Monday, August 6, 2012

Book Review - 'Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War' by Karl Marlantes

'Matterhorn' is a semi-autobiographical novel that tells the story of an American Marine company serving in the Vietnamese central highlands near the Laotian border. I'll say right now that I was really impressed with this book. While on many levels it seems to be just another hung-ho adventure novel I found that it quickly breaks the mold by poignantly describing the mind-numbing tedium, petty internal politics and the extreme sense of isolation which all seems part of being a combat infantryman. Set in 1969, the soldiers of Bravo Company live in the shadow of Tet, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the growing militancy of the Black Power movement, and the bitter realization that 'their war' has become nothing more than a corporate exercise in attrition, cronyism and a growing mountain of half-baked statistics.

The story centers around Waino Mellas, a newly minted 2nd Lieutenant fresh out of Yale,  a young man eager to make a reputation for himself, seeing his 13-month tour as a stepping stone to a future career in politics. The book takes the reader through Mellas' journey from a green, self-centered careerist to a veteran 'bush' officer who genuinely cares for (and ultimately loves) the marines under his command. The story is set in the central highlands of Vietnam during monsoon season where Bravo Company works to establish a firebase on a mountain peak codenamed 'Matterhorn'. The company is beset with tension as it's black marines are roiling against what they see as racist oppression by the unit's white NCOs and the battalion's commanding officer, an aging lieutenant colonel who is trying to push forward his career at all costs, risking their lives in a series of ill-conceived missions. Matterhorn becomes both the symbolic and physical nemesis for the marines of Bravo Company as they each try to surmount and survive their tour.

It took Karl Marlantes 35 years to see his book to publication. Marlantes himself is a Vietnam veteran, a highly decorated Marine officer who saw extensive action commanding a bush platoon (the actions described in the book closely resemble those in which he participated). Posted to the Pentagon after his tour he was dismayed by the hostility many of his fellow Americans had to his service. In struggling to come to grips with the pain and futility of it all he began to write down his thoughts. 'Matterhorn' is the culmination of that effort.

The audiobook is read by Bronson Pinchot who does a masterful job in conveying the wide variety of characters in the story. Ranging from a black M60 gunner from Cleveland, a Yale educated Lieutenant from Oregon, an executive officer from Boston and a gunnery sergeant from South Carolina, Pinchot's voice, like a chameleon, subtly changes giving each of these men their own distinct place in the narrative.

Highly recommended.

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
Karl Marlantes
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 080211928X


  1. I agree, this is an excellent book.

  2. I will have to consider it, most of my reading is escapist historical novels (Cornwell, Sidebottom, etc). Not much modern stuff, I believe the only modern military novels, I have read were the Naked and the Dead and the Cruel Sea.


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  4. Preciselly, I have this book ordered from Amazon, and I´m awaiting it for my beach mornings!

    Thank you a lot for the review.

  5. Sounds like a great book, I'll have to look this one up, cheers for the heads up Curt!

  6. It is a great book indeed and one of of my favourite and most useful when I decided to undertake this period. Not Vietnam specific but quite Interesting too is the most recently published "What it is like to go to war" dealing with the psichology state of those in combate and returning home

  7. Thanks very much for your comments guys. Its quite a good book and provides some excellent scenario ideas for small-action rulesets like 'Charlie Don't Surf' and 'Force on Force'.

  8. I quire enjoyed Matterhorn. A very challenging and sometimes disturbing book, and the final few parargraphs are amazingly lyrical.

    1. Yes, its not an especially easy read but you will feel rewarded by the end.

  9. I had just finished reading your recommendation when one of my buddies came around and dropped the book off, telling me it was a very good read.

    So with those recommendations, I had to have a read!

    It is a "warts and all" book, downright disturbing, scary and heartbreaking in places. The tale of the Vietnam War is really in no ways glamourous from the perspective of a boot lieutenant, who entered the war with dreams of honor and medals, only to find the brutal jungle, which threatened to swallow them all whole.

    Is it a good book? Definetly, it is one of the best I have read this year, or ever. But it reminded me that what we do with wargaming, playing with toy soldiers is done not to glorify war in any way, rather to remember, learn and appreciate what was done.

    Just my thoughts,


    1. Thanks, Chris, for your considered opinion. As you say its not a jingoistic, chest pounding story, nor is it written from a "dove's" perspective, rather its brutally honest in its description of the war and so balances itself between being both spiritually uplifting and crushingly dispiriting - not an easy task for any writer.


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