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Sunday Book Review: Matterhorn

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Matterhorn is the Das Boot of the Vietnam-era Marine infantry company.  Two tips when reading Matterhorn: Do NOT get attached to any of the characters, and have NO hope that things are going to get better.  The plot is fairly standard, with a young lieutenant from an Ivy League college is sent to Vietnam to serve in Bravo Company in 1969.  The story isn’t told solely from the viewpoint of our hero (such that he is), but he receives more attention than any of the other characters.  The action is… harrowing, and is centered on efforts to hold, take, and hold a couple of hills near the DMZ in 1969.

It isn’t quite right to say that Bravo Company is the victim of middle management incompetence, but the vagaries of middle management play a large role in the action.  Bravo Company suffers, in no small part, because several mid-career officers can’t quite manage to pull things together.  Still interested in moving up, but lacking either the talent or sobriety to act effectively, these managers find themselves bound up in their own promises, leaving Bravo dangling.  Marlantes does a fantastic job of explaining the situations that these officers faced, and why they made the decisions that they did.  Empathy for Bravo Company simply didn’t pay.  Moreover, Marlantes avoids resort to the Peter Principle, instead having a somewhat different account of competence, middle management, and promotion:

Blakely would have performed a lower-level job just as well as he performed his current job- competently, no perfectly, but well enough to get the work one and stay out of trouble.  He’d make the same sorts of small mistakes, but they’d have a smaller effect.  Instead of sending a company out without food, he might place a machine gun at a disadvantage.  But the Marines under him would make up for mistakes like that.  They’d fight well with the imperfect machine-gun layout.  The casualties would be slightly higher, with slightly fewer enemy dead, but the statistics of perfection never how up in any reporting system.  A victory is reported with the casualties it takes to secure that victory, not the casualties it would have taken if the machine gun had been better placed.  There was nothing sinister in this.  Blakely himself would not be aware that he’d positioned the machine gun poorly.  He’d feel bad about his casualties for a while.

The account of middle management in Matterhorn is reminiscent of both Mailer’s Naked and the Dead and Terrance Malick’s film version of Jones’ Thin Red Line, but is better than either.  Marlantes further emphasizes that modern (Vietnam era) communications exacerbate the middle management problem.  Decisions about the capability and fate of Bravo Company are made with only minimal knowledge of the company’s actual situation, as information only flows one way; the leaders of Bravo Company can’t communicate their own difficulties (it would be professional suicide for them to say “we can’t”) while the managers can communicate new objectives and requirements without any sense of the hardship afflicting the Marines. Our protagonist feels almost afflicted with a desire to move up the ranks, win medals, and win acclaim, even as he doesn’t envision a long career in the Corps.

A recurrent conflict within Bravo Company involves tension between white and black marines.  The Black Power conversations sometimes strike a discordant note.  I genuinely can’t tell whether this is because they’re not well written (Marlantes writes from many viewpoints in Matterhorn, and it would be understandable if he couldn’t master all of them, or if the moment in which such language made sense has passed.  In his introduction to Killer Angels, Michael Shaara suggested that he had considerably toned down the earnestness and sincerity of the soldiers political discussions, because the language that they used simply rang false to modern ears.  Gettysburg is a good deal more distant than Vietnam, but I wonder if the same phenomenon doesn’t introduce the discordant note; we are so distant from this particular form of political rhetoric that it rings false even as it expresses a truth.  Whatever the case, I would say that Marlantes is rather less successful in conveying the verbal expression of racial tension in the Vietnam era Marines than Shaara was in describing the conversations of the combatants at Gettysburg.

I don’t believe I’ve ever read a better description of an infantry assault against a defended position in either fiction or non-fiction.  Bravo Company has to launch two assaults against prepared PAV (People’s Army of Vietnam) defenses, and Marlantes gives a bravura account of the difficulties of such an assault.  Terms such a dead ground, empty battlefield, fire and movement, and suppressive fire will make much more sense after you read this book.  I am curious whether a film version is forthcoming; IMDB doesn’t indicate so, but I’ll be surprised if someone doesn’t try to make a movie of the book.  In this case, close fidelity to the battle scenes will be absolutely essential.  This should be possible, as battle scenes are one case in which chapters of text can be fairly rendered in a couple minutes of screen time.

