I finished this book a month or so ago, but, as often happens with books I have been absolutely floored by the brilliance of, I had a hard time sitting down to write a review because I just didn’t know what to say. This book is masterful. It’s a masterpiece. And it spoke to me on so many personal levels it almost felt like a gift from some higher power, sent to me at the most bizarrely perfect time imaginable.
The story is set in Vietnam in 1969 and focuses on a young new Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, who has just graduated from college and been immediately shipped off to the dark, wet, leech-ridden jungle to lead a squad of kids in a war. When he arrives, he’s shocked to find most of his compatriots are teenagers, the majority of them only 18 or 19 years old, though infinitely older than he is in battle years, and he’s constantly annoyed by their childish shenanigans. Meanwhile, he’s also terrified to the core (or perhaps the Corps), feeling desperately in over his head, and worried about everything from being shot to wearing underwear he thinks his mother has dyed too green.
The title comes from the company’s target, a hill in the jungle nicknamed Matterhorn. Their first task is to take the hill. Their second task is to vacate it. And their third task, naturally, is to take it back. (Welcome to the Corps, Mellas!)
That’s the plot, in a nutshell. But it’s merely the big picture, and the big picture is hardly the point. Instead, the story focuses on a small group of soldiers, led by Mellas, and their daily lives in the jungle. One moment, they’re bored, figuring out novel ways to heat their coffee (explosives) and make their water more palatable (little packets of some kind of Kool-Aid substance). The next, they’re hiding alongside a trail in the middle of the night waiting to ambush some teenagers who are just like them but for their nationality, while also grieving the horrific loses of their friends, taken left and right by bullets, mines, grenades, trench foot, and tigers.
Marlantes spent thirty years writing this novel, and a lot of what happens in it is based on his own experiences in the war. Suffering from severe PTSD, he began to write the book as a way to cope with his memories, the flashbacks, the terror. I wonder if he knew at the time that this is actually one of the most effective treatments for PTSD there is — exposure therapy: telling or writing your story over and over until it no longer holds such extreme power over your emotions. I know this because I’m in the middle of this same procedure myself, and have been in the thick of it for nearly two years now (though the storytelling part, for me, only started about three months ago). To read this novel, knowing what Marlantes was going through when he wrote it, and knowing that it helped him, ultimately, to get it all down, was the first of the two aforementioned and tremendous personal impacts on me.
More powerful, though, was the second: the connection it gave me to my own father. The understanding, at last, of some of what he went through himself during the war, and the incredible strength and courage it must have taken to go through all of that (though it was different for him, to be sure, as an aviator and not a grunt) and come out relatively “okay” on the other side. I finished this novel about two weeks before I was heading to Washington, DC for a conference, and knew that as part of my trip, I would make a trek to the Vietnam Memorial — “The Wall” — to “visit,” so to speak, my dad’s best friend, Roger Okamoto (killed by a land mine in Vietnam), as well as a number of his other buddies from the war who didn’t make back. Though my father has told many stories of his experiences as a Marine in Vietnam, he very rarely talks about anything emotional, like loss. His stories are about interactions with friends, missions he flew, the locals he befriended. They’re about jokesters (of which there are many in the Corps as well as in this novel, which is truly hilarious at times), drinking, dumb leaders, loyal brethren. But though I grew up hearing stories about Roger when he was alive, I didn’t even know how he died until about three years ago. Because my father doesn’t talk about that. I don’t know how the war impacted him emotionally. I know he doesn’t have PTSD, but I don’t know why. When he rattled off the list of friends on the Wall I might want to go say hello to during my first solo visit there three years ago, he started out with 2 or 3, paused for a bit, and then began spilling names out like a spigot finally hooked to water after years of running dry. The list was long, and came with abbreviated stories that hinted at incredible loss or fear (his first roommate, killed the very first week my dad was there; the pilot who warned him over and over never to do this one maneuver in his A-4, and who then did that same exact thing and died; etc.). How do you lose, in your early 20s, so MANY friends in such a short amount of time and come out completely unscathed?
The answer? I think? You don’t.
This novel is filled with terrible stories of loss and pain, as well as some of the most moving and powerful tales of brotherhood and love I have ever read. And though it also focuses a lot on political aspects of the war and the era (there’s a lot of stuff about the impact of the Civil Rights movement on black and white Marines and their interactions both in battle and in camp, for example), what it mostly brought home for me at last is the real story of war for those who are in the thick of it. The ways they cope (humor and booze, mostly); the mistakes they make and the crushing guilt those mistakes can lead to; how interpersonal conflicts fall away the minute the bullets start to fly, each man suddenly having the back of every other man beside him, regardless of color or friendship or beliefs (the true heart of the USMC slogan “semper fidelis” (“always faithful”)); and one young Marine leader who, in the span of the novel’s few short months, goes from a kid to an adult in the fastest and most furious of ways.
To say this book is “recommended” doesn’t even begin to touch on how strongly I feel about it. If you know someone who fought in Vietnam, it’s a must-read. If you love incredibly well-written fiction, it’s a must-read. If you are struggling with PTSD and you need some hope, it’s a must-read. I don’t know if Marlantes felt “cured” by the time this novel was finally published (after years of writing, rewriting, rejection, and more). But I can’t see how the process that went into the creation of this novel, and the accolades it got after it finally came out (which I can imagine were very validating), could fail to help at least a little bit. Wherever you are, Mr. M., I thank you for the tremendous gift of this book. I’ll be reading it again very, very soon.
Semper fi, Marines. And Dad? Thanks for coming home.
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