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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Matterhorn: one of the best novels I've ever read

During a lull in combat in the Viet Nam jungle, a white Marine officer and an African/American subordinate attempt to have a frank discussion of race. The black Marine asks if anyone who has not been there in the bush fighting this war can really understand what it's like, and the officer admits that he doesn't think so. Well, there's no way you can ever understand what it's like to be black in America either, the subordinate says to the white officer.

I was never in the armed services much less in action during the Viet Nam War, so there's no way I can really understand what it was like. Reading this novel, however, is about as close as I could come to having a real sense of that experience. Whether at war or peace, humans act the way humans act, and the author Karl Marlantes' scenes ring true. Men act with love and hate, with wisdom and stupidity, and with courage and dishonor. Organizations are organizations, and decisions are based on perceptions at the top whether those perceptions are valid or not. But when decisions are wrong in the corporate world money is lost whereas when decisions are wrong in war lives are lost.

After I finished this 600 page book, I went aback and reread parts, the first time I've done that in years. I did so less so to replay the action but to zero in on various characters which Marlantes vividly creates in all their complexity and to decide with which of them I most identify. It many ways it was a black Marine from the rural Deep South. He was deep smart rather than fast smart, as another character described him, and fast smart was better in their situation. I sometimes have thought that I might not have done well in that war because I too see myself as deep rather than fast smart. Religion was important to the black Marine even though he struggled with his Christianity in the face of the suffering he saw and felt.

The Marines ponder the nature of good and evil, the arbitrariness of life and death while they also hunger for women who are, of course, totally absent. Some of these men die as virgins without ever having experienced the sexual love of a woman. And yes, some scenes are gory and unpleasant, but to me getting through them was worthwhile.

The author was a Marine combat veteran of the Viet Nam war who was highly decorated for valor. This is the only book he has written and he spent 30 years writing it. I'm glad he did.


  1. Like the main character in "Matterhorn," I was also a 1st Lt serving with an infantry unit, Army, not Marine. In my time there we never had to fight the big battle as the novel's Marines did as they built a fortified base, gave it up and had to take it back from the enemy. Why? Well, because the colonels and generals in charge said so. That's where my war and the novel's war were alike. The hows and whys from the leaders, starting with LBJ then all the way down the stars and eagles on shoulder boards, down, down to battalion, company and platoon level where the “nuts behind the (rifle) butts” the grunts on the line, found out that the Pentagon strategies didn't work most of the time.

    I was able to get out alive but bloodied, Purple Hearted and partially disabled but the guy who took my job caught the fatal bullet that could've been mine. Vietnam was a brushfire war that grew and grew huge and we didn't win there. The wars our kids are fighting in this new century aren't being won either but maybe because we're not losing either, that has to become the 21st century version of victory.

  2. I've wondered what if Lincoln had evaluated General Grant on the basis of his kill ratio.

    Thank you for your comment, Celtfire.Video, and thank you for your service to our country.