Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Being a girl, I haven’t been into as much of the war literature that most boys seem to be so invested in. My brother and dad, for example, could tell you all the most popular weapons and planes from the World Wars, and have probably seen every single war movie ever. I, on the other hand have a very low tolerance for any kind of violence.

I did really enjoy this book however. Coming out 30 years after the war, one of the longest narrative novels about the war, this book is light to read, and yet very engaging and compelling. It follows the story of Mallas, an ivy league boy who is compelled to fight in the war because he feels it’s morally wrong to leave the fighting to the poor or the black. He’s ostracized throughout the first third of the book, however, because he doesn’t have any field experience like the rest of the grunts, and is delicate and refined in comparison to their gruff natures. However, they gradually accept him as a comrade and eventually, a close friend. This novel deals with themes such as the meaning of warfare, the inevitable political wheeling and dealing to make the paperwork look good, and race relations in the marines (and more general as well). Most of the book comes from Marlantes own experiences in the war. And although some of the parts are a little unbelievable (is it really possible to get a leech up your penis?) it provides for a good and engaging story.

As I said before, I’m not really one for the blood and guts war story, but this one was captivating on so many levels that it was hard to put down, despite it’s 600 page limit. Also, because Mallas starts out as a greenie, he asks lots of questions about common lingo or strategy, providing a good opportunity for readers to understand the complicated pidgin of Marine communication in Vietnam.

What struck me as most interesting about this book, however, is the time period in which it came out. Rather than being released immediately after or even during the Vietnam like many famous texts (think Tim O’Brien). With all the controversy occurring about our place in Vietnam being repeated with our troops now in the Middle East, this novel really addresses the sharp contrast between the soldiers in the bush and the bureaucratic uppers directing them. Marlantes makes an interesting observation that in the book, with the use of radios by ground troops, commands had direct control over forces in the field, and thus felt like they were in the fields themselves rather than a conference room. This feeling led them to command the troops movements directly, rather than allowing platoon commanders or lieutenants to control their own troop moments. The deaths that could have been prevented, if ground leaders had more sway than the ones in the conference room obviously can’t be tallied, but the possibility of it being quite a large number leads Marlantes to question the morals and ethics of Vietnam; one of the first wars to be fought in the conference room and not on the field. With technology vastly improved, where does that leave troops in Iraq or Afghanistan? Perhaps that is what makes Matterhorn so striking in our day and age: no matter how well documented our regrets and failures can be, history always tends to repeat itself.

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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