A Novel of the Vietnam Warby Karl Marlantes
A big, powerful saga of men in combat, written over the course of thirty-five years by a highly decorated Vietnam veteran.
Intense, powerful, and compelling, Matterhorn is an epic war novel in the tradition of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’s The Thin Red Line. It is the timeless story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also monsoon rain and mud, leeches and tigers, disease and malnutrition. Almost as daunting, it turns out, are the obstacles they discover between each other: racial tension, competing ambitions, and duplicitous superior officers. But when the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. The experience will change them forever.
Written over the course of thirty years by a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, Matterhorn is a visceral and spellbinding novel about what it is like to be a young man at war. It is an unforgettable novel that transforms the tragedy of Vietnam into a powerful and universal story of courage, camaraderie, and sacrifice: a parable not only of the war in Vietnam but of all war, and a testament to the redemptive power of literature.
A graduate of Yale University and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. This is his first novel. He lives in rural Washington State.
“Matterhorn is a raw, brilliant account of war that may well serve as a final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American history. . . . It’s not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered. . . . One of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam—or any war.” —Sebastian Junger, The New York Times Book Review (front-page review)
“A powerful first work that defines the tragic cost of the Vietnam War in human terms. Marlantes’ breakneck writing style is both passionate and haunting, thrusting the reader into alternating moments of chaos and courage reflecting the fragility of our Marines on the ground—and their leadership—in combat.” —W.E.B. Griffin
“There has never been a more realistic portrait of or eloquent tribute to the nobility of men under fire. . . . Marlantes’ story is so intense that there were times reading it when I thought I could not stand to turn the page. . . .Vladimir Nabokov once said that the greatest books are those you read not just with your heart or your mind, but with your spine. This is one for the spine.” —Mark Bowden, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Carefully constructed and beautifully realized . . . Filled with truth, wisdom, love, and a rich vein of dark gallows humor.” —Steve Kroft, Newsweek
“It’s been a long time since a novel has caused me to shed tears, but while reading Matterhorn, I had a hard time holding some back as I read passages of violence and bravery that brutally captured the fog of war, the harsh reality of combat, and the bonds of friendship forged in battle. It is one of the best war novels I have ever read. . . . Destined to become a literary touchstone for those seeking to understand a chaotic war waged during a turbulent time in American history.” —Vincent Bosquez, San Antonio Express-News
“Few war novels give you life and death in the field this vividly, with all of its furor and spraying blood and feces, its hunger and near madness. The troops of Bravo Company suffer the jungle of war, the enemy machine guns, grenades, and mortars, and somehow the novelist transfigures them into heroes. . . . Leeches suck their blood, tigers kill and eat them, the fog descends upon them, sometimes blinds them. Their wounds ooze, their feet begin to rot, their rations go. They’re reduced to licking their ponchos for moisture. . . . Matterhorn will take your heart and sometimes even your breath away.” —Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered
“Stunning and visceral . . . I’ve read many of what are generally regarded as the best books—both fiction and nonfiction—about various wars . . . but Matterhorn just knocked the wind out of me and made me wonder how any combat soldiers come home sane. . . . After every few pages I had to put it down in order to try to recover my emotional equilibrium. . . . It’s an amazing accomplishment.” —Nancy Pearl
“Superb . . . A treasure . . . Deserves a place on the shelf of any reader with even a passing interest in the lore of Vietnam . . . If your pulse isn’t racing while Marlantes, himself a decorated marine, leads you through the death-defying pursuit of walking point, or heading up a column of marines on patrol, you simply can’t be paying attention. . . . It’s a bloody Vietnam epic, to be sure. But it’s also a full-blooded inspection of the human spirit.” —David Grant, Christian Science Monitor
“A magnificent work . . . This is certainly one of the most powerful and moving novels ever written about Vietnam, and its description of combat rivals anything I have read on the topic—by Erich Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer, James Jones, James Webb, John Keegan, Paul Fussell, anyone. I’ve mentioned before that my personal test for the quality of fiction is whether I find myself remembering a book—characters, scenes, choices—months or years after I’ve put the book down. I expect to remember this one.” —James Fallows, The Atlantic
“I’ve laughed at Catch-22 and wept at The Thin Red Line, but I’ve never encountered a war novel as stark, honest and wrenching as Matterhorn. Marlantes writes with a spare clarity, but he’s unafraid to plumb the emotions of the young men in Bravo Company; the icy bravado of Hemingway or Mailer has no place in these pages. The Marines of Matterhorn are both brave and frightened, both committed and resigned. Their common refrain, “There it is,” denotes acceptance of some new and unfortunate but unchangeable fact. By turns, this book horrified me, crushed me and beat me up, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading. More than any living American novelist I’ve read, Marlantes made me feel what I already must have known: that war is worse than hell. There it is.” —Michael Schaub, NPR
“Visceral . . . Evocative . . . We feel the Marines’ exhaustion as they dig gun pits, carry dead and wounded comrades, and nearly die from hunger. . . . 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. . . . [Marlantes] pitches us into a harrowing narrative we won’t soon forget.” —Carol Memmott, USA Today
“A powerhouse: tense, brutal, honest.” —Time
