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Tuesday, 26 January 2016


I don't know if I have ever read a war novel before, and I can't say what attracted me to this book when I saw it on the shelf in my local library. Maybe the name? I wondered what a Swiss mountain might have to do with the Vietnam war. And then the usual commendations on the back cover made me think this might be a little different. And I was looking for something out of my usual range of reading, so why not give it a try?

Image result for marlantes matterhornThe story follows Mellas a young 2nd lieutenant drafted into the war in Vietnam. He is an educated and thoughtful man, inclined to self-doubt and introspection, by no means a typical war hero. And in fact there are no heroes in this book, though there are many acts of heroism - on reflection, maybe they are all heroes? Visceral is the word that comes to mind when I try to encapsulate the novel to myself. Marlantes makes no concession to the reader's sensibilities, cultural background or moral framework, but the result is, for me, a work of stunning authenticity. As the novel progressed I found myself becoming accustomed to descriptions of squalor, casual violence, racism, cynical disregard for normal standards of behaviour, self-serving behaviour, and simple human suffering - just as, no doubt, troops in combat become inured to all these things. I started to wonder if in fact, given the same circumstances, my response would be any different? I now feel confident that it would not be and I doubt in fact if I would cope even so well as these young men do. And that is a key point - these are essentially boys, thrown into a conflict they do not understand, with no objectives they can relate to, and lacking any moral certainties. It is remarkable to me that any of them emerged still sane. I have, until now, been fairly sceptical about the concept of post-traumatic stress affecting veterans of war- I just had no idea until I read this book what war consisted of!

Marantes describes the action in the book so matter of factly and in such chilling detail that it can only be based on his own experience. maybe the writing is an exercise in catharsis for him? But this is not by any means an all-action gung-ho adventure; far from it. All the characters, at various points, reflect on their own and their comrades behaviour and their vulnerability is apparent beneath the veneer of cynical language. Their fear is tangible, their devotion to each other and their unit remarkable, and their occasional acts of bravery are inspiring. Mellas eventually comes to realise that only by making the best choices he can for his comrades in their particular situation can he make any sense of his life - wider responsibilities are irrelevant.

This is a novel set in the Vietnam war, but it could be about any war anywhere. It really should be compulsory reading for all politicians who have the power and responsibility to choose whether or not to contemplate warfare. It is a worthwhile read for anybody who has never been in battle, in fact for anybody who is interested in human nature.

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