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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 5 June 2016
One of the best books I have read in a long time. I was dubious that I would manage to plough my way through the hundreds of pages in this book and keep my interest up but decided to give it a shot. Once I picked it up I struggled to put it back down again and found it riveting and found myself thinking about the characters long after I had stopped reading.
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on 25 May 2017
This is the first book I read on the Vietnam War and it is still the best.
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on 21 June 2017
Minutae of character and landing zone so far 88 pages. This is not Dispatches where one sentence could substitute this book.
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on 14 June 2013
If you like your stories with a gritty realism this will be a good choice for you. A very believable story of how men with little hope of survival gain the respect of the men they serve and command in a terrifying situation. Awesome read.
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...well, not too far. The "gestation period" might have taken awhile, like 40 years, no doubt to get it just right, and Karl Marlantes did. The quintessential Vietnam War novel has finally been born.

"There it is." The classic Vietnam expression uttered when the essential truth has been stated. All too appropriate for this novel, that never mentions Saigon. The machinations of the politicos are conveyed only as a distant abstraction. The action is shorn of all reporters whose vision was all too often refracted by, er, ah, "editorial concerns." The novel covers a two month period, in the early spring of 1969, during the monsoon season. The fighting occurs just south of an imaginary line once drawn in Geneva, to denote a temporary boundary of two years duration, until "free elections" were held to reunite the two sections of the country. Those often touted elections were never held, since the "wrong guy" would have won. And so two countries were created, at least in the West. Some of the fiercest fighting occurred in this area, around a classic misnomer, the "Demilitarized Zone," in the heart of the Annamite Cordillera where even the Vietnamese would not live: too high, too cold, too infertile and too much of the very bad malaria, the kind that felled Parker. And now the "is" was, save for the few who still carry the memories of those impossibly remote jungle valleys with them. Marlantes faithfully retained those memories, transforming them into a compelling story, for the many who were not there.

Marlantes' novel includes a few vital aides, for the few, as well as the many. There are a couple of appropriate maps, a "chain of command," with the names of the principal characters, and an excellent appendix which covers the specialized military terms, the lingo and slang unique to the war, as well as a succinct description of the weaponry used. Matterhorn was the designated American name of a 5,000 ft plus hill, in the extreme northwest corner of what was once South Vietnam. From there, on a clear, non-monsoon day, views into North Vietnam and Laos were possible. The story is, no doubt, thinly autobiographical, told through the eyes of a new `butter bar" lieutenant, Mellas. This is a novel about the Marines, and thus the war experience is much more intense than that which occurred even to most Army units in combat. Much more is, and has been demanded, of what is largely volunteers, with their famous esprit de corps, as it were, including that extra month, the 13th. Nothing underscored the intensity of the combat experience like the fact that when the novel is finished, Mellas still has 11 months left in Vietnam!

Marlantes writes well, in many ways it is a "page-turner"; but for approximately the first 200 pages there is virtually no combat. The author does pull the reader in, with the leeches. It is a dramatic beginning, since the monsoons negated the air power, and helicopter evacuation advantage of the Americans. There were the "docs" who felt overwhelmed by the task at hand, their limited resources and knowledge, yet managed despite the odds. The author develops a sufficient number of characters, of all the ranks, setting the stage for the later combat scenes. And when those scenes finally come, the relentless small unit combat, man to man, what was depicted was a small, but very real minority of the actual fighting in Vietnam, which all too often relied on massive firepower on the one side, and hit and run attacks on the other, in which one rarely saw "the enemy." The small unit infantry tactics, taught on the bases that churned out the officers, are made understandable for those who were never in the military.

