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Copyright by John T. Reed
I cannot read fiction. I get about three pages into it and say, “This is bullshit! This is just the Kennedy family story with the names changed and making up new stories that never happened to the Kennedy’s. If I want to read about the damned Kennedy family, I’ll do it with a non-fiction book.”
So how can I read Matterhorn, which has the subtitle “A novel of the Vietnam War?”
Because although it says it’s a novel, meaning fiction, it’s not. It is a true story, but the author changed names and turned real people and real events into composites so he would not get sued and so he would not have to bust his ass checking a million little facts.
Am I sure of that? Not totally. But sure enough that I have no trouble reading the book. I enjoyed it and had trouble putting it down.
Here is the Navy Cross citation that Marlantes was awarded in Vietnam. The Navy Cross is the second highest bravery medal after the Congressional Medal of Honor:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to First Lieutenant Karl A. Marlantes (MCSN: 0-103269), United States Marine Corps (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism while serving as Executive Officer of Company C, First Battalion, Fourth Marines, THIRD Marine Division (Reinforced), Fleet Marine Force, in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. During the period 1 to 6 March 1969, Company C was engaged in a combat operation north of the Rockpile and sustained numerous casualties from North Vietnamese Army mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, small arms, and automatic weapons fire. While continuing to function effectively in his primary billet, First Lieutenant Marlantes skillfully combined and reorganized the remaining members of two platoons, and on 6 March initiated an aggressive assault up a hill, the top of which was controlled by a hostile unit occupying well-fortified bunkers. Under First Lieutenant Marlantes' dynamic leadership, the attack gained momentum which carried it up the slope and through several enemy emplacements before the surprised North Vietnamese force was able to muster determined resistance. Delivering a heavy volume of fire, the enemy temporarily pinned down the friendly unit. First Lieutenant Marlantes, completely disregarding his own safety, charged across the fire-swept terrain to storm four bunkers in succession, completely destroying them. While thus engaged, he was seriously wounded, but steadfastly refusing medical attention, continued to lead his men until the objective was secured, a perimeter defense established, and all other casualties medically evacuated. Then, aware that all experienced officers and noncommissioned officers had become casualties, he resolutely refused medical evacuation for himself. His heroic actions and resolute determination inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in a decisive rout of the North Vietnamese Army force with minimal friendly casualties. By his courage, aggressive fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger, First Lieutenant Marlantes upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
General Orders: Authority: Navy Department Board of Decorations and Medals
Action Date: March 1 - 6, 1969
Service: Marine Corps Reserve
Rank: First Lieutenant
Company: Company C
Battalion: 1st Battalion
Regiment: 4th Marines
Division: 3d Marine Division (Rein.) FMF
If you read both the book and the above citation, I suspect you will have trouble concluding Marlantes just made all of Matterhorn up from thin air.
I have an unusual agenda as a military book reviewer. I want the military, which was sort of the first love of my life, to become what I was falsely told it was, what it still claims, falsely, to be. So I read books about the military looking for evidence that I am right or wrong about the need for reform of the U.S. military and how to reform it.
If I find evidence that my conclusions are wrong, I change them. If I find evidence that I am right, I add it to the case I argue in my other military articles.
Thus far the evidence I have found in Matterhorn proves that things are worse than I have alleged.
The following problems in the military need to be corrected:
• routine daily lying about anything that might hurt the careers of higher ups including the president and Congress
• routine acceptance of Situation Normal All Fouled Up ineptitude, incompetence, and corruption
• a bureaucratic structure that all but prohibits common sense, honesty, efficiency, and accomplishing the U.S. military’s mission of winning our wars
• total dominance of the U.S. military by active-duty military and civilian politician careerists
• lack of knowledge about how to win wars against enemies who blend with civilians and use hit-and-run tactics
• rules of engagement that call for local police, not U.S. military forces
• overhyping of so-called “elite” military units
• massive spending on obsolete weapons like Navy surface ships and too many Army tanks
• ineffective training other than training on the use of truly useful weapons and equipment
• top-to-bottom sycophancy in the NCO and officer ranks and civilian Pentagon employees
• typical bureaucratic focus on process not results
• typical bureaucratic expectation of being found satisfactory solely on the basis of good intentions
• typical bureaucratic citing of any progress, regardless of lack of net progress or adequate progress, as satisfactory performance
• O.P.U.M. and O.V.U.M. is the routine of the day, including mandatory “command performance” parties in Vietnam
In one word, this book is about misery; two words, infantry misery. Infantry misery is about being homeless in the jungle with little of the usual camping gear to make you comfortable. You cannot make a fire to warm up or dry out. You often lack enough food or any food. Your water is an ugly color and has a bad taste from the chemicals you have to put in it to make it safe to drink. You are injured and sick from infections, lacerations, leeches in Vietnam, etc. Read the book for excruciating detail on the misery of Vietnam infantrymen.
