Karl Marlantes, a graduate of Yale University, is a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran. He began writing Matterhorn, his first novel, more than 30 years ago.
The Story: In the late 1960s, a group of young Marines attempts to navigate the sweltering, enemy-infested jungles of Vietnam. Marine Lt. Waino Mellas (Marlantes' alter ego) is an unseasoned platoon commander under orders to first establish, and then retake, the Matterhorn, an isolated hilltop outpost near the Laotian border. But his idealism and ambition shatter when he and his comrades (the men of Bravo Company, Fifth Marine Division) encounter starvation, disease, death, and the blatant indifference of superior officers.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 598 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780802119285
NY Times Book Review
"Chapter after chapter, battle after battle, Marlantes pushes you through what may be one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam--or any war. ... [W]hen Marlantes hits it right--which is most of the time--he can lay you out like a boxer with a killer jab." Sebastian Junger
"Marlantes brilliantly captures the confusion, fear, anger and deafening noise of battle. ... [His] experience informs every word of this big book, his first novel, and makes it the most visceral of all Vietnam novels." John Foyston
"With unrivaled precision, Marlantes, a decorated combat veteran, has spun the fog and filth of war into an engrossing work of fiction. ... Matterhorn is clearly the project of a lifetime for Marlantes, and it deserves a place on the shelf of enduring volumes about the Vietnam War--books such as Neil Sheehan's recently rereleased A Bright Shining Lie, or fiction like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried." Ellen Emry Heltzel
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"At its core, Matterhorn is an unforgettable war story. It sags awhile over the tedium of bushwhacking, but when it culminates in battle, the book is as gripping as anything in Apocalypse Now." Karen Schechner
"The visceral Matterhorn is as much a tribute to the Marine culture of bravery as it is a dissection of a contentious war and a meditation on the American civil rights movement and how it spilled over into the fighting holes of Southeast Asia. ... [A] harrowing narrative we won't soon forget." Carol Memmott
"It reads like adventure and yet it makes even the toughest war stories seem a little pale by comparison. ... In some ways Matterhorn isn't new at all, but it reminds us of the horror of all war by laying waste to romantic notions and napalming the cool factor of video games and ‘Generation Kill.'" David Masiel
Dallas Morning News
"Marlantes skillfully alternates between scenes of the hapless Marines, plagued by leeches, jungle rot and short rations, and the higher-ups enjoying brandy and cigars while drawing up battle plans miles from the front. ... [T]his tale of heroism and sacrifice transcends its problems." Chris Tucker
More than three decades have passed since Karl Marlantes started writing Matterhorn, but critics agreed it is well worth the wait. With devastating precision, Marlantes evokes the sights, smells, and horrors of the Vietnam War in a novel destined to become a war classic. There were very few quibbles, the most notable being an overly large cast of characters and the occasional stylistic blunder. Ultimately, however, critics hailed Matterhorn as a "raw, brilliant account of war that may well serve as a final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American history" (New York Times Book Review), destined to stand alongside such classics as Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, and The Things They Carried.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes
1. Do you believe that Mallory’s headaches were real? Was he a “malingering coward”? Hawke agreed with Cassidy that he was a malingerer, but Mellas felt differently (maybe he was “out here too long” . . . they “kept sending him back” (p. 453). Why do you think Mellas felt that way? Was it political? China despised Mallory (p. 218) and wanted to tell him to act like a man, but he knew that the “headaches” would help him further his “cause.” Did racial attitudes play a role in the treatment, analysis, and perception of the headaches?
2. Mellas asks Hawke shortly after they meet whether he has “had racial problems here in the company.” Hawke answers, “Naw, not really” (p. 29). Is Hawke downplaying the problem, or is his belief rooted in something else?
3. Mellas refers to the “political implications” of Parker’s hair being too long. He also wonders about the timing of this enforcement of military etiquette. What are the political implications of the incipient “afro”? Do you think the situation should have been handled differently? How? Did Cassidy’s involvement (after wanting to string his “ass . . . up to the nearest fucking tree”) exacerbate the situation? What choices did the officers have?
4. The author states that “the secret could be revealed only by crawling into the jungle and meeting it there” (p. 85). Do you think it is possible for “the secret” to be revealed, and if so, what might it be? Relate this to Hippy’s looking for “something out there for us to be here,” for “just anything . . . so it all made sense” (p. 113). Does Mellas’s assertion that, for the uninitiated, “the bush should, and would, remain a mystery” (p. 538) relate to this question?
