About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

#75 - Matterhorn

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010).

Summary: "High in the mountains of South Vietnam, a young lieutenant is flown to an isolated, anonymous hill between Laos and the DMZ where a company of Marines is building a fire-support base. It is his first day in the jungle. From the moment his feet hit the mud -- the brass have named the hill Matterhorn -- his senses are assaulted by a chaotic swirl of monsoon rain and fog, screeching radios and bulldozers, and the stench of almost two hundred men who are some combination of sick, exhausted, filthy, sodden, and scared out of their minds. He has no idea if he is up to this.

"So begins this extraordinary story of second lieutenant Waino Mellas and his comrades in Bravo Company. The year is 1969 and Mellas, a reservist with an Ivy League education and a chip on his shoulder, has been assigned to lead a rifle platoon of forty Marines, most of whom are teenagers. He will need the help of his fellow officers: Fitch, the harried company commander who, at twenty-three, is already straining under the weight of his responsibilities; Hawke, the charismatic executive officer who is suspicious of Mellas's ambition; and Mellas's fellow platoon leaders, Goodwin and Kendall, who have troubles of their own.

"Soon the company is ordered to abandon Matterhorn and embark on a dangerous mission to sever a crucial North Vietnamese supply line. As the Marines navigate the bewildering valleys and switchbacks of the jungle they endure a series of deadly tests -- firefights, mortar attacks, snipers -- and are driven forward by a capricious colonel who, thanks to new technology, is trying to fight the war by long-range radio. They are also dogged by racial tension that threatens to tear the company apart. But when the Marines find themselves confronted by a massive enemy regiment, they are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. As each man fights for his life and the lives of his friends, Mellas must face the reality of war, the truth of his motives, and the depth of his commitments. The experience will change him forever."

Opening Line: "Mellas stood beneath the gray monsoon clouds on the narrow strip of cleared ground between the edge of the jungle and the relative safety of the perimeter wire."

My Take: Wow. A complex, gripping war novel that both evokes Catch-22 and leaves its own imprint on the genre. Stayed up till 11:30 last night (yes, this is late for me) turning the pages, because I just had to know how it ended. I don't think I'll ever read a war story or watch a war movie in quite the same way again.

As I wrote after having read just the first chapter, Marlantes isn't afraid to grab you by the throat right from the start, and let you know what kind of a story this is going to be. Even without the constant threat of guerrilla attacks, the raw brutality of the Vietnamese jungle is a character in itself. Within 3 pages of Mellas' arrival in the crude Matterhorn base camp, a squad leader is felled by a leech in his urethra. With the fog too thick to land a medevac chopper, a medic is forced to perform field surgery to save his life. Only then does the medevac helicopter arrive, whisking Fisher off for further treatment in Tokyo, leaving the rest of the company to wonder if he's paid for his survival with childlessness or impotence. Several chapters later, the unit suffers its first casualty (and loses what may be its only true race-transcending friendship) when a Marine is mauled by a tiger. Once again, weather and politics conspire to prevent medevac or even resupply helicopters from landing, and his surviving comrades must carry his body through the jungle for a week ... on no rations. At the risk of trivializing what's clearly as serious a story as they come, I had a similar reaction here as I did when reading the first battle scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which Rowling blithely kills off Hedwig: "Wow, the author isn't pulling any punches here." War ain't pretty, and Marlantes isn't afraid to say so -- very loudly and clearly, if necessary.

Part of what makes Matterhorn work so well is that it's not your basic action-packed, heroism-everywhere style narrative. As Washington Post reviewer David Maisel explains, comparing Matterhorn to other absurdist war novels,
"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. ... [Matterhorn] reads like adventure and yet it makes even the toughest war stories seem a little pale by comparison."
While some scenes (particularly the climactic battle, in which a gravely depleted Bravo Company tries to retake Matterhorn from the NVA) do have a very cinematic feel to them, this seems almost inevitable given the subject matter. More to the point, Marlantes's characters are at least as important as the action sequences. In fact, much of what happens flows directly from individual, flawed human beings making the best decisions they can under urgent, chaotic circumstances. When the story opens, Mellas is a green-as-they-come reservist with political ambitions and a Yale Law School admission waiting for him back home. It's a given that this is going to change, and it does, but in a subtle, unforced way; Mellas is the protagonist, yes, but not the full story. Initially, he can't decide whether to befriend or steer clear of Marine lifer Hawke, the former leader of Mellas's own platoon who's now been promoted to XO -- especially as Hawke seems to recognize Mellas's ambitions immediately and isn't afraid to say so.

On their own, Mellas and Hawke might sound a bit like stock characters, and I guess there's some of that there; again, when you're telling an age-old story, it's fair to assume that you'll meet at least a few archetypes. Fortunately, the other members of the company are drawn with sufficient nuance that this isn't a game-stopper. I especially appreciated seeing how, given the civil rights struggle that was going on stateside at the same time, the individual conflicts and events in the book are (pardon the pun) colored by racial tensions and identities: Is perpetual headache sufferer Mallory a chicken$#!+ malingerer, or are his complaints poo-poohed because he's black? Why, why, why, when cerebral malaria afflicts the troops, is it the black soldier who dies and the white one who lives? Who knows better how to further Black Power in the bush: China, who eschews pot and alcohol while steadily stealing weapons to supply the struggle back home; or Henry, who's not above a few worldly vices (or above making a buck from others' vices) and favors a more direct approach?

Perhaps the strongest of Matterhorn's assets is Marlantes' ability to so perfectly capture the absurdity and confusion of war. The forced march with a body and no rations, later dubbed the Trail of Tears Op by its bruised-but-unbroken survivors, results from a pissing contest; blaming commander Fitch's lax discipline for the Marines' hunger and injuries, his own CO refuses to send resupply or medevac choppers, or to slow the companies' punishing pace. Mellas and other less-willing officers struggle time and again to make quick decisions that will save or cost lives, with little more to go on than gut feeling. While there are moments and scenes of devastating, bloody combat, the bulk of the war is tedium, jungle rot, hunger, and exhaustion -- all with a constant undercurrent of fear. As Sebastian Junger, whose New York Times review called it "one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam — or any war," put it, [Matterhorn is] not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered.

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