|Tragic image from the My Lai massacre that took place during the Vietnam War. While Nick Turse has written a book demonstrating such crimes were commonplace, Marlantes’s unputdownable Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War has evidently failed to kindle any remorse in the author over the commission of war crimes.
Last week, I held up Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam as the truest account of what the nation suffered between 1969 and 1975—in shorthand, roughly 2 million dead civilians and decades worth of rapes, mutilations and other indignities that the United States only ever investigated to cover up.
Only after finally accepting that the Vietnam War was, above all else, a crime, could I bother to pick up Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, a doorstop-sized Vietnam War novel my brother had given me for Christmas.
He had warned me that I wouldn’t be able to stop reading it. So did the dozen glowing reviews plastered on the back and inside cover—warm words from smart folks writing for every major left-wing outlet in America.
I breezed through the 566 pages in four days, often on wobbling feet or straining through red eyes, late into the night.
The book feels real or, at least, like a movie. It is, in fact, a dramatization of the real life experiences of Karl Marlantes—a Yale philosophy student who volunteered for the Marine Corps in 1969 and spent his tour as a lieutenant in western Quang Tri Province.
After 50 years of work, Matterhorn emerged in 2010 as a vivid portrayal of the maddening drudgery of a young man, rotting away in the jungle, trying not to be eaten by tigers or leeches or to succumb to the urge to shoot the drunk, hayseed Corporal that kept ordering him to lead a group of heavily armed teenagers into the path of the North Vietnamese Army.
The book is full of gore and suspense and Black radicals who go into battle with nooses hanging from their necks. At times, there are tender reflections on falling in love, friendship and coming of age but they quickly evaporate into action and suspense.
Marlates weaves all of these themes and characters together in short, tense scenes that feel dizzying and disorienting. At times you want him to just stop narrating so the soldiers can get some rest or water.
For many smart Americans, this novel came to be the story of the war—“honest,” even “complete.” Indeed, it seemed to affirm everyone’s worst suspicions: that the war was so terrible for the people prosecuting it that we can’t hold them accountable, much less talk about the moral implications of what they did.
Last July, Bill Moyers articulated these misgivings as he began an interview with Marlantes about his second book, a direct memoir called What It’s Like to Go to War.
“I’m not even sure I can ask you a question that doesn’t strike you as banal,” Moyers said. “There’s a divide, between the warrior and the rest of us and that divide can’t really be crossed, can it?”
Marlantes agreed that there wasn’t, but said that it was important to start asking the questions.
Buy Moyers didn’t.
Instead, he spent an hour listening to the author’s war stories, many of which served as scenes for his novel and lobbing softballs (e.g. “what makes a good killer?”).
Moyers sat transfixed as the author, eyes darting back and forth, mused about the spirituality of combat, the ravages of PTSD and the visions that still haunt him.
The question of whether people should kill for a cause that’s futile or meaningless (or both) was never asked.
Moyers probably didn’t ask some of the questions because they’d already been asked and answered in Matterhorn by callous girlfriends and frightened soldiers, only to be laughed off or overcome by a jolt of camaraderie or ambition.
In fact, the whole notion of refusing to fight is pilloried by every character in the book as either a posture for poseurs who want pretentious women to like them or the criminal impulse of those who are out to dismantle America.
Marlantes’ characters all seem to recognize that the North Vietnamese Army will never give up. They are the only people in the book who have any reason to actually be fighting, but they remain a distant, half-human specter: Nagoolian, “the gooners” or more often “gooks.”
After the rush of his storytelling wore off, I began to wonder how much Marlantes’ narrative actually had to do with what happened during the Vietnam War.
Not much, Turse reminded me.
“[Matterhorn] focuses tightly on a small unit of Americans in a remote location surrounded by armed enemy troops—an episode that, while pitch perfect in depiction, represents only a sliver of a fraction of the conflict that was the Vietnam War,” he wrote in a 2010 review of a similar documentary on the Afghan War.
In this way, it may tell you as much about what the Americans did to Vietnam as Das Boot tells you about what the Germans did to Europe.
Matterhorn, whether it intends to or not, extends the notion that the Vietnam War wasn’t about a giant power trying to bleed a small country into submission, but a series of gory dramas that testify to the virtues of self-sacrifice, masculinity and heroism.
If it seems I’m being unfair, consider the extent to which Marlantes remains faithful to the very institution that has left him crippled with horrific nightmares, explosions of sorrow and irrational rages. In a Times of London interview included in my copy, he advises the young lieutenants in Afghanistan to keep killing without thinking too much about it.
“Your job is to do the killing for your country without getting too involved in it and it’s very difficult,” the piece quotes him as saying.
Most Americans love lines like that. It’s the kind of thing we can comfortably accept—without getting too involved in it.
My only hope is that the increasing mechanization of American warfare will lay bare the true story of its “interventions.” When America’s killing gets done by drones and robots instead of teenagers, there won’t be any more coming-of-age-novels set in slaughters.
There won’t be any spiritual reflections on killing people anymore and no one will have any qualms about asking about it or (god-willing) refusing to participate.
Perhaps to offset this potential crisis, last week, the Pentagon introduced the Distinguished Warfare Medal, which trumps the Bronze Star that Marlantes (and his main character) won saving a wounded Marine who was under fire from a Vietnamese machine gunner.
The medal will be set aside for computer hackers and drone pilots.
American combat veterans have already launched a petition asking the president to downgrade its significance. I doubt he will. Such is the future of America’s killing.
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By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the February 22nd issue of our print edition, Vietweek)