Read-a-long Discussion #2: 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, 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 ch. 6-10.

1.  Do you think Mellas’ ambition clouds his ability to connect with the other officers and his troops (esp. when he seems to think of every command as a test)?

Serena: Sometimes I think Mellas is too worried about how to fit in on both sides of the coin.  While he has a number of ambitions for his military and other career options, he still wants to be friendly with his troops to ensure they trust him.  However, his constant focus on whether certain orders are a test may just drive him crazy and force him to make more mistakes.  I think this character needs to realize that these life and death situations are real and that whether an order is a test or not is irrelevant.

Anna: I think he tries too hard sometimes, and he tries to play both sides of the coin.  He tries to impress his superiors, and it’s so obvious you want to roll your eyes.  He even makes it obvious to Hawke that he wants his job, which doesn’t help when you’re trying to build a relationship with someone. As for his troops, he tries to fit in with them, especially the “brothers,” and he’ll stand up for them even if it means butting heads with another officer. And while I think he really does care for his men, everything he does in some way or another is for himself.

2.  Explain why you think Cortell broke after Cassidy brought two baby tigers into camp?

Serena: (Spoiler alert) Though this isn’t a significant portion of the book, the event with the higher officer bringing baby tigers into camp is used to further illustrate the tensions between the men in the company.  Not only does it cause an eruption of anger, but it also illustrates the racial tensions in the camp and how easily they can boil over.  However, my question is what was the officer thinking when he brought the baby tigers to camp in the first place?  Doesn’t he realize a mother tiger is around and probably stalking their scent, which could pose a danger to not only him but the other members of the group?  It just seemed like a dumb move to me.

Anna: (spoiler alert) Cortell just lost his good friend to a tiger attack, and it was a bit insensitive of them — never mind completely stupid — to bring baby tigers back to camp.  It’s not like they don’t know what a tiger could do to them; they’ve been lugging around Williams’ mutilated body for days! And Cassidy just doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut.  He lords his authority over the black soldiers, and even though he could cut Cortell some slack because of his loss, he won’t.

3.  How would the battalion in the jungle feel about the accommodations of Colonel Mulvaney and Major Blakely etc.?  What purpose does it serve to illustrate this contrast?

Serena: I think the battalion in the jungle would be mighty pissed to learn that the officers were enjoying the lap of luxury while they were humping it in the jungle on half rations that were dwindling fast.  Not only are they forced to share their rations with another company, but then they are denied pick ups for medical and supply purposes.  I think Marlantes is using this to contrast the situations of officers and ground troops, but also to illustrate how the officers can remain so nonchalant about certain decisions that can have adverse effects on ground troops.

Anna: I think they must know that the colonel isn’t suffering like they are. The starvation and the endless humping for no reason just illustrate how political the war was.  Bravo Company couldn’t get relief because of a senseless operation in Cam Lo that would make for good PR.

4.  Lieutenant Colonel Simpson begins rationalizing poor decisions he’s made regarding Bravo Company’s orders.  How accurate of a portrayal do you believe this is for officers making poor decisions during the war?

Serena: Simpson has no alternative but to rationalize his commands to himself because he’s already committed the troops to their mission without rations and rescue.  In many ways, he reminds me of Mellas, with his quick trigger responses when challenged by higher officers and others he finds to be his competition.  This competitive nature seems to be a central theme thus far, and I wonder just how far this theme will be pushed.  As for how accurate the portrayal is, I really couldn’t say, but my guess is that it might be for some of the officers at the time.

Anna: Part of the problem is Simpson is an alcoholic, and he’ll make decisions and give orders when he’s been drinking that are cruel or even senseless.  One minute you think he realizes he’s been harsh and too hard on Fitch for not making the checkpoints on time, but the next minute he’s finding an excuse for making them go hungry for another couple of days before sending out a resupply chopper.

5.  After setting up the Fire Support Base on Hill 1609, Mellas one day decides to go on a recon mission in the valley below.  Do you think his decision and the outcome of this mission do anything to further the battalion’s efforts to wipe out the NVA in the region?  Do you think this could be a turning point for Mellas?

Serena: I really think that the recon mission was more about Mellas’ ambition and need to prove himself, especially after speaking with Hawke who calls him a politician.  He wants to be more than just a talking head; he wants to show that he has combat experience and to prove his courage not only to himself, but also his troops.  Perhaps if he receives some recognition from Fitch or the other troops, he’ll be less on edge about his ambitions. 

Anna: It almost seemed as though Mellas was bored, having been fed and going back into a routine similar to the one they had on Matterhorn.  The recon mission was his idea and simply a means of getting noticed among his superiors.  However, despite all he and his men have been through so far, Mellas still seems naive about war.  Even his men are telling him to turn around and go back to camp, but he doesn’t want to seem like a failure and pushes onward.  While deemed a success from the point of view of the superior officers, the mission is a hard one for Mellas, and the decision he makes about the wounded NVA soldier — whether to let him live or die — gives him a lot to process.  Was he weak or was he acting compassionately? I wonder how this scene will play out in terms of character development in future chapters.

Our next discussion on Dec. 24 will be for Chapters 11-15.  We know this is close to Christmas, but just weigh in when you can.


  1. 1. I agree that Mellas’ ambition is still clouding everything he sees, wants to do and how he relates to the others.

    2. What a dumb move to bring those baby tigers back to camp. I wonder if the mother still cared for them or abandonded them.

    3. If I was thinking it was not fair and so wrong I am sure the men would think the same thing. They have no idea how bad the suffering is and only care about how they look with their emphasis on numbers and position.

    4. I agree Anna, being an alcoholic, does not help in making good decisions and then he has to compensate at the expense of his men for them.

    5. I think because of his fears he wants so desparately to “better” his position and will take stupid risks to do what he thinks will get him there.

  2. Nise: thanks for joining the discussion. I think there are more parallels between simpson and mellas than we are initially seeing…especially when it comes to their ambitious natures. I think if Mellas isn’t careful, he could end up drinking quite a bit and become Simpson.

  3. […] 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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