Atlantic Monthly Press
May 18, 2010
Matterhorn is a war novel. A Vietnam war novel. But, I am a woman who never reads war novels, however once I picked up Matterhorn I could not put this book down. This is 566 pages of riveting, classic, American literature.
The novel takes place in a two month period in early 1969 in the mountains of South Vietnam. Matterhorn was the name the Americans gave to an anonymous 5000 foot hill. The Colonels see Matterhorn as a way to gain glory for themselves. Enemy body count is what is important to them.
Young 2nd. Lt. Waino Mellos, a reserve officer out of Princeton University has been assigned to lead a rifle platoon of forty Marines. Most of these Marines are teenagers. Mellos is twenty-one. We see the war through Lt. Mellos’s thoughts. He goes through unbelievable emotional, psychological, physical, moral and spiritual transformations in his first two months in Vietnam. While he will become a combat leader, he also comes to realize the absurdity of war. One of my favorite quotes is Mellos thinking of Matterhorn. “It was all absurd without reason or meaning. People who didn’t even know each other were going to kill each other over a hill none of them cared about.”
The Marines fight under the most horrible conditions, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, monsoon conditions, leeches, jungle rot, immersion foot, fear and inefficient weapons. Such as the M-16 that had springs too weak to feed the 20 bullets in its magazine and men died when it jammed. Or the agent orange dumped on the soldiers and told it was a harmless spray to kill vegetation. Marlantes describes these hardships so realistically I could feel the slimy leeches and smell the jungle rot.
This novel is about teenagers and young twenty-somethings fighting a war far from home and struggling into adulthood. The many subplots include racism, the politics of war, leadership, bravery and friendship. I fell in love with these Marines and the many complex characters in this book. I laughed and cried with them and feel I know them. This is a book that will always stay with me. I will never forget it.
Everyone should read Matterhorn. It is a classic written by a Vietnam veteran. It is realistic and eye opening. It is about a war that was too political. The tragedy of war lives within these young kids forever. As Lt. Mellos states “There was no filling the holes of death. The emptiness might be filled up by other things over the years--new friends, children, new tasks--but the holes would remain.” And as the Marines in Bravo company would say, “There it is.”
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