See how this article appeared when it was originally published on NYTimes. Every war novel must at some point confront a central contradiction. Only the truth has any real value, but the truth about war is that it contains nearly unbearable levels of repetition, boredom and meaninglessness. To write honestly about war, you should make readers feel they have endured those things as well. Yet no sane novelist wants to inflict that much discomfort on the audience.
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Share via Email A soldier motions to a helicopter in Vietnam, Photograph: Rex Features In the summer of , Karl Marlantes, a recently demobilised Vietnam veteran posted to US Marine Corps headquarters after 13 months of highly decorated active service, found himself walking some sensitive military papers across to the Capitol. He was challenged by a group of young anti-war protesters "hollering obscenities", chanting "babykiller" and waving north Vietnamese flags.
Six weeks before, I was killing North Vietnamese guerrillas in combat. I just wanted to tell my story". The national trauma of the war was dragging on and he intended to address something huge in the life of contemporary America.
The Democrats were anti-war and the Republicans supported our troops. It shaped a generation, at least, and conditioned our response to things like Iraq and Afghanistan.
No publisher would touch it. The title is derived from the codename for a remote, mountainous military outpost, a "firebase", near the demilitarised zone DMZ separating North and South Vietnam and the Laos border, not unlike the notorious Hill , or Hamburger Hill.
They are led by a young second lieutenant named Waino Mellas, who has much in common with Marlantes: an Ivy League graduate from rural Oregon who adheres to the values of his childhood rather than the smart, east coast radicalism of his Princeton roommates. Mellas volunteers for the Marine Corps and, wet behind the ears, takes command of a platoon in the north-west corner of South Vietnam during the rainy season of , just as Marlantes did. The first world war was the first mechanised war.
Survival was more about luck than skill. Where the shells burst. And that was my experience, too. Then I heard an M16 on full automatic, starting to go through clips, a second to fire, three to plug in a fresh clip, and I saw a man out there, doing it. Every round was like a tiny concentration of high-velocity wind, making the bodies wince and shiver. For Marlantes, The Deer Hunter was "a fine piece of movie making", but nothing to do with his Vietnam, as he understood it.
Instead, it was the next generation of drama, about the second world war, for example Band of Brothers, that would make the biggest impression. The moral drive of fiction is faithfully to "get it right" through the contrivance of making it up. Ideally, the novelist must be Everyman to convey the essence of a situation in a universal language.
This is a tall order when it comes to a subject that is both intrinsically unsharable not everyone can be a GI and innately unimaginable few ex-soldiers want to talk or write about what they have seen and done. At the same time, a writer needs tranquillity and perspective in which to recollect the emotion. The bigger the trauma, the longer the necessary perspective. Marlantes continued to wrestle with his magnum opus, in draft after draft, occasionally questioning his fitness for an impossible task.
Others were beginning to find their voices. Ron Kovic wrote Born on the Fourth of July during one hectic month in the mids. In his foreword, Caputo set out his artistic credo. A Rumor of War was not a history or a "historical accusation".
It was, he said, conscripting the language of fiction, "a story about war, based on personal experience". Eventually, the charges are dropped and Caputo is reassigned to a desk job followed by an honourable discharge. An epilogue addresses the memories awakened by the fall of Saigon in A Rumor of War was possibly the first time a former serving officer had addressed the role of the marines in Vietnam.
By the mids, the war in Vietnam was becoming lost in the slipstream of history. All that remained of a national tragedy were the terrible craters left by the B52s and the rusting military hardware on the beach at Da Nang. In fiction, meanwhile, the platoon was beginning to emerge as the definitive unit of humanity in the face of battle. The US, meanwhile, continued slowly to come to terms with its past.
The election of Bill Clinton, who had not served in the military, in , was one kind of milestone on the road to national sanity. But the war would not go away. In , John Kerry attempted to capitalise on his career in the military and was unceremoniously "swiftboated" by Republican veterans. As the US continued to make peace with its past, Marlantes continued to write and rewrite his manuscript. After Iraq, so alienated from war had the public become that some publishers to whom he showed his work advised him to cut it in half and relocate it in Afghanistan.
But he refused to deviate from his course. Now, with maturity and distance, I had come to love them all. For Marlantes, the impulse was to celebrate a noble sacrifice and to make his novel an act of homage to the fallen. There is nothing derogatory about Matterhorn. With the passage of time, too, he had found a way to deal with the unmentionable face of conflict — the inevitable racism of the frontline where whites were fighting alongside black troops.
Remarkably, after more than 30 years, the novel exudes a desperate fury as Marlantes drags the reader and Bravo Company through firefight after firefight. Metaphysically, he wants to grapple with the relationship of killing to the nature of evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man had added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil.
And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares. It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opened himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away. The typescript was a beast, some 1, pages. No one wanted it. His luck began to turn. Entrekin also persuaded Marlantes to cut and sharpen his battered manuscript from to printed pages in one final edit.
The commercial tide is turning towards Vietnam stories again.
The Vietnam Wars: ‘Matterhorn’
Share via Email A soldier motions to a helicopter in Vietnam, Photograph: Rex Features In the summer of , Karl Marlantes, a recently demobilised Vietnam veteran posted to US Marine Corps headquarters after 13 months of highly decorated active service, found himself walking some sensitive military papers across to the Capitol. He was challenged by a group of young anti-war protesters "hollering obscenities", chanting "babykiller" and waving north Vietnamese flags. Six weeks before, I was killing North Vietnamese guerrillas in combat. I just wanted to tell my story". The national trauma of the war was dragging on and he intended to address something huge in the life of contemporary America. The Democrats were anti-war and the Republicans supported our troops.
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
Plot[ edit ] The book is set in Vietnam in and draws from the experiences of Marlantes, who commanded a Marine rifle platoon. The novel presents an unflinching look at the hardships endured by the Marines who waged the war on behalf of America. At the beginning of the novel, the Marines build the base, but later they are ordered to abandon it. The latter portions of the novel detail the struggles of Bravo Company to retake the base, which fell into enemy hands after it was abandoned. Reception[ edit ] Matterhorn received high praise from many critics. In The New York Times Sebastian Junger called it one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam—or any war.