Karl Marlantes on ‘Matterhorn’

Each year, the Colby Symposium awards the Colby Award to a first notable book from an author that deals fundamentally with the nature of warfare and contributes substantially to the field. During the awards dinner this year, executive director and Norwich University Alum, Carlo D’Este said that it was rare that the entire committee universally agrees on a single book, but that this was the case for the 2011 prize, going to Karl Marlantes, with his first acclaimed novel, Matterhorn.

Karl Marlantes is a Marine Corps veteran, a Rhodes Scholar, and a graduate from Yale University. In the course of his military service during the Vietnam War, he earned the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, two Navy Commendation Medals for Valor, ten air medals and the Navy Cross, amongst numerous others. He first attempted to publish his novel in 1967 and was unsuccessful until 2009, when his book was published by El Leon Literary Arts, and later by the Atlantic Monthly Press in 2010.

Matterhorn is a work of fiction, but is closely tied to Marlantes’s own experiences in Vietnam. Early in his presentation, he told the group that he wanted to tell the common experience of Vietnam, rather than simply his own: in literature, readers relate to the characters in the novel, whereas in a memoir, the reader’s experience is somewhat different. He believed that fiction was the better route in this case, also because he wanted to get into the heads of a number of different characters, rather than just one person.

Like Stanton, he noted that part of a soldier’s training is that people make mistakes: the key is to make sure that the mistake isn’t repeated. In the instance of military operations, mistakes can be fatal, and officers are responsible for the people under their command. He noted that the military is run by human beings, and that he didn’t believe that there were villains, just people with flaws.

Vietnam, he said, is akin to the alcoholic father, the elephant in the room: it’s influential, but nobody wants to talk about it. Like we’re seeing now in Afghanistan, we didn’t understand the culture, we were restrained by very strict rules of engagement and we worked with a very corrupt and illegitimate native government. One key difference is that there is the absence of major civil unrest in the United States right now, unlike in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1969, there were over 200 fragging instances, where someone would take a fragmentation grenade and roll it into someone’s tent. These incidents of fratricide were usually racially motivated. He said that when you take a bunch of 19 year olds and give them weapons, you have the very definition of racial tensions.

Another major difference was the institution of the draft. While the draft was incredibly unfair – people could be exempted from being called into service (if they were attending college, for example), but we have a burdened all volunteer military now. Marlantes asserted that changes needed to be made and that the volunteer military needs to be rethought, as extended periods of warfare put an incredible strain on our armed forces and on the country as a whole. He cited an indifference to the military right now, and that that wasn’t good for anyone.

One of the major problems that helped to define Vietnam (and according to Jack Segal, Afghanistan as well): the lack of definable progress with the war. World War II was a clear cut battle: there were objectives that were captured, defined and tangible enemies that were pushed back, islands captured, and so forth. With Vietnam, the only progress was a body count (which he also noted was heavily distorted by soldiers on the ground). Using a body count as a measure of war is immoral. The purpose of the military is not to kill (although it carries that out in the course of its duties) but to stop their enemy from continuing the fight. As soon as one military gets the other to stop, they’ve won. The killing should never be the objective of the war. In a way, Vietnam became a game. In all things, whether it’s warfare or a business, the objectives and the metrics used need to be clear-cut, careful and solid.

Marlantes also cited that there shouldn’t be a separation between the people on the ground and the strategy for the war as a whole. Micromanagement of soldiers is problematic, and its essentially a double-edged sword, something that began in Vietnam, and is something that we continue with today. The people on the ground need to understand what the objectives are, and the people setting the objectives need to understand the capabilities and resources available to them in the people on the ground.

At every reading, Marlantes was asked where Matterhorn was. He fought at Hill 484, where they fought very hard to take and hold the position: at one point, they were down to seven bullets per man, before resupply. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was very well organized, and formidable enemies. 484, and another hill, 3107, heavily influenced the novel. He noted that a lot of people pulled him aside and recounted their own experiences, and how similar the book’s lined up with their own, an indication that the war saw numerous similar experiences for a number of different people.

One major problem with Vietnam, he noted, was the way in which the war was approached and fought. Just a couple of decades after the Second World War, the Navy and Marines were geared towards certain ways of fighting: the marines were geared towards amphibious warfare, while their helicopters were geared towards tactical missions, rather than resupply. During WWII, the Marines worked to take islands, dropped off by the Navy, who would then retreat out of range. Rather than simply bombing, the Marines sought to exchange casualties for speed. However, capital ships weren’t in regular danger, and that this caused problems in the execution of the war’s strategy.

Personal problems also flared up: drug usage was heavy amongst soldiers, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, but soldiers of Vietnam exchanged alcohol for pills, or weed. This is something that’s continued forward with the current wars in Afghanistan, although now, it’s through legal means, and is something that Marlantes believes will be causing a number of psychological problems for soldiers after the war is over.

Matterhorn is a novel that he hopes will demonstrate the character of the Vietnam War, and through the course of the talk, it’s clear that there’s a number of parallels between the conflicts in Vietnam and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East: the changes in strategy, the metrics of warfare, the organization and command of the soldiers and the uncertain battleground and objectives. Matterhorn is on my personal to-read list, and at some point in the future, I’ll have a review for it here. There are lessons in the past that should not be overlooked, or forgotten.