Monday, July 26, 2010

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War / by Karl Marlantes

Not unlike Charlie Sheen's character Chris Taylor in the movie Platoon, Karl Marlantes was a middle-class college graduate when he joined the marines to fight in Vietnam in 1968. The Rhodes Scholar with a degree from Yale began his tour as a Second Lieutenant, enduring some of the fiercest combat action of the entire war while serving as a Platoon Commander. His tenure prompted him to record his experiences in book form, intending the literary effort first as a response to the vigilant anti-war protests he encountered upon his return home. Eventually he re-evaluated his vision towards the formation of a novel. After literally hundreds of rewrites, retouches and rejection letters, Marlantes' Matterhorn, a labor of love over 35 years in the making, is here, inculminating the Vietnam War in all of its horror, tragedy, controversy and legacy.
In 1969, the Matterhorn is a strategic hilltop in South Vietnam not far from the Demilitarized Zone and only 3 clicks from the border with Laos. It's where some of the most relentless, most ferocious combat of the Vietnam War is being waged, in part by the Marine Corps Company Bravo of the 5th Marine Division led by Platoon Commander 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas. Mellas is 21 and green, having just arrived in country and put in charge of the Bravo One platoon full of scared, ambivalent and often unpredictable grunts, most of whom are still teenagers. In brutal fashion under seemingly mad orders from a dithering, indolent Battalian Commander, the troops of Bravo Company have been ordered to take and hold the Matterhorn against a barrage of counterattacks implemented by the very determined, very unyielding and uniquely skilled North Vietnamese forces.
Mellas doesn't remain a novice long. No one does in this environment. He and his corp of marines--troops of every race, from all different backgrounds--succeed in taking the hill only to abandon their position when further, likewise inane directives order them elsewhere. All the while, they contend against the might and muck of the jungle where leeches suck them dry, wild animals attack and eat them, their provisions deteriorate, their feet rot and their bodies starve. It is a putrid, ugly and dirty war--literally and figuratively. Dishonor and dissension are commonplace in the ranks where fear, bickering, infighting, self-preservation and emotional paralysis get the better of the men. After all, their circumstances are largely pre-determined, orchestrated above their heads through decisions out of their control.
Few novels recreate the disaster that was the Vietnam War like Marlantes in this vivid portrait entailing absolutely everything. From the sheer confusion and chaos of combat to the reckless tactics exercised down the chain of command, the book manages both a macro and micro viewpoint of the conflict which accomplished so little at the expense of so much. Literature on Vietnam--fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, etc.--has long weighed down the shelves and no one will question the historical validity, or even the iconoclastic appeal, of the war. Its cultural impact as well as social and political reverberations are well-known just as its personal repercussions are still felt. Yet there are few truly good novels on it, and even fewer great ones. Matterhorn fills that void. It really is a great war novel perhaps destined to become a classic, but a book which won't be soon forgotten never the less. (FIC MARLANTES)

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