If you'll remember, last year I read The Things They Carried, which many consider the seminal novel about the Vietnam War. The brilliance of that novel is not only in its vivid portrayal of a soldier's life, but also in how it deconstructs the very act of writing about the war. It's a mobius strip of a novel, and I loved it. It's definitely one of those books that stuck with me, and I find myself thinking about it often.
Matterhorn, on the other hand, attempts to exactly capture the daily life of a Marine grunt, and I think it succeeds brilliantly. It is 1969, and the Marines of Bravo company are fighting in the northwestern corner of the country, near the DMZ and the border with Laos. The main character, Mellas, is fresh out of college and fresh in country. The novel follows his company as they claim, abandon, and then reclaim a large, imposing cliff of land called Matterhorn.
This novel is a damning indictment of the modern military. The commanding officers of Bravo company are vain, foolish, and arrogant. They continually send their troops into battle under the most appalling circumstances--forcing them to march for days without adequate rations, refusing to send in medivac choppers out of spite, insisting the Marines fight in the face of odds so overwhelming they are essentially ordering their men to commit suicide. You may remember the book Catch-22 from high school, which goes to great lengths to demonstrate the absurdity of war. Matterhorn, on the other hand, demonstrates the nihilism of war: it tells a story in which all the lives were lost for nothing, just carelessly thrown away by the men ordering them into battle.
I know that sounds bleak and unredeeming. And it is. However, the book isn't only about these commanding officers. Because what happens between the men of Bravo company, the men who fight and die with each other, is...well...heartrendingly beautiful. The men, and often Marlantes points out that they aren't much more than boys, aren't fighting to win. They're fighting to save each other. They are fighting out of a sense of love and brotherhood that I will never experience, but at least now have a way of understanding.
The book was 600 pages, and so there was clearly a whole lot more going on then I've told you about here, but I think for me the amazing thing about this book is that it managed to capture and reveal something about what it means to be human. Marlantes is an excellent writer, and he has a knack for revealing metaphors. Here are two that will stick with me:
As Mellas lies injured, and fearing for his life: The fact of his eventual death shook him like a terrier shaking a rat. He could only squeal in pain...But the terrier shaking him by the neck laughed...The laughter turned him inside out, exposing his most secret parts. He lay before God as a woman opens herself to a man, with legs apart, stomach exposed, arms open. But unlike some women, he did not have the inner strength that allowed them to do such a thing without fear. There was no woman's strength in Mellas at all.
As Mellas' friend Hawke contemplates why he fights: Emotion constricted Hawke’s throat. He suddenly understood why the
victims of concentration camps had walked quietly to the gas chambers.
In the face of horror and insanity, it was the one human thing to do.
Not the noble thing, not the heroic thing—the human thing. To live
succumbing to the insanity, was the ultimate loss of pride.
I don't, right now, want to say much more. But I'm glad I read this book. I think it will be another one that sticks with me.