Sunday, December 15, 2013

Avoiding Politics, Embracing Combat

"Matterhorn,” by Karl Marlantes, 2010

This book took 30 years to write – and 40 to publish.  It is 600 pages long.  It is the most detailed fictional account of the lives of U.S. combat soldiers in the Vietnam War ever written.  It might also be the most detailed fictional account of front-line combat of any war ever written. 

Marlantes volunteered to fight in Vietnam and this book is based on his combat tour after Tet in 1968.  Marlantes is an outlier by not actually being politically anti-war – which maybe accounts for why this book was published 35 years after the U.S. pulled out.  Most other Vietnam novels are more explicitly anti-war.  Yet politics soaks this book.  It can’t help but do so.  But the focus is on the daily, even hourly grind of combat – which mostly does not entail actual fighting.  A tiger rips off the head of a solider lying in ambush.  Soldiers’ bodies come unglued with cerebral malaria, skin rot, incessant headaches, infections, near starvation, thirst, exhaustion and accidents.  Soldiers perform impossible feats of climbing, marching and self-denial.  The fog or darkness or rain frequently hides them from air support, each other and the enemy.  They are repeatedly told to do things that are countermanded.  Conflict between officers and men is constant.  Drinking beer and whiskey to excess is normal.  The majority of these soldiers are 19 years old – the average.  They are just kids. 

Mellas is the lead character, a young newbie Lieutenant eager to prove himself.  He’s been assigned to Bravo Company of the 24th Marines, somewhere in the Khe Sanh area of south Vietnam, near the DMZ and Laotian border.  He’s graduated from Princeton and spent time at Oxford College in England, so he’s the ‘bookish’ one in the bunch.  Yet Mellas is worried about dying, and ruminates on how to run away from combat frequently, but does not.  There is no ‘Going After Cacciato’ here.  He is a military social climber dreaming of medals, being noticed and promotions.  He’s good with maps, understands that racism and bigotry hurts the whole unit and does his math.  He’s also got an anger streak against the cruel stupidity of the brass.
The book starts with an “Op” reconnaissance into the jungles north of Matterhorn, ordered by their insensitive Marine commander, Simpson.  The Bravo marines christen it the “Trail of Tears.”  They are ordered to make various destinations with no thought to terrain – only the distance on a map back at the base.  They are not supplied with enough food or water.  Casualties cannot be airlifted out and have to be carried.  The injured and sick must suffer.  They are marched like puppets, creating LZs with almost no tools, digging fighting holes, climbing cliffs – all while they physically come apart.  Their only contact with the enemy is a brief firefight with a few young kids in the NVA.  (North Vietnamese Army.)  They return angry and exhausted. 

Bravo Company finally gets thrown into two fights with a large NVA battalion at and around Matterhorn, which is a fire-base built by the marines and then abandoned three times.  The NVA occupy their former base twice.  It is mountaintop cleared of trees, holding bunkers and a small landing strip for helicopters.  Matterhorn is similar in layout to Khe Sanh itself.  Death by friendly fire is not rare. Mellas himself realizes he has accidentally killed a kid by firing uphill without looking while trying to save him.  All this done for a medal.  This kid is someone he had helped return to field combat, who had been relegated to mess duty before.  As a result, he has guilt that he can’t shake.  In the first battle, Mellas kills an NVA solider, shooting him in the head while Mellas is squatting with diarrhea.   To add brutality to injury, Bravo must take Matterhorn twice – and after the second time, the Marine brass abandon the fire-base again.  Their colonel, Simpson, orders the assaults to punish Bravo for being ‘slackers’ – which is what they are from his position comfortably in the rear.  In the second assault, Mellas discovers he is a natural fighter, is good at killing and somehow evades death with only shrapnel wounds and an injured eye.  Prisoners are never taken.  Attrition is the only goal. 

The most profound split in the units is between the black and white soldiers.  The black soldiers are much more against the war, and resent the racist comments and actions of officers and men, particularly one lifer redneck from the south named Cassidy and even their colonel, Simpson.  Fragging of racist officers is becoming a common occurrence.  The Marine brass all hate the ‘black power’ brothers, of course.  They police the unit for afros or long hair, for peace medals, neck nooses and any other ‘non-regulation’ item that might infer that soldier is not particularly keen on the war.  Yet the soldiers protect each other from the narc informers who are sent into units to report on marijuana use.  They take care of each other in the field, until they get back to base.  They fight for their unit, not for their country.  Mellas himself is the least racist of the officers, and several black soldiers learn to trust him.

Even among the black soldiers there is a split between the more ‘criminal’ elements and the more political elements aligned with the Black Panther Party.  As Marlantes pictures them, the former are more eager to frag the racist sergeant, Cassidy, than the BPP sympathizers.  As it happens, the grenade kills the wrong officer. 

Marlantes includes a large glossary of military and Marine slang/verbiage at the end of the book.  While 600 pages long, it is actually a fast read and pulls you through it.  He is what I call a ‘visual’ writer, as much of this could be seen as a film. 

Regarding the politics of the war, not one white solider directly opposes the war, except insofar as asking – ‘what is the point?’; ‘this sucks’; ‘the war-mongers and brass suck’ and ‘I want to go back to the world.’   Mellas enlisted because he thought he owed the President, who represents the Constitution, who has requested help in the war.  If you can think of a more high-school grade logic to military service, I don’t know what it is.  But that was a common logic. That and fighting ‘communism.’  At one point, when the young NVA soldiers on Matterhorn do not retreat, and fight to the death, Mellas knows that the Vietnamese will not be beaten. 

Marlantes won a lot of medals in Vietnam.  I suspect he still has them.  However, here is what the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and Winter Solider thought of medals, at the Mayday Tribe demonstrations in D.C. organized to ‘shut down the government,’ which I attended: 

May 1971 in Washington, D.C. A large group of Vietnam veterans, men who had been in the thick of it and seen it all, decided they needed to do something that would bring national attention to the goal of ending the war. The method they chose was to act out their repudiation of their previous participation in it. Snaking past the Capitol, an extremely long line of men in uniform threw purple hearts and medals of every sort into a trash bin. Most then made a brief statement about why they hated the war and could no longer bear to keep those medals.

Ultimately this is another book that will encourage war, as it ignores real politics.  But it will allow young soldiers to see what they are getting into.  Marlantes himself suffered (suffers) from PTSD and so, while surviving, has still paid the price. 

Marlantes also wrote, “What is it Like to Go to War,” reviewed below.  Mayday carries many books on Vietnam and war. 

(Other books on Vietnam reviewed below:  In the Crossfire - Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary,” “Kill Anything That Moves,” and “People’s History of the Vietnam War.”)

Red Frog
December 15, 2013

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