Why This Book: Selected by the SEAL reading group I’m in as our choice for “a novel about war” to read and discuss. I had already twice read Marlantes book What it’s Like to go to War (my review of it here) was quite impressed, and I’d heard really good things about Matterhorn.
Summary in 3 Sentences. This is a novel about a US Marine infantry company in Vietnam, fighting the North Vietnamese Army over a period of about 2 months in and around a fictional isolated outpost named Matterhorn. The protagonist of the novel is a young newly- arrived-in-Vietnam second lieutenant who we follow from his arrival with B Company at Matterhorn through several intense combat operations, the loss of several men in his company, the restructuring of the company and his platoon after losses, and eventually with experience, both tragic and heroic, his promotion to positions of greater responsibility. The book is a brutally honest look at how marines deal with each other, the stresses of combat, the loss of their platoon and company mates, racial tensions in the company, and the apparently arbitrary orders that they must carry out in fighting an implacable enemy in a war they don’t really understand.
My Impressions: POWERFUL. One of the best novels I’ve read about men at war. Marlantes puts us inside the perspective of 2nd Lt Mellas, newly arrived in Vietnam, uncertain, and inexperienced. He had recently been commissioned after graduating from Princeton; coming from a liberal elite university education, he now found himself working with and leading marines who were mostly from poor, broken or working class families without the means to avoid the draft. Mellas is trying to figure out his role, lead with confidence when he didn’t have much, keep his men and himself alive, under circumstances that just didn’t make much sense to him. The environment he entered was brutal, primitive, and unforgiving; the men, their language and their tasks profane and uncompromising. He had to adapt.
Through his eyes we experience how he comes to learn the formal structure of his marine platoon and company, as well as the informal structure of who has what and how much influence. We experience his uncertainty and anxiety as he steps into his leadership role when he doesn’t really know what to do, and desperately wishes he were somewhere else when faced with grueling conditions and really tough dilemmas. We see how he makes mistakes, recovers, and grows in confidence and maturity, slowly wins the respect of his men, becomes attached to them and suffers when they are wounded and killed.
We also get inside the perspectives of some of the leaders of the Marines Regiment -those who make the decisions that Mellas and his company had to carry out. We get to know the ambitious and glory-seeking battalion commander, LTC Simpson and his lackey S-3 operations officer Maj Blakely, whose decisions are driven by how they will appear to those above them in the chain of command, men who are even farther away from the fighting than they are. And we are shocked at some of their decisions, and are sympathetic to Mellas when he becomes disillusioned with the Marine Corps and his mission there – but he must continue, because of his training, and out of loyalty to his men.
We also get to know his fellow platoon officers in the company – a diverse group with whom Mellas is trying to fit in. 1st Lt Ted Hawke is the most practical and best suited to the war – admired by the men, empathetic to them, best able to maintain his equilibrium in the face of the capricious decisions of the leadership. Mellas looks up to Hawke, admires him and wants his respect. Eventually he earns it.
Matterhorn is a roller coaster ride – the platoon goes from one in-extremis situation to another. And about time they (and we the readers) think they are at the end of their rope, have accomplished the near impossible and earned a break, their leadership gives them an even more daunting task. We suffer with Mellas and his platoon as these decisions come down. We grieve for the men lost. The role of luck in combat and the senselessness of so many deaths is a theme. Mellas, who had never seen a dead body before coming to Vietnam, becomes very familiar with death, facing the likelihood of his own death, as well as having to deal with the consequences of the deaths of those close to him. It is a powerful book.
The role of morality in war is a sub theme in the book – how in fierce combat, values change and the rules of civilized society just don’t seem to work – and Mellas had to figure out the different rules. Mellas and his fellow officers had the primary imperative to complete their assigned mission while also taking care of their marines – all other considerations were a distant second. In order to do this well, officers must establish and protect their reputations as tough leaders and fighters.
Mellas initially struggles with this. He struggles with leaving a wounded NVA soldier to die in the jungle – there was no real alternative. How hard should he punish the infractions of his young marines, few of whom are over 20 yrs old? Should he reveal crimes he’s aware of to the leadership, whose reaction he knows will undermine the combat effectiveness of his men. His loyalty to his men overrides his loyalty to his leaders and the Marine Corps, including some of the values he had when he entered the Marine Corps.