And I would add, the gutlessness of their officers and NCOs who allow superiors to get away with abusing their men in this unbelievable way. In each case, the officers and NCOs fail to protest strenuously enough because they fear for their careers and next promotion.
When I was in Vietnam, even the draftee officers who were getting out of the Army the day they got out of Vietnam were worried about their careers. Believe it or not, they were afraid to do anything that the brass would not like out of fear that they would not get a good efficiency report. They figured there was a slight chance that lack of a good efficiency report would make it harder or impossible for them to get the civilian job they wanted after they got out. They would not even take that slight chance. Accomplishment of the mission and welfare of the men under them be damned.
I, on the other hand, raised hell repeatedly with my superiors whenever they fucked my troops which was frequently. For example, one of my company commanders woke up my night shift radio operators during the day to make them pretend to be taking a class some colonel wanted. When the colonel arrived to observe the class—which class had never actually been held but which the colonel was falsely told was being held—the CO woke my troops and had them pretend to be students in the class. I told him if he ever did that or anything like it again I would climb the chain of command all the way to the president until I found someone who agreed with me that he needed his ass chewed.
He gave me a 40 on my efficiency report at a time when anything less than a 97 was the end of your chances of getting promoted ahead of your peers. He also never woke my guys up again. Mission accomplished. He can shove my OER up his fat ass. All but one of my superiors—the only West Pointer I ever served under—retaliated against me when I protected my troops from bullshit descending from on high. I never saw any other officer or NCO stand up to the brass on behalf of his subordinates.
I wa also hard on my subordinates when they screwed up. My officer roommate once took a race relations class as part of the Officer Advance course. One session had a number of black enlisted men including one who was in my company at the time. Without telling them he was my roommate, he chatted up the enlisted man in my company and asked about his commanding offer. The guy in my company spoke highly of me and added that was in spite of the fact that I was the only officer who ever gave him an Article 15 (punishment akin to a traffic ticket and fine—he had been AWOL on a Monday morning). He said I had been right to punish him. His excuse for being AWOL was that a friend who was supposed to take him to the bust station was late. I told him, “You’re in the Army now. Grow up. Don’t rely on unreliable people to get you here on time. Next time, if there is a next time, the fine will be bigger.” I had the lowest AWOL rate in the brigade a couple of weeks after I started handing out those punishments and publicizing each one.
On page 281, a career second lieutenant trying to play the game and another second lieutenant who seems to have concluded the military is not for him are arguing. Lifer Lieutenant Hawke is telling non-career Mellas why he has to play the game.
Hawke: Look smart guy, you push the colonel and the [operations staff officer] too hard and you’re going to get into trouble. They’re already about as pissed as they can get.
Mellas: What they got to be pissed about?
Hawke: [Battalion commander] Simpson went on record—more than once—about Bravo Company’s objectives. He had to eat crow every time, in front of half the officers in the regiment, because of Bravo Company.
Mellas: He’s the one who laid on the asinine fucking demands.
Hawke: That’s beside the point, and you’re smart enough to know it. The point is the colonel’s been passed over for bird colonel once already. This battalion is his last fucking chance. If he doesn’t make it, it’ll be Bravo Company’s fault.The [operations officer] is just a younger, smarter version of Simpson, and he isn’t above making a few sacrifices to further his career either. And I don’t mean personal sacrifices.
Mellas: Fuck him. I’ll do anything in my power to keep that cocksucker from getting promoted.
Hawke: You just get one thing straight, Mr. Politician: the colonel controls the helicopters.
In another exchange, Captain Coates angrily shushes Mellas several times finally proclaiming emphatically,
And I also know how to keep my mouth shut. [Emphasis in original]
Now let me translate that into plain English for those of you who were never in the military.
