Read-a-long Discussion #1: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

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 (starting today), 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.

Here are our first set of questions from the first five chapters of the book:

1.  What are your first impressions of Mellas?

Serena: Mellas strikes me as a young officer looking to advance, but he’s so naive about actual combat and missions that he often makes errors or stumbles in situations that should be easier for him to navigate.  At times his ambition seems to be the only thing on his mind, even though he should be worried more about leading his men, learning their names and strengths, and getting them through operations alive.

Anna: Mellas seems like a good guy deep down, but he lets his ambition get the better of him.  He spends too much time thinking about how he can impress his superiors and how he can earn the respect of the men in his platoon.  Not only does he make minor (at least so far) mistakes, he talks back to the other lieutenants and lets his temper get out of control.  I don’t think he wants to intentionally cause anyone harm, but I don’t think he’d have a problem stepping on toes (or bodies) to reach his goals.  He’s set his sights on things far in the future instead of paying attention to the here and now.

2.  How much of the racial tension do you believe is real or dramatized by either the Blacks or the higher-ranking officers?

Serena: I think there is an element of racism in the company, but in many ways it’s exacerbated by certain members of the Black soldiers or the higher officers who are looking to merely exert their power.  At one point in the novel, a haircut causes a major struggle between the two groups, which seemed trivial to me.  But under such stress, I guess any moment of disagreement that could be about race can get blown out of proportion.

Anna: From the stories my dad told me about the war, race was an issue that caused a lot of tension.  You have to figure that the tension is in the background to begin with, and then put these men in close quarters and harsh conditions, and it’s no surprise that fights over seemingly trivial events break out.  However, it does appear that some of the officers are just plain racist and like to lord their authority over the black soldiers in particular.  Between Mallory and his headaches that no one believes are real and Parker and his refusal to get his hair cut, I think there’s a battle brewing between the black soldiers and the officers, what with China and his talk about “black power.”  It’s interesting how the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War overlapped a bit.

3.  Increasing the numbers of confirmed kills and probables during the Vietnam War became common practice.  What do you think is the motivation, and do you think the men on the ground and in the thick of battle disapproved of the practice?

Serena: With the political and societal turmoil back at home coupled with the confusion in the field about whether NVA or Viet Cong soldiers are indeed hit or killed, company leaders often feel pressured to perform.  An unpopular war can cause this kind of anxiety and behavior, but I also think that the practice of the NVA to take the dead with them or hide them helped contribute to the confusion, especially in jungles that American soldiers were often unfamiliar with.  As for the men on the ground, some probably enjoyed the inflation because it made them look better, especially if they are ambitious, but others may see it as deceptive and defeatist if Americans want the war to be won.

Anna: The war was so unpopular in the United States that I think the government needed to show that things were getting done and that we were winning the war, even if it meant skewing or inventing numbers.  I think officers looking for advancement based on performance may have felt the need to inflate numbers, or as in the skirmish in Chapter Three, it was uncertain whether any enemies were taken out and there was no explanation for the lack of an artillery damage assessment.  They couldn’t tell their superiors they had no information or there would be hell to pay.  I think some of them felt good when the probables were changed to confirmed, that by doing so made it true and made them successful.  But others, like Mellas, didn’t want to lie to make someone else feel good, so they stated the facts and left the inflated statistics to someone else.

4.  The average age of an infantryman during the Vietnam War was 22, according to this site.  Do you think Marlantes does a good job of emphasizing that the main characters were barely out of their teens, and do you think such emphasis is important?

Serena: I think the emphasis is shown in how inexperienced they are with military etiquette, how quickly they jump on one another in disagreements, and how they fluff their “peacock” feathers in competition.  The Kool-Aid mustaches are one of the biggest descriptive cues that these soldiers are young and just starting to shed their youth . . . and they’re shedding it in a war-torn jungle.  I think it’s important to remember that these soldiers are young because it explains a lot of their actions and reactions, but also shows how ill-prepared they were for the trouble they found themselves in.

Anna: It’s really sad how these soldiers were just kids, forced to grow up fast and make life or death decisions when they should have been back home falling in love and wondering what to do with the rest of their lives.  I can’t recall if Marlantes repeats the ages of the characters more than once, but he emphasizes their youth and immaturity when it comes to certain decisions, such as fighting about a haircut or signing on for another tour to get 30 days R&R with a bar girl in Bangkok that he hopes to marry.  But what really drove the point home was the fact that the soldiers drink Koolaid to cover the taste of the water, and they’re in the bush with colored stains around their mouths like little kids.  I think it’s important to remember that they were just kids in over their heads, fighting a war they didn’t understand or, in some cases, didn’t support.

5.  What is your impression of the book thus far?

Serena: I sped through this first section of the book.  Despite the nasty references to jungle rot, which I just had to look up (be warned the photo is nasty), and other war-related elements, I’ve enjoyed Marlantes writing.  His ability to pull you in the story, introduce a number of characters, and keep readers interested when he explains certain aspects of military jargon is a testament to how long he spent writing and editing this novel.  I haven’t been bored once, though Mellas is a character that can get on your nerves with all of his ambitions.

Anna: I’m loving it so far…well, as much as one can love a gritty war novel.  I can confidently say already that Matterhorn is a literary masterpiece that likely will earn a spot on my all-time-favorite-books list.  The characters are all endearing and infuriating in their own way, and the story truly feels real to me.

Thanks for joining us in today’s discussion of Matterhorn.  Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and come back again next Friday, Dec. 17, when we’ll be discussing Chapters 6-10.

FTC Disclosure:  Links will take you to an Amazon Affiliate page; No purchase is required, though appreciated to cover postage and shipping costs of challenge prizes.

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10 Comments

  1. This book definitely isn’t boring, and even though I’m savoring it, it’s definitely one of those long books that reads fast.

  2. Oh! I am going to read this book as it is sitting on my stack. I will try to get caught up this weekend. Which chapters should we have read through Dec. 17? Thanks for hosting the read-a-long.

  3. The next discussion will be on Chapters 6-10. I’m so glad you’ll be joining us! And feel free to revisit this post when you’ve read through Chapter 5.

  4. Nise’, I’m so glad that you’ll be joining us. Next chapters are 6-10 for Dec. 17

  5. I just started listening to this yesterday without even knowing about the readalong! I”m looking forward to the discussion questions. My biggest impression so far is how young they are, and I think I may have nightmares about leeches!

  6. Shelley: I can totally see why you would end up having nightmares about leeches…NASTY…Creepy crawlies. I hope you’ll take the time to answer the discussion questions each week. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. I got caught up!

    1. I agree with the observations about Mellas. I believe a transformation will happen due to some extraordianry and awful circumstances.

    2. Anna, I have heard the same things from my Uncle when he would talk about his experiences.

    4. I have sons age 19 and 23 and I can’t imagine them in that situation. It is easy for me to understand their (the characters) behaviors.

    5. I am enjoying this novel as well, it has more profanity than I usually like to read, but can handle it because of the context of the novel. Serena, I can imagine jungle rot and don’t need to see a picture, ewww.

  8. Thanks for weighing in Nise’. There really is a lot of profanity, but it makes sense given the characters and their circumstances. Unfortunately I saw the jungle rot picture. You were right not to click!

  9. Thanks for reading along with us, Nise’! I had no idea what it was, and am a naturally curious person. I couldn’t resist looking up an image. morbid curiosity I guess!

  10. […] a discussion every Friday during the month of December.  If you’re interested, check out week 1, week 2, week 3, and week […]


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