Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
is a novel by Karl Marlantes, published in 2009. Marlantes drew upon his personal experiences fighting in Vietnam to produce a work of stark realism
conveying the true brutality and numbing routine experienced in combat.
The novel opens with Lieutenant Mellas in Vietnam, attempting to count the thirteen other marines under his command while suffering various minor physical afflictions. He frankly admits to himself that he wishes to rise quickly and be promoted so that he might avoid combat altogether.
Mellas leads his unit on a routine patrol. A black soldier named Mallory has been complaining of headaches for weeks without medical attention and feels this is racism in action. Mellas later goes off into the darkness to check the dug-in positions of his men, and becomes lost in the darkness. His check takes him many hours as a result, and when he goes on patrol the next day he is exhausted. They hear what they believe to be an elephant carrying supplies for the enemy, and the squad leader, Jancowitz, suggests calling in an airstrike. Mellas is unhappy killing innocent animals, but gives in.
Mellas suggests that a black soldier named Jackson, who is intelligent and capable, be promoted in order to ease racial tensions and have a strong leader, but his superiors reject the suggestion. Mellas then decides to send Mallory to the hospital over the objections of the other commanders, but Mallory is found to be perfectly healthy and is returned to the unit. Later, they receive word that the unit will be inspected by higher-ranking officers and Mellas needs everyone to clean up and look their best, but several soldiers resist, and once again race enters the picture as the black soldiers claim they are held to different standards; one soldier named Parker says his hair isn’t as long as a white soldier’s who doesn’t have to cut it. In the evening, a group of white soldiers take Parker and forcibly shave his head. China, the unofficial leader of the black soldiers, scolds Parker for getting into a fight over something unimportant, urging him to hold back and wait for a better opportunity.
When the unit sees evidence of enemy soldiers, Mellas calls in a mortar strike. They see no sign that they have killed any soldiers, but the report gets increasingly exaggerated as it goes up the chain of command. The report eventually earns frustration because it yields no useful intelligence, and Mellas finds that other officers know he is just looking for promotion and hopes to run for congress someday.
Mellas and his unit begin to get closer to real combat. While preparing for a â€›rampage mission’ that will show Mellas his first action and his first chance to earn promotion, the unit is informed they will have to share half their rations with another company. The men are upset by this, and this spurs another showdown between whites and blacks in the unit, with guns drawn. Jackson intervenes, and the unit heads into combat. One of the soldiers preparing the ambush is attacked and killed by a tiger, and the mission is canceled, and several soldiers creep out at night to retrieve his body. Mellas’ superior officer begs for helicopters to remove the body, but cannot get any.
Mellas volunteers to lead a mission to destroy an ammo dump, since he has a reputation for being good with a map. The march goes horribly wrong; with the men weighed down with the corpse of the man killed by a tiger and with low rations because of the sharing out, they become bogged down in the jungle and become hungry and angry. Mellas chooses to take a shortcut to cut down the marching time, but this results in injuries when they must cross a river and a steep ridge in the darkness. They finally find a clear trail and take it despite the danger of running into enemy soldiers.
The company arrives at a cliff face where they must climb up to the spot where they have been ordered to build a landing zone. Mellas orders his healthiest men to climb, knowing they are wide open targets for the enemy. The company slowly makes its way up and arrives at the spot, called Sky Cap, and eventually get flown out for some much needed rest and recovery. Their respite is short, however, as they learn their orders are to be on constant alert to defend the newly-constructed landing zone. At an officer’s dinner, Mellas is disgusted by what he views as the dishonesty of his fellow officers.
Heading back out into combat, Mellas and his men come under heavy mortar attack and must retreat into the jungle for cover. Fog prevents helicopters from retrieving the wounded. Mellas and his fellow officers worry that the high number of casualties will make them look very bad with their superiors, but they are trapped without air support. Water begins to run out and they must wait, tensely, for an enemy attack, and Mellas fantasizes about running away. Things get worse and the weakest wounded are denied medical treatment in favor of those who might still be able-bodied.
Finally, reinforcements and supplies arrive, and the company expects to be pulled out of combat. Instead they are ordered forward. They are heavily engaged and take casualties. Mellas makes a daring move to take out a machine gun nest, and then the company waits for retaliation and helicopters remove the wounded, but Mellas decides not to go even though he is hurt.
Mellas is eventually evacuated to an aircraft carrier and given much-needed medical attention. He meets a nurse and is very attracted to her, then enters surgery. When he returns to the jungle and his unit, he goes out on patrol and realizes that his old ambitions are now meaningless.