Karl Marlantes' novel of the Vietnam War, Matterhorn, seems to want to offer the reader an immersive approach towards the experience of Vietnam. If we can say of earlier Vietnam narratives -- whether in film, such as Oliver Stone's Platoon or Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, or in fiction, such as Tim O'Brien's novels Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried or Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers (a cult classic of Vietnam fiction and the basis for Kubrick's film) -- that they have a sort of expressionistic technique, seeking to capture the experience of the war in a series of vignettes, we can see the originality of Marlantes' approach in greater relief to what has come before: his approach is not so much expressionistic as it is encyclopedic, an attempt to catalogue (in fiction) every single aspect of the one small event, the movement of a Marine Corps Company to occupy a hill -- codenamed Matterhorn, Marlantes tells us, "in keeping with the present vogue of naming new fire support bases after Swiss mountains,"[footnoteRef:0] ironically because Switzerland has not taken part in a war in a thousand years -- not far from the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ that separated Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnam from the American-backed South Vietnam. I say this because even though I intend to offer some examples whereby Marlantes offers up the horrors of war as evidence of his view of the Vietnam conflict (both as a novelist depicting that conflict, and as a veteran of that conflict who writes fictionally, but out of a sense of deep personal experience) I think that by the novel's end we have come to agree with the assessment of the protagonist, Second Lieutenant Mellas, the commander of the platoon, as to what the truly greatest horror of the Vietnam War was (and the one that, ultimately, governs how we are to understand the novel as a whole. [0: Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010. Page 9. All further references are to this edition and are incorporated into the text.]
Within the context of Vietnam, Marlantes is careful to imply, the fact of an injury is the opposite of astonishing: it is such a routine and everyday occurrence that the novel's characters are routinely reminded that some of the most grave medical conditions (like a case of pneumonia that proves fatal) do not even merit a medical helicopter:
"They killed him, Lieutenant. They fucking humped him to death and you want me to calm down. Well, fuck you." The kid's neck showed rows of taut cords
"How did he die?" Mellas asked.
"Officially it's pneumonia," the lieutenant answered. "Couldn't get him medevaced. No birds."
"Bullshit. They humped him to death." The kid said it softly.
"Pneumonia. Jesus." Mellas whistled under his breath. "And you couldn't get him out? Doesn't make sense." (144-5)
That comes from later in the narrative, but it is important in that it is one of many comments (alongside, say, the constant reminders of the cuts on the characters' hands, which have become infected, and which make gloves a valuable commodity, often sold for more than what you paid for them) which contextualize the physical sufferings of the characters in such a way that is constant and unsparing, but presented in relatively neutral and placid prose throughout the book. It is also important to note in this example that while the official and bureaucratic cause of death is pneumonia, in the opinion of the kid, it is the military which killed the man: "They humped him to death."
But beyond of this generalized skepticism towards the military's leadership and the chain of command, which pervades the novel, we might as well begin where Marlantes begins, in assessing the horrors of war: with the astonishing vignette -- disconnected from the rest of the narrative in some sense, and therefore acting as a sort of prologue to the book's main plot-line, which involves the military maneuver to take Matterhorn -- of an injured American soldier. Here, the neutral tone prevails, as it does throughout the novel, so that we may note the nature of the facts, and register our shock that such a thing might occur at all. Fisher, a U.S. Marine soldier, has gotten a live leech lodged inside the urethra of his penis. Asked by Mellas, the commanding officer of his platoon and the book's protagonist, for an assessment of what must be done to remove the leech from Fisher, the medic explains:
"I don't have a catheter, Skipper, and trying to ram something up the urethra to clean out the leech would just make a mess of it. The only thing I can think to do is cut into the penis from the bottom side. Two cuts. You can see where his urethra's swollen right up to the leech…" (36-7)
The medic then goes on to perform a horrifyingly hasty and messy field surgery -- in which Fisher's blood and urine are spattered everywhere, and which affronts our expectation of sanitary conditions to accompany an actual operation -- and then put him on the helicopter to receive further medical attention. As Fisher is taken away, he bombards the doctor with questions, but the doctor manages to dodge them, although Marlantes makes us privy to the doctor's thoughts:
He didn't answer Fisher, using the interruption as an excuse. What would scar tissue do? Infection? Had he cut tubes he didn't even know about? He honestly didn't know what would happen and was fully aware he might have doomed Fisher to be not only childless, but impotent. (40)
Of course one of the reasons this is so astonishing is that it seems like a kind of hideous metaphor -- or could be interpreted as such. The attempt to express one's masculinity through military glory is, in the debased and squalid conditions of Vietnam's guerilla conflict in the jungles, more likely to prove emasculating.
If the introductory episode of Fisher and the urethral leech is meant to paint a picture of military service as potentially emasculating, it is important to recollect that the leeches are what actually caused Fisher's medical condition. And the leeches are not ideological, like the Viet Cong, or bureaucratic, like the military brass, in their desire for human blood. They are merely stealthy predators:
The leeches made full use of their victims. Mellas watched some fall onto the kids' necks and slide under their shirts like raindrops. Other leeches would wriggle on the damp humus of the jungle floor, attach to a boot, then go up a trouser leg, turning from small wormlike objects to bloated blood-filled bags. (48-9)
In one of the more outstanding incidents, Marlantes' novel goes on to remind us even more memorably that there are things in the jungle waiting to kill you horribly that don't even subscribe to any particular ideology or organized, because they aren't human.
"He ate him, man. He jumped him and dragged him off and ate him. Lord God, we was just layin' there and all of a sudden there's Williams screamin' and I hear this tiger bat him, like across the neck or somethin', and then crunch him right through the head." Mellas couldn't see Cortell as he talked, but Cortell's voice conveyed his horror. (158)
The episode of Williams' death during combat not from a Viet Cong grenade but from the jaws of a tiger is meant to show that these deaths occur outside of any human context, including politics and ideology (like those over which the Vietnam conflict was waged in the first place). Although Marlantes' prose is careful not to underscore the irony, it is still noteworthy that Williams (when he was eaten by the tiger) had just managed to end a tense racially-motivated standoff, leading to a physical fight, among the platoon's marines. To go -- as Williams did -- from stopping a Malcolm-X-inspired black man from beating up on a white man (for joking about the fact that his afro haircut was shaved on orders from the commanding officers) one moment, to being devoured by a jungle cat in the next, seems like either a mordant joke on whether the Black Panther Party or an actual panthera tigris is more likely to kill you, or else just a stunning reminder that nature can kill people just as effectively and briskly as warfare.
But again, the way in which Marlantes is careful to emphasize the routinization of suffering and serious injury means that the episode stands out largely beause it is not routine. However it is Marlantes' particularly shrewd approach to dramatize the aftermath of the incident. We then see how Williams's corpse is handled by his fellow soldiers after it has been mauled and munched by the jungle cat.
By the second day the body was little more than an inconvenience. The belly…