Friday, October 1, 2021

What Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes doesn't say about the Vietnam War is probably the greatest truth that it has to tell.

I finished reading Matterhorn by author Karl Marlantes. It's a really good book, and a fictionalized account of a brief period of time in the Vietnam War. When I say "fictionalized," it's essentially one-step removed from reality. names have been changed as have names of characters. But, the story itself (I have no doubt) is based entirely on true events. The author himself appears to have a place holder in the story in the primary character named Lieutenant Mellas. So, reading this story is (I imagine) similar to the exact visceral experience that this former marine endured. Marlantes's military credentials are long, having served as an infantry officer in the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines from October 1968 to 1969. He was awarded the Navy Cross for action in Vietnam in which he led an assault on a hilltop bunker complex (which is what Matterhorn is about). He was also awarded a Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and 10 Air Medals.

His writing is remarkable, but I know a lot of that is due to editors and people who believed in the story that he was crafting which was probably one method of him to work his way through the PTSD that he lives with on a daily basis. And when I think about this book, after having read it, there is so much to unpack that it is hard to know where to begin. But, it has definitely taught me to rethink things that I don't believe I quite understood before. With context, a lot of things can become clearer. One of these are these four letters that counselors, therapists, and people tend to use a lot, i.e., PTSD. It stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. We use it to diagnose individuals who are emotionally screwed up. We use it to account for acts of hatred, violence, depression, extreme fear, and unending anger. I always knew that. I knew that this is what PTSD was. However, I never really understood that PTSD was a logical thing and that the right thing to do is to validate all of these feelings, because they make sense.

In reading this story, there are concrete reasons why Lieutenant Mellas goes from being this starry-eyed volunteer in the Marine Corps hoping to get a medal so that he can add it to his Ivy League education like a person would collect a a person that (in his own words) says, "I fucking hate it (being a Marine)...I'm sick of the fucking lies and covering the lies with blood."

So, the book is called Matterhorn, because "Matterhorn" is the name of a mountain covered in dense jungle that is close to the border of Laos, which makes it a strategic position as this is where a big regiment of the North Vietnamese Army launched a lot of their military campaigns. The NVA were a well-equipped and well-trained regular fighting force. Now, the name "Matterhorn" is exclusively an American name given to an area of land to which there was probably some other name, and the Americans (ignorant of that) did not care to find out what its actual moniker was called. It only mattered in the sense that the commanders of Bravo Company could name it, and everyone would understand to what that name referred to. Up to about the middle of this 566 page novel, Bravo Company is tasked with first taking Matterhorn, which is unoccupied, clearing it with their resources, and building out bunkers atop it for strategic importance. The trek through the jungle is awful, with leeches raining on them, and even one person getting a leech stuck in his urethra who then has to be medevac'ed, because the pain is excruciating, and it will kill him. Dozens of other people suffer from this awful condition called trench foot. One person gets eaten by a tiger. And one person who has excruciating headaches is killed off by a disease called cerebral malaria, which honestly sounds beyond horrific. They cut their way through fields of elephant grass, which is so sharp it cuts open all exposed flesh and just shreds everything else. And then when they finally get the bunker all built, and it is actually quite nice and probably able to withstand quite the siege, they are commanded to abandon it and go to some Landing Zone that is a long ways away and under a time limit. They are not resupplied, start to starve, and essentially get to this Landing Zone on-time but half dead. But there is no empathy at all from the commanders of this company, calling the shots from their radios many miles away.

Well, Bravo company then gets some rest. And then...wouldn't you know it...but Matterhorn is taken by the NVA, who then occupy all of the bunkers and things that Bravo company built for them. So then they are ordered to take it back. This is pretty much the rest of the novel, and sparing the gory details...a lot of young men die horrible deaths. And they are all pretty much men that Lieutenant Mellas calls "friend." He gets so mad, so angry, that the final assault on Matterhorn pushes him beyond the breaking point and he does some truly crazy stuff that nearly gets him killed from a grenade. However, it's enough to break a bottleneck against the defenses that his own company built with their bare hands to get in and kill the NVA who are occupying the strategic point. The air support they call in to help them weaken the bunkers is absolutely useless, as they are coming in during foggy conditions, at night, and flying at 500 miles per hour. So everything they drop...all the napalm...all the bombs...just land in unoccupied jungle. The palpable frustration of taking this stupid hill is written in every thought of Lieutenant Mellas.

Mellas gets so mad at some point at his own commanders, that when one starts to strut around proclaiming how proud he is of the company at having taken back Matterhorn and "restoring their honor," he grabs a rifle and almost snipes him off before another one of his friends clobbers him to the ground. The incident goes "unreported," but it shows you how "tone deaf" the military commanders of this particular era seemed to be when it came to the things that they ordered boys/kids to do. What struck me as remarkable was how pathetic awards seemed to be. One person exclaims (who didn't participate in the assault but who sat in an air conditioned office somewhere), "I only have two gold stars on my wall. The second one now is for Bravo Company for what you guys did." I really felt how drippy that must have felt, receiving that compliment. I'd be thinking...I got a gold star while my friend got his legs blown off by a mine? What the fuck? It sounded so patronizing, but it is what it is.

So...obviously...Mellas has severe PTSD by the end of the book. But his anger, his grief, and his hatreds all make sense even as medals are probably coming for his brave conduct in taking the hill called Matterhorn. But it's way more complex than that, because Mellas didn't have a choice. It even seems weird to call him "brave" when he had about as much choice as anyone at breathing in and out. "Oh you are so brave to take your next breath." That's basically what it sounds like. Mellas was pinned down behind a tree trunk, and he did what he needed to do to survive and to stop the bullets that were being machine-gunned down upon him and his friends. If he didn't do what he did, he would have been killed. He acted in the moment...not out of patriotism...not out of duty. He did it because he loved his friends, and they were dying. And then he gets called a hero to his face by people who don't (and never will) understand exactly what he went through to earn that title. As a society, the words that we use to label and talk about things is really strange.