“It reads like adventure and yet it makes even the toughest war stories seem a little pale by comparison. The author, a highly decorated Marine Corps officer and veteran of Vietnam, wrote the novel over 30 years, while also raising a family and working full-time as a business consultant. This feat of persistence pays off in a narrative born of perspective and memories that survive over time, a narrative of frustration, terror and the war-is-hell theme that lies at the heart of every war story since The Iliad. . . . In what might be literature’s most sustained depiction of the drudgery of jungle warfare—rivaling Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead—the men of Bravo endure leeches, diarrhea, jungle rot, malnutrition, dehydration, immersion foot and stupidity run amok. . . . Ironically, the best parts of Matterhorn aren’t the battle scenes . . . Rather it is Marlantes’s treatment of pre-combat tension and rear-echelon politics. It’s these in-between spaces that create the real terror of Matterhorn.” —David Masiel, The Washington Post
“Matterhorn . . . is arguably the best novel about Vietnam, or any war for that matter.” —Doug Bradley, Huffington Post
“Impossible to put down . . . A generous, terrifying, thrilling, and miserable story of men who deserved better, but gave their all anyway.” —The Onion
“Marlantes has given us a story with experience of the immediate and wisdom of the decades. As a result we have a novel which will lay its claim as the book to read about the American war in Vietnam. . . . Marlantes gives us a Vietnam War novel with it all. Battle scenes with horrifying deaths, racism and politics showing themselves as forces of war, and soldiers simply trying to live to the next day. But we also see soldiers committed to their country and to each other, where honor is still important and where friendship means you never leave a fellow soldier behind. It is, in a sense, a patriotic novel which avoids sentimentality by showing the realities of war. Those who have not fought in Marlantes’ war cannot understand all he experienced, but this novel brings us close.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“Engrossing . . . Even though the book is dedicated to the author’s children, it’s also a tribute to the training and bravery of those who fought with him in Vietnam. . . . . . . Deserves a place on the shelf of enduring volumes about the Vietnam War.” —Ellen Emry Heltzel, Seattle Times
“Stunning . . . It would be easy to hyperbolize Matterhorn with any number of glow-words from the reviewer’s convenient arsenal of adjectives. But the high praise always remains the same: ‘Just go buy and read the classic-to-be for yourself.’” —Leatherneck
“Vivid . . . Elegant . . . [Matterhorn] is the best combat novel that’s been written in quite some time, and it will be years before we see its like again. . . . It tolls in the reader’s mind and leaves a long, haunting echo.” —Emily Carter, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Vietnam is the setting for this extraordinary, inspiring, and compelling first book by Karl Marlantes, but the author is concerned with larger themes. Matterhorn could have been written about combat anywhere, anytime. It is a rich, fine, powerful story told with excruciating precision about men driven to extremes of fear and courage.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Brilliant . . . A living, breathing book . . . Matterhorn is a marvel.” —Daphne Durham, Louisville Courier-Journal
“Lush, compelling, and tragic . . . Marlantes tells an unflinching story of the brutality of combat. . . . Matterhorn is a work about ineffable loss in the wake of questionable policy, and one in which the politics at headquarters is paid for in infantrymen’s lives.” —Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post
“Perhaps the best, [and] at least the most honest book that has been written about Vietnam.” —Evan Thomas, The Huffington Post
“The most visceral of all Vietnam novels . . . Can’t be put down . . . Marlantes brilliantly captures the confusion, fear, anger, and deafening noise of battle.” —John Foyston, The Oregonian
“Gripping . . . Unforgettable . . . Cracking its cover is like the click, click, click of the first upward climb of a roller coaster. After that, there’s no looking back. It’s a brilliant, stomach-lurching ride. . . . Earns a place beside the war classics.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Haunting . . . What makes this novel so irresistible is Marlantes’s skill at peeling away the many layers of truth in combat. . . . Matterhorn will not only take its place on the top shelf of war fiction, it’s going to knock a few books off. It’s that good.” —Michael Lee, BookPage
“[A] tale of heroism and sacrifice.” —Chris Tucker, The Dallas Morning News
“Gripping . . . Marlantes is a born storyteller, and the story he tells is one that’s hard to forget . . . Move over, Norman Mailer. Make room, James Jones. You’ve got company.” —James E. Casto, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)
“Never have we seen the particular horrors and challenges of Vietnam so richly explored, and never have we felt the tactile experience of the war depicted with such mesmerizing force. We see the big picture, but as with all great novels, it’s the tiny details—the mud, the leeches, the adrenaline-drenched dread of combat, and the tender joy of comradeship—that linger with the reader long after the story is over.” —Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers and Hellhound on His Trail
“Unforgettable . . . A beautifully crafted novel of unrivaled authenticity and power, filled with jungle heroism, crackerjack inventiveness, mud, blood, brotherhood, hatred, healing, terror, bureaucracy, politics, unfathomable waste, and unfathomable love.” —Christina Robb, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of This Changes Everything
“Matterhorn is that rare modern novel destined to become a classic. Karl Marlantes has written a riveting and harrowing portrait of young men at war.” —Vince Flynn, author of Pursuit of Honor
“Matterhorn is one of the most powerful and moving novels about combat, the Vietnam War, and war in general that I have ever read.” —Dan Rather
“A friend of mine who was a marine officer in the very area where Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War takes place said that it’s the most tone-perfect story about the war he’s ever read. The subtitle might suggest a book that will languish on a coffee table or bookshelf, but it shouldn’t languish anyplace; it should be picked up and read cover to cover. Its scenes and characters are so real that you feel as if you’re watching actual combat footage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Matterhorn becomes for the Vietnam War what All Quiet on the Western Front was to World War I.” —James Patterson, Time magazine’s “The Must-reads of Summer ’10”