So many aspects of the war that were unique to the Vietnam conflict were incorporated in this novel, and depicted with the utmost authenticity. A major sub-theme was the relationship between Black and White marines, as the former were influenced by the heady days of the Civil Rights movement. Another aspect was the "fragging" of the officers, and when it is an officer who is doing it, well, it underscores in bold the madness, and disconnection of the officer cast from the men, and what was being asked of them. There were a few, painfully real American infantry assaults on fortified hills, like "Hamburger Hill," in the A Shau valley, which occurred about four months after the events depicted in this novel. A hill taken at a very high cost in lives, only to be immediately given back to the North Vietnamese. Is it any wonder that more than a few grenades were rolled under some cots? There was the obsession with kill ratios, and although Marlantes does not attribute it, the 10:1 kill ratio thought necessary to win was derived from the British campaign in Malaya. The author has a brilliant passage when, just a maybe "probable" kill is escalated to 10 confirmed KIA's by the time it reaches Saigon. This novel is a real "outlier" for the Vietnam War; there are not "Susie Wongs." There are no Vietnamese women at all! But the author does have a brilliant scene with a "round eye," that portrayed the ache on the one side, and the impossible situation for the woman on the other with searing intensity. Even the "minor notes" of the novel were hit true: the accusation that Mellas might have been "slumming," that he had a choice of not joining the Marines, unlike the ones he was making fun of. Another: Every unit had a "numby," and they knew it, but they so desperately wanted the approbation of their "buddies," not to mention their father who had died in the Korean War, and so they took one too many chances. More than one tear in the eye.

Quibbles? In all these meticulously recalled or always lived memories, yes, there are those intervening 40 years. The 24th Marines were never at Belleau Woods (p 540)! And surely the Marines gave up their shiny metal officer bars around 1966, when the Army did, to be replaced by camouflaged black cloth. As for those sometimes sought medals for bravery, at least the Army was handing out Bronze Stars as though they were chloroquine primaquine anti-malaria pills.

I spent the same two months in Vietnam, the middle part of my "tour," in the same Annamite Cordillera, further south, in the Central Highlands. And I once fought, at night, to keep someone's temperature under that magic 104 degree level, awaiting the dawn, and medevac. The same war? No, radically different. I was in a tank unit, and although we might not have eaten well, we never missed a meal. During my orientation to the 4th Infantry Division, in September, 1968, the commanding general (who never got fragged!) said there will be no assaults on hills and fortified bunkers in his division. If stiff opposition were met, the units were to pull back, and let the artillery and the Air Force do its job. In the madness of war, all too sensible.

There were parts of Harper Perennial Modern Classics - The Naked and the Dead that were brilliant, but I've always had a problem with Norman Mailer, and his calculating choice as to which front in the Second World War would produce the better novel. Marlantes novel is much better, much more authentic and comprehensive. There is no sense of "calculation" in the author's motives; one senses that the story simply had to be finally told, and he did it so well. 5-stars, plus.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on April 19, 2010)
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on 6 March 2016
Had a real feel for the futility of the Vietnam war.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 April 2014
How do you tell a story of war without glorifying, politicising or diminishing the experience? I guess Karl Marantes may well have the answer in Matterhorn, an epic work set in the midst of the Vietnam War. I understand he's an ex Marine and that the published work is the result of numerous rewrites over a period of 30 years. For my money, it was worth the wait. War stories, per se aren't my usual genre, but this pulled me straight in. I was engrossed by the characters, carefully drawn individuals with their own take on every event. The dialogue felt like real voices; even the tech speak and dialect was easy to follow. Whilst their experiences were often graphic and harrowing, the reader is swept along, feeling the raw brutality of an unremitting environment which itself was in many ways worse than enemy action.

