Karl Marlantes

'Matterhorn' stands tall as a reminder of war's terrible toll

By Carol Memmott


Scaling Matterhorn takes on new meaning in Karl Marlantes' brutally vivid debut novel about U.S. Marines fighting in Vietnam at the end of the culturally explosive 1960s.

The visceral Matterhorn is as much a tribute to the Marine culture of bravery as it is a dissection of a contentious war and a meditation on the American civil rights movement and how it spilled over into the fighting holes of Southeast Asia.

Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, took 30 years to write this novel. It centers on 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas, a young marine in Bravo Company who will come of age during the pitched and bloody firefights set in the hot, humid jungles of South Vietnam.

"He was frightened beyond any fear he had ever known," Marlantes writes, but "he gave himself over completely to the god of war within him."

Marlantes doesn't just tell us Bravo Company's story. He throws us into the jungle with these brave fighters, most of them teenagers, who will become men or die as the story unfolds.

Marlantes' writing is evocative. We feel the Marines' exhaustion as they dig gun pits, carry dead and wounded comrades, and nearly die from hunger. During one "hump" through the jungle, Mellas and his men don't eat for eight days. They lick dew off their ponchos to stay hydrated.

We hear the scream of the M-16s, the thunk of mortar shells, the hammering of AK-47s and the crack of bullets.

We smell the stink of fear, blood and unwashed bodies. We even smell death as the body of one of the fallen rots over the week they carry it with them. No one is left behind.

And then there's Matterhorn, the fire-support base, from which the novel gets its name and where much of the novel's encounters with the North Vietnamese take place. In the novel, the high-altitude bases are named for Swiss mountains.

Of Matterhorn, Marlantes writes that it "was barren, shorn of trees. Nothing green was left in what was slowly turning into a wasteland of soggy discarded cardboard C-ration boxes, cat-hole latrines, buried garbage, burned garbage, trench latrines, discarded magazines from home, smashed ammunition pallets and frayed plastic sandbags."

Marlantes doesn't tell a new story, and his characters often fit the proverbial war-story stereotypes. But he pitches us into a harrowing narrative we won't soon forget.