The Sorrows of War: A Review of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

When it comes to Vietnam novels written by Americans, the question is: Has anyone been able to come close to Tim O'Brien's magnificent The Things They Carried? What can be said that would help us go further or deeper? Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, Karl Marlantes' first novel, 30 years in the making, is the latest offering in the field. The reviews have been uniformly positive -- reflecting a sense of awe that the brutal and graphic descriptions of war evoke. Marlantes has laid it on heavy with the horrors of the war -- bodies driven to exhaustion and starvation, beset with huge leeches and jungle rot that has them oozing pus, attacked by wild animals -- and all before the actual combat begins. Few reviewers want to tangle with the Marine combat vet over style or details. Heck, you think, he might just come off the page and bite your head off. The gritty reality is so extreme that it has a distancing effect, a suggestion that you, the reader, have nothing to say because you haven't been there.

I will confess that I could not put the book down, tore through it in a few days. Do I recommend you read it? Yes, absolutely. There are powerful and important insights here, moments of beauty and horror that are stunning. Ultimately, though, Matterhorn fails -- as a novel and as a reflection on that terrible war. Generally you can count on art, and literature in particular, to mine deeper truths than the historians get at. The deeper meanings, the complex cultural and social resonances, are to be found in The Red and the Black, or Heart of Darkness, or The Naked and the Dead. Marlantes rubs our face in much of the reality of the Vietnam War from the platoon level -- but to what end?

The story is about a Marine reservist just out of Princeton, Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas. The action takes place in 1969, just south of the Demilitarized Zone, in the mountains and jungles that stretch from the South China Sea to the border with Laos. We follow a company, really a platoon, of Marines as they fight to secure a fire base on the top of a large mountain they've nicknamed Matterhorn; as they abandon the high ground and trudge through the jungle in a death march to nowhere; and as they fight their way back up to Matterhorn which by then was reoccupied by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

Marlantes gives us the taste of war, also the smell, sound, sights, and feelings. The worst levels of degradation, of breaking down one's hope and humanity, are forced on these Marines. And he can evoke the stark horror of facing one's death. Beaten down from the elements, and waiting for another attack, Marlantes observes: "Mellas knew, in his rational mind, that if there was no afterlife, death was no different from sleep. But this cruel flood was not from his rational mind. It had none of the ephemerality of thought. It was as real as the mud he sat in. Thought was just more of the nothing that he had done all his life. The fact of his eventual death shook him like a terrier shaking a rat. He could only squeal in pain." (p. 399) Like a terrier shaking a rat. Ugh. And we're the rat.

And sometimes, up against the moment of death, his prose flashes with stunning insights on what makes death matter so much to us, even if it means little to an indifferent universe: "No, the jungle wasn't evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares. It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opened himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away." (p. 500)

Marlantes also takes us behind the front lines, to see the way the colonels and majors send their troops into certain death for dubious purposes -- only in hopes of burnishing their own reputations and advancing their careers. This was an important reminder for me. While wars take on their own grim logic, chewing up the innocent and guilty in its maw, there are actual people, commanders, who consciously send their troops to their death. That's the hardening these characters are supposed to endure. One generally thinks of such callousness in World War I generals, sending their troops over the top again and again. But remember too that just about every encounter in the Vietnam War was initiated by officers behind the lines and politicians even further behind them. The officer's corps is revealed as having disdain for the political aspects of the conflict, for understanding the way forces work. They represent the banality of the war-making enterprise, a matter of directing killing power, of tactical problem-solving. (pp. 389-90)

So, what's the problem? Why do I think Matterhorn does not measure up? Let me name a few reasons. First of all, it follows the typical pattern of American war fiction, leaving the "enemy," the Vietnamese here, completely invisible. Less than invisible, they are almost ghost-like entities, threatening presences in the jungle, but never with any reality. And they are gooks, always gooks, until the reader gets used to the jargon and does not flinch at the disgusting racism of the term. Even the Vietnamese on the American side, the ARVN soldiers and "Kit Carson" scouts, are regarded with contempt and racist dismissal. Of course, on this count, Marlantes is just like O'Brien. This is a story of American soldiers, not an overview of the war. Such writing is in the tradition you find even in Joseph Conrad, who positions the Africans as alien others in the mind of his protagonist. It's just that Conrad and O'Brien point to the fatal flaw in that blind spot, they meditate and worry over the ways we dehumanize ourselves while pursuing a demonized other -- but Marlantes never notices. We could examine similar tensions in film. The recent HBO series The Pacific has much in common with Marlantes in showing the gritty side of war while insisting on the heroic core of the US war against Japan; while Full Metal Jacket indeed puts us face to face with Vietnamese resistance, in one stark, unforgettable moment -- shattering the one-sided war narrative that started the story.

