After The Red Badge of Courage, most war novels were anti-war novels. Gone were descriptions of proudly waving battle flags, men happy to die for their country, and the good guys laying the saber to the necks of their vanquished foes. Instead, there were long, detailed descriptions of sickness and boredom, innocence turned to cynicism, and extreme violence.
If you just look at content, you'd have to assume Matterhorn by Oregon native Karl Marlantes is an anti-war novel. It's a long book, long enough to give us the impression of having actually experienced Vietnam on the ground, and there is no shortage of horrifying detail, from a misplaced leach to a man killed by a tiger to the ubiquitous oozing jungle rot to mass slaughter.
But Matterhorn isn't an anti-war novel. It isn't a screed against the United States, a complete disavowal of violence, or an exercise in blame. It simply shows men at war. There is sickness and boredom, innocence lost or remade, and extreme violence. And there is sadness, pride, kindness, hatred, racism, ignorance—all the things that war is made of.
The story follows a young Ivy Leaguer turned Marine lieutenant named Waino Melas during his first tour of duty in Vietnam. Most of the narrative follows Melas as he grows from a boot officer to a veteran, dealing with his own inexperience while leading a platoon through the endless mountain jungles on missions that often seem meaningless.
Melas is clearly Marlantes, so we see through eyes that saw everything firsthand. Marlantes is an excellent writer, particularly good at dialogue that reflects the ethnic and cultural background of those speaking, and while much of the content of Matterhorn is hard to read, we're never oppressed by the length of the book. In fact, it's hard not wish it kept going.
Unlike many novels of the Vietnam War, this one weaves a number of the historical and cultural elements of the period deftly into the narrative itself. Particularly brilliant is Marlantes's treatment of racism. Some of the black soldiers are idealistic Black Panthers, and the tension between them and the white officers is very real. There are no sermons, just what happened.
This is not a book for everyone. There is a lot of profanity, some crude sexual references, gore aplenty, and themes many will find uncomfortable. But it is a beautiful novel, a true depiction of war and its effects on the soldier's psyche, the kind of book you think about and don't just walk away from.
Because of that, Matterhorn is a very important book. It ought to become a modern classic, and it ought to contribute to the dialogue about war, how nations pursue it, and how we respond to those who've fought on our behalf. Anyone who follows Lt. Melas from start to finish will certainly think differently about combat veterans, if nothing else.
And there's plenty else to think differently about here. This is Marlantes's genius. On the surface, Matterhorn is about young men fighting an old war. Beneath the surface is a deep reflection on the meaning of life and death, the value of human beings, and the nature and effects of violence. Vietnam changed the lives of millions—Matterhorn will change yours.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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