Matterhorn A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes.
One criticism of the book by others is that the book focused on a specific set of battles. As a result, the book is light on any conversation of the role of the native population and the impact of the war on Vietnamese civilians. There is no mention of the war that was fought in the north, above the 17th parallel. I think this is understandable – the book is after all, based on the author’s own experiences.
I found the beginning of the book challenging. The reader is inundated with terms that may be only vaguely familiar at best. The military terminology may be daunting, but you are quickly and deftly introduced to a cast of characters that will quickly grow on you. Guys like Vancouver, Hawk, Con Man, Hippy, Shortround, Fisher, and Mole become colorful images in your mind. Through their experiences, we are vividly introduced to the dirty, often unspoken side of war. Leeches, immersion, malaria, and jungle rot, combine with hunger, thirst and shrapnel, which combine with fear, loss, and ultimately, death. Racial tensions, class differences, friendship and devotion are intricate elements of the story.
It is a story that is magnificently written. “The kids filed quietly to the edge of the strip to wait for the helicopters. Other Marines stopped to watch them, wanting to say an encouraging word yet not daring to break into their private world — a world no longer shared with ordinary people. Some of them were experiencing the last hour of that brief mystery called life.” Marlantes does not sugar coat the realities of the war in Vietnam, and they are not pretty. Objectives are achieved at great cost, only to be abandoned and to be taken later at even greater cost. The wounded are unhooked from IV bags and left to die. Others growing woozy from dehydration, but otherwise fit for combat, are ordered to drink the precious fluid. The events covered in Matterhorn will move you and you’ll remember the cast of characters long after you’ve completed the book.
This book hooked me. The human side of the characters are a stark contrast to the horrors of war. Matterhorn made me feel that we may be a bit too sheltered from the horrors and atrocities of war. I couldn’t help but think, harsh as it is, that Matterhorn should be required reading for young adults.