Mark’s #43 – Matterhorn: A Novel of The Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

As a missionary to the military community, I try to read a few military related books each year.  When I saw this highly recommended book on Amazon, I realized that my depth of knowledge regarding the Vietnam War was very shallow and that this book could help broaden my understanding in regards to one of Americas less than fondly remembered forays into war (not unlike our current campaign in Afghanistan).

As a highly decorated  Marine officer and veteran of the Vietnam War, Karl Marlantes does an excellent job of immersing the reader, almost immediately, in the deep tropical jungle of Vietnam.  Along the way, the story mostly  follows the young Lieutenant Waino Mellas and the men of Bravo Company.  As a ‘boot’ Lieutenant, he faces the horrors of war for the first time.

Through Mellas’ eyes, one gets a sense of both the shear terror of leading a patrol in the jungle which could at any moment explode with NVA fire, land mines, or grenades. Beyond the heart pumping adrenaline of combat, there is an almost overwhelming monotony of jungle related ailments such as swarms of mesquites, blood-sucking leaches, and constant jungle rot.

In addition to helping me understand what it would be like to be in Vietnam during the war, the author also makes it clear of what he thought of the asinine political maneuvers during the war – both by Congress as well as those of the upper ranking military members trying to make a name for themselves and continue their climb up the ladder of rank and position.   While I have certainly heard and seen military commanders make baffling and blatantly stupid decisions, I felt that the author tried too hard to make all senior officers look like self-serving buffoons (other reviewers with stated Vietnam war experience seem to agree with this assessment).

Another point which seemed a little far fetched was that of the tension in race relations amongst the troops of the time.  Certainly the Black Panther movement was growing back in the states, but Marlantes makes it seem like a central point of concern for the men in the field during this time.  Perhaps it was, I don’t know.

The book does seem to take a liberal slant on the war as a whole.  It also paints the NVA soldiers as utter professionals with a personal stake in winning the war because it was ‘their land’… It wasn’t their land, they were trying to sweep down south with their communist ideology.

Overall, this book is a sobering look into the lives, emotions, triumphs, and tragedies of a dark, difficult, and frustrating war.  I think that, for the most part, the characters are well developed and the scenes are masterfully described.  This is a good novel for an introduction to what it might have been like for the men on the ground in Vietnam.  Be warned, however, the imagery and language of this book can be very graphic at times.

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