Matterhorn reminds me a little of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead in I had to look up to see if the books were fiction or non-fiction. I found Marlantes’ depiction of war that believable and visceral. While not an expert in any way, I have deployed twice so I understand some of what that means. Unlike the characters from Bravo Company in this novel, I never spent time “in the bush” and if I am being completely honest, they would look down on me without a doubt. This book is about the men we call grunts. The infantry. The grunts. I work in support roles and the best way to compare how we view each other is the Army-Navy football game.
All of that said, most of war is not fighting and reacting to contact with the enemy. Most of war is waiting. I don’t know who said it originally but I always think of the expression “War is boredom broken up by moments of sheer terror.” That is what Marlantes captures so well in Matterhorn. He understands the Marines he writes about. He gets what drives them, what terrifies them, and how they cope. He understands it so well that I thought this was non-fiction for too long.
This book is on the newest professional reading list for the Chief of Staff of the Army. Generally speaking, works of fiction are not on the semi-annual reading lists but the inclusion of Matterhorn makes sense. First of all, it is outstanding but it also offers a (fictionalized) case study on small unit leadership. The novel follows the newest platoon commander for Bravo Company through his tour to Vietnam in 1969. We see the fear he experiences as he takes charge of scores of Marines who have already been war-hardened. We watch him deal with issues from the trivial to life-and-death decisions. Matterhorn follows Bravo Company through the eyes and thoughts of the most junior but also echelons two and three levels higher. It is absolutely enlightening in this aspect and covers issues I’ve personally discussed with friends and subordinates. For example, a casualty to a team or a squad is absolutely devastating. It’s the loss of a friend, someone who may have died to save the lives of the survivors. For higher echelons, it may be seen much differently. It may mean that hundreds of other lives are no longer at risk. Understanding the different perspectives is an incredibly difficult concept to fathom and this novel does an excellent job with the topic.
Finally, I listened the audiobook which was narrated by Bronson Pinchot who is as superb as always. Pinchot is so good that I will start seeking out other books he has narrated. *Note: I also listened to his narration of The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King and it was just as fantastic.*