If there is one thing Matterhorn faithfully captures, it is the circular and illogical nature of the Vietnam War. Through its 566 pages, we follow a company of U.S. Marines as they dig in on a remote jungle hilltop outpost, abandon it to traipse through the jungle in an unsuccessful search for an invisible enemy, then return to the same hill, only to find it now occupied by their adversaries.
This occupation of terrain the Marines were ordered to abandon being intolerable to their commanders, the company is ordered to retake the hill and suffers staggering losses at the hands of foes entrenched in the bunkers they had constructed days earlier.
Karl Marlantes, a veteran of the Vietnam War, took 30 years to write the book, originally producing more than 1,600 manuscript pages. Clearly, this was an ongoing get-it-off-my-chest project. To make the book marketable, these 1,600 pages were cut down to the nonetheless brick-like tome we have before us.
Kudos must first be given to Marlantes for his command of the English language in general, and of dialogue in particular. The book is well written from a technical point of view. Those who appreciate literary competence will find that aspect enjoyable.
But what about the story Matterhorn relates? If your knowledge of the Vietnam War is extensive, then you will understand critical nuances that are key to the plot. For instance, a single line reveals that a commander has forced his exhausted men to dig extensive shelters for fear of an air raid. The commander is venal and incompetent: The enemy - the North Vietnamese Army - did not have an air force. But this fact is not mentioned, which might lead the uninitiated to believe that the commander is merely strict, or perhaps even well meaning. There are several other instances like this, where readers with less knowledge of military history may not get it.
That same knowledge of war, especially of the Vietnam War, will make the performance of the American protagonists, who pull off feats of superhuman endurance, utterly unbelievable. Nearly 100 pages are given over to an agonizing 10-day patrol through hideous terrain. Although no contact with the enemy occurs, the jungle itself is brilliantly revealed as the fearsome foe it is. Various mishaps occur, some of them fatal. The suffering of the troops is biblical.
Yet the patrol carries on for the entire 10 days …. without food. I have had the two opportunities, courtesy the Canadian Forces, to experience foodless survival expeditions of four days duration. Reading about the far less motivated American soldiers of the Vietnam era doing this for more than twice as long without mutinying or collapsing required me to suspend my disbelief to a degree that became annoying.
At the other end of the spectrum, the reader who is utterly ignorant of the Vietnam War and of jungle warfare will be treated to a faithful description of the misery of that particular combat environment. Here, the author's descriptive skills come to the fore, and anyone reading these passages may well feel physically uncomfortable. Provoking that intense an effect is a notable achievement for a writer. Marlantes' descriptions of the emotions experienced during mortal combat, from the almost-paralyzing fear, to the confusion and horror of battle, to the sheer exultation of victory, are likewise delivered in a competent and realistic style.
The book's main goal, however, is not to describe the jungle, nor even the war that took place in that green maze. Matterhorn, like most war novels, focuses instead on the soldiers and their relationships with each other. And there the book is oddly unsatisfying.
Over the course of only a few weeks, strangers become brothers. It does happen quickly in combat, but not that quickly. Although the description of the bonds forged is accurate and, again, very well written, even civilian readers will have trouble seeing how and why those bonds formed so rapidly.
Vietnam War memoirs, rather than novels, describe a slower process. This was mainly because - as described in the book - American soldiers arrived in Vietnam as individuals and did not meet the other men with whom they would spend their year-long tours until they got to the combat area. This system has rarely been tried before or since, because much of what keeps soldiers going in combat are their feelings for their comrades. Most armies ensure this process begins during long training periods at home. My experience over two tours in Afghanistan would tend to confirm this.
The descriptions of the inevitable conflicts between the men in the unit also strain credulity. Teenagers wax eloquent about the nature of racism, war and careerism in ways people twice their age would have difficulty doing.
In the end, I found the characters engaging and wanted to know more about them. I am therefore left to wonder what was in those 1,000 pages that were cut. I suspect there was more character development, and that the interpersonal relationships were allowed to mature at a more natural pace. If so, it is unfortunate those passages were excised.
Bottom line: If you want to read endlessly (and who wouldn't?) about mud, leeches, jungle rot, immersion foot and cerebral malaria, with some realistic combat scenes thrown in (which are almost cathartic for the reader, given what precedes them), then Matterhorn is not a bad investment. To really be one for the ages, however, more realism would be needed, both in the actions and the reactions of the men we meet in its pages.
Captain Ray Wiss, MD, served longer in combat than any other doctor since the Afghan mission began. He has written two books on the subject, FOB Doc, released September, 2009, and A Line in the Sand, due out this September.