Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
Wow. This is the book to read about the Vietnam War. I have read 'Girl by the Side of the Road at Night' by David Rabe and Tim O'Brien's classic 'The Things They Carried' in the past two months, and they cannot hold a candle to this book. The author is a decorated Vietnam veteran who wrote the book over 30 years while holding a job and raising a family, so the tale benefits from the perspective and wisdom that can come from the passage of time, mixed with the real life battle experience the author endured.
We follow the soldiers of Bravo Company as they march--or trudge--through the Vietnamese jungle. It has been said that the books about WWII came out during the Vietnam War, and maybe the best books about Vietnam will come out during our current war. There are some real parallels in the story here and the one depicted in the Oscar-nominated documentary 'Restrepo'.
True in war, all victory is fleeting. The the young Marines of Bravo Company are not even momentarily satisfied. 'Victory' means establishing a firebase on Matterhorn, 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 endure, or they perish, for no identifiable reason. The book has sustained depictions of the drudgery of jungle warfare 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. 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. Such is war. This is appalling and compelling at the same time.