The perspective is one of balance and compassion. There's no sense of gratification in depicting the grim reality of jungle warfare, carried out against a largely unseen and poorly understood enemy. Unusually, racism is a strong and recurrent theme. Not only about the VietCong, but with other soldiers within the American Army. Many of the issues and attitudes remain relevant and this story is one of the best. If you only ever read two war books, let this be one of them.
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on 23 June 2012
"Matterhorn" is, in my opinion, a magnificent book. It tells the story of Bravo Company's time in the Vietnamese jungle, where the North Vietnamese are not the only enemy faced by these young American Marines. The physical conditions are appalling - monsoon rain, fog, cold, mud. Leeches make life miserable and tigers are a danger to the lives of the soldiers. Added to this are starvation, dehydration and infection - what absolutely dire conditions in which to live, let alone fight.
The main protagonist is Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, who is 21 years old, when he joins Bravo Company. It is the choice of this character as the focus which gives Karl Marlantes' novel such power. We see life through the eyes of "middle management" - the suspicions and difficulties of the enlisted men and NCOs grow to be of huge importance for Mellas and the comradeship of these men and others of the same status are an important aspect of the novel. Mellas also looks towards those in positions of authority over him and we feel his anger and contempt for some of the orders given by these men.
Although there is plenty of military jargon within the book, it was not a hindrance for me. It certainly didn't cause me to lose concentration on this novel that was so much more than a war story.
This was an interesting and compelling read for me; I can't recall experiencing such a range of emotions during the reading of a book. I was a teenager in the 1960s, when the Vietnamese war took place, so many of the events that were touched upon were known to me - the protests in America and the rise of the Black Panther movement particularly. This novel has piqued my interest to find out more about this period of history and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the 1960s, as well as those who want a gritty, "real" war story.
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on 10 April 2013
Overall not a bad read overall, very graphic detail about the struggles in Vietnam. If you interested in the Vietnam war then it would be a must read.
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"(Filling sandbags,) the small E-tool burned his blisters and sores. He watched the blood and pus from the jungle rot on his fingers and wrists smear in with the mud and rainwater. He paused occasionally to wipe his hands on his trousers, not even thinking that he had to sleep in them. Everything soon had the same greasy consistency anyway, mixing in with the urine that he couldn't quite cut off because he was so cold, the semen from his last wet dream, the cocoa he'd spilled the day before, the snot he rubbed off, the pus from his skin ulcers, the blood from the popped leaches, and the tears he wiped away so nobody would see that he was homesick." - A teenage Marine in the field, in MATTERHORN

MATTERHORN is the phenomenal first-novel by Karl Marlantes about the experience of being a Marine infantryman in Vietnam. Even if you didn't know (from the book's back cover) that the author is a veteran of that conflict, you'd know from the very first page that he'd been there and experienced or witnessed all it had to offer: the mud, leeches, jungle rot, immersion foot, drenching rain, fog, mosquitoes, tigers, C-rations, dank hooches, weaponry, scout dogs, jungle marches, razor-sharp elephant grass, barbed wire, entrenchments, infantry assaults, mortar attacks, battlefield first-aid, perilous helicopter missions, racism, fraggings, exhaustion, supply failures, death of friends, horrific wounds, land mines, incompetent command leadership, ammunition shortages, dysentery, close-up and personal killing, terror, boredom, homesickness, short-timer sticks, and blood-lust. Also, the simple pleasures of a warm Coke or hot coffee on the front lines or a cold beer and cleansing shower in the relative relaxation of a rear staging area.

The novel's hero is Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, the boot commander of the First Platoon, Bravo Company, First Battalion, Twenty-Fourth Regiment, Fifth Marine Division. At the opening of the narrative, Bravo Company occupies Fire Support Base Matterhorn in the jungle highlands of northwest South Vietnam in the corner formed by the Demilitarized Zone and Laos.

All of the combat action takes place on or around Matterhorn, a wretched hill of no inherent value except as a strategic position from which to engage and interdict the North Vietnamese Army. To battalion and regimental command, it's but a map coordinate. To the grunt Marines, it's a place where they're sent to die or be maimed.

To Mellas, a Marine Reserve officer out of Princeton University, Matterhorn is the forge that will make him a combat leader. And, while he'll come to realize the futility of the conflict that was America's Vietnam imbroglio, he will also come to value the camaraderie, loyalty and true grit demonstrated by a group of young men - not much more than overgrown kids, really - in desperate circumstances far from home.

Fiction writers can go their entire careers and not pen a novel as powerful as this debut work by Marlantes. At 566 pages, plus a 31-page Appendix that's a "Glossary of Weapons, Technical Terms, Slang, and Jargon", MATTERHORN was of intimidating size before I read the opening sentence. Before long, I resented having to put the book down. This is a tribute to the Vietnam veteran and the Marine Corps, and may be one of the most vivid and compelling literary renderings you'll read all year. And you will, or should, appreciate even more the young Americans in harm's way in the country's contemporary overseas conflicts.
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