, , , , ,

I’ve been reading — actually, listening to– Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War for a week, during commute times, recommended by a couple of non-combatant friends.  Oh man, we knew how awful the war was but never in some of the detailed particulars.  Let’s see, the young men –18, 19…22– have seen one of their own dragged off by a tiger, his skull crushed, another die of cerebral malaria, following a temperature of 106 and a screaming fit, another break his tibia in a fall and have to be carried draped over shoulders for days,  and leeches, leeches leeches, including one in a place so particular I don’t want to think about it.

And I’m only about half way through.

This is not a novel for sleepy time reading.  The language is rough and raw, filled with bantering male put-downs and insults, some of which go too far and result, in the haze of hunger and sleeplessness, in pulled guns and pulled grenade pins.  It has its share of military acronyms, which Marlantes does a good job of integrating into the flow of description and speech. Women appear, so far, only as dreams, hopes and obsessions.

It takes place in the late 1960s and Black and White relations are often on edge, a sharp edge.  We have “chucks,” and “splibs,” “crackers,” and “brothers.”  We have resentment about not getting leadership and fear when getting it. The only thing that keeps any sense of cohesion at times is the fear of the NVA — the gooks– lurking behind any tree or on any mountain top.

Besides the never ending rain, the sodden clothing, the jungle rot, the hunger, what I’ve been most impressed with is the little love shown for the high command — that would just about anyone above the rank of Lt.  The bush marines have no love for the Majors and Lt. Colonels who bark orders over the radio, nor should they.  As portrayed by Marlantes, even the good-old tough officers, throw-backs to other wars and who had earned their bush combat strips, have forgotten.  They give impossible orders. They don’t read, or can’t interpret the maps.  They drink and forget to get food supplies to the grunts.  It’s not a pretty picture at all.

Marlantes was a Marine LT during the war and commanded a platoon in 1969 much like the one in the novel.  He’s a Yale graduate and a Rhodes Scholar.

You can find lots of praise for the book, starting with writers who pride themselves on men-in-extremities stories, such as Sebastian Junger, and Mark Bowden.  It’s been on the NY Times Bestseller list and an Amazon Book of the Month.  So, not a book for everyone but an important book for many.  It will give most readers  a deep sense of what it is young men –and now young women– are asked to do in the name of a nation’s wars and the abiding sense that only when a country is in extreme danger itself should it put its young there to defend it.