Fire Support Base Matterhorn: a fortress carved out of the grey-green mountain jungle.
Cold monsoon clouds wreath its mile-high summit, concealing a battery of 105-mm howitzers surrounded by deep bunkers, carefully constructed fields of fire and the 180 marines of Bravo Company.
Just three kilometres from Laos and two from North Vietnam, there is no more isolated outpost of America's increasingly desperate war in Vietnam.Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, 21 years old and just a few days into his 13-month tour, has barely arrived at Matterhorn before Bravo Company is ordered to abandon their mountain and sent deep in-country in pursuit of a North Vietnamese Army unit of unknown size.
Beyond the relative safety of the perimeter wire, Mellas will face disease, starvation, leeches, tigers and an almost invisible enemy.
Beneath the endless jungle canopy, Bravo Company will confront competing ambitions, duplicitous officers and simmering racial tensions.
Behind them, always, Matterhorn. The impregnable mountain fortress they built and then abandoned, without a shot, to the North Vietnamese Army...
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 736 pages
- Publisher: Atlantic Books
- Publication Date: 01/05/2011
- Category: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
- ISBN: 9781848874961
Showing 1 - 2 of 2 reviews.
Review by dmsteyn
In the 1970s and ‘80s, my father was involved in a bush war in Namibia and on the border with Angola. He was a medical officer, and never experienced front-line combat, yet he still rarely talks about his experiences. If there is one thing that Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn has taught me, it is respect for the troops of armed combat. I do not want to go much into my father’s war here – like Vietnam, or Iraq, it was pretty much a political snafu, with very little moral justness to it – but I will say that, on a fundamental level, the idea of a ‘just war’ seems to me particularly BS after reading Matterhorn. Yes, a defensive war might be justified. Some kinds of international intervention, even. I have never been in a similar situation, and, God-willing, never will be. So I cannot claim to speak from anything but a theoretical position. However, war really seems to me to be humanity’s nadir as a thinking species.Marlantes shows that the people on the ground are not perfect, not by a long stretch. Having been a Marine in Vietnam, he should know. Nor does he paint those in charge behind the lines as some kind of monsters, either. The book contains very little moralising of any kind, in fact. It is left to the reader to decide who is to blame; who is in the right, who is in the wrong. By leaving this mostly up to the reader, Marlantes shows up the ambiguity of moral judgement. Can you pass judgement on someone without having been in their shoes? Unfortunately, we as humans sometimes have to, despite our lack of perfect knowledge. Still, Marlantes shows the danger of this. Situations make us do things. Stress, pain, fear, love, hate – these emotions give the lie to man as a rational being. And sometimes, even at our most rational, we are left with insoluble dilemmas. Each human being has to decide for him- or herself how they will comport themselves, and then he or she has to live with the consequences. The main character, Waino Mellas, exemplifies this personal responsibility. He has to make choices – heart-wrenching ones, sometimes – and accept that they are sometimes the wrong choices. There it is.The novel’s style fits it subject. Marlantes writes plainly and, for such a long book, surprisingly succinctly. I usually prefer a few more bells and whistles in my reading matter, but this seemed appropriate to such an honest, unblinkered book. The writing is economical and fast-paced, but not stilted or clichéd. I was worried after seeing a James Patterson blurb in the front cover, but Marlantes is a much better writer than that might imply. Although the book is plot-driven, Marlantes does not let character or motivation fall by the wayside. He also does not shy away from occasional philosophical speculations between his characters. Some people may find this tedious; I found it enriching. The novel is relentlessly grim and quite graphic, but never gratuitously so. You do not want to enter a warzone after reading this book; the horror is just too vivid. You may, however, feel an urge to do something meaningful with your life. That is, to me, a sign of life-affirming literature.I found Marlantes’s treatment of racial tension between the troops interesting. Obviously, it is very pertinent to the society I live in, here in South Africa. Marlantes has cogent things to say about racism and bigotry in general, such as that we can never really understand another person’s racial experience; we can only try to empathise with each other, cautiously gaging one another’s feelings. I am too young and geographically-removed to bring much understanding to the situation in America during the 60’s, but it does seem to me that we in South Africa are dealing with very similar problems. Not quite the same, of course: understanding the differences between similar situations is part of the, if not solution to the problem, then at least its amelioration. Marlantes’s sympathetic portrayal of black and white characters deserves special commendation. He has done a wonderful job of highlighting not only the differences between his characters, but also the similarities.I have not read Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, but am aware that Matterhorn is based, to a degree, on this work, and I may look into it later. I think, however, that the book stands well on its own feet. This is a powerful novel, which sounds somewhat clichéd, but it is true. Even if I never experience combat, I feel that I have, in however small a way, gained insight into the crucible of war.
Review by dannN
I found this a compelling read. To understand and appreciate the mind-numbing futility of the Vietnam war, is an eye-opener. I had no idea of the appalling conditions these soldiers had to endure, over and above the self-fulfilling egos of their incompetent, inefficient commanding officers. The mindless tactics of the officers, using young men to play their war games, makes one realise just how pointless these wars are. Human life is cheap!