The War We’ll Never Understand

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US Marines lowering a wounded comrade from a rooftop, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

Apart from the deaths of young men there is little meaning in the fighting, suffering, heroism, and occasional criminal behavior in Matterhorn, a novel about a company of Marines fighting in Vietnam in 1969. For them, concludes Karl Marlantes, death was “the only real god they knew.” There is friendship and sacrifice among these men, usually with the white Marines in one group, the black ones in another. The Americans see Saigon’s soldiers and officials as corrupt, useless, or cowardly; “Nagoolians,” the Marines’ term for their adversaries, are thought to be brave and able to keep on fighting. The Vietcong or National Liberation Front is only rarely named as such in the book. Nor are Vietnamese civilians. The Marines understand that when the war is over they will go home and the North Vietnamese will remain.

Karl Marlantes, a much-decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam, originally wrote a book of over 1,600 pages; now, at almost six hundred pages, it is still very long and sometimes awkwardly written. I recently heard him say during a BBC interview that Matterhorn‘s central character, Lieutenant Waino Mellas, is based on his older brother and another friend. But he also emphasized that Mellas’s experiences in the novel were his own or ones he had heard about.

Like Marlantes, Mellas grew up in a small town and went to an Ivy League university. The Marines tease him about this and although he is keen to win a medal and get his name in the papers he feels so frightened in battle that he considers running away. But after a few months he gains some respect from his men and feels like one of them. After being wounded he returns to Bravo Company and, at the end of the book, he is about to set off on another bloody mission.

As usual, the Marines are at the mercy of the ambitious colonels and generals ordering them into one more assault on the mile-high Matterhorn, only four kilometers from the border with North Vietnam. The Marines named such peaks after Swiss mountains. Mellas’s men had already taken the Matterhorn under heavy North Vietnamese fire, only to be ordered to leave it. Now they must retake it from defenders firing downhill from almost impregnable bunkers and “fighting holes” that the Marines themselves had constructed when they had occupied the mountain.

Marlantes’s descriptions of battle are sometimes telling, although not more so than those in many other novels from the nineteenth century to Vietnam. Running and crawling, Mellas’s men

took approximately five seconds to cross that deadly ground. In that time, one-third of the remaining thirty-four in the platoon went down.
Then attackers and defenders joined together and bellowing, frightened, maddened kids—firing, clubbing, and kicking—tried to end the madness by means of more madness.

Vancouver, the bravest Marine in the company, already wounded and brandishing a captured …

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