Matterhorn: Madness! Madness!

At age 18 I drew, or was assigned, #31 in the 1975 Vietnam draft lottery, nearly insuring a trip to Vietnam. I promptly filed for and was granted conscientious objector status. I never went to Vietnam and no one close to me did either.

Since then, its memory has not been something I have had to often face. Even though I have been an avid devourer of movies, I have managed to avoid all of those set in Vietnam or attempting to come to grips with that war, with the sole exception of We Were Soldiers.

However at the end of last year I began to hear about a book reported to be remarkable in its writing and subject matter, a novel written over a period of two or three decades by a former Marine and Rhodes Scholar, Karl Marlantes, titled Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War.

The hype was strong. The New York Times listed it in its list of 100 notable books for 2010. Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down in a special Amazon review says:

Here is story-telling so authentic, so moving and so intense, so relentlessly dramatic, that there were times I wasn’t sure I could stand to turn the page. As with the best fiction, I was sad to reach the end.

I was intrigued and so asked for and was given the book for Christmas last year. I finished reading it just about a month ago. There are books you read, which are quickly forgotten, and there are books you experience, which become a part of you and are hard to shake. This one belongs in the latter category. The experience of reading it is still with me.

Is it a great and notable book? I’ll let others assess its literary merit. But taken as a whole this is a book to be read and savored and pondered. Normally something hyped disappoints. Not this. Bowden is right. I was sad to reach the end.

This is my first introduction to a view of that war from the jungle level. I leave this book almost able to smell and to taste and to feel the awful conditions under which Marine grunts and others had to fight in that jungle environment. I have often heard that veterans of that war cannot really talk about that experiences with any but those who were really there. This book gives a feel for why that is so.

On the one hand, the story revolves around the possession, abandonment, and bloody retaking of an ultimately meaningless piece of Vietnam geography. On the other hand, it is the story of the movement of a privileged lieutenant from one who is concerned for climbing the command structure to one who finds a deep and indescribable bond with the men with whom he fights. The book makes me want to be a part of those who fought there, and makes me glad I never had to. There is nobility here and there is idiocy. There is the full scope of human capacity and depravity and glory. And it is dramatic, gritty, real, captivating.

War is romanticized and criticized. War IS an awful thing, but sometimes war is sadly necessary. At some level war is always mad. The WWII movie The Bridge on the River Kwai may be remembered more for its clever whistled theme than for its content. But its power lay in the final two words of dialog forming a commentary on all warfare. “Madness! Madness!”

Yes, Matterhorn shows the madness and sadness of war. But it does so without trivializing it or preaching about it. There is a humanness in this novel that makes me want to avoid war at all costs, but causes me to wonder if I would have the courage to fight for those things worth fighting for.