Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, Corvus RRP£16.99, 592 pages
The US Marine Corps never leave one of their own behind. Wounded, dying or dead, they take them with them. The Corps always brings its corpses home – even if this promise fills more body-bags. Even if it means, as in Matterhorn, carrying the smashed, bloated, badly decomposing corpse back through the steamy jungle for days. It’s a heroic, grimly determined expression of the legendary brotherly love of the Corps. And also, as this Vietnam novel hints more than once, of a slightly unhinged obsession with Thanatos.
Author Karl Marlantes, a young marine officer during the Vietnam war, has finally brought his body home. It’s taken him over 30 years to write this novel about a unit of marines ordered to secure a hill deep in the jungle near enemy lines, painstakingly fortify it by hand for days, and then abandon it. And then re-take it, at great cost. Along the way, many marines succumb to exhaustion, hunger, trench foot, leeches, cerebral malaria, tigers, fragging, racial in-fighting, friendly fire and, almost as an afterthought, the North Vietnamese Army.
But, like the war itself, was Matterhorn worth the effort? And after 600 blood and pus and diarrhoea-stained pages, is it alive or dead?
The novel was greeted with a rapturous reception in the US, some even going so far as to suggest that this was the greatest Vietnam novel ever written. However, Vietnam vet and novelist Edward Wilson denounced it as “cartoon war porn of the lowest sort”. Wilson was angry because Matterhorn doesn’t acknowledge the atrocities that American troops committed in Vietnam. Instead it goes out of its way on occasion to present US troops as compassionate and respectful towards the enemy – which may well have been Marlantes’ own personal experience.
The tale of 21-year-old Lieutenant Waino Mellas and Bravo Company certainly offers most of the elements guaranteed to excite the armchair soldier. Maps? Check. Complicated diagrams showing the chain of command? Check. Comprehensive glossary of USMC slang and jargon? Check (“the crotch” = jarhead slang for USMC). And strange quote on flyleaf from scary-sounding German? Check (Wolfram von Eschenbach).
But Marlantes is at his best evoking and describing the sheer boredom and humdrum – yet extreme – discomfort of war. You really do feel – however much you’re kidding yourself – as if you have stood inside a marine’s sweaty uniform, greasy with pus from his skin ulcers and blood from burst leeches. If you spend 30 years writing a novel back home in the increasingly affluent US, one of the things that may strike you more and more is the gap between your experience then and the extraordinary levels of comfort taken for granted now. Perhaps this is the aspect of war novels that the cosseted public is most interested in today: “I’m a Vietnam Voyeur, Get Me Into Here!”
Like many war novels, Matterhorn falls back on the notion that killing is about camaraderie – doing it for your buddies. But it’s also brave enough to admit, here and there, that men like Mellas – and perhaps men like Marlantes – also kill not just out of duty and loyalty but because they enjoy it, and that the anticipation of this enjoyment is part of what sustains them through the degradation, the horror and the terror. “At a very deep level, Mellas simply wanted to stand on a body that he had laid low …He had to admit that he wanted to kill because part of him was thrilled by killing.” War is hell. But it can also be horny.
During a drinking session after a battle, a much-admired marine (who doesn’t make it back himself) warns his comrades about the anti-war civilian world: “You’ll both be afraid to go back to the world and tell all those assholes that you were good f***ing marines. Oh, you weren’t marine legends. You weren’t even the best. But you were good. And you’ll try to tell everyone how bad you were and how sorry you are so you won’t have to explain how it really is. How good it can feel to do something so bad.”
Marlantes, of course, wasn’t afraid. He was awarded the Navy Cross – the USMC’s highest award – for extraordinary heroism during combat in March 1969. So he is one of the best. He was also a Rhodes scholar who left Oxford to fight in Vietnam. Which is, most would think, a rather “brave” thing to do – in the sense of “odd”. Mellas initially gets quite a bit of stick from his comrades for not being poor white or poor black and press-ganged into the war like most of the others.
Matterhorn, for all the hype, is probably not a “great” Vietnam novel, and certainly not the definitive one. That might have to be written by a black recruit: the racism sub-plot here, although thoughtful and ballsy, doesn’t quite convince. That said, it is a vivid page-turner that manfully grapples with the nature of war and our fascination with death. It was certainly worth bringing back from the jungle.
Mark Simpson is the author of ‘Saint Morrissey’ (SAF Publishing)
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