I should tell you up front that Matterhorn is not a novel for the faint of heart, but I still think it should be required reading. The novel covers a company of US Marines on a brief series of maneuvers during the Vietnam War and delivers a blistering glimpse of how the war was conducted, while also offering a deeply moving account of the bravery and humanity of the soldiers involved.
The book’s author, Karl Marlantes, was himself a young Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, so the detail included is first-person recollection. That’s a good thing, because otherwise I would not have believed it. As I read, I kept thinking there was no way anyone could have survived the conditions. It astounds me that any of these guys lived and that any of them returned able to function in their former lives. How do people recover from living through situations like this? How could these men possibly get over the trauma? Marlantes offers some clues–a very compelling character with deep faith, men who keep their focus on others rather than the futility of the situation, even the author’s act of telling the story.
One technique Marlantes used brilliantly was referring to the Marines as kids. It’s easy to read history and forget that most of the players in wars are teenagers. Through direct reference, comments about high school, and imagery like the kids on patrol drinking kool-aid from their canteens, Marlantes never lets readers forget that the people being put into such unbelievable peril were not that much older than the little boy sitting across from you at the dinner table. This device could easily have slipped into an anti-war morality judgment, but Marlantes has too much respect for the military to do that. Instead, the reminders served to underscore the amazing fortitude and bravery of the kids, while also emphasizing how much was being put on such young shoulders and raising both the tension and the stakes in the story.
Another narrative strength of the book is Marlantes’ description of decision-making on the ground. He shows how the older officers often made decisions based on their experiences in prior wars–on the situations they faced when they were lieutenants in Korea or World War II. They were, in many (not all) cases, fighting the last war–often with disastrous results. At the same time, the worst choices the older officers made came when they forgot what it was like to be on the front lines and started chasing promotions and stats rather than what was good for their men. The best leaders were those who both understood history and stayed close to the human costs of victory. I think this is important to understand even for citizens who are not affiliated with the military–we have a responsibility to understand our history, and also to seek out truth and perspective on current circumstances.
“Intense” is really too light a word to describe Matterhorn–it’s wound so tight that I could only read short sections at a time and couldn’t help exclaiming aloud as thing after thing happened to these guys. I even cried several times–not because the book is a tear-jerker, but because I’m a mother. In an odd way, I was crying for the characters’ moms. I hated the idea that these things were happening to their little boys and they couldn’t be there–of course we can’t protect our sons forever, but I hated the thought of the boys suffering without comfort.
So you might wonder, why did I continue reading this book, when it was so intense and full of tough subject matter? Honestly, I read it because I felt like I needed to–like I owed it to the people who fought and died in the Vietnam War (on both sides) to at least try to understand what they went through. I felt like it would be horrible of me to sit in my comfortable home and refuse to read a book that only described the actual circumstances people experienced.
Although Matterhorn is exhausting and certainly not something you want to pack along for a beach vacation, I highly recommend it. It’s an important book, and it’s important that we add this sort of depth to our usually superficial historical understanding of events.
Also set in Vietnam, The Sympathizer is a more literary novel focused on a half-Vietnamese boy who largely navigates the country post-war–trying to find a place for his allegiance when the Communists, the Nationalists, and the Americans all want to use him and never accept him (being half-Vietnamese is simultaneously too much and not enough, depending on the company he’s in), eventually all turning on him in various ways.
I could have lived without some of the grittier details in the book that didn’t add to the story and seemed placed to check a box for “literary value” or something (I hate that about modern literary fiction, though I prefer the genre on the whole). If you read the book, feel free to skim/skip when you get to those scenes–you don’t need them and won’t miss them.
That said, I think the story was helpful to my understanding of the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and worthwhile for its exploration of themes like culture, belonging, and loyalty.
If you’re reading up on Vietnam, you might also be interested in Thanha Lai’s books – they are for younger audiences, but could prove valuable to adult readers as well.
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