Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

If there is one thing Matterhorn faithfully captures, it is the circular and illogical nature of the Vietnam War. Through its pages, we follow a company of U.S. Marines as they dig in on a remote jungle hilltop outpost, abandon it to traipse through the jungle in an unsuccessful search for an invisible enemy, then return to the same hill, now occupied by the North Vietnamese Army.

This occupation of terrain the Marines were ordered to abandon being intolerable to their commanders, the company is ordered to retake the hill and suffers staggering losses at the hands of the NVA entrenched in the bunkers they had constructed days earlier.

Karl Marlantes, a veteran of the Vietnam War, finished writing this book in 1977, originally producing a more than 1,600 page manuscript. Kudos must be given to Marlantes for his command of the English language, in general, and of dialogue, in particular. The book is well written from a technical point of view.

But what about the story Matterhorn relates? If your knowledge of the Vietnam War is extensive, then you will understand critical nuances that are key to the plot. For instance, a single line reveals that a commander has forced his exhausted men to dig extensive shelters for fear of an air raid. The commander is venal and incompetent: the enemy – the NVA – did not have an air force. But this fact is not mentioned, which might lead many to believe the commander is merely strict, or perhaps even well meaning. There are several other instances like this, where readers with less knowledge of military history may not get it.

That same knowledge of war, especially of the Vietnam War, will make the performance of the American protagonists, who pull off feats of superhuman endurance, pushing the limits of credibility. Nearly 100 pages are given over to an agonizing 10-day patrol through hideous terrain. Although no contact with the enemy occurs, the jungle itself is brilliantly revealed as the fearsome foe it is. Various mishaps occur, including a graphic encounter with a tiger that proves fatal. The suffering of the troops is monumental, yet the patrol carries on for the entire 10 days…without food. I had to wonder if this would really happen?

At the other end of the spectrum, the reader who is without background knowledge of the Vietnam War or of jungle warfare will be treated to a faithful description of the misery of that particular combat environment. Here, the author’s descriptive skills come to the fore, and anyone reading these passages may well feel physically uncomfortable. Provoking that intense an effect is a notable achievement for a writer. Marlantes’ descriptions of the emotions experienced during combat, from the almost-paralyzing fear, to the confusion and horror of battle, to the sheer exultation of victory, are likewise delivered in a strong and believable style.

The book’s main goal, however, is not to describe the jungle, nor even the war that took place in that green maze. Matterhorn, like most war novels, focuses instead on the soldiers and their relationships with each other. And there the book is, for me, unsatisfying.

Over the course of only a few weeks, strangers become brothers. I found the characters engaging and wanted to know more about them. I am left wondering what was in those nearly 1,000 pages that were cut? I suspect there was more character development, and that the interpersonal relationships were allowed to mature at a more natural pace. If so, it is unfortunate those passages were excised.

Bottom line: If you want to read endlessly (and who wouldn’t?) about mud, leeches, jungle rot, immersion foot and cerebral malaria, with some realistic combat scenes thrown in (which are almost cathartic for the reader, given what precedes them), then Matterhorn is not a bad investment. To really be one for the ages, however, more realism would be needed, both in the actions and the reactions of the men we meet in its pages.

“There it is.”