It is not until four pages into this starkly realistic war novel that we learn that the story is set in Vietnam.
In the preceding pages, we meet 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas, soaked, exhausted and covered with leeches, smelling the odor of open latrines and surveying some of the equally bedraggled Marines he commands, men who know more about what they are doing than he does.
We know they are in the jungle. We learn that Mellas is new, and that he is ambitious. Having just arrived, he already covets the job of his company commander.
Vietnam is the setting for this extraordinary, inspiring and compelling first book by Karl Marlantes, but the author is concerned with larger themes. Matterhorn could have been written about combat anywhere, anytime. It is a rich, fine, powerful story told with excruciating precision about men driven to extremes of fear and courage.
It is about disillusionment and betrayal, but it is also about intense loyalty and idealism. Mellas is a young man with a sharp sense of duty and honor whose ideals are put to a terrible test. They emerge, like Mellas, battered but somehow purer and stronger for the ordeal.
Mellas has abandoned a safe Ivy League career track to volunteer for infantry duty in Vietnam in 1969, a time when the war is despised even by the men fighting it. Few believe any longer in the cause that motivated America to fight, and even fewer still believe that the war could possibly end in victory.
But Mellas had joined the reserves out of high school, and he feels he owes it to the Marines, the president of the United States, the country and ultimately himself to keep that promise. His girlfriend dumps him because of it.
"You got into Yale Law School," she pleads with him. "You were deferred. In three years the war could be over, and if it isn't, you'll do your time as a lawyer. People would kill to get where you are."
He tells her: "People are getting killed." But the reality of the war, of combat, mocks his fidelity and is indifferent to his courage.
And here is where the novel breathes, day by day, hour by hour, sometimes minute by terrifying minute. Mellas and his fellow Marines are repeatedly ordered to risk and sacrifice everything for — what? To clear a fire-support base on a jungle-covered mountain near the border of Laos, only to abandon it and its expertly designed defenses to the enemy, and then to be asked to storm it and win it back, only to ultimately abandon it once more?
Marlantes, a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar who served with the Marines in Vietnam and whose decorations include two Purple Hearts, brilliantly captures the way the gritty reality of combat grows into clean abstraction as fateful decisions move up the chain of command, and it would have been easy to paint these distant commanders as villains. But he is a better novelist than that. High and low, there is the same mix of cowardice and bravery, ambition and selflessness, ineptitude and competence.
As his Marines struggle to overcome their enemies and impossible barriers of the landscape, they struggle to overcome similarly impossible barriers between each other of race, class and rank. Survival forces them to trust each other and ultimately love each other. There has never been a more realistic portrait of or eloquent tribute to the nobility of men under fire, and never a more damning portrait of a war that ground them cruelly underfoot for no good reason.
After a bitter, bloody struggle to retake Matterhorn, after killing North Vietnamese soldiers who had fought to the death for their bunker, "Mellas now knew, with utter certainty, that the North Vietnamese would never quit. They would continue the war until they were annihilated, and he did not have the will to do what that would require."
This is Vietnam, and we know Mellas is right. Matterhorn is a parable. It is one small, heartrending story of futility in the midst of a much, much larger heartrending story of futility. When soldiers no longer fight for victory, when they know their valor will bring them no honor or distinction in the larger world — returning Vietnam vets will unjustly bear the taint of this futile effort — why do they continue? Mellas even comes to see his personal ambition for rank and military distinction as folly.
But he continues, out of loyalty to his men, to the Marines, to his country and to his own stubborn sense of honor. Out of undeniable absurdity and horror, out of the grime and sweat, Marlantes unearths something noble and enduring.
Some very good fiction has come out of Vietnam, notably Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and his story collection The Things They Carried, but the overall treatment of its soldiers in American literature and cinema has been derogatory. They have been portrayed as stooges, sadists, victims or lunatics. The drug-addled, mentally crippled Vietnam veteran is one of that war's enduring legacies, popularized in films such as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and Rambo.
Matterhorn reminds me more of the great pre-Vietnam war novels, such as Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, James Jones' The Thin Red Line and Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. There has never been a more realistic portrayal of men in combat than this one. Marlantes' story is so intense that there were times reading it when I thought I could not stand to turn the page. But as with all great books, I was sad when the story ended. I had come to love the characters and did not want to let them go.
Vladimir Nabokov once said that the greatest books are those you read not just with your heart or your mind, but with your spine. This is one for the spine.
Mark Bowden is the author of "Black Hawk Down."