Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes


I have read a great many books about the Vietnam War because it has always interested me. I came to this book wondering if there's anything new to be learned from reading yet another account of the war.

 But I was pleasantly surprised and drawn in and found that despite being almost 600 pages it really was what you would term a page turner. Written by a marine who served in the Vietnam from the fall of 1968 to the fall of 1969, it covers the first few months of his tour of duty. In that time he is involved in two major battles that are relayed in such detail to give you a sense of the fear and tension those under fire felt. But this is not just about the frontline and also gives you a sense of the futility of war. Marlantes touches on some of the big themes about military leadership, the political dimension and the racial issues that were felt in society at the time. There are also consequences mixing young men from all over the US who sometimes struggle to respect each other and resort to extreme violence, fragging, those they don't agree with. In the end of the day most of the people who were fighting where 19 to 20 years old and what they're asked to do was perhaps beyond anybody.

Told through the eyes of lieutenant  Mellas you find the story begins on Matterhorn, the name given to a hill that the American troops are defending to try and stop the North Vietnamese from incurring further into South Vietnam. The daily routine involves going out on probing search and destroy missions, defending the lines at night from attack and spending the time inbetween trying to behave as normally as possible, whilst constantly fighting the fear of death. 

And people do die. Young men die in the most wasteful and the most heroic ways. With the powers that be deciding that troops need to be deployed to the low lands Matterhorn is abandoned and other mountains around. But the enemy is always moving and they have to retake that ground in a bloody encounter. Most of Mellas's  platoon is wiped out and the young men suffer brutal and horrific injuries and die on the hillside and in their bunkers. 

As American troops come and go in their helicopters contesting pockets of land, which they then often relinquish after the enemy moves off, you wonder what sort of war this is. The approach taken in World War II to capture land and push the enemy back was almost non-existent in Vietnam, where body count was used to try and measure success. 

Failing to define success gives an army a haunting sense of never being able to rest. Even back at base you can't relax as the front line is everywhere.

Plus back at base there is a battle with the politics as the rise of black power and the racial tension is never far away from the surface. Ambitious want-to-be generals push their troops harder and harder as as they look for promotion, medals and glory for themselves. 

Marlantes writes the story from numerous viewpoints giving you an insight into the pressure everybody feels, including those that are ordering the troops into the front line battles. It feels totally authentic because it was written by somebody who was there and somebody who cares deeply about his fellow soldiers and wanted to tell their story. 

He writes a story which works from beginning to end and leaves you frazzled after sharing some of the horrors of war. At the end you are left wondering about the futility of it all and feeling frustration at the pointlessness of the deaths of such young men on both sides of the conflict. 

Sadly I suspect that those who are not interested in the history of the Vietnam war would not pick up such a weighty tome. But the war is a backdrop to some universal Issues about politics, race, fear and heroism. This is a story from the past that challenges us to think about the future. To think about Afghanistan and any conflict where young men and women are going through a similar hell.

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