“As warfare shapeshifts its way into a new century, the publication of Matterhorn is perfectly timed. Karl Marlantes tells a riveting, richly detailed personal tale of soldiers in Vietnam, and in doing so, he brilliantly illuminates the defining war of the last half of the twentieth century. Matterhorn reminds us, profoundly, of our flawed humanity, capable of individual grace and collective horror.” —Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
“These are the words I wrote down while reading Matterhorn: authentic, funny, heartbreaking, infuriating, devastating. This great book crawled under my skin on the first page, and I suspect it will remain there for a very long time.” —David Finkel, author of The Good Soldiers
“Matterhorn is a masterful and thrilling drama about an event of national importance that we have barely understood. Marlantes conjures grace out of suffering, honor from despair, sense out of nonsense. The men and women of this story have long deserved a homecoming, and we needed to hear their true story. Marlantes has delivered a heartbreaking achievement. He has written a timeless work of literary fiction.” —Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers
“Matterhorn is the best war novel I have ever read. The prose is elegant and the emotion is raw—I felt like I was soaking wet, muddy, and walking in fear alongside Mellas, Hawke, and Jackson in the tangled jungles of Vietnam. This is a grand and hugely ambitious novel.” —John Hugo, Andover Bookstore (Andover, MA)
“Matterhorn combines the grit and dark humor of Catch 22 with the eloquence of All Quiet on the Western Front. The truth of this book honors the soldiers of Vietnam as well as all wars. Karl Marlantes has written a classic.” —Sessalee Hensley, Barnes & Noble
“Matterhorn is relentless and fascinating, as powerful in its simplicity and authenticity as any book I’ve read. You’re dropped in country from the first page (a dramatic fall leaving you soaked and covered in leeches) and marched into the darkness with Bravo Company as your sole companions. Marlantes, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, exposes the mind-numbing repetition, crushing bureaucracy, and desperate deeds of war in such stark, moving language; you will be stunned and exhausted, but grateful for the story.” —Daphne Durham, Amazon.com
“Matterhorn is a riveting and literary tour de force. It is a powerful and unforgettable journey into the heart of the god of war—where meaning can be elusive and humanity yearns and strives to create it. A quintessential American novel that engages and forces the reader to care—deeply.” —Ed Conklin, Chaucer’s Books (Santa Barbara, CA)
“As a bookseller it is truly a gift when a book comes along that I can honestly rave about to customers. It is only about once every ten years or so that I read a new book that really grabs me the way Matterhorn does. This is a vivid and unforgettable look at what war does to young men, and old men, and how good intentions and ambitions are crushed and twisted by the horror of war. Of the many fine books written about the Vietnam War this, in my opinion, is the best. And, although the Vietnam War is now history, we need to be reminded, and those too young to remember must learn the true cost of war.” —Grant Novak, The Vermont Book Shop (Middlebury, VT)
“Every war has produced some seminal fiction, but in the case of Vietnam there have been few examples. Karl Marlantes now increases the list by one with a towering, majestic novel of men in combat. Like all great literature his work transcends a particular war because of the universality of his characters and themes. This is a novel that will endure.” —Bill Cusumano, Nicola’s Books (Ann Arbor, MI)
“Matterhorn is a terrific, towering novel. Marine Lieutenant Marlantes does for the Vietnam War what Lieutenant Sassoon did for the war in Flanders; what Sergeant Mailer did for the war in the Pacific; what Tenente Hemingway did for the war in Italy. He takes you there, shakes you, and never lets you go. Matterhorn will surely take its place on every armchair-warrior’s bookshelf, shoulder to shoulder with Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, The Naked and the Dead, and A Farewell to Arms.” —Jon Stallworthy, editor, The Oxford Book of War Poetry
“Matterhorn ranks up there with the best novels about combat in the green hell of Vietnam. This is a nose-in-the-mud, leeches-in-places-you-don’t-want-to-think-about book. A Princeton-educated Marine lieutenant learns the hard way about class, callous brass, and deadly racial hatred. Marlantes writes some of the best leatherneck dialogue you’ll ever read.” —John McChesney, senior correspondent, National Public Radio
“A gripping narrative, powerful and unflinching. There are scenes in this wonderful novel that I defy you to forget.” —Michael Fredrickson, author of A Defense for the Dead
“Matterhorn is a powerful work of literature and a tribute to those who fought and died. . . . No other novel about Vietnam—including Jim Webb’s Fields of Fire—does a better job of capturing the essence of what it meant to be a “grunt” in Vietnam.” —Mackubin Owens, associate dean, U.S. Naval War College
“Only rarely does a book like Matterhorn come along. It combines great American literature with sweaty palm adventure. You neither have to love war nor hate it to find yourself spell struck by Marlantes’s rare gift.” —Mike Harreschou, author of Chain of Evidence
“Thrilling . . . A grand, distinctive accomplishment.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A major work.” —Library Journal
“An engrossing chronicle of men at war.” —Booklist
“In his singular debut novel, Karl Marlantes portrays with brutal candor the fear, heroism and sheer insanity that are the lot of the warrior. . . . The scenes of that fierce battle are narrated with a rawness and immediacy that can come only from someone who experienced their intensity firsthand. . . . As ancient as The Iliad and as contemporary as the latest dispatch from Afghanistan, stories of war will continue to absorb and repel us. Karl Marlantes’s novel is a worthy addition to that body of literature, rising above the particularities of the conflict it describes to achieve a firm handhold on universal truth.” —Harvey Freedenberg, The Book Reporter