At the beginning of the book Mellas truly hopes to minimize suffering, and views his enemies as human beings. By the end of the book, the brutality of the battles he’d fought in, the killing he had seen and participated in, and the capriciousness of death he had witnessed had transformed him from a civilized citizen soldier to a primal fighter, focused on simply protecting his men and staying alive while satisfying the whims of his leaders and the war. His world had devolved into what reminded me of the primal state of nature Thomas Hobbes described in his classic Leviathan; where there are “no arts; no letters; no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death” and life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Another key theme in Matterhorn is the racial tension between the black and white marines in Bravo Company. There are racist blacks and racist whites, some of whom hate each other, some of whom tolerate each other, and some of whom have friends across the racial divide. But they all must learn to set these differences aside and fight together as a team, and take care of each other under the worst of conditions.
This part of the book will be shocking to some of today’s readers, as this sort of racial animosity is certainly much less in today’s military. Marlantes helps us understand the perspectives and anger from both sides of this issue – as the enforced intimacy between blacks and whites brings simmering issues that they brought with them into the Marine Corps to a head – all complicated by the culture of the Marine Corps which demands unquestioning obedience to the chain of command. The problems are in garrison, in the firebase; in the field, black and white marines work together and support each other when patrolling or fighting the enemy. As one of the sergeants said, in the field, they are all green.
The North Vietnamese enemy is dehumanized in a racist way, always referred to as gooks as GIs had referred to Japs, Nips, Krauts, and more recently, rag-heads. Mellas had several realizations that these gooks he was fighting and killing were human beings as well – but this insight complicated his role of leading marines in combat. He did not linger there. Nor can any soldier really.
When I spoke to Karl Marlantes prior to our discussion of his book, he shared that Matterhorn is modeled loosely on the Parsifal myth, which is the story of a thoughtful young man becoming a warrior within the Arthurian legends around the Holy Grail. Indeed Matterhorn can be seen as Mellas’s baptism by fire, and evolution from an idealistic ivy league-educated junior officer into a somewhat cynical and hardened warrior who is trying to hold on to his humanity in the midst of so much brutality and violence. Marlantes also mentioned Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in our discussion of Mellas.
Undoubtedly Matterhorn has some autobiographical qualities to it: Mellas was from Princeton; Marlantes from Yale and Cambridge. I could relate – I signed up with some trepidation to join the SEALs during the Vietnam War while studying liberal arts at Stanford and all my friends protesting against the war. Saigon fell while I was in SEAL training. My combat experience would have to wait a couple of decades, but it was nowhere near as intense as what Matterhorn portrays.
There were a number of really powerful scenes in the book. A few that really struck me were:
- When Mellas struggled with what to do with the mortally wounded North Vietnamese soldier.
- When Parker died – a black marine who had been a racial instigator, but became human and won Mellas’s (and my) respect and sympathy.
- When Col Mulvaney gave LTC Simpson a much deserved ass chewing and described the Marine Corps as America’s whores.
- When Mellas reflected on his time at Princeton with his well-to-do university friends righteously wondering how anyone could be so foolish as to join the military and fight in this war, and Mellas saying nothing about his having signed up for the marines – to help pay his tuition.
- When Jancowitz defused a potential racial brawl at a movie, by starting the movie, without a reel.
- The Incongruity of Simpson’s mess night.
- Vancouver – who he was, how he fought, and how he died.
- Mellas’s meeting w Sgt Major Knapp requesting that Cassidy be transferred.
- Bravo company standing by to go on the Bald Eagle mission, when they all expected to be inserted into a raging battle and many would not come back.
- When Hawke walked out to join the Bald Eagle Mission.
- When Mellas lay behind a log, scared stiff, knowing he had to do something, and had a near out of body experience before he took action.
- The drinking scene wth all the officers together before being inserted onto Fire base Eiger, and the officers waxing drunkenly poetic about themselves, the situation they were in, each other, and the Marine Corps.
- The final section, with Mellas looking up at the shadows of the clouds crossing the mountains.
For a good comparison, especially for socom/ jsoc members, see 06 Col Andrew Milburn USMC Ret.’s When Tempest Gathers:
– Milburn was a MARSOC CO, who had a SEAL unit under his command
– He is a Lawyer by training , while not a Rhodes Scholar, a JD is a unusually strong academic credential prior to commissioning (which Donovan founder of OSS/ CIA also had , as well as BGen Neil USMC and Senator jameswebb.com, whose novel Fields of fire had been considered the best novel of Vietnam until Marlantes’ Matterhorn).