The comedian Chris Rock says in one of his stand-up comedy specials on Netflix, "It takes pressure to make diamonds!" He was advocating for the idea that society does indeed need bullies, because without bullies, we all don't know how to deal with one when a true bully comes along (think the 2016 election). After having read Marlantes's book, I now understand better at why it seems to be a wise choice to elect politicians who have been in live combat in the military. And that's an important distinction. always gamble with trusting anyone. But the pressure cooker of live combat is where the seeds of empathy seem to get sown. People who don't suffer through some kind of trauma have a higher chance of lacking in empathy. And when you don't have a person with empathy in a position of power you end up with a terrible situation. People without empathy will order a door dash delivery of food during a flash flood, because, " says on this app that they are delivering so fuck it." They have no idea that someone may be too stupid to know how dangerous it is outside. They just figure, "I don't need to police them because I trust when a person knows what's best." We all know (because of Covid and the pandemic) that we cannot trust people to know what is best. Trusting people to do what's good and right is a complete shit show. Of course, there are other things that are capable of delivering trauma. But I would argue now, especially after reading this book, that I'd rather have a survivor of trauma calling the shots than one who has no idea what trauma even is (a life filled with ease).

The book of Matterhorn is a complicated and extremely enjoyable read. It is also a work that unravels through its pages the almost psychopathic disconnect between the people who do dirty jobs that no one wants to do, and the need for those dirty jobs to get done. It highlights how people give platitudes to the dirty job workers...honestly, it's very similar to calling people at fast food places or working low wages at grocery stores by the term, "essential worker." Meanwhile, some dude at Goldman's Sachs pulls down millions and works from home on a laptop part-time. From Mellas's perspective, there is also this kind of strange misogyny that is felt by practically all of these young men toward American women. However, I feel that it is mostly justified as (seeing things through Mellas's eyes), these enlisted men seemed to be attached to women who had no empathy at all for the situation in which they were in. There are several passages that elude to this. Here's one:

"In Bravo Company's unpainted plywood office a clerk was pecking at a typewriter....Above the clerk, covering the entire back wall, was a blown-up picture of a beautiful model in a girdle and brassiere advertisement. A note had been handwritten by the model on the large poster in neat round script. "To the men of Bravo Company, First Battalion, Twenty-Fourth Marines. You're doing a great job. Love, Cindy."

It's this feeling of, "You are appreciated by us for what you do...but we don't really want to see you or hear from you. But here's a picture of you to masturbate to, and I hope that you are doing well." It's honestly how all the women come across in this book, and these boys (who are in the prime of their lives and dealing with all of this other stuff) don't handle it very well. I honestly get it. American society has tons and tons of walls. In 2021, the Surgeon General of the United States has come out saying that America has a "loneliness epidemic." And I'm not trying to draw any connection between the book and the modern loneliness epidemic. However, if Americans have been good at one thing since the sixties, it is this: "Good walls make for good neighbors." We are all about our individuality, about keeping people out, and staying completely focused on what brings us happiness (even if this is a cup with no bottom).

Americans are good at surrounding ourselves only with those people who agree with us, and do not challenge us in any way. We are good at canceling those who do not abide by our rules. Boundaries are healthy for the person creating them; perhaps not so much for the person who just desires a special human connection and can't find one and ends up dying alone. But it happens all of the time, and it probably needs to be this way. No one should obligate anyone else to anything. To express it another way, human connection whether sexual, emotional, or otherwise IS a privilege. Maybe it didn't used to pre-1950. But it is now, and if you don't have that privilege. Well, there isn't much you can do about it, except complain or express your frustration in other ways. I didn't make the rules. This is just how it is these days. I can see the sprinklings of how much the world has changed in the subtext of Matterhorn. It has a lot to say about racial inequality, white privilege, and the folks (regardless of race and privilege) who do the dirty jobs and are (by virtue of their job) assigned a moniker that means "unworthy of love." But hey...there's always a "thank you for your service" waiting somewhere, right?

There are so many things I could probably say about this book. But this review and subsequent rumination over the things I've read is already long in the tooth. I'm just going to say this: Matterhorn is an excellent novel, and you would be wise to give it a read, because what it doesn't directly say about the Vietnam War is probably the greatest truth that it has to tell. People are terrible and do terrible things to each other ALL of the time. Marlantes says through Mellas that we all have an inner demon. Soldiers in the bush just have met and come to terms with that inner demon. They know what they are. The rest of polite society likes to pretend that it doesn't exist. 


  1. I've read a few novels about the Vietnam War and not surprisingly none of them are really positive about it. Really it sounds like an updated version of Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead.

    I'm not really sure about the idea of only people who've been in combat being allowed to be our leaders. It sounds good on paper but it's essentially making us a military dictatorship. I think the whole point of America is you need perspectives from almost all sides--maybe not crazy conspiracy theorists or anarchists or other groups that are just disruptive and destructive.

  2. Sounds like an interesting read, but I think it's a book I won't actually read.

  3. We kind of live in an era where the unlovable group themselves together via various labels, and it doesn’t matter what kind of people they actually are; as long as they use the label they get love. It’s ridiculous. That’s not at all what you’re describing. We’re an era of frauds, an era where we have the greatest access to information ever, somehow still living by lying. Because lies are always easier to live with than truth.

  4. I don't think you need to have gone through combat to have empathy, but I agree that leaders should have empathy or else they won't be very good leaders. It sounds like you got a lot of of the book.