I will start off by saying this is a brilliant book.
Matterhorn is the codename for a hill held by a battalion of the US Marines of the 5th Marine Div, one of several named after European mountains.
I began reading and the sense of place and the general atmospehere of the book was captivating from the start. From one of the opening incidents, Matterhorn made me think it might just be rehashing the kind of material familiar to readers from The 13th Valley or Dispatches but instead it takes us on a deeply personal, infantryman’s journey.
Soon the smears of purple and orange Kool-Aid on their lips combined with the fear in their eyes to make them look like children returning from a birthday party at which the hostess had shown horror films.
Told mostly from the perspective of 1st Lt Mellas, a green platoon leader, the book covers barely three months of his tour but charts the young man’s growth from ambitious career greenie to hardened leader of men, complete with all the flaws you’d expect.
I wasn’t sure I’d warm to Mellas after learning of his calculating ambition but he soon learns the hard way that in the field nobody gives a crap about your performance except the ones who never have to walk it.
People who didn’t even know each other were going to kill each other over a hill none of them cared about.
Hold that thought, because where Matterhorn excels is in its treatment of enemies. The Enemy (NVA soldiers) are treated with the respect they deserve. In a straightforward military confrontation, no fighting man ever doubted the honesty of those on the other side. The NVA are recognised as professional soldiers whose job is to do to the Marines what the Marines had resolved to do to them. There was a grudging respect that no NVA soldier was going through less of a hardship than any Marine.
The Marines seemed to be killing people with no objective beyond the killing itself. That left a hollow feeling in Mulvaney’s gut. He tried to ignore it by doing his job, which was killing people.
In Matterhorn, The Marines’ true enemies are the jungle, the weather but mostly the vainglorious stupidity of their career-minded battalion superiors. Time and again, the battalion commander and his deputy waste the blood and sweat of Marines they consider to be inferior or in need of ‘good leadership’ just to put on a show for the regimental commander in the hope it will smooth their path to a brig-gen star or to secure a higher command. Anyone who has served will recognize the meddling BS of middle-grade staff officers intent on proving their leadership mettle in paper maneuvers while the actual price is paid in misery, sleeplessness, disease, deterioration and fatigue among the men they are supposed to be leading. In the era of ‘mission, men, me’ this infuriates even more. Yet here it’s plain to see, laid out in Marlantes’ excellent prose, vivid descriptions and the evocative inner monologues of his characters.
The tensions between the Marines themselves, especially between black and white, is also realistically portrayed without any attempts to sanitize the exchanges and attitudes. Again, a modern reader can find plenty here to inform their understanding of this issue as we live in similarly divisive and polarized times.
Although punctuated with deep pathos, this is not a tragic story in the style of James Webb’s polemic Fields of Fire. Instead it is an unflinching revelation of modern warfare, poor management and the folly of using regular military formations for foreign policy exercises rather than genuine military objectives.
I couldn’t stop reading this book and it lived in my head for several days after finishing. A genuine masterpiece of the military life and men at war.