It’s 1969, a year tossing in the wake of its turbulent predecessor. In ’68, assassins claimed Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. American troops massacred Vietnamese villagers at My Lai and the execution of a Northern Vietnamese Army (NVA) military officer by a policeman from South Vietnam generated a photograph that would serve as the ugly face of the Vietnam War. The Tet offensive surged, then was pushed back. Anti-war protests gripped college campuses. Prague Spring rose, then fell. Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States.
Karl Marlantes anchors Matterhorn in 1969, the year after the world seemed to be shaking on its foundation. The novel is a superb piece of military fiction that deserves a place on the shelf of any reader with even a passing interest in the lore of Vietnam.
The story follows 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas and the US Marines of Bravo Company as they wind their way through the jungles of central Vietnam, uncomfortably close to NVA-infested Laos and only miles from the demilitarized zone. It’s also home to Matterhorn, an imposing hill around which the novel revolves. Bravo Company sallies forth from its base on Matterhorn in pursuit of an ever-evolving series of missions, from searching for NVA units to claiming new ground for more bases. The most draining of these forays finds the marines giving up Matterhorn for a haul through the unforgiving jungle. As the jungle stretches out before them, their encounters with the enemy and the terrain leave them toting the wounded and the dead long after food and water reserves are depleted. Cut from the lifeline of resupply helicopters, the marines are lost to the world in the jungle’s unforgiving fog.
After narrowly surviving that harrowing sojourn, Mellas and Co. are looking forward to some quality time in the rear. They get it, but only as a part of “Bald Eagle” duty – cooling their heels at the edge of the helicopter launch pad, waiting to be called into the thick of a firefight to support marines in need. In his characteristically straightforward but powerful prose, Marlantes writes that “all day Bravo Company dug in the clay, filling the green plastic bags, trying to forget that at any second, an officer in an air-conditioned bunker in Dong Ha or Da Nang could call in the helicopters that would carry them to some unknown spot in the jungle where they would die.”
“Matterhorn” is most memorable in fusing the horror of combat with the horror of surviving far from the front lines. The bitter racial divides, the soul-rending search for meaning in a war that offers none, the feeling of being powerless at the hands of superiors who view death as a cost others must bear so they can be promoted, are every bit as vivid as what the marines experience in their exquisitely chronicled clashes with the enemy. Anxiety does not let up at base camp. Indeed, the marines find greater solace amongst each other out in the bush, where racial and class divides disappear in the rush of the firefight.
When they do get dumped back into combat, they eventually find themselves staring up at the now enemy-occupied Matterhorn. The marines are given the only order that makes sense in Vietnam’s twisted rationale: mount an assault on the bunkers they themselves built.
Scaling “Matterhorn” is not for the weak of heart, as the book’s deeper insights exact their pound of emotional flesh. The specter and the reality of unfathomable carnage are always at hand. And if your pulse isn’t racing while Marlantes, himself a decorated marine, leads you through the death-defying pursuit of walking point, or heading up a column of marines on patrol, you simply can’t be paying attention.
What distinguishes Matterhorn from other tales of life and death in Vietnam is in the novel’s sense of earnest searching. Cortell, an African-American marine from Mississippi, speaks simply but powerfully about the loss of some of his closest friends in increasingly gruesome incidents. “What do I think all night, sit around thankin’ Sweet Jesus? Raise my palms to sweet heaven and cry hallelujah?” he says. “You know what I do? You know what I do? I lose my heart.” And as Bravo Company scales Matterhorn for the final time, it is friendship – not the pursuit of medals, not fear, not submission – that sends the marines into the teeth of death.
It’s as if when Marlantes fixes his literary lens on Vietnam, he leaves it slightly askew. As a result, his warriors careen through a land of shadows, of dreads and joys that can break and depart like an ambush. It is watching Mellas and his crew struggle so openly that makes Matterhorn a treasure. What streams through the haze is a glittering inspection of the human condition – or, in Marlantes’ turn of phrase, “the overwhelming, shattering knowledge” of life. It’s a bloody Vietnam epic, to be sure. But it’s also a full-blooded inspection of the human spirit.