5. What compelled Vancouver to “take point” every time, despite the fact that it “scared him” (p. 199)? Why was he considered the soul of the company? Consider also when the company was forty feet above the river, Vancouver “without being told . . . wrapped the rope around his waist, walked out backward over the edge, and disappeared” (p. 236).
6. Why do you think that it was so important for Mellas to recover Vancouver’s sword?
7. How, and to what extent, do you think race influenced Mellas’s decision to select Jackson as squad leader? Do you believe that he could be characterized as Mellas’s “nigger”? Why did Mellas finally tell Jackson that “he blew it” when they conducted their honest discussion on race (p. 433)?
8. Hawke’s tin (pear can) cup—which had been with him “since I got here”—was considered to contain the “ever flowing source of all that’s good and the cure of all ills.” It induced smiles and was characterized as “sweet and good.” What is the significance of the tin can cup? How is it similar to Vancouver’s sword, and why were they both so important to Mellas?
9. Do you think that Simpson is a sympathetic character? Did he drink because he felt the “responsibility for a lot of lives”? Do you believe that he put soldiers at risk to further his career and to “move his little pins in the map” (p. 170)?
10. What do you think of Anne’s attitude toward Mellas’s commitment to honor his “sacred oath to the president”? (Recall that Anne reminded him that he had considered the president a “manufactured image”). Do you agree with Anne that Mellas had a “weird concept of morality” (p. 207) that compelled him to keep that promise? Should he have consulted her, and do you think it would have changed his decision? Do you think that Mellas’s belief that she really never wanted to see him again was accurate (p. 330)? How do you feel about Anne’s behavior the night he came to see her before he shipped out? To what extent do you think the cultural and political climate was responsible for her reaction?
11. Mellas expressed some bitterness toward women and even admits to really hating “women at some level” (p. 210). How much do you think his experience with Anne accounts for this? Hawke also “hurt badly” because his woman was opposed to the war. Do these women fundamentally misunderstand the men? Do they simply have a different outlook? Mellas also longs for a woman to reach the “lost, lonely part of him.” Later, he finds himself wanting to “merge” with Karen after she recovers Vancouver’s sword (p. 522) and talked to him as a real “human being who cared” (p. 512). How do you reconcile this with the bitterness? Do you think that the absence of women from their daily lives engendered and sustained this bitterness?
12. Why did Hawke consider Mellas a “politician” (pp. 12, 282, 451)? Do you think Hawke felt that it was a positive characteristic? What might it have to do with his belief that modern war had become too technical and too complex—and Vietnam in particular had become “too political” (p. 13)?
13. Mellas experienced “overwhelming joy” and was “overflowing with an emotion that he could only describe as love” when he was reunited with his platoon. As they began to engage in the ensuing battle, he was “frightened beyond any fear”—a “brilliant and intense fear,” which helped to “push him over a barrier whose existence he had not known until this moment,” and he surrendered himself completely to the “god of war within him” (p. 351). What attributes would you give to this “god of war”? What else might it represent? Are the fear and surrender instinctive reactions to an intense confrontation with mortality? Is the god of war a protector or an evil creation of man (“participation in evil was a result of being human . . . without man there would be no evil” or good) (p. 500)?
14. While Mellas was retrieving Pollini and they rolled downhill, he hopes “with every roll” that “it was Pollini and not him who would catch the bullet” (p. 354). Do you think that his guilt over that hope, his wish for a medal, and the KP discharge, contributed to the thought that he had inadvertently killed Pollini? “The fact that Pollini was dead didn’t make the desire for a medal wrong, did it? What’s fucking wrong with wanting a medal? Why did Mellas think it was bad? Why was he so confused? How did he get this way? From where did he dredge up all these doubts? Why?” (p. 361).
15. Mellas’s existential crisis (pp. 398-400) when he saw himself as a “collection of empty events that would end as a faded photograph above his parents’ fireplace” and perceived that his worth was “the joke,” resulted in comforting and calming him. What contributed to this new insight? Was it a successful breakthrough on the guilt he felt over Pollini? Did he really know “beyond any ability to lie to himself” that he had killed Pollini, or would he “carry this doubt with him forever” (p. 359)?
16. What do you think Mellas believed about the value of a medal? Do you think he may have ultimately shared Hawke’s feeling that “they don’t seem so fucking shiny . . . when you see what they cost”? Do you think that Mellas’s ambivalence toward medals is overcome in the end?