But there is something further. By placing the action in the mountainous region around the DMZ, in a struggle of army vs. army, he conveniently writes out the most crucial aspects of the Vietnam War -- the entanglement of civilians in the war, the extensive resistance throughout the south that went from acts civil disobedience to a guerrilla resistance force. By constructing a conflict of army vs. army he has cleaned up the narrative -- his Marines are dirty from the elements but clean in the traditional sense of honorable warfare. Marlantes avoids the critique of the whole asymmetrical warfare enterprise, the utter corruption and brutality of a war of American neo-colonial conquest. He leaves out the B-52 bombings of the north, the massacres of civilians, the Paulo Condor prison, the dissemination of Agent Orange and napalm, the CIA's Phoenix Program of assassination of civilians who were not sufficiently loyal to Saigon.

If we confront the reality of America's adventure in Vietnam, one that was so wrong that it was a crime not only against the Vietnamese but also against the young soldiers we sent into combat, we cannot turn away from these realities. But Marlantes, while exhausted and angered by the stupidity of things, never really questions the war aims. Indeed, he betrays his blinkered political perspective in the glossary when he tries to briefly explain the 1968 Tet Offensive, when the communist forces from north and south made coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam, occupying many cities, overrunning most bases, and even attacking Saigon and taking over the US embassy briefly. Tet was the turning point of the war because the American public realized that they were being lied to by the press releases and that the resistance was much stronger than we had been told.

But Marlantes' thumbnail sketch of the Tet Offensive suggests that it was a sneaky plan by the Hanoi leadership to clear away National Liberation Front (NLF) cadre in the south by having them killed in massive frontal assaults -- so that they would not form a southern opposition to Northern control after a communist victory. This Glenn Beck style conspiracy theory betrays typical US military blindness about the nature of the conflict and the reason Tet was a turning point. In addition, it proposes an absurd split between northern and southern cadre, a lack of accuracy about the offensive, and a pipe dream about the decimation of NLF forces. The Tet Offensive was, after all, a full seven years before the end of the war and the NLF continued, stronger than before, to fight the Americans.

America can heal the wounds of war when it comes to terms with the crime of the war and faces them. Tim O'Brien went a long way towards advancing that process -- challenging the myths and confronting the hard truths. Marlantes' project is retrograde, seeking to redeem the war by recounting the sacrifices, even if the purpose was utterly indefensible. So he had reviewers declaring things like, "service he's done with this brave novel should earn him, again, the thanks of a nation still broken, still trying to heal from the wounds of Vietnam," (National Public Radio) or "a brilliant account of war that may well serve as a final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American history." (Washington Post). America has long sought that final exorcism, that healed wounds, by closing the chapter on Vietnam and turning our back to the truth. George Bush the elder emphasized when he launched the first invasion of Iraq that this would not be "another Vietnam." Our war-makers have long sought to shake off the bitter taste of the Vietnam debacle, to clear out the distaste for imperial war left over from the 60's and 70's. By invoking a heroic tale of sacrifice, Marlantes is helping them along. An honest accounting, a truth and reconciliation process, might not be more heroic but it certainly would be more healing.

The author resorts to the old combat narrative technique of drawing meaning out of the solidarity of the small units, the fight to keep each other alive, even as he leaves alone the question of why the hell they are there at all. This is a typical example: "Something deep within him stirred as he watched the Marines run down the hill from where they'd been filling sandbags. Entrenching tools and shirts in their hands, they streamed across the damp airstrip, running for their gear, running possibly to their deaths. 'Semper Fi, brothers,' Mellas whispered to himself, understanding for the first time what the word 'always' required if you meant what you said." (p. 324). What, really? You should always be faithful, always, even if it is a ridiculous order in a criminal war for imperial ends? Yes, once you're in the trenches, the only ethic is Semper Fi. That's how you make a military force of unthinking killing machines.

One more example, because once Marlantes gets going with romanticizing war, he decides that all the killing and dying is beautiful, transcendent: "Mellas was transported outside himself, beyond himself. It was as if his mind watched everything coolly while his body raced wildly with passion and fear. He was frightened beyond any fear he had ever known. But this brilliant and intense fear, this terrible here and now, combined with the crucial significance of every movement in his body, pushed him over a barrier whose existence he had not know about until this moment. He gave himself over completely to the god of war within him." Wow, cool feeling, man. That made it worth killing 54,000 Americans and 3,000,000 Vietnamese. Maybe he should have tried meditation.

This is the process of validating an illusion. We tend to think that people who have experienced such extreme hardship, who have faced life and death, may be able to come back and tell us something important. They experienced, they are learned. But it's sad to say that Marlantes has learned nothing.

I'm sorry to sound so bitter but really, folks, do we let authors get away with this, romanticize the slaughter, pretend there's some damn "god of war within?" Yeah, you can feel that adrenaline rush in a bar fight too. Get over your American manhood obsession for a minute, would you please? I'm sure the feeling of camaraderie, the berserker passion of killing, could also be found in the crusaders as they slaughtered their way through Istanbul and into Jerusalem; in the German soldiers fighting the Russian winters and the partisan attacks during the siege of Leningrad; and in countless wars before and since. A "true" war story, though, as O'Brien would say, has to tell the lies and expose the lies. Marlantes ends up repeating the clichés, invoking his most poetic skills to defend the most dubious moments in the war-making project.

