The Vietnam War was the defining war for my generation, just as the Mideast wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are for the present generation. There are differences, of course. Young people today do not feel as threatened by the current war, as it is fought by professional soldiers, and though the situation could change, at least right now there is no risk that they could be arbitrarily called up to serve. In my time, though, the early 70s, the draft was in effect, and young men were wrenched out of whatever they were doing in the homeland, under threat of imprisonment, and sent off to fight and die in a war that they often either did not believe in or had no idea what it was about.
Personally, my initial, “W”, came up number 13 in the draft lottery and it looked like I’d be grabbed, but just a few weeks before I would have been called for enlistment the draft was abolished and the military became voluntary again. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d gone, or if I would have survived, but I was glad I didn’t have to find out.
Because Vietnam was so important to me, and such a significant part of the era in which I lived, I have always sought out books, both fiction and nonfiction, that would help me understand it better. Two of the best nonfiction books I have ever read on the Vietnam War are “The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam, and “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” by Neil Sheehan. It has been harder to find spot-on fiction. I eagerly read “Tree of Smoke” by Denis Johnson a few years ago; it’s a great book, very well-written, but it deals mainly with intelligence agency subterfuge and not so much with the situation for the grunts on the ground.
Then along came “Matterhorn”. I first heard of it through a major review in Time Magazine. I did some further research online, read some more reviews, and then decided I had to read it and ordered it as soon as I could. Does it live up to all the hype it has received? Yes, and then some. It is one of the best novels I have read in years. It is the Vietnam novel I always looked for but never found.
It gets right down into the nitty-gritty of a Marine Corps company in the north near the borders of Laos and North Vietnam. They are ordered to vacate a hill called Matterhorn, and then after a long march through the jungle to headquarters are ordered to re-take it. The novel details not only the dirt and blood and horror the men on the ground experience, but also the insanity of the decision-making process on up the chain of command. Oh, it’s a hell of a book all right, and it takes you, the reader, on a journey through hell.
The author served as a Marine in Vietnam. It is said that it took him thirty years to write the book, but at no time was he a full-time writer; he had a family and a career and one can imagine the novel slowly taking shape in whatever time was available to him. But what is obvious is that it is a labor of love, and an effort to tell what must be told, that is, what would eat up the guts if it were not told; equally obvious is the fact that Marlantes is a very talented novelist.
Dark though the subject matter is, while reading “Matterhorn” I didn’t want the experience to end; so it is with great art. I highly recommend this book.
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