17. What made Hawke leave his post without permission to return to his company who were surrounded by the NVA?
18. Following the last assault on Matterhorn, Mellas’s mind is “filled with troubling images . . .Hippy, crippled. The insane pushing. The stupidity. The blood pumping from the new machine gunner’s leg. Jacob’s throat. For what? Where was the meaning?” (p 489). How much do you think the answer to this question explains why the author wrote the book? Does the act of writing (and the art of the novel) involve creating meaning that can make us feel and change? Were your attitudes and feelings about the Vietnam War and war in general transformed by the experience of reading this book?
19. After thinking about how “brave and wise” he realized Janc had been when he defused a volatile racial situation, what makes China “know” that it would be impossible for Janc to be his friend (p. 313)?
20. The youth of the soldiers is repeatedly emphasized by the author. He references “dead American teenagers” and “dead Vietnamese teenagers” (p. 491). “Two bodies not on the planet twenty years, one living and one dead” are poignantly airlifted away (p. 238). When Fracasso entered to lead a platoon, Mellas “knew” that what “three teenagers” decided in the next five seconds could mean Fracasso’s career and maybe even his life (p. 269). Considering that Fitch (Company Commander) was twenty-three, Hawke (Executive Officer) twenty-two, and Mellas (Platoon Commander) twenty-one, and many (if not most) grunts (Hippy) were eighteen and (Janc and Jackson) nineteen, how did you feel about the relative youth of the characters as you read? Does this recognition of young people fighting and dying for a policy they have had little or no influence over change your outlook on the Vietnam War, a draft, or war in general?
21. Why do you think Mellas said that killing the injured enemy would “be murder” (p. 256)? Do you think the fact that he “glimpsed the grimace of pain and fear” followed by crying that “cut through Mellas like a shaft of steel” is what made him pause? Why did he switch off his safety—point his gun at the kid’s head, then switch the safety back on and say “We can’t”? Do you think it was because he “didn’t have the guts”? Is that why he later started sobbing and saying to Hawke and Fitch, “I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry”? Who do you think he was apologizing to and for what?
22. Vietnam veterans were stigmatized by the failure to distinguish between a foreign policy and the soldiers serving the government (and its citizens) by executing the policy faithfully. How much do you think this book has helped you to understand this and empathize with those who served? The author has spoken of the “wound of misunderstanding” delivered by those who directed their antiwar feelings at those who fought the war. His hope is to be understood and to bridge the chasm that has divided America. Do you think this book has helped to do that? How?
23. What do you feel was the most emotional event in the book? Why did it affect you so deeply?
24. SEMPER FI (“Always Faithful”) Mellas recalls a discussion “at his eating club with his friends and their dates one night after a dance. They were talking about the stupidity of warriors and their “silly codes of honor” (p. 324). As he watched Marines run across a landing zone “running possibly to their deaths,” he realized that “something had changed” and that meaning and life would be given to the “silly code of honor.” What changed? What does this code mean to you? Did your attitude toward the code change after reading the book? Does loyalty and commitment transcend race and class? How?
25. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - "It is glorious and honorable to die for one's country."
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
-from “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen died fighting in World War One when he was twenty-five. What do you think Mellas would have thought of the idea that it was an old lie that it was glorious and honorable to die for one’s country? Explore the conflict and contradictions involved in fulfilling a civic obligation, honoring a sacred oath, or following one’s conscience. If you witness your brothers and sisters fighting and dying for a cause you do not believe in, what choices do you have and on what basis do you make them?
26. Mellas substitutes “Bravo” for “Christ” in a modified and drunken mystery of faith formulation (“Bravo has died, Bravo is risen, Bravo will fight again” p 556). He raises a glass (consecration) above his head and says “Mea Culpa” (Confiteor/confession of sins). Hawke follows by “solemnly” making the sign of the cross and saying “Absolution.” (The Catholic encyclopedia defines absolution partly as “that act of the priest whereby, in the Sacrament of Penance, he frees man from sin. It presupposes on the part of the penitent, contrition, confession.”)
Mellas then invokes the saying (Dulce et decorum…) in a mock religious ceremony (p. 556) and “anoints those around him with ceremonial movements” while chanting the latin phrase. Hawke “knelt down” and McCarthy “solemnly” offered him communion.
What do you think the author is suggesting here? Are “the Colonel, the “three” and the do-nothing Congress” (trinity) (p. 556) the ones who must bear the guilt for the “sins” of war? Are the soldiers absolving themselves and thereby recognizing the glory and honor in what they did?