Hawke is telling Mellas to go along to get along. He is explaining the careerist compulsions of the battalion commander (lieutenant colonel—the rank just below full or bird colonel) and the battalion operations officer (major—three ranks higher than Hawke and Mellas, one rank below lieutenant colonel). And he is telling Mellas that the operations officer is not above getting men killed, on purpose, to further his career—including Mellas. Finally, Hawke is saying he is not going to let Mellas get Hawke’s men (Hawke is the company XO a position that outranks platoon leader Mellas) killed by pissing off Simpson and Blakely so much that they punish Mellas by denying him helicopters for ending the mission or evacuating sick or wounded or resupplying them with food or ammo or water. That would likely result in men who could have been saved dying. Indeed, it did earlier in the book when Simpson punished them company by not sending helicopters because he was angry about their not making fast enough progress on their patrol. One man died of cerebral malaria when medevac was delayed until a day too late.
I went through this same shit when I was in Vietnam. Read my “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” article so see the “counseling” sessions I we through again and again. It is similar to the advice Mellas gets from peers and superiors in Matterhorn. In Vietnam, my peers said they agreed with my various beefs against the brass, but they urged me to stop and expressed fear for my life. The colonels did, after all, have the power to transfer me to more dangerous duty. I refused to stop and I was transferred to more dangerous duty. I was not killed, but more due to luck than my superiors chickening out on the “send Lieutenant Reed down Route 13 in a jeep again” routine.
In other words, if you are not a Vietnam vet, and you think Marlantes is making this shit up, exaggerating, think again. He’s not. This is really the way it is in the U.S. military officer corps.
The Marines are “looking for a few good men,” as long as those good men “play the game.” Suck up. Do what you’re told. Help cover up the boss’s incompetence and lying. Keep your mouth shut. Let your men die if necessary to advance the careers of your bosses, and your own if you plan a military career. Ditto the Army.
On movie screens and in public pronouncements, the purpose of the U.S. military is to “win our wars.” In reality, in the real U.S. military officer corps, the purpose of enlisted men, NCOs, and junior officers is to advance the careers of the lifer officers who have not yet had their ambitions crushed by a pass over or bad efficiency report.
Paradoxically, the U.S. military officer corps is a group that exhibits both extreme physical courage and profound moral cowardice—simultaneously. Indeed, the physical courage exacerbates the moral cowardice. If a colonel orders a group of men into a combat mission that is not worth the risk or that is suicidal without compensating benefit, like saving the lives of a larger unit, the junior officers are required by duty, honor, and country, not to mention morality, to balk. As far as I know, they almost never do. I finished reading Matterhorn and never read an account of a junior officer balking at stupid orders from on high. They grouse about it to each other, but not up the chain of command. That’s bullshit! It needs to stop. See my article on the morality of obeying stupid orders.
The fact is every junior officers “plays the game,” a phrase that appears in Matterhorn, including those who are not making a career of the military. And men die unnecessarily, often the junior officer himself, as a result.
Like I said: bullshit!
How do those officers look in the mirror thereafter? Is there a post-traumatic moral cowardice syndrome? Damned if I know. They talk about almost everything in bull sessions, but not regret over losing men because of their own lack of moral courage. Too painful to admit, I guess. Too much cognitive dissonance.
My various articles about the military especially the Army are mostly highly critical as described above in the list of reforms. Marlantes’s book seems to say, in 600 pages,
What Reed says about the military is correct only it’s far worse than Reed says.
What does Marlantes say routinely happened to the marines in Vietnam?
• tattered uniforms that are not replaced as often as they should be (more than an appearance issue)
• jungle rot—a skin infection that causes pus-filled blisters that often break
• immersion foot
• bad-tasting water
• dirty drinking water
• extreme exertion in the form of forced marches while carrying in the neighborhood of 100 pounds over rugged, steep, or muddy terrain and/or through vegetation that must be chopped down with a machete
• incessant demands from colonels and generals in comfortable rear areas that the troops achieve impossible speed in their movements through the above-described terrain
• extreme antagonism between blacks and other races including possibly deadly sabotaging of white marines’ weapons by black marines in the same unit, fraggings, and repeated near riots between the two groups like you read about with regard to racist prison gangs
• repeated extreme labor building fortifications without proper equipment only to be ordered to abandon those fortifications immediately after building them
• going days with no food or only 25% to 50% of necessary food
• constant threats by field-grade (major, lieutenant colonel, colonel) officers to destroy the careers of the NCOs (sergeants) and junior officers(lieutenants and captains)
• reluctance to call for medevac choppers for severely injured or extremely sick marines out of fear of being accused of crying wolf and later having more difficulty getting medevac choppers for more serