Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Review : Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes 10*

10Karl Marlantes has based his Vietnam war novel on his own experiences as a newly commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps, and this war novel enters the genre as a work as devastating and honest as any in the field.  Marlantes says the book has taken him three decades and numerous drafts to create, but for a book so long in the creation it has an incredible freshness and immediacy to the writing.

The action, fear and misery of war are obvious from the first page, we meet the protagonist Lt. Waino Mellas in a forward firebase close to the Laos border, there is a torrential downpour, the camp is sodden and stinking and the main unsettled. Mellas is immediately plunged into problems both very real and possibly fictitious, one man is in desperate trouble, a leech has crawled into his urethra and if the clouds do not lift to permit an air evacuation then he may well die.  A black soldier complains of persistent headaches, but dealing with him leads Mellas into the dangerous maze of black power politics and tension existing within the Marines.

Mellas has arrived full of dreams of power and glory, he imagines himself excelling in the field and moving rapidly through the officer ranks, but in this bildungsroman the experiences of battle change him, and in a matter of weeks we see a man transformed from a slightly shallow glory hunter into a true leader of men, and one who cares passionately for the lives of those serving under him.

If Matterhorn is to be taken as a largely realistic depiction of service life in the Vietnam war, then you would hang your head in despair at the actions of some of the military command.  On a patrol Mellas' men are issued with rations for three days, but are then kept out for eight days in the most appalling weather conditions, men are injured in accidents and men fall ill and die partly through malnourishment, and this happens because a higher ranking officer has fouled up the supply plans but refuses to admit it because it will look bad on his service record.

The black soldiers in Mellas' platoon feel that they are particularly hard done by, but this world view is shared to some degree by all the soldiers and permeates even the thoughts of the field officers.  Tensions come to the surface with obvious friction between some black soldiers and their white sergeant, other problems simmer away dangerously hidden from clear view.

Marlantes depicts in graphic and brutal detail the fear and danger of combat, and the sometimes fatalistic but determined attitude of the soldiers during those actions.  The confusion, pain and terror of close combat is so clearly written that you are transported into the wet, muddy foxholes alongside the Marines, you can feel their hatred of the politicians and commanders who have brought them to this place, and their grudging admiration for, and fear of, their enemies the NVA.

Much of the action in Matterhorn is centred around the Vietnamese peak the US Army has nicknamed after the European mountain.  Bravo Company arrive to dig in and build defences for a fire support base, but when war priorities change they have to abandon the base almost intact having neither the time or explosives to demolish the emplacements.  The NVA move into the readily defensible hilltop and in an act of dismal, reckless bad planning, Bravo Company are ordered to re-take their own defensive position.

Mellas does not accept this decision lightly, he knows fully that the positions he has built may well massacre his own troops as they seek to attack them, and his position is not helped by incompetent air strikes and artillery support.  Duty bound, Mellas leads the assault, and its bloody struggle and the equally dismal, murderous aftermath underscores the futility of the war, the muddle headedness of the politics that drives it, and the wayward power through violence morality of the Black Panther adherents.

Karl Marlantes has created a staggeringly powerful war novel in Matterhorn, his characters are well aspected, there are no obvious good guys and bad guys, just men forced into making decisions in the most awful of circumstances.  Although Matterhorn does not dwell on the external politics of the conflict, the depiction of the ground war and its awful, circuitous path brilliantly underscore the frustrations and confusion of the fighting men.  Men in every war have asked 'what is the point', but seldom has this been expressed as clearly, and as viscerally, as in Matterhorn.

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