Read-a-long Discussion #3: 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. 11-15.

1.  China has some of his illusions shattered about the black power movement in the military.  How has his attitude and role changed?

Serena: (spoiler alert) Once China realizes that the black power movement’s goals in the military are different from his own, in terms of gathering drugs rather than ammunition and guns, he has to reassess his role and how he can remain in the group and useful.  His ideals about the movement and what it needs to accomplish its goals are shattered once he realizes that the “brothers” are trading for marijuana and other drugs, which the movement can sell back in the states.  But those drugs are not just meant for whites, but for other brothers too.  I think against his better judgment, China has suppressed his authoritative nature and become more subordinate in the movement, but how long that lasts is anyone’s guess.

Anna: China likes being in control, being the leader of the “brothers,” and when he realizes he doesn’t have as much power as he thought, he’s not happy about it.  He also feels stupid when he realizes that his contributions to the movement are no longer needed and even laughed at.  From the way he is portrayed in earlier chapters, I really thought he was someone with pull, but that’s not the case anymore; maybe it never was.

2.  Describe how Mellas’ interactions with his troops and the other officers has changed.

Serena: Mellas seems to have mellowed out in his interactions with the troops and the officers in that he’s not over thinking each command or each conversation before answering or even after answering.  It seems that as the battalion comes under fire or is in danger, his military instincts take over and he interacts with the men as he should.  While he does still rise to anger quickly on occasion, it’s less like he’s a toddler looking to get attention and get his favorite toy away from his siblings.

Anna: He seems like he’s growing up.  To a certain extent, he’s still motivated by his ambitions and desire to get a medal — which has disastrous consequences for one member of his platoon — but he makes a lot of decisions based on his love for his men and the brotherhood of the Marines.  He more easily fits in with the other lieutenants and the lower ranking grunts, and they all seem to have more respect for him, as he’s proven himself to be competent.  He also seems to be less tolerant of the superior officers he once wanted to impress.

3.  What’s Blakely’s motivation for leading Simpson into decisions that could have severe consequences for Bravo Company?  And is Simpson too naive or too drunk to notice?

Serena: I’m on the fence for this question.  I’m not sure Simpson is too dumb to realize Blakely’s manipulations, but I do think his drinking does impair his ability to think clearly.  But there also is the element that suggests Simpson is allowing Blakely to talk him into things that he would normally choose to do himself.  Simpson’s career has not been the smoothest, and I think in a way Blakely backing up his thoughts gives him the confidence he needs to go ahead with the tough decisions.  Blakely, on the other hand, is clearly using Simpson as a shield given his higher rank and combat experience.  Blakely is in his first major war, and while he has specific ideas about how to run the troops, he needs the shield of another officer to protect himself from backlash should those decisions fail to meet expectations.

Anna: (spoiler alert)  There is one scene where Mulvaney tells Simpson that he uses people to advance his career and even lets people use him to advance their careers.  I think it’s a bit of both.  Blakely thinks he can manipulate Simpson, and Simpson always looks to Blakely for guidance on anything.  Blakely sees an opportunity to get ahead, and Simpson thinks Blakely has his best interests at heart.  I don’t think Simpson is dumb, but he strikes me as a bit incompetent and he’s always looking for a drink.  Blakely seems to have thought out every option and their superiors’ reactions to any action or inaction, and Simpson lets him lead.

4.  Upon Vancouver’s departure from the platoon, why do you think he is referred to as the soul of the company?

Serena: Although Vancouver is a Canadian in the U.S. military — at a time when so many draftees in the United States were running to Canada to avoid going to war — his courage, decisiveness, selflessness, and keen sense of his surroundings have kept the company safe and on track more than once.  The men looked up to him as a soldier to emulate and to fear.  He’s the Rambo of this novel; the one man show that combats the enemy without much assistance, but who has no problem being in that role.  Vancouver is the essence of the company, and it makes me wonder what will happen to the remaining soldiers once he’s gone.

Anna: Vancouver’s willingness to serve as point man all the time really motivated the men.  He was strong and even a bit crazy but he had heart.  When the men are trying to retake Matterhorn and one charges forward, Vancouver follows because he can’t let one of his friends go forward alone.  And when a racially-charged fight nearly breaks out, he doesn’t want to choose sides.  He was a model soldier, and one of my favorite characters in the book.

5.  What does it say about human nature that when there is a lull in adrenaline and battle that soldiers get incredibly bored?

Serena: These young men have been taken or volunteered to leave their quiet home life to battle the enemy in a foreign land under harsh circumstances.  The adrenaline has been pumping through their veins off and on throughout their tours, and it seems that when that rush is gone, they come down from a high that drops them very low in spirit.  This sense of loss from a high can be devastating and couple that with the anticipation of further battle, these men are on pins and needles and are full of anxious energy.  Boredom would come easily and become devastating, especially in lulls from combat.  It may even be intensified.  It makes you wonder what these men will go through when they are home and back to the lives they’ve left.

Anna: They’re always on edge, they have to be.  It’s interesting that when they find themselves getting bored, later on when they’re plunged into the action, they are dreading it and wish they could be back in the boredom.  I think it also has to do with them not always understanding the purpose of the war, and with death and destruction all around them, they want to have a purpose.

Our next discussion on Dec. 31 will be for Chapters 16-23.  We know that’s New Years Eve, but just weigh in when you can.

1 Comment

  1. […] 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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