Book Review: Matterhorn

So many people have written about Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes, in ways more knowledgeable (both about war and its literature) than I can that I am not sure what I can profitably add to the conversation. Vietnam, after all, is not my generation's war. And it wasn't easy, as a peace-lover, to read what is essentially a war story, an action-adventure novel. But as a particularly long novel, it was not only part of my evenings for more than a few weeks, but it has stayed with me in the way that good books do, which is enough of an excuse to write about it, or to read it, for that matter. And no one yet (that I've read, anyway) has discussed the spiritual themes in Matterhorn, of which there are plenty, considering that this is the story of a group of men both facing and causing death. 
Matterhorn tells the story of the (fictional) Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Division, whose mission is to secure a hill (Matterhorn, also fictional) close to the DMZ and Laos, before abandoning it and then taking it again. It has the immediacy of good journalism, in that it frequently made me want to turn to my husband and say, "Did you hear about this?"--it felt like something we should be discussing today. Brutal battle scenes with no shortage of carnage aren't exactly easy or pleasant reading, but the book also has a literary quality that frequently made me pause, reread, think and savor. Like this, for example, describing the mindless work that filled many days out in the bush (and arguably describes many days back in the real world as well): "They dug and chopped, finding the meaning of their actions within the small prosaic tasks, casting from their minds the larger questions that would only lead them to despair."   
It struck me throughout the book that many spiritual practices taken on by contemplatives or monastics are just part of daily existence for troops on duty: communal living, radical interdependence, submission to authority, fasting, extreme physical exertion, prolonged attention to a singular task, and all accompanied by the constant threat and reality of death. One result of such practices is the truth that tends to emerge, both about ourselves and our situation. It is no different for these Marines, who, of course, did not undertake this mission as a spiritual practice and who would not label it as such. But to know the truth about ourselves--our capacity for both good and evil--is the beginning of the gospel. As Frederich Buechner says in Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, “Before the gospel is good news, it is simply the news that that's the way it is, whatever day it is of whatever year.”  Or to put it another way, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).
One truth these marines face is their satisfaction and even enjoyment in killing the enemy. Lieutenant Hawke says in response to another character's despair at admitting this, "It's the people who don't know it who are dangerous. There's at least two million of them back in the world. Boot camp doesn't make us killers. It's just a f-kin' finishing school. … None of them have ever met the mad monkey inside us. But we have." Such admissions are not comfortable to read, and though I honestly can't imagine that I could enjoy killing, I've had enough glimpses of that mad monkey's chattering, self-serving ways that I can't deny its existence. 
And in the midst of all this ugly truth about ourselves, the one explicitly Christian character, Cortell, gives the best description of what it means to have faith that I've read in a long time:

“Ever'one here think it easy for me. I be this good little church boy from Mississippi with my good little church-goin' Mammy, and since I be this stupid country n-er with the big faith, I don't have no troubles. Well, it just don't work that way." He paused. Jermain said nothing. "I see my friend Williams get ate by a tiger," Cortell continued. "I see my friend Broyer get his face ripped off by a mine. What you think I do all night, sit around thankin' Sweet Jesus? Raise my palms to sweet heaven and cry hallelujah? You know what I do? You know what I do? I lose my heart." Cortell's throat suddenly tightened, strangling his words. "I lose my heart." He took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure. He exhaled and went on quietly, back in control. "I sit there and I don't see any hope. Hope gone." Cortell was seeing his dead friends. "Then, the sky turn gray again in the east, and you know what I do? I choose all over to keep believin'. All along I know Jesus could maybe be just some fairy tale, and I could be just this one big fool. I choose anyway." He turned away from his inward images and returned to the blackness of the world around him. "It ain't no easy thing." 
No, choosing to believe in the face of such darkness is never easy, as nothing about war--or life, for that matter--is. As a war, Vietnam stands in our nation's history as a symbol for all that can go wrong. As a book, Matterhorn stands as a testimony to that destructiveness, waste and senselessness, certainly, but also to the courage, selflessness and honor of many of its warriors. It's a compelling, absorbing read, and as long as you are willing to be disturbed, I heartily recommend it. 

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