Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Book of the month: Matterhorn

Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, is a hefty work of fiction depicting a short period in the life of a fictional US Marine company in Vietnam. Marlantes himself is a decorated Marine combat veteran who served in Vietnam as an officer and won the Navy Cross and the Bronze Star as well as two Purple Hearts.

Matterhorn is a big, sprawling, rain and blood-soaked epic that looks deep inside the heads of members of a US Marine company, as well as some more senior officers at battalion and division level, as they seek to engage and interdict North Vietnamese forces in the I Corps area of operations in South Vietnam. The unit is tasked with establishing Matterhorn, the latest in a chain of fire support bases intended to provide artillery for Marine operations against NVA infiltrating across the border from Laos. The date is unspecific, but could be 1969, which is when Marlantes himself was in-country.

The company depicted is an entirely fictional one, but the book obviously draws heavily on Marlantes' own experiences in the mountainous jungle terrain of this border area. Most of the action takes place during the monsoon season, and as the Marines are operating at altitude, low cloud and heavy rain play havoc with their efforts to make use of air support the air resupply/medevacs, leading to situations of extreme privation.

I won't spoil the plot, but typical scenes include an attempt to keep a Marine inflicted with cerebral malaria alive by immersing him a fast-flowing jungle stream. It is a highly emotional depiction, and because of Marlantes' own experience, the reader always wonders which elements of the book are really just thinly-disguised fact.

In another case, a Marine officer whose unit has gone without food or sleep for four days while marching through dense jungle terrain raves at the perfidious English after he discovers British Red Cross supplies in an NVA ammo cache. Another Marine sends off for a samurai sword via mail order to better equip himself for close quarters fighting with the Vietnamese in the jungle. It's awesome stuff.

Marlantes does a great job of bringing the monsoon weather and the soaring terrain to life, as well as amply illustrating the difficulties encountered by the average grunt on the ground, many of them more to do with the environment or racial tensions than anything the NVA can throw at them. On top of this, the officers themselves are constantly engaged in the political double dealing at battalion level, as ambitious career officers hunt for their general's stars, even at the cost of the lives of the men on the ground (shades here of the 1914-18 war).

Although a work of fiction, this one earns its place on my Vietnam book shelf next to the likes of Robert Mason's Chickenhawk and Hal Moore's We Were Soldiers Once. Epic stuff.

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