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Marine Corps Novel  Michael Hubler
 Mar 30, 2010 10:24 PST 


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Book review: 'Matterhorn' by Karl Marlantes, The Washington Post

By David Masiel
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; C01

MATTERHORN

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. =46rom 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."=20=

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<html><head></head><body style=3D"word-wrap: break-word; =
-webkit-nbsp-mode: space; -webkit-line-break: after-white-space; =
"><div>Book review: 'Matterhorn' by Karl Marlantes, The Washington =
Post</div><div><br></div><div>By David Masiel</div><div>Tuesday, March =
30, 2010; =
C01</div><div><br></div><div>MATTERHORN</div><div><br></div><div>By Karl =
Marlantes</div><div><br></div><div>Atlantic Monthly. 598 pp. =
$24.95</div><div><br></div><div>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. =46rom 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.</div><div><br></div><div>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.</div><div><br></div><div>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."</div><div><br></div><div>"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.</div><div><br></div><div>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.</div><div><br></div><div>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.</div><div><br></div><div>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.</div><div><br></div><div>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.</div><div><br></div><div>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.</div><div><br></div><div>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."</div><div><br></div><div>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.</div><div><br></div><div>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." </div></body></html>=

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