I haven’t seen much since the New Year. I haven’t been out at all. Been laying low. The only thing I’ve been to is my own gigs which I host every Thursday and Friday night at a small venue in the City. And I’m not pushed about scribbling about it. It’s what I do. Another time perhaps. What I have been indulging in though is my Christmas book pile. I did very well out of Santas little book elf and I’m currently driving through them, eating them up, devouring them, oh such pleasure!
So, with my books in mind I thought I’d mention a novel that I’ve just finished, that I’m sorry to see go. The book is called ‘Matterhorn’ by Karl Marlantes. It’s a novel about the Vietnam War. A war that is now part of popular culture for many reasons not least because it served to focus civil unrest and confrontation against the political and social establishment in America during the late 60s and early 70s. Of course in the 80s and 90s it was the subject of many successful Hollywood films, songs and documentaries and now it is the focus of a book which took the author – who was himself a highly decorated marine in Vietnam - over 30 years to write
The novel tells the story of a young second Lieutenant, Waino Mellas, an officer with dreams of wartime glory that he believes will help him reach a nice stateside career after his tour ends. It is what happens to Mellas during his first two months in the country that Marlantes uses to describe the futility of politicized and “limited” warfare: the taking of dubious objectives in countless missions to Search and Destroy.
It’s been said that in war, all victory is fleeting, but for the Bravo Company – whose average age, like the song, is 19 – it’s not even momentarily satisfying. Victory means establishing a firebase on Matterhorn (and other hills), digging fortifications, abandoning them to the enemy then taking them back three days later. They don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish, and in the end they don’t care. They merely endure. The novel is a sustained depiction of the drudgery of jungle warfare. The men of Bravo endure leeches, tigers, diarrhoea, jungle rot, cerebral malaria, malnutrition, dehydration, starvation, exhaustion, immersion foot, exposure to Agent Orange and stupidity run amok (and that’s before combat). Senior officers define their objective simply (to kill ‘gooks’) and micromanage their troops incessantly, radios crackling with requests for body counts even in the middle of fire fights.
Between maddening doses of bureaucratic incompetence there is racial conflict bordering on mutiny with junior officers caught in the middle. Killing is about the only thing that makes sense. But the Marines in Bravo aren’t quite sure whom they’d like to kill more: the enemy out there or the enemy within. This is a war not of conquest but of attrition, where body counts are inflated like bankers bonuses, troop re-supply is neglected or denied outright (leading to starvation and insane hunger marches) and the most successful officers are the most politically savvy. Meanwhile, soldiers remind themselves of the honour bound traditions of the Corps and never leave a Marine behind. For days on end, dehydrated and starving, they carry the rotting corpses of their fallen comrades rather than succumb to a loss of honour. To an outsider, it seems at best impractical and at worst suicidal.
The novel is set in 1969, the year after the Tet Offensive and the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, a time when political tensions threaten to boil over into self-destruction. In the rear, racial agendas dominate the enlisted ranks, but in the bush, desperate Marines need one another more than they need Panthers and Klansmen. Fighting their way up the hillside of their former firebase, hatred and jealousy evaporate, even the Corps itself disappears. Every grunt bleeds red and craves only one thing – to get out. Yet it is in this chaos that Mellas achieves a clarity he gets nowhere else. He does his duty, not to God, country or ideology, but to the men hunkered beside him, for whom he feels an emotion he can only call love.
Lt. Mellas questions everything about the war and its prosecution, yet remains in it nonetheless. To follow him, we are forced at gunpoint down a long jungle path where no atrocity goes undescribed, where glory is reduced to a vague and senseless dream and the theatre of the absurd is decidedly unfunny. Mellas and his cohorts find meaning not in death but in the most immediate realities – kill or be killed, save and be saved – and when you’re finished, maybe, maybe, you’ll get a cold beer and a hot shower and a week’s R + R in Bangkok.
It is an utterly enthralling book, totally engrossing. The mind boogles at what these young men went through in the jungles of South – East Asia. Like the descriptions of the battle for Stalingrad that Anthony Beever brought to life in his book of the same name this novel puts everything into perspective. The lives of the men depicted go through such agony, hardship, despair, madness, love and hate it’s a wonder that any of them came out of there and went on to lead fulfilling lives. This book is both a damning indictment of war and a testament to the soldiers that fight it. The grunts.
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