by Karl Marlantes

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953

With gripping prose and unforgettably horrific imagery, Matterhorn is a searing depiction of the ways in which war impacts the humanity of the individual. Though Matterhorn covers many themes that apply to wars universally, it also touches on several issues more specific to the Vietnam war, including racial conflict and the growing anti-war sentiment in the United States. The protagonist, young Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, enters the war with naive dreams of personal success and glory, but his traumatic experiences in the jungle ultimately force him to confront the true human costs of war. 

The men Mellas serves with have committed themselves to the marines and will follow orders—no matter what personal sacrifices this might entail. However, their honest dedication to duty is seemingly exploited by their superiors, who make strategic decisions while they watch the fighting from afar. The third person narration allows the reader to follow the morbid analysis of war strategy: inept commanders like Simpson are granted the privilege of moving troops around, even sending them to reclaim previously abandoned bases when doing so will cost them their lives. The vantage point of the higher ranking officers distances them from the marines they send to their deaths and allows them to think about success and failure in abstract and dehumanizing terms—for example, by measuring the success of a battle by calculating whether their body counts or the enemy’s were higher. While the officers are disconnected from and largely indifferent to the suffering of the men under their command, those fighting on the battlefields feel increasingly hopeless, unable to articulate the larger purpose of the war or what these battles are meant to accomplish. Frequently pushed beyond their physical limits, the men are further burdened by the apparent meaningless of their trials, some of which seem wholly unnecessary, as when their superiors force them to go without food and water as punishment for not meeting checkpoints on time.

Isolated and alone in an unfamiliar place, the men grow increasingly dependent on each other, and social norms—such as racial boundaries—begin to break down as they work to keep everyone alive and well. Yet this proves to be an impossible task: again and again, the men watch their friends die, becoming victims of bombs and machine guns. The “squid,” or hospital corpsmen, are forced to make impossible choices, such as deciding which patients are most likely to die and then transferring their IV bags and plasma to those more likely to make it. Even nurses in charge of assisting the injured realize the grim irony of doing their job well enough to send injured marines back out to the front lines—healing them just in time for the next battle that could kill them.

The larger senselessness of war emerges through the illogical orders the men are given and must follow. At great cost, they claim Matterhorn, secure it well, are ordered to abandon it, and are then ordered to reclaim it from the North Vietnamese Army. In their struggle to reclaim what was once theirs, Mellas and his fellow marines lose many of their friends, even as their superiors, who are located a safe distance from the fighting, criticize their efforts. Disillusioned completely by his experiences, Mellas longs to leave and even attempts to kill his superiors in a blind rage before his gun is pushed to the ground. Though Mellas eventually adjusts to the reality of war, in doing so, he loses any expectation of emerging from Vietnam as a gloriously untouched hero.

In addition to exploring the broader issues associated with all wars, Matterhorn exposes the unique...

(This entire section contains 953 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

challenges of the Vietnam War, which took place during a particularly tumultuous time in American society. When the war began, America was only beginning to have authentic conversations about desegregation and equality as the civil rights movement of the 1960s was taking shape. Just as these social issues began to generate debate and changes at home, thousands of young Black and white men were sent abroad to fight a war together. The civil rights movement was thus carried across the ocean by young Black men who wanted equality in the armed forces as well. InMatterhorn, we see white men marines who support this emerging Black voice, as well as those who fear it. These tensions only further complicated the fighting in Vietnam, where men of all races had to rely on their fellow marines to protect them, even as they dealt with severe racism and prejudice within their own ranks.

Matterhorn also deals with the impacts of public sentiment on the men who are fighting an increasingly unpopular and misunderstood war: Former girlfriends write to reject their cause. Wives provide “helpful” advice in navigating military superiors. Even after all that they have suffered, the marines know their efforts remain unappreciated by many back home. Feeling displaced and alienated from their lives and loved ones in the US, the men seek understanding from the only other people who could begin to know what they have experienced: their fellow marines. Their camaraderie is cemented by loss and their survival against the odds, and the men collectively seek to remember those who fought alongside them in Vietnam but whose stories ended there.

It is estimated that almost 60,000 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War, and the average age of those who died was just shy of twenty-four years old. Through the characters in Matterhorn, we can begin to imagine the totality and human cost of those losses, and through Mellas’s character, we gain insight into why and how these young soldiers managed to keep fighting—even in the face of seemingly endless conflict and a loss of purpose.