A New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the 2011 William E. Colby Award, presented by Tawani Foundation in association with the Pritzker Military Library
Winner of The Center For Fiction’s 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize
Winner of the 2011 Indies Choice Award for Adult Debut Book of the Year
Shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublic Literary Award
Selected as a New York Times 100 Notables of 2010
Selected as a 2011 Notable Books for Adults (Fiction) by The Notable Books
Council of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), a division of the American Library Association
Winner of the 2011 Pacific Northwest Book Award
Selected by Stephen King as an Entertainment Weekly “10 Best Books I Have Read this Year”
Selected as an Esquire magazine “Best of 2010”
Selected by James Patterson as a Time magazine “The Must-reads of Summer ’10”
Amazon top five “Best Books of 2010”
Selected as a Hudson Booksellers’ Best Books of 2010
Selected by Shelf Awareness’s Marilyn Dahl, John Mutter, and Valerie Ryan as a Top Ten Books of 2010
Selected as an iBookstore Best Books of 2010
One of the Oregonian‘s 10 Best Northwest Books of 2010
Debuted at #12 on the National Indie Bestseller List (March 30, 2010)
A Barnes & Noble Summer 2010 Discover selection (April 30, 2010)
An Indie Next List Notable selection (April 2010)
A PopMatters Best Books of 2010
Mellas stood beneath the gray monsoon clouds on the narrow strip of cleared ground between the edge of the jungle and the relative safety of the perimeter wire. He tried to focus on counting the other thirteen Marines of the patrol as they emerged single file from the jungle, but exhaustion made focusing difficult. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to shut out the smell of the shit, which sloshed in the water that half-filled the open latrine pits above him on the other side of the wire. Rain dropped from the lip of his helmet, fell past his eyes, and spattered onto the satiny olive cloth that held the armor plating of his cumbersome new flak jacket. The dark green T-shirt and boxer shorts that his mother had dyed for him just three weeks ago clung to his skin, heavy and clammy beneath his camouflage utility jacket and trousers. He knew there would be leeches clinging to his legs, arms, back, and chest beneath his wet clothes, even though he couldn’t feel them now. It was the way with leeches, he mused.
They were so small and thin before they started sucking your blood that you rarely felt them unless they fell on you from a tree, and you never felt them piercing your skin. There was some sort of natural anesthetic in their saliva. You would discover them later, swollen with blood, sticking out from your skin like little pregnant bellies.
When the last Marine entered the maze of switchbacks and crude gates in the barbed wire, Mellas nodded to Fisher, the squad leader, one of three who reported to him. “Eleven plus us three,” he said. Fisher nodded back, put his thumb up in agreement, and entered the wire. Mellas followed him, trailed by his radio operator, Hamilton.
The patrol emerged from the wire, and the young Marines climbed slowly up the slope of the new fire support base, FSB Matterhorn, bent over with fatigue, picking their way around shattered stumps and dead trees that gave no shelter. The verdant underbrush had been hacked down with K-bar knives to clear fields of fire for the defensive lines, and the jungle floor, once veined with rivulets of water, was now only sucking clay.
The thin, wet straps of Mellas’s two cotton ammunition bandoleers dug into the back of his neck, each with the weight of twenty fully loaded M-16 magazines. These straps had rubbed him raw. All he wanted to do now was get back to his hooch and take them off, along with his soaking boots and socks. He also wanted to go unconscious. That, however, wasn’t possible. He knew he would finally have to deal with the nagging problem that Bass, his platoon sergeant, had laid on him that morning and that he had avoided by using the excuse of leaving on patrol. A black kid—he couldn’t remember the name; a machine gunner in Third Squad—was upset with the company gunnery sergeant, whose name he couldn’t remember either. There were forty new names and faces in Mellas’s platoon alone, and almost 200 in the company, and black or white they all looked the same. It overwhelmed him. From the skipper right on down, they all wore the same filthy tattered camouflage, with no rank insignia, no way of distinguishing them. All of them were too thin, too young, and too exhausted. They all talked the same, too, saying fuck, or some adjective, noun, or adverb with fuck in it, every four words. Most of the intervening three words of their conversations dealt with unhappiness about food, mail, time in the bush, and girls they had left behind in high school. Mellas swore he’d succumb to none of it.
This black kid wanted out of the bush to have his recurrent headaches examined, and some of the brothers were stirring things up in support. The gunnery sergeant thought the kid was malingering and should have his butt kicked. Then another black kid refused to have his hair cut and people were up in arms about that. Mellas was supposed to be fighting a war. No one at the Basic School had said he’d be dealing with junior Malcolm X’s and redneck Georgia crackers. Why couldn’t the Navy corpsmen just decide shit like whether headaches were real or not? They were supposed to be the medical experts. Did the platoon commanders on Iwo Jima have to deal with crap like this?
As Mellas plodded slowly up the hill, with Fisher next to him and Hamilton automatically following with the radio, he became embarrassed by the sound his boots made as they pulled free of the mud, fearing that it would draw attention to the fact that they were still shiny and black. He quickly covered for this by complaining to Fisher about the squad’s machine gunner, Hippy, making too much noise when Fisher had asked for the machine gun to come to the head of the small column because the point man thought he’d heard movement. Just speaking about the recent near-encounter with an enemy Mellas had not yet seen started his insides humming again, the vibration of fear that was like a strong electric potential with no place to discharge. Part of him was relieved that it had been a near miss but another part acted peeved that the noise might have cost them an opportunity for action, and this peevishness in turn irked Fisher.
