Read-a-long Discussion #4: 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 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.

Reviews: MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes

Savvy Verse & Wit read and reviewed Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge.  Here’s an excerpt from the review:

“However, this novel shows readers the true nature of those ‘hollow’ victories.  While these men remain dedicated to their missions and each other, without proper strategy and backing their victories become senseless in the eyes of loss and terror.  Even victories become jokes once the reports are made to the command posts and the reports of confirmed and probable dead are doctored — something that was common during the war.”

Read the full review.

Diary of an Eccentric also read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes for the challenge.  Here’s a bit of what she had to say:

“Life in the bush is hell, and Marlantes engages readers’ senses to drive the point home.  We can smell the unwashed bodies and the rotting uniforms.  We can see the oozing sores all over their bodies.  We feel the fear and the tension as they hump through the jungle not sure whether the enemy is waiting for them up ahead.  We feel their anger when the high-ranking officers withhold supplies when they fail to reach a checkpoint on time because they haven’t eaten or drank in days.  We hear the sounds of the bullets and grenades, and we feel their sorrow when they lose one of their own.  Marlantes’ writing is that good, so brilliant, in fact, that I wished the nearly 600 page book was longer.”

Read the full review.

**Attention participants:  Remember to email us a link to your reviews, and we’ll post them here so we can see what everyone is reading!**

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.

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.

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.

MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes Read-a-Long in December

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 12/10), 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.  The first set of discussion questions will be for chapters 1-5.

***Also, don’t forget to sign up for the 2011 U.S. Civil War reading challenge.

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.

Review: MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes

dog eared copy recently read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge.  Here’s an excerpt from the review:

From the opening lines to the close of the novel, the author immediately and effectively places the reader/listener in Vietnam, 1969. The imagery is evocative without dipping into superfluous metaphor and, the scenes resonate with physical and psychological detail.

For the complete review, click here.

**Attention participants:  Remember to email us a link to your reviews, and we’ll post them here so we can see what everyone is reading!**

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