As quickly as Mellas and Bravo Company took possession of Matterhorn, blasted away its top to make way for a landing zone, and constructed a perimeter, Bravo Company is ordered to abandon Matterhorn and nearby Helicopter Hill to relieve a depleted and nearly starved Charlie Company and sweep the valley and jungles to the south to interdict North Vietnamese supply lines, and destroy a suspected enemy ammo cache. A miscalculation and bad communications back at headquarters ± covered up by the officer responsible ± results in days without food, water and ammunition; an error compounded further by Colonel Simpson¶s insistence that Bravo Company and its commander, Lt. Fitch, were slacking off. He stubbornly refused relief flights, resulting in the near starvation of an entire company and several deaths. Finally, the company, or what¶s left of it, is airlifted back to headquarters, where it is assigned to the ³Bald EagleSparrow Hawk Company´ ± a stand-by designation for the company sent to backup or rescue another unit at a moments notice. Inevitable, trouble finds them. A six-man reconnaissance team, code name ³Sweet Alice´, has run into a NVA division or company (no one is quite sure) in the vicinity of Matterhorn. Bravo Company is sent in, first to rescue them, then ± in zealous pursuit of numbers and disregard for his men ±ordered by Colonel Simpson to attack and reoccupy the now well-defended Matterhorn (thanks to Bravo Company¶s earlier efforts). This book includes characters at all levels of the chain of command, from privates to generals. It is this, along with stunning dialogue and rich details that could only have come from personal experience, that lends it its authenticity. In the officer ranks, there are officers with widely different experiences, from WWII and Korea to desk jobs at the Pentagon. Without a clear objective, their understanding of what their mission is varies wildly and, naturally, conflicts arose. Colonel Mulvaney, the division commander, has the most concern for the well-being of the combat Marines and little patience for Colonel Simpson and his executive officer, Major Blakely, who are prone to misuse the men under their command, caring only that a company reaches assigned checkpoints on schedule, regardless of terrain, obstacles, deprivation or hostility encountered along the way. During the final push to retake Matterhorn, Mellas is injured by a grenade and almost loses an eye. He is evacuated to a hospital ship where he recovers, and then, just 5 days later, is sent back into battle. Throughout the book, as the war progresses, we see how the war affects Mellas, as though he¶s passing through predictable stages. Mellas starts out as a green officer, eager to engage personally with his men and win their acceptance, then passes through stages of incomprehension, reflection, frustration, rage ± at
one point ready to frag the battalion commander ± and on to a phase of ³inert, sick weariness´, knowing ³with utter certainty, that the North Vietnamese would never quit´, and finally, with the simple act of assimilation that a promotion confers, arrives at a state, not of rejection, not even resignation, but of acceptance. He is transformed into a career officer. The most revealing dialogue comes near the end of the book, after Mellas is promoted to company executive officer. Lt. Hawke asks, ³You still feel like killing Simpson up there´? [As he did on Matterhorn.] ³Naw. You know I went crazy up there. He was just doing his job.´ Only after reading Matterhorn will you realize what an incredibly jarring statement that is. It¶s as though Mellas has passed through a wormhole, witnesses unspeakable horrors, and emerges, his blood pooled forever with the blood of his fellow soldiers. The two officers who pose this question, Fitch and Hawke, passed through the wormhole months earlier. In a surreal beer-stoked atmosphere of a fraternity initiation, it¶s as though they are serving as the Marine Corps¶ surrogate midwives, welcoming Mellas into another state of being, the fraternity of career officers. Experienced through Lt. Mellas, Matterhorn emerges as a darkly complex story of the corrupting effects of ambition in war, and its essential role in building a military command hierarchy. It is about how armies depend on acceptance of the legitimacy of death, by undermining its moral foundation ± expelling the personal and bestowing a license to kill. Soldiers are trained to become anonymous and interchangeable, to be used anonymously to kill an anonymous enemy. Sentimentality is an impediment. War is utterly destructive of those who are recruited to fight it, whether they survive or not, and some even welcome this destruction. Can they ever regain the values that they must abandon to succeed? Only the dead have fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters. Without a doubt, there are those who would vigorously protest this interpretation, even find it offensive. But it¶s impossible to reconcile the brutality of war otherwise. Knowing just how morally destructive wars are, we must avoid them at all cost, and only fight when we must, with the sober acknowledgement that our own men and women are its first victims. Why another novel about Vietnam? We, as a nation, are still trying to come to grips with the national trauma we experienced. And many, like Karl Marlantes, who experienced it first hand, will have to live with their memories forever. Americans are still trying to bridge the schism it produced; those diverging historical narratives that seem harder and harder to reconcile. As a Marine officer himself, Karl Marlantes lived it, and for 30 the years he spent writing and rewriting this book (at one stage 1600 pages), he struggled to convey that reality with military precision. It seared his consciousness and few have written more convincingly about the lives of those who experienced Vietnam first hand. His efforts deserve a careful reading. ----