When they reached the squad’s usual position in the company lines, Mellas could see that Fisher could barely contain his own annoyance by the way he nearly threw to the ground the three staves he’d cut for himself and a couple of friends while out on the patrol. These staves were raw material for short-timer’s sticks, elaborately carved walking sticks, roughly an inch and a half in diameter and three to five feet long. Some were simple calendars, others works of folk art. Each stick was marked in a way that showed how many days its owner had survived on his thirteen-month tour of duty and how many days were left to go. Mellas had also been anxious about the sound Fisher had made cutting the three staves with a machete, but he had said nothing. He was still in a delicate position: nominally in charge of the patrol, because he was the platoon commander, but until he was successfully broken in he was also under the orders of Lieutenant Fitch, the company commander, to do everything Fisher said. Mellas had accepted the noise for two reasons, both political. Fitch had basically said Fisher was in charge, so why buck Fitch? Fitch was the guy who could promote Mellas to executive officer, second in command, when Second Lieutenant Hawke rotated out of the bush. That would put him in line for company commander—unless Hawke wanted it. A second reason was that Mellas hadn’t been sure if the noise was dangerous, and he was far more worried about asking stupid questions than finding out. Too many stupid comments and dumb questions at this stage could make it more difficult to gain the respect of the platoon, and it was a lot harder to get ahead if the snuffs didn’t like you or thought you were incompetent. The fact that Hawke, his predecessor, had been nearly worshipped by the platoon did not help matters.
Mellas and Hamilton left Fisher at Second Squad’s line of holes and slowly climbed up a slope so steep that when Mellas slipped backward in the mud he barely had to bend his knee to stop himself. Hamilton, bowed nearly double with the weight of the radio, kept poking its antenna into the slope in front of him. The fog that swirled around them obscured their goal: a sagging makeshift shelter they had made by snapping their rubberized canvas ponchos together and hanging the ponchos over a scrap of communication wire strung only four feet above the ground between two blasted bushes. This hooch, along with two others that stood just a few feet away from it, formed what was called, not without irony, the platoon command post.
Mellas wanted to crawl inside his hooch and make the world disappear, but he knew this would be stupid and any rest would be short. It would be dark in a couple of hours, and the platoon had to set out trip flares in case any soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army—the NVA—approached. After that, the platoon had to rig the claymore mines, which were placed in front of their fighting holes and were detonated by pulling on a cord; they delivered 700 steel balls in a fan-shaped pattern at groin height. In addition, the uncompleted sections of the barbed wire had to be booby-trapped. If Mellas wanted to heat his C-rations he had to do so while it was still daylight, otherwise the flame would make a perfect aiming point. Then he had to inspect the forty Marines of his platoon for immersion foot and make sure everyone took the daily dose of dapsone for jungle rot and the weekly dose of chloroquine for malaria.
He and Hamilton stopped just in front of Bass, the platoon sergeant, who was squatting outside the hooches in the rain making coffee in a number-ten can set over a piece of burning C-4 plastic explosive. The C-4 hissed and left an acrid smell in the air but was preferred to the eye-burning stink of the standard issue trioxane heat tabs. Bass was twenty-one and on his second tour. He emptied several small envelopes of powdered C-ration coffee into the boiling water and peered into the can. The sleeves of his utility jacket were neatly rolled into cuffs just below his elbows, revealing forearms that were large and muscular. Mellas, watching Bass stir, set the M-16 he had borrowed from Bass against a log. It had taken very little coaxing from Bass to convince Mellas that it was stupid to rely on the standard-issue .45 pistols the Marine Corps deemed sufficient for junior officers. He pulled off the wet cotton ammunition bandoleers and let them fall to the ground: twenty magazines, each filled with two interwoven rows of bullets. Then he shrugged out of his belt suspenders and dropped them to the mud, along with their attached .45 automatic, three quart-size plastic canteens, pistol ammunition, his K-bar, battlefield compresses to stop bleeding, two M-26 fragmentation hand grenades, three smoke grenades, and his compass. Breathing deeply with relief, he kept watching the coffee, its smell reminding him of the ever-present pot on his mother’s stove. He didn’t want to go check the platoon’s weapons or clean his own. He wanted something warm, and then he wanted to lie down and sleep. But with dark coming there was no time.
He undid his steel-spring blousing garters, which held the ends of his trousers tightly against his boots as protection against leeches. Three leeches had still managed to get through on his left leg. Two were attached and there was a streak of dried blood where a third had engorged itself and dropped off. Mellas found it in his sock, shook it loose onto the ground, and stepped on it with his other foot, watching his own blood pop out of its body. He took out insect repellant and squeezed a stream onto the other two leeches still attached to his skin. They twisted in pain and dropped off, leaving a slow trickle of blood behind.
Bass handed him some coffee in an empty C-ration fruit cocktail can and then poured another can for Hamilton, who had dumped his radio in front of his and Mellas’s hooch and was sitting on it. Hamilton took the coffee, raised the can to Bass in a toast, and wrapped his fingers around the can to warm them.
