Literary War Novels–“The Occasional Reader”–Vol Seven
THE OCCASIONAL READER
Matterhorn by Karl A. Marlantes
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
This issue of ACMS Membership Bulletin contains my seventh “Occasional Reader” column. As I sit at my desk pecking away at my computer in an attempt to entice you to read two excellent novels—Matterhorn and The Things They Carried–I am acutely aware that this is a personal column. My intention has been to describe books that may have escaped best-seller lists but more importantly, describe books I have read, enjoyed and recommend. However, I know not everyone shares my tastes in literature. (As I would suppose, we also might not agree upon politics, choice of films, wine, or suture.) So it is with some trepidation and humility that I discuss my favorite literary war novels—a term some might even suggest is an oxymoron.
While I confess a life-long passion for reading novels concerning men (and women) at war, my motivations have changed. As a young boy I was enamored by the adventures of British sea captains Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey. Growing older, I lost my romantic infatuation with triple masted warships and began reading more complicated war novels. Novels like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, James Jones’ A Thin Red Line, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead presented war, particularly modern warfare, as the multi-layered destructive monstrosity that it is.
While I enjoy an occasional military history or policy analysis or even a biography of a general, I remain fascinated by the stories of common combat soldiers. I’m the guy who views all ten hours of the HBO series Band of Brothers every Memorial Day and have bought so many war memoirs and novels that the local bookstore reserves a copy of new releases knowing I’m good for the purchase. But, I can’t help myself; these vivid stories are so full of paradox: men grappling with the abstractions of honor and duty in the particular circumstances of muck, deprivation, blood. Not to mention the cost to the human psyche of the daily decisions to kill or be killed. But, can these novels really be considered literary?
Author Brett Lott defines a literary novel as, “ . . . fiction that examines the character of the people involved in the story, [while] popular fiction is driven by plot. Whereas popular fiction, I[Lott] tell them, is meant primarily as a means of escape . . . literary fiction confronts us with who we are, and makes us look deeply at the human condition.”
For readers interested in policy issues of the Vietnam War I would recommend Andrew Krepinevich’s seminal work, The Army and Vietnam. But for those readers fascinated with examining the workings of the human heart, especially when the realities of war have removed civilization’s rational veneer, then Karl Marlante’s Matterhorn and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried are fantastic novels.
Be forewarned, these books are not romantic and certainly not plot driven stories with tidy conclusions; both authors explicate scene and violence in realistic and often revolting detail. But these authors are masters at creating well-drawn and complex characters. It is these character’s recognition of and wrestling with fear and doubt that holds the primacy of place. Encased in these character’s narratives are the not so subtle questions concerning the human capacity and desire for violence. Perhaps because both authors are Vietnam survivors, they are at great pains to map the wreckage rent upon the survivors in addition to the massive loss of life.
Both novels create word images of the human heart that exhibit unusual complexity, ambiguity and paradox. Both authors draw unflinching portraits that contain dark and ugly features: racism, hate, cowardice and murder exist within soldiers also practicing uncommon bravery and sacrifice for their fellow soldiers.
Each novel also unfolds a strange kind of grace and honor. This is not a sterile creedal grace or abstract nationalistic honor. Rather, both novels outline a grace tenuously contained in broken and filthy vessels; human beings bearing only the faintest whiff of redemption, redemption encrusted by doubt and chaos and death. Marlante and O’Brien’s characters forge an honor that has little to do with dreams of glory or dress swords or medals. The honor noted is an unspoken but palpable commitment by disparate and imperfect men to lay down their life for their comrades and even for strangers who wear the uniform. Marlante and O’Brien note the same kind of honor found in the Illiad or in Shakespeare’s Henry V : “. . . We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me; Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile . . “
Matterhorn, released in 2010, was Karl Marlante’s first novel. Marlante, a Yale graduate who attended Oxford, is also a decorated Marine lieutenant whose personal history in Vietnam is strikingly similar to the book’s main protagonist, second lieutenant Waino Mellas. Although Matterhorn is a fictional account—the story of Bravo Company, 1st. Battalion, 24th Regiment, Fifth Marine Division actions during 1969—the battle scenes are closely drawn from an actual prolonged assault on Hill 44. The fight over Hill 44 resulted in the loss over a third of Marlante’s company and his being awarded the Navy Cross.