If Marlantes falls into the cliché of glorious warfare, he tries to suggest some theories about the broader forces at work. The best he can understand the doomed nature of the American strategy against Vietnamese People's War is to say that for the Americans it was a war of attrition (i.e. kill as many as you can) and for the Vietnamese it was a war of political and psychological dimensions (wear down the invaders). This is crudely correct even if the Marines never bother to reflect on that. They just keep building fire-bases, calling in air strikes, venturing into the countryside where the enemy knows every nook and cranny while the Marines feel utterly alien.

He captures the blinkered and frustrated and angry perspective of a Marine colonel trying to make sense of the wars they are sent out to fight: "'America uses us like whores, Simpson. When it wants a good fuck it pours in the money and we give it a moment of glory. Then, when it's over, it sneaks out the back door and pretends it doesn't know who we are ... Yeah, we're whores,' he continued, almost to himself now. 'I admit it. But we're good ones. We're good at fucking. We like our work. So the customer gets ashamed afterward. So hypocrisy's always been part of the profession. We know that.'" And there's an angry and self-pitying pride in that -- the kind of dead-end logic that leads soldiers to drink themselves under the table and go home to beat their wives.

There's little more than that as an explanation of why Marines do what they do. Well, there is one more driving motivation. The motive force of everything in capitalism: personal ambition. Even in the muck and the mud and the killing and maiming, everyone appears to be in competition, hustling to get ahead, to step over the next guy for a little promotion. Lieutenant colonel wants to be a colonel; captain wants to be a lieutenant colonel; first lieutenant wants to be a captain; and so on down the line, so even a lowly corporal wants to be a squad leader. This is hard to believe. Ambition is a driving motivation in the war that surpasses anything else as a reality. It might have been the lens Marlantes saw the war through, as his own high achiever biography suggests, but it is not the driving force for every person. He even has the black militants, who are united in fighting the racism of the Marines and back home, maneuvering against each other as to who would be on top of the militants.

Which brings me to my last point, the split between black and white soldiers. His treatment of this issue was welcome to me, as too many of the narratives of Vietnam seek to minimize this conflict or to sweep it aside as the democratic unity of troops under fire erases racial tension. Not here. In Matterhorn we get a deep, detailed examination of just how far the internal conflict had developed. African American troops suffered disproportionate casualties in Vietnam, suffered under racist cracker leadership, responded to the rising black power struggles back home, and began to identify with the anti-colonial resistance of the Vietnamese -- who were supposed to be their enemies. Nothing is held back here, from the level of grumbling all the way up to fragging -- killing officers by rolling a grenade under their bunks.

Sadly, though, Marlantes reveals himself to be on the shakiest ground when he attempts to capture the perspective and words of the African American Marines -- to construct dialogue and the feeling of truth. Sometimes he just has the period wrong. He has a black soldier explaining to a white one not to call him Negro. "People of color," he explains, is the appropriate term now. This is certainly nothing he heard in Vietnam in 1969. The term "people of color" was not adopted as a respectful term until the 80's, perhaps suggested by a few in the late 70's. (See, for instance, "On Language: People of Color," by William Safire, New York Times, November 20, 1988.) Whatever you think about this term and its evolution, it just can't be placed in a discussion between Marines in 1969. You also would not hear two African Americans who were arguing about the Black Panther Party describe it as a terrorist organization. That is a very post-9/11 term, used earlier by the FBI perhaps, but never in the way he has it here.

Sometimes he will create a conversation between white and black troops when they try to understand each other. But the discussions, like the unlikely long talk between Lt. Mellas and a corporal named Jackson when they hunker down to consider the nature of racism right in the middle of a battle, turn didactic and over-simplified. (p. 431). And when he attempts to construct a debate, in full urban vernacular, between black troops, it is just flat. It reads like a white boy trying hard but just not having the second sense: "We seen 'nough killin'. . . . You gonna just sit on you ass while that racist cracker throw our brother in the conex box. . . .You the one that's fucked up. Wha'chew think you gonna accomplish killin' one more fucked-up God-and-country pork shop?" Etc., etc.

To Marlantes credit, he brings the struggle of African Americans to the center of the story. Instead of being humorous or soulful side-kicks as they are often relegated to, here black troops become the center of the story, the wheel of the whole plot. But, while they are freighted with deep meaning, these troops just don't have three dimensions, don't a sense of reality. Can a white vet tell that story? Possibly, but this attempt has failed. They come across as cardboard and simplistic, driving the action but ultimately mysterious and alien.

That's the best he could do in understanding Africans Americans, as he revealed the best he could do in understanding the Vietnamese. And, like the Marine Corps he loves and hates, he just never gets it right.

The strength of O'Brien's Vietnam narrative, what makes it last, is that the narrator is more tentative, more in struggle with his own memory and identity. He too does not understand the whole picture, but he lets us know how much he does not understand and challenges us to let go of simple answers ourselves. If O'Brien pulls the reader in to the dilemmas and fundamental doubts of the war, Marlantes shoves aside doubt and ultimately glorifies the war, even if it is covered in filth and horror. That's the novel's ultimate failure.