The horrifying madness of war

  • Article by: EMILY CARTER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 3, 2010 - 6:00 PM

Karl Marlantes' Vietnam war novel dissects the terror of battle with razor-sharp prose.

Matterhorn: A Novel of Vietnam by Karl Marlantes

There will be discussion about "Matterhorn," the 30-years-in-the-writing Vietnam War novel by former Marine Karl Marlantes.

Qualified gatekeepers will go over the pros and cons of letting it into the pantheon of the Great War Novels, and it's to them I leave that question. What's certain is this -- whether or not this is a great war novel, it is the best combat novel that's been written in quite some time, and it will be years before we see its like again.

Marlantes' book does have all the necessary attributes of a War Novel: the comfortable, overweight, middle-aged men safely in the rear sending young men out to die, the loyalty and rivalry between brothers in arms, the moral and ethical dilemmas. These elements Marlantes works in well and efficiently. Where he soars, however, is in his descriptions of combat -- the horrifying particulars of fighting, as well as the exhaustion and boredom in between. When Marlantes' soldiers aren't in fear for their lives, they are digging latrines, laying barbed wire, or treating their feet and faces for jungle rot.

It's 1969, and the Vietnam War is going full blast. The Fifth Marine Division's Bravo Company is set up on a hill they've dubbed the Matterhorn. First they defend it, then they leave it on a march from hell, and then, finally, senselessly, they are called to retake it from the North Vietnamese who have settled in during their absence. Marlantes lays out the strategy politics and ambition leading up to this decision, but it's Second Lt. Waino Mellas who sums it up best when he pictures a bunch of young men who've never met setting out to kill each other over a hill none of them cared about in the first place.

The 566-page book is full of characters -- most of them believable and vivid, but it's Mellas who seems to be the author's alter ego. Like Marlantes, Mellas is a college kid who joined up out of equal parts loyalty and ambition, and his subsequent actions are a believable mixture of selfless and self-serving: He'll risk his life to save a comrade, but half his mind's on the medal and promotion he's been half-joking about.

This is to the good, because this book is so accurate that a one- dimensional character would stand out like a misplaced obscenity. Realism is a grim requirement here, and narrative flow halts at times in order to detail the "mechanics of departure lines, timing, air coordination ... and hand signals." Entire paragraphs are devoted to schematics and strategies, but it never gets as windy as say, Melville's essays on shipboard carpentry, and, besides, these passages remind us that this all really happened. When dealing with a real horror like that faced by these 19- and 20-year-old kids, aesthetics had better take a back seat.

When you are describing fatal throat wounds, best to be simple: "The shrapnel from the DH-10 directional mine had taken out his eyes and lower jaw but had left his vocal cords intact. ... Jancowitz pulled his bloody hand from the mess around the kid's throat. A piece of jawbone with two teeth in it caught on the opal ring Suzi had bought for him."

When Marlante does get "literary," then, he's earned it. In one paragraph he's absolutely mathematical: "A man in good condition can run 100 meters in about 12 seconds. Uphill, with ammunition, a flak jacket ... and heavy boots, [it takes a lot longer]. There were approximately 25 meters between the old bunkers and the ... holes from which the NVA were firing. It took approximately five seconds to cross. ... In that time, one-third of the remaining 34 in the platoon went down." This cold calculation earns the emotion of the next, wholly intuitive description:

"Frightened, maddened kids -- firing, clubbing, and kicking -- tried to end the madness by means of more madness."

These disparate views, the analytical action and the lyrical overview, elegantly balance one another. And it's only after a nearly documentary account of an absurd and devastating battle that Marlantes deploys what could be a summing-up of every experience of every soldier whose survived combat: "With their faces in the dirt, they waited for their friends to come and drag them to safety. Their friends came."

This could have sounded like sentimental, Hemingway-ed con- trivance, but Marlantes' achievement is such that instead, it tolls in the reader's mind and leaves a long, haunting echo.

Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."

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  • MATTERHORN

    By: Karl Marlantes. Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, 566 pages, $24.95.Review: Searing, detailed and authentic, Marlantes' novel of the Vietnam War, 30 years in the writing, is one of the best combat novels in years.

    Event: 7 p.m., Monday, May 10, Barnes & Noble Galleria, 3225 W. 69th St., Edina.

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