But the conquering the hill, both real and fictional, is not really the point. Control of the fictional Matterhorn hill or the real Hill 44, like so many Vietnam campaigns, proved to be of little utility, an antiquated strategy against an enemy fighting a new kind of war. Long before Lt. Mellas and his men reach the summit of the Matterhorn we learn—as the grunts of Bravo Company knew long before they started the assault–that the almost unthinkable endurance and courage and death required to complete “the mission” will not be worth it—by anyone’s reckoning.
This novel grabbed me like few books in recent memory. I couldn’t bear to put it down until I knew the ending. Great authors, like installation artists, put you inside a three-dimensional world. Marlante inserted me into a Southeast Asia hell; I stood single file on a dirty jungle trail with fellow grunts, fingered the trigger of my M-16, listened intently for unusual sounds that marked death, marked the presence of someone I wanted to kill before they killed me. The author’s prose caused sweat to roll down my back, induced pain where the leech sucked blood from my leg and filled me with a nauseating fear.
However, it was a quiet moment long after the big battle that remains fixed in my mind. The character, Lt. Mellas, a man by age and upbringing like me, had an epiphany. Reflecting on the assault of Matterhorn, he realized he, “enjoyed killing people.” I sat silent in my peaceful home and realized that I too was capable of taking a human life and worse, might do so without remorse.
Tim O’Brian’s book, The Things They Carried, does not employ a standard story line or narrative arc and is described by critics as a “lyric novel.” Particularly for the grunts that crawled and died in Vietnam’s mud and dung, the war had scant resemblance to lyrical song or poetry. However, by labeling O’Brien’s book as lyric novel the critics meant to identify the book as employing a prose collage form, a style far more unique and controversial in 1990 when The Things They Carried was published than it is today.
The Things They Carried is a collection of loosely connected short stories concerning a combat infantry platoon stationed in the Republic of Vietnam. O’Brien’s combat narrative, like Matterhorn, allows the reader to enter a new world, a world filled with equal parts of fury, fatalism and bravado. This tale is, at times, confusing and disorienting; a non-linear story resembling a slide down Alice’s rabbit hole into a surreal, hallucinogenic world. O’Brien describes a trip that coveys the narrative described by many young soldiers who left the sun-drenched “summer of love” in the United States, the “real” world of 1967 filled with hippies, Gracie Slick and Jimmy Hedrix. They were, in the blink of a cramped twelve hour plane ride, transported from California to a violent, random, and death filled Hell.
Written in 1990, O’Brien’s book is now considered by many experts as one of the “classic” Vietnam War novels. This well written memoir/fiction reminded me of my other favorite Vietnam literary novels: Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army and Michael Herr’s Dispatches. All three of these books exhibit superb readable prose that provoked revulsion, disorientation and a kind of hopeless sadness.
I suppose sadness might seem an unusual emotion. Perhaps like most Americans entering late middle age, I have childhood friends whose names are chiseled into that black granite wall in Washington, D.C. Like the phantom pain from an amputation, the Vietnam War is for my generation–those who went and those who did not– a time that can never quite be “gotten over” or “put behind.” Reading Matterhorn caused me to remember and ponder the many twists and turns that allow me now to worry about my grandchildren while my dead high school classmates can not.
But reading books about the Vietnam War, even superbly written volumes like Matterhorn and The Things They Carried provoke in me a newer kind of sadness. I finished Marlante’s novel at 3:30 A.M. But rather than enjoying a contented sigh, the expression of bittersweet satisfaction usual after turning the last page of a great novel, I felt a futile dread—the old man’s dread. The autumn wind blew aspen leaves against the house, the breeze’s crinkly chatter serving as surety for a coming winter. But, the wind also whispered a promise: there will be no lack of future war novels.
The more than ten years of United States’ combat in Iraq and Afghanistan guarantees another crop of literary war novels—a new generation of talented returning combat veterans crafting stories that need telling. Yet, this prospect gives me no joy. Despite have enjoyed literary war novels all my life, I would gladly give them up. Frankly, the cost of this new prose is too high, I do not wish to read of another iteration of war novels, stories of another generation of our children retracing well trodden and blood soaked paths.
Since Vietnam, our nation has not really wanted to know the truth, not wanted to count the terrible costs of war, not wanted to recognize that war for the survivors doesn’t end when the treaties are signed. Too many brave men and women return permanently injured; too many courageous acts of honor and sacrifice have gone unnoticed and altogether too many flag draped coffins have been ignored. Perhaps, that was Marlante’s and O’Brien’s point for writing these excellent books: there is much, even after forty years, we as individuals and a nation should not forget.