“Thanks, Sergeant Bass,” Mellas said, careful to use the title Bass had earned, knowing that Bass’s goodwill was crucial. He sat down on a wet, rotting log. Bass described what had happened while Mellas was out on patrol. FAC-man, the company’s enlisted forward air controller, had once again not been able to talk a resupply chopper down through the clouds, so this had been the fourth day without resupply. There was still no definitive word on the firefight the day before between Alpha Company and an NVA unit of unknown size in the valley below them, but the rumor that four Marines had been killed in action was now confirmed.
Mellas tightened his lips and clenched his teeth to press back his fear. He couldn’t help looking down onto the cloud-covered ridges that stretched out below them into North Vietnam, just four kilometers away. Down there were the four KIAs, four dead kids. Somewhere in that gray-green obscurity, Alpha Company had just been in the shit. Bravo’s turn was coming.
That meant his turn was coming, something that had been only a possibility when he had joined the Marines right out of high school. He had entered a special officer candidate program that allowed him to attend college while training in the summers and getting much-needed pay, and he had envisioned telling admiring people, and maybe someday voters, that he was an ex-Marine. He had never actually envisioned being in combat in a war that none of his friends thought was worth fighting. When the Marines landed at Da Nang during his freshman year, he had to get a map out to see where that was. He had wanted to go into the Marine Air Wing and be an air traffic controller, but each administrative turning point, his grades in college, his grades in Basic School, and the shortage of infantry officers had implacably moved him to where he was now, a real Marine officer leading a real Marine rifle platoon, and scared nearly witless. It occurred to him that because of his desire to look good coming home from a war, he might never come home at all.
He fought back the fear that surged through him whenever he realized that he could die. But now the fear had started his mind churning again. If he could get into Hawke’s position as executive office, then he’d be safe inside the perimeter. There would be no more patrols; he’d handle admin and be next in line for company commander. For him to get Hawke’s position, the current company commander, Lieutenant Fitch, would have to rotate home and Hawke would have to take Fitch’s place. That was actually quite likely. Everyone loved Hawke, up the chain of command and down. Still, Fitch was new to the job. That meant a long wait, unless of course Fitch was killed or wounded. As soon as this idea went through his head, Mellas felt terrible. He didn’t want anything bad to happen to anyone. He tried to stop thinking, but he failed. Now it occurred to him that he’d have to wait for Hawke to rotate home, unless something happened to Hawke. Mellas was amazed and ashamed. He realized that part of him would wish anything, and maybe even do anything, if it meant getting ahead or saving his own skin. He fought that part down.
“How’s the wire coming?” Mellas asked. He didn’t really care about the task of stringing the barbed wire in front of the holes, but he knew he should appear interested.
“Not bad, sir,” Bass said. “Third Squad’s been working on it all day. We’re close to finished.”
Mellas hesitated. Then he plunged into the problem he’d avoided that morning by going out on patrol. “That kid from Third Squad come to see you about going to the rear again?” He was still overwhelmed, trying to remember everyone’s name.
“Name’s Mallory, sir.” Bass snorted. “Malingering fucking coward.”
“He says he has headaches.”
“And I’ve got a pain in the ass. There’s two hundred good Marines on this hill want to go to the rear, better ones than that piece of shit. He’s had a headache ever since he came out to the bush. And don’t give me any of that “Watch out ’cause he’s a brother” shit, because there’s a lot of good splibs out here that don’t have headaches. He’s chickenshit.” Bass took a long drink and then exhaled steam into the cool damp air. “And, uh,” Bass added, a slight smile on his lips, “Doc Fredrickson has him up by his hooch. He’s been waiting for you to get back.”
Mellas felt the hot sweet coffee move down his throat and settle into his stomach. He wriggled his water-wrinkled toes to keep from nodding off. The warmth of the coffee through the can felt good against his hands, which were beginning to run pus, the first symptoms of jungle rot. “Shit,” he said to no one in particular. He placed the cup against the back of his neck where the strap of the magazine bandoleer had rubbed it raw.
“Drink it, Lieutenant,” said Bass. “Don’t make love to it.”
Bass took out his pocketknife and began carving another elaborate notch on his short-timer’s stick. Mellas looked at it with envy. He had 390 days left to go on his own tour.
“Do I have to deal with it now?” Mellas asked. He instantly regretted asking the question. He knew he was whining.
“You’re the lieutenant, sir. RHIP.” Rank has its privileges.
Mellas was trying to think of a witty comeback when he heard a scream from Second Squad’s area. “Jesus! Get the squid! Get Doc Fredrickson!” Bass immediately threw down his stick and ran toward the voice. Mellas sat there, so stupid with exhaustion he couldn’t will himself to move. He looked at Hamilton, who shrugged and finally took a sip of his coffee. He watched Jacobs, the fire team leader with the stutter from Second Squad, run up the hill and disappear inside Fredrickson’s hooch. Mellas sighed and started pulling his bloody socks and wet boots back on as Jacobs and Fredrickson, the Navy medical corpsman, went sliding and skidding back down the hill. Several minutes later, Bass came walking slowly up the hill, stonily impassive.
“What is it, Sergeant Bass?” Mellas asked.
“You’d better go have a look, Lieutenant. It’s the damnedest thing I ever saw. Fisher’s got a leech right smack up the hole in his cock.”
“God,” Hamilton said. He looked up at the clouds and then back down at the steaming coffee in his hands. He raised the coffee. “Here’s to fucking leeches.”