Although I’ve decided to assign Matterhorn as a quasi-optional reading in my COIN course, it really isn’t precisely about counter-insurgency as we’ve come to appreciate to term.  This is to say that it isn’t about population-centric counter-insurgency; the only Vietnamese we see are either PAV regular or defectors.  The Marines of Bravo Company don’t protect any helpless villagers, but then they don’t burn any villages, either.  The descriptions of the actions bear more similarity to Iraq than to Afghanistan, with formations operating distant from base and encountering regular contact. The plot (and much of the frustration of the characters) is built around the abandonment of a particular hill and fixed defense in preference for the fruitless pursuit of PAV units in another part of the country.

Matterhorn isn’t an anti-war novel, or at least not in the same sense as Small Wars.  It’s difficult to read Matterhorn and come to the conclusion that the Vietnam War was a sensible war fought sensibly, but it’s not clear from the text that Marlantes has any particular view on war as such.  He’s keenly aware of the tension that war places on both young people and on society; Matterhorn certainly doesn’t romanticize conflict, even accidentally. Unlike Full Metal Jacket, I doubt that many young men will read this and decide that the Marines are for them.  Indeed, Marlantes makes reasonably clear that Marine machismo and esprit de corps often serve simply as an excuse for senior officers to engage in brutal abuse of junior officers and enlisted men.  Wounded, no food for a week, and facing harsh Vietnamese opposition?  No problem; it would be an insult to the honor of the Marines of Bravo Company to suggest that they need resupply or reinforcement.  But, and this deserves emphasis, for the most part the Marines do what is asked of them, even when the things that are asked are absurd or impossible.

Matterhorn is a great book.  I highly recommend that you give it some of your time.

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  • Bart

    Super book! Everyone should read this, along with “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young”, which provides more criticism of Viet Nam war strategy.

  • Star

    pass

  • Matt McKeon

    Have you read the book, “Thin Red Line?” Its a pretty good account of an attack on a prepared position. Anti romantic, unlike the gauzy mysticism of the film.

    • Robert Farley

      Yes, have read the book. I actually quite like the filmed account of the attack, gauzy mysticism notwithstanding. Excellent depiction of empty battlefield, small unit shock tactics, and suppressive fire.

  • I tried desperately to like this book but, in the end from a literary standpoint, it was a long painful pointless slog about a war that could be described in the same way.

    I still strongly recommend Gloria Emerson’s “Winners & Losers”

  • Really great book, I agree. RE: the Black Power discussions… I took how weird they felt as confirmation of how firmly the right wing has controlled the media narrative post Vietnam.

    • Anderson

      Does the Black Power stuff sound naive? Over-the-top in its extremity? Or just gratuitously dropped-in?

      Another novel with what may be the same problem: Rabbit Redux.

      • Robert Farley

        The first two; I don’t think it was gratuitously dropped in.

    • “The right wing has controlled the media narrative post-Vietnam”

      Whoever the fuck you are, you are full of clinton’s rancid pussyjuice. And the bitch terrorist Bernadine Dohrn’s. And
      yeah, Bozo, I am talking about Hilary. And Hanoi Jane’s.
      She and Dohrn should have been executed. Treason , you know.

  • Ralph Hitchens

    Good review of a very fine novel that mines a rich vein of Vietnam fiction, the Marines in I Corps. The middle management comment is right on, the only fleeting ray of hope provided by the brief conversation between the regimental commander & Bravo company’s battalion CO. As an aside I wouldn’t use the acronym PAV; universally among vets it’s the NVA, or PAVN among scholars.

  • dilbert dogbert

    We Were Soldiers Once… And Young is a 1992 book[1], by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and war journalist Joseph L. Galloway about the Vietnam War. It focuses on the role of the First and Second Battalions of the 7th Cavalry Regiment in the Battle of the la Drang Valley, the United States’ first large-unit battle of the Vietnam War; previous engagements involved small units and patrols (squad, platoon, and company sized units).
    Might be of interest. Galloway was on the field in VN in that battle. He is still alive and his comments would be interesting.

  • Anonymous

    That blockquote needs sic like, x6.

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