Additional thoughts on our Vietnam experience It is over thirty-five years since images were broadcast on TVs around the world of helicopters evacuating American personnel from our embassy in Saigon and of helicopters being pushed off the decks of carriers into the sea, yet we still haven¶t come to terms with the war. Near the end of Scott Turow¶s latest novel, Innocent, its protagonist, Rusty Sabich, says, ³Accepting the truth is often the hardest task human beings face.´ Turow¶s quote aptly describes a nation that refused to face the many contradictions of our Vietnam misadventure. It¶s the answer to why most Americans resist facing up to the truth of Vietnam even today ± that there was just no good reason for our being there. Many who were alive back then would dispute this. Sides were drawn; sides remain. Things can be said about wars: 1. The rationale and strategies that a nation employs when going to war more aptly apply to the last war, not the one its fighting. Vietnam was not WWII; Vietnam wasn¶t even a remote theater of the cold war, although we thought so at the time. 2. The rationale for protesting a war is predicated on perceptions of the last war rather than the war we¶re in. While there might be similarities, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. (That doesn¶t mean we should be there or that it is a just war ± that¶s another question entirely.) 3. Military leaders will always speak confidently about chances for success and will skew the facts to support the war, as General Westmoreland did, and the majority of public will believe them. 4. When emotions run high, restraining a nation from fighting is nearly impossible. Consider the overwhelming push for going to war after 9/11 and how quickly Iraq was made part of the conflict. Imagine the storm of recrimination, had President Obama rejected General McChrystal¶s plan for Afghanistan and withdrawn our troops last year. 5. Nations enjoy the spectacle of war as sport.
When reflecting on the Vietnam War these many decades later, the truth, clear to me now, was hardly clear to me then. It¶s hard not to express it as an indictment, but I don¶t know of a gentler way to say this ± It was a stupid war waged by an ignorant people too lazy to think beyond the two-word justification offered by our leaders and accepted almost universally at home: ³Domino Theory.´ And, the lives of the men and woman who died were wasted or, put another way, ³they died in vain.´
Let¶s be honest. Dominos didn¶t fall. Russia and China were not the beneficiaries of our defeat. The Vietnamese would have fought as fiercely to eject them as it did to eject the French and the US. The Vietnamese were determined to rid themselves of decades of colonial rule, period. That was their only objective. In retrospect, the truth seems simple. How could we ± the overwhelming majority of Americans ± have missed it? ³Domino Theory´ clouded our thoughts. Easy answers always do. The most disturbing thing was that most Americans bought it, especially those who had lived through WWII and Korea. The famous ³generation gap´ of the 60¶s was between those whose memories were of WWII, and those who were too young. And, among those under 30, even among those harboring doubts, most accepted their parents¶ generation¶s attitude and trusted their leaders. Inevitably, confusion reigns in the fog of war. Dissent grows slowly, as reality set in, first by a few courageous leaders such as Senators Eugene McCarty and J. William Fulbright, then spreads, primarily among those asked to fight, especially on college campuses. Adults (those over 30) were angered at having their worldview questioned; the youth were frustrated by the paucity of the justification for having to fight in the first place and by the increasingly empty assurances that it was going well. What William Fulbright said, in retrospect, of President Johnson could have applied to most Americans: ³I'm sure that President Johnson would never have pursued the war in Vietnam if he'd ever had a Fulbright to Japan, or say Bangkok, or had any feeling for what these people are like and why they acted the way they did. He was completely ignorant.´ Amen to that. American¶s experience of Vietnam ensures that the nation remains divided. This divide is evident even today, played out every few years during congressional and presidential campaigns. It casts a long, dark shadow; it remains the third-rail of dinner conversations. Summon Scot Turow. It¶s really hard to admit you were wrong. But, our confusion back then is forgivable. Why? Consider this: WWII, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the prospect of another world war more devastating than the last were as fresh in the minds of American¶s in the early 1960s as 9/11 was in 2002 when we sent troops to Afghanistan. Much more than al Qaeda is today, the Soviet Union with their nuclear arsenal was universally perceived to be an existential threat (as our arsenal was to the USSR.) Was there any force that might have prevented our response to 9/11? Before Vietnam, conditioned by the shared sacrifice and certainty of the rightness of WWII, Americans trusted their government. The Vietnam War did great damage to the country; it broke that trust and bred a nation of cynics. While a degree of skepticism is healthy, the degree of cynicism and rancor it unleashed may well be our undoing.
Quoting William Fulbright once more ± ³The biggest lesson I learned from Vietnam is not to trust our own government statements. I had no idea until then that you could not rely on them.´ The selling of the Iraq war to the American public rekindled America¶s distrust. But nations run on emotions, not analysis and intellect. Facing the truth squarely is what we expect of our leaders, but, more often than not, they are driven by the emotions of an electorate, and therein lies the danger. Is Afghanistan this generations Vietnam? Will we have to wait decades for the answer?
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.