Mellas felt revulsion, but also relief. No one could hold him responsible for something like that. Without lacing the boots, he headed down the hill toward Second Squad’s position, slipping in the mud, worrying about how he would replace a seasoned squad leader like Fisher when he knew hardly anyone in the platoon.
Written by Ed Conklin
1. Do you believe that Mallory’s headaches were real? Was he a “malingering coward”? Hawke agreed with Cassidy that he was a malingerer, but Mellas felt differently (maybe he was “out here too long” . . . they “kept sending him back” (p. 453). Why do you think Mellas felt that way? Was it political? China despised Mallory (p. 218) and wanted to tell him to act like a man, but he knew that the “headaches” would help him further his “cause.” Did racial attitudes play a role in the treatment, analysis, and perception of the headaches?
2. Mellas asks Hawke shortly after they meet whether he has “had racial problems here in the company.” Hawke answers, “Naw, not really” (p. 29). Is Hawke downplaying the problem, or is his belief rooted in something else?
3. Mellas refers to the “political implications” of Parker’s hair being too long. He also wonders about the timing of this enforcement of military etiquette. What are the political implications of the incipient “afro”? Do you think the situation should have been handled differently? How? Did Cassidy’s involvement (after wanting to string his “ass . . . up to the nearest fucking tree”) exacerbate the situation? What choices did the officers have?
4. The author states that “the secret could be revealed only by crawling into the jungle and meeting it there” (p. 85). Do you think it is possible for “the secret” to be revealed, and if so, what might it be? Relate this to Hippy’s looking for “something out there for us to be here,” for “just anything . . . so it all made sense” (p. 113). Does Mellas’s assertion that, for the uninitiated, “the bush should, and would, remain a mystery” (p. 538) relate to this question?
5. What compelled Vancouver to “take point” every time, despite the fact that it “scared him” (p. 199)? Why was he considered the soul of the company? Consider also when the company was forty feet above the river, Vancouver “without being told . . . wrapped the rope around his waist, walked out backward over the edge, and disappeared” (p. 236).
6. Why do you think that it was so important for Mellas to recover Vancouver’s sword?
7. How, and to what extent, do you think race influenced Mellas’s decision to select Jackson as squad leader? Do you believe that he could be characterized as Mellas’s “nigger”? Why did Mellas finally tell Jackson that “he blew it” when they conducted their honest discussion on race (p. 433)?
8. Hawke’s tin (pear can) cup—which had been with him “since I got here”—was considered to contain the “ever flowing source of all that’s good and the cure of all ills.” It induced smiles and was characterized as “sweet and good.” What is the significance of the tin can cup? How is it similar to Vancouver’s sword, and why were they both so important to Mellas?
9. Do you think that Simpson is a sympathetic character? Did he drink because he felt the “responsibility for a lot of lives”? Do you believe that he put soldiers at risk to further his career and to “move his little pins in the map” (p. 170)?
10. What do you think of Anne’s attitude toward Mellas’s commitment to honor his “sacred oath to the president”? (Recall that Anne reminded him that he had considered the president a “manufactured image”). Do you agree with Anne that Mellas had a “weird concept of morality” (p. 207) that compelled him to keep that promise? Should he have consulted her, and do you think it would have changed his decision? Do you think that Mellas’s belief that she really never wanted to see him again was accurate (p. 330)? How do you feel about Anne’s behavior the night he came to see her before he shipped out? To what extent do you think the cultural and political climate was responsible for her reaction?
11. Mellas expressed some bitterness toward women and even admits to really hating “women at some level” (p. 210). How much do you think his experience with Anne accounts for this? Hawke also “hurt badly” because his woman was opposed to the war. Do these women fundamentally misunderstand the men? Do they simply have a different outlook? Mellas also longs for a woman to reach the “lost, lonely part of him.” Later, he finds himself wanting to “merge” with Karen after she recovers Vancouver’s sword (p. 522) and talked to him as a real “human being who cared” (p. 512). How do you reconcile this with the bitterness? Do you think that the absence of women from their daily lives engendered and sustained this bitterness?
12. Why did Hawke consider Mellas a “politician” (pp. 12, 282, 451)? Do you think Hawke felt that it was a positive characteristic? What might it have to do with his belief that modern war had become too technical and too complex—and Vietnam in particular had become “too political” (p. 13)?
13. Mellas experienced “overwhelming joy” and was “overflowing with an emotion that he could only describe as love” when he was reunited with his platoon. As they began to engage in the ensuing battle, he was “frightened beyond any fear”—a “brilliant and intense fear,” which helped to “push him over a barrier whose existence he had not known until this moment,” and he surrendered himself completely to the “god of war within him” (p. 351). What attributes would you give to this “god of war”? What else might it represent? Are the fear and surrender instinctive reactions to an intense confrontation with mortality? Is the god of war a protector or an evil creation of man (“participation in evil was a result of being human . . . without man there would be no evil” or good) (p. 500)?
14. While Mellas was retrieving Pollini and they rolled downhill, he hopes “with every roll” that “it was Pollini and not him who would catch the bullet” (p. 354). Do you think that his guilt over that hope, his wish for a medal, and the KP discharge, contributed to the thought that he had inadvertently killed Pollini? “The fact that Pollini was dead didn’t make the desire for a medal wrong, did it? What’s fucking wrong with wanting a medal? Why did Mellas think it was bad? Why was he so confused? How did he get this way? From where did he dredge up all these doubts? Why?” (p. 361).
