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The War We’ll Never Understand

When he came to, Pierre was sitting on his behind, his hands propped on the ground; the caisson he had been closest to was not there; only charred green boards and rags lay about on the scorched grass, and a horse dragging broken shafts trotted past him, while another, just like Pierre himself, lay on the ground and shrieked long and piercingly.

In Matterhorn we don’t come to the inner life of the Marines simply from their actions or speech. We are left with flat attempts to describe their thoughts. One can almost see a comic-book character with the word “Thinks” in a balloon over his head. Mellas says:

The things he’d wanted before—power, prestige—now seemed empty, and their pursuit endless. What he did and thought in the present would give him the answer, so he would not look for answers in the past or future. Painful events would always be painful…. The jungle and death were the only clean things in the war.

Karl Marlantes recently told a London newspaper that years after he returned from Vietnam,

he walked into a boardroom in Singapore and saw a pile of corpses on the table. He became terrified in lifts, the noise their doors made was like the sound of a helicopter tailgate opening. In bed one night he heard a sound and rushed out naked in the street, ready to fight and kill. In his car he heard a man honk his horn, he leapt out, flung himself on the man’s bonnet and started kicking in his windscreen—“I wanted to kill him.”
In Vietnam, after the first few weeks, you knew that any sound or movement in the jungle was the enemy and you fired at once. Marlantes was reverting to a more primitive state, to the “monkey madness” of the soldier in the lethal jungle.

He described these symptoms to a man during a “mental-health week” in Santa Barbara. The man suddenly asked, “Have you been in a war?”

I broke down, bawling, snot pouring out of my nose—it went on for fifteen or twenty minutes, my ribs were sore for three days. The whole room was looking at this guy falling apart. He told me I had post-traumatic stress disorder, and he made me walk straight out of the building and go eight blocks to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. That’s when I started to get healed.

In one of Matterhorn‘s few memorable passages, a Navy nurse looking after the nearly blinded Mellas on a hospital ship tells him:

“You’ve got to understand what we do here…. We fix weapons.” She shrugged. “Right now you’re a broken guidance system for forty rifles, three machine guns, a bunch of mortars, several artillery batteries, three calibers of naval guns, and four kinds of attack aircraft. Our job is to get you fixed and back in action as fast as we can.”

Whether a Navy nurse would ever have said such things to a wounded Marine, at that moment Matterhorn came to life. It helps explain what happened to Marlantes in the years after he came home wearing his sixteen medals.

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