Since Anna and I both wanted to read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes for this year’s Vietnam War Reading Challenge, we decided to read it together in small chunks since it is over 500 pages long.
Each Friday throughout December, we’ll be posting discussion questions with our answers. Please feel free to join in if you’ve already read the book or want to read along with us.
Today’s discussion will be on the final Ch. 16-23.
1. What do you think Hawke’s motivation is for disobeying orders and heading to the dire situation on Helicopter Hill?
Serena: I think Hawke has seen enough the stupidity back at base camp among the officers, realizing that he’s the only one with first hand knowledge of the real situation and not just the rumors about how Bravo Company got so pinned down. But it isn’t just the intellectual knowledge that motivates him. . . it also is the connection he has with the men that remain on Helicopter Hill, his old company. He feels for their situation; he’s been there; and he’s in a position to help even if it means he might not make it back. This sort of camaraderie propels him to make a risky decision, but I think its a decision that will garner him even more respect among the men in Bravo Company.
Anna: These men are Hawke’s family, his brothers. They fought side by side, humped through the jungle together for many months. There’s a special bond among soldiers who’ve been through the horrors of war together, and when Hawke hears and sees the stupidity back at base camp, as Serena so accurately describes it, he has to do something. He has to do the right thing, the thing that the superior officers can’t bring themselves to do — throw ambition and body counts aside and save men who need saving.
2. The victory of Bravo Company and the others at Matterhorn rouses a number of responses from the troops. How would you describe the prevailing feeling of Mellas and the others?
Serena: It seems that the victory is a bit hollow to Mellas in the face of all the men he’s lost, the devastation of the landscape, and the horror he’s experienced. Despite all of his ambition for garnering a medal for combat, it seems that all he can focus on now is the empty victory of taking the mountain from the NVA and the realization that the enemy will never give up the fight no matter how hopeless. This realization pushes him to examine his own capacity to continue fighting in Vietnam and he concludes that his determination is lacking compared to the NVA.
Anna: Here is where the evolution of Mellas’ character becomes evident. Ambition and medals mean little when you’re watching your men get blown to pieces, when you have your hand in the throat of a friend and feel him take his last breath. The cheers from those watching the battle on Helicopter Hill grate on Mellas because war is not a game, it’s life and death. And when he sits back and thinks about everything he’s seen and experienced in the last couple of months, he just can’t understand what is the purpose of all of it.
3. China’s showdown with Henry over the Black power movement leaves China with few options. Explain how you think China will respond to Henry’s display of greater power among the “brothers?”
Serena: Because China is part of non-violent Black power movement, his options are very limited because he is not in a position to take money and drugs away from the rest of the brothers and make them do what he wants. As I see it, his options include ratting them out or just following along with their plans to frag an officer. Neither choice is optimal, but that’s all he’s got. I’m going to go with ratting them out as his option given his commitment to nonviolence.
Anna: China is really stuck between a rock and a hard place. China seems to have assumed a non-violent stance after all he’s seen on Matterhorn, whereas Henry thinks violence is necessary to get things done. China has seen the senseless killings on the battlefield, and he knows that the dead bodies stacking up really don’t accomplish much except cause pain. China has to stand up for what he thinks is right, regardless of the power struggle.
4. What’s the significance of Mellas dropping Vancouver’s “gook” sword out of the chopper on his way to VCB have?
Serena: I felt as though Mellas was not only saying goodbye to Vancouver, but also to his past ambition and convictions about the war. He has had a life-changing experience, and now is the time for him to buck up and face reality, not his ideal notions of what war is and the medals that can be won. In other ways, dropping the sword is giving the jungle back its warrior — the one that seemed at home in the jungle and attuned to its noises and hiding places.
Anna: Well, for one, if it’s not longer in his possession, unscrupulous individuals can’t take it from him and sell it. Vancouver was one with the jungle, and letting the sword rest there is a fitting tribute. Mellas also has to find a way to let go of all he’d seen on Matterhorn and move on in order to survive.
5. What are your thoughts and feelings upon finishing the novel?
Serena: Blown away. This is a novel that should be read by anyone interested in the Vietnam War or war-related literature. I think the critics are right when they say this is an instant classic. Marlantes obviously took his time crafting the evolution of his characters, getting the settings down, and weaving in the political aspects of the war without dragging the plot or hampering the story arc. Of all the Vietnam War-related books I’ve read this year, it is one of the best and will surely be one I read again. I’d love to see a movie of it too.
Anna: Matterhorn is definitely on my all-time favorites list and definitely one of the best novels of the Vietnam War ever. Now, I’m saying that from the point of view of someone who’s read a lot of war novels, but not someone who’s lived through what the men in the book lived through. Marlantes engages readers, makes us use all of our senses, and puts us right in the jungle with Bravo Company. I just finished the book about 15 minutes ago, and I’m still finding it hard to put it into words. I cried, and I still feel the need to curl up in the fetal position and bawl like a baby. It’s definitely a book that will stay with me for a long, long time. It’s a heavy book, an intense book, but so worth the emotional exhaustion.
Anna and I want to thank everyone that has participated in the discussion and hope that more of you chime in once you’ve read the book.
We’d also like to thank our participants this year and to assure you prize posts for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge will be up sometime next week.
So stay tuned, and see you in the New Year for the U.S. Civil War Reading Challenge.