15. Mellas’s existential crisis (pp. 398-400) when he saw himself as a “collection of empty events that would end as a faded photograph above his parents’ fireplace” and perceived that his worth was “the joke,” resulted in comforting and calming him. What contributed to this new insight? Was it a successful breakthrough on the guilt he felt over Pollini? Did he really know “beyond any ability to lie to himself” that he had killed Pollini, or would he “carry this doubt with him forever” (p. 359)?
16. What do you think Mellas believed about the value of a medal? Do you think he may have ultimately shared Hawke’s feeling that “they don’t seem so fucking shiny . . . when you see what they cost”? Do you think that Mellas’s ambivalence toward medals is overcome in the end?
17. What made Hawke leave his post without permission to return to his company who were surrounded by the NVA?
18. Following the last assault on Matterhorn, Mellas’s mind is “filled with troubling images . . . Hippy, crippled. The insane pushing. The stupidity. The blood pumping from the new machine gunner’s leg. Jacob’s throat. For what? Where was the meaning?” (p 489). How much do you think the answer to this question explains why the author wrote the book? Does the act of writing (and the art of the novel) involve creating meaning that can make us feel and change? Were your attitudes and feelings about the Vietnam War and war in general transformed by the experience of reading this book?
19. After thinking about how “brave and wise” he realized Janc had been when he defused a volatile racial situation, what makes China “know” that it would be impossible for Janc to be his friend (p. 313)?
20. The youth of the soldiers is repeatedly emphasized by the author. He references ‘dead American teenagers’ and ‘dead Vietnamese teenagers’ (p. 491). “Two bodies not on the planet twenty years, one living and one dead” are poignantly airlifted away (p. 238). When Fracasso entered to lead a platoon, Mellas “knew” that what “three teenagers” decided in the next five seconds could mean Fracasso’s career and maybe even his life (p. 269). Considering that Fitch (Company Commander) was twenty-three, Hawke (Executive Officer) twenty-two, and Mellas (Platoon Commander) twenty-one, and many (if not most) grunts (Hippy) were eighteen and (Janc and Jackson) nineteen, how did you feel about the relative youth of the characters as you read? Does this recognition of young people fighting and dying for a policy they have had little or no influence over change your outlook on the Vietnam War, a draft, or war in general?
21. Why do you think Mellas said that killing the injured enemy would “be murder” (p. 256)? Do you think the fact that he “glimpsed the grimace of pain and fear” followed by crying that “cut through Mellas like a shaft of steel” is what made him pause? Why did he switch off his safety—point his gun at the kid’s head, then switch the safety back on and say “We can’t”? Do you think it was because he ‘didn’t have the guts’? Is that why he later started sobbing and saying to Hawke and Fitch, “I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry”? Who do you think he was apologizing to and for what?
22. Vietnam veterans were stigmatized by the failure to distinguish between a foreign policy and the soldiers serving the government (and its citizens) by executing the policy faithfully. How much do you think this book has helped you to understand this and empathize with those who served? The author has spoken of the “wound of misunderstanding” delivered by those who directed their antiwar feelings at those who fought the war. His hope is to be understood and to bridge the chasm that has divided America. Do you think this book has helped to do that? How?
23. What do you feel was the most emotional event in the book? Why did it affect you so deeply?
24. SEMPER FI (“Always Faithful”) Mellas recalls a discussion “at his eating club” with his friends and their dates one night after a dance. They were talking about the stupidity of warriors and their “silly codes of honor” (p. 324). As he watched Marines run across a landing zone “running possibly to their deaths,” he realized that “something had changed” and that meaning and life would be given to the “silly code of honor.” What changed? What does this code mean to you? Did your attitude toward the code change after reading the book? Does loyalty and commitment transcend race and class? How?
25. Wilfred Owen died fighting in World War One when he was twenty-five. What do you think Mellas would have thought of the idea that it was an old lie that it was glorious and honorable to die for one’s country? Explore the conflict and contradictions involved in fulfilling a civic obligation, honoring a sacred oath, or following one’s conscience. If you witness your brothers and sisters fighting and dying for a cause you do not believe in, what choices do you have and on what basis do you make them?
26. Mellas substitutes “Bravo” for “Christ” in a modified and drunken mystery of faith formulation (“Bravo has died, Bravo is risen, Bravo will fight again” p 556). He raises a glass (consecration) above his head and says “Mea Culpa” (Confiteor/confession of sins). Hawke follows by “solemnly” making the sign of the cross and saying “Absolution.” (The Catholic encyclopedia defines absolution partly as “that act of the priest whereby, in the Sacrament of Penance, he frees man from sin. It presupposes on the part of the penitent, contrition, confession.”) Mellas then invokes the saying (Dulce et decorum) in a mock religious ceremony (p. 556) and “anoints those around him with ceremonial movements” while chanting the latin phrase. Hawke “knelt down” and McCarthy “solemnly” offered him communion. What do you think the author is suggesting here? Are “the Colonel, the ‘three’ and the ‘do-nothing Congress’” (trinity) (p. 556) the ones who must bear the guilt for the “sins” of war? Are the soldiers absolving themselves and thereby recognizing the glory and honor in what they did?
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien; Fields of Fire by James Webb; Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright; In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason; The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien; The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh; Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien; Dispatches by Michael Herr; A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo; In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolff