Matterhorn. The code name for a hill in Marlantes’ novel of the same name about the Vietnam War. This Matterhorn, three kilometers from Laos and two kilometers from the DMZ in northwest South Vietnam, rises over a mile high and is shrouded by cold monsoon rains and clouds. A staff officer chose the name Matterhorn “in keeping with the present vogue of naming new fire support bases after Swiss mountains.” He also chose it to be the fire support base (FSB) that Bravo Company, First Battalion, Twenty-Fourth Marine Regiment, Fifth Marine Division, with the help of 400 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives, turns into a “sterile wasteland of smashed trees, tangled logging slash, broken C-ration pallets, empty tin cans, soggy cardboard containers, discarded Kool-Aid packages, torn candy bar wrappers—and mud.”
In Matterhorn, A Novel About the Vietnam War, Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, Commander of First Platoon, Bravo Company, leads his men in what seems to be a Sisyphean journey into hell. They endure slogs through the jungle, and along the way, suffer from immersion foot, jungle rot, diarrhea, ringworm, hunger, hypothermia, dysentery, malaria, malnutrition and, yes, tigers. They are ordered to take and hold and sometimes abandon three hills—Matterhorn, Helicopter Hill, Sky Cap—in the part of the country where they are fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). They live and die delivering the goods for their commanders, who, in their insatiable drive for power and medals, threaten the lives of their own marines.
It is 1969, one year after the Tet offensive and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the marines who are fighting in Vietnam are not immune to the anti-war protests and racial conflicts happening in the U.S. Boot Second Lieutenant Mellas, a recent Princeton graduate, second in his class at Quantico Basic School, is dropped into an isolated valley to lead the First Platoon, Bravo Company. Green and untested, he gains the trust of his men, overcomes his inexperience and fear, and realizes he can’t change the facts on the ground: The way the war is run by the alcoholic Lieutenant Colonel Simpson and the ambitious Lieutenant Colonel Blakely, or the racist war-within-a-war between Gunny Cassidy and Henry who is running guns to the Black Panthers in the States. Mellas can curse “the ambitious men who used him and his troops to further their careers.” He can curse the air support that isn’t there when he needs it, the diplomats who argue about round vs. square tables, the couch potatoes in the U.S. who gorge themselves on television, and even God. But he ultimately blames himself for thinking that “God would give a shit.” Questioning the purpose of the war, his own motivations, the truth of his own actions, and the senseless orders he has to follow, he nevertheless tries to find meaning in the jungle where he finds himself in a war without meaning. A small error in judgment can cost him his life and those of his fellow marines.
Mellas wishes he could go unconscious when he is so exhausted he can’t put one foot in front of the other. He rails at the upper echelon that sees the war not as a war of terrain but as a war of attrition. Killing gooks is the purpose of the jungle war. In the battle to retake Matterhorn from the NVA, Mellas is injured and loses the vision in one eye. Raging at the deaths of his own men, he fires three bullets into the head of an injured NVA youth lying on the ground. Disbelieving what he has done, he “now knew, with utter certainty, that the North Vietnamese would never quit. They would continue the war until they were annihilated, and he did not have the will to do what that would require. He stood there, looking at the waste.” 600 meters away on Helicopter Hill, Colonel Simpson is watching the battle and wishes he would have had a movie camera to record the textbook assault, “as if combat were a Friday night football game.” Mellas decides to kill him.
He pushes through the brush to get closer to Helicopter Hill, finds a log, adjusts his sights, pushes the selector to full automatic, and with his good eye sighting down the barrel, gets ready to fire when Colonel Simpson turns away. Mellas waits. Time seems to stop. Then Simpson starts to turn. Suddenly, Lieutenant Hawke dives on top of Mellas to save him from shooting his superior. Mellas shrieks “that bastard killed all of them. He sent us up here without air so he could watch a show. He watched us while we died. That bastard doesn’t deserve to live.” Ironically, Hawke loses his own life at the end of the novel when he is mistaken for Gunner Cassidy and Henry, the gun runner, successfully frags Hawke who is sleeping in Cassidy’s tent.
Matterhorn can be a confusing read at times, especially when Marlantes describes the battles with such detail that it is difficult to identify which mountain the battle is about. Matterhorn? Helicopter Hill? Sky Cap? Eiger? The detail is both mesmerizing and frustrating (there is a thirty-page glossary to help you track the technical terms, slang, and jargon), but the point seems to be that Marlantes wants you to enter Mellas’ world as it was in 1969 in Vietnam when men were fighting in a war that appeared to have already been lost and politicians were demanding a diplomatic solution. Although Mellas continues to believe the war is insane, he realizes that he is willing to die for his comrades and accepts his love for them. In a riveting scene in Matterhorn, this transformational moment is most clearly described in the assault on the mountain.
A single NVA machine gun is the way out of the nightmare they find themselves in, and Mellas decides to take it out. He has to draw the machine gun’s fire, and believing that it could be his last moment of life, he
“looked at his comrades’ intent faces. He wet his lips and said good-bye silently, not wanting to leave the safety of the log and their warm bodies.
Then he stood up and ran.
He ran as h’ed never run before, with neither hope nor despair. He ran because the world was divided into opposites and his side had already been chosen for him, his only choice being whether or not to play his part with heart and courage. He ran because fate had placed him in a position of responsibility and he had accepted the burden. He ran because his self-respect required it. He ran because he loved his friends and this was the only thing he could do to end the madness that was killing and maiming them.”
Matterhorn does not glorify war or revel in killing the enemy. Rather, it is a novel about healing, the healing of a twenty-one-year-old kid who volunteered to fight for vaguely patriotic reasons when he could have gone to Yale Law School, and a battalion of kids who were drafted and had no choice but to fight. It is a story about a young man who, in three months, accepts the realities of life and death, of good and evil, of light and dark. Matterhorn, the hill for which he almost dies, is an endurable fact on the ground. It is nature’s hill turned into a battleground between two enemies, both of whom want to own it. But as Mellas would say about a fact on the ground, “There it is.”
On a warm night in the midst of battle, Mellas finds a blasted stump where he can be alone and think about meaning. Meaning is made not discovered, he thinks, and comes from life, not death. It lives in the present, not the past or the future. He stares out toward Matterhorn and watches the mountains “change under the shadows of clouds cast by a waning moon as it moved across the sky until the shadows began to fade with the coming of light in the east. He tried to determine if there was meaning in the fact that cloud shadows from moonlight could move across the mountain and yet nothing on the mountain would move or even be affected. He knew that all of them were shadows: the chanters, the dead, the living. All shadows, moving across this landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things as they moved but leaving nothing changed when they left. Only the shadows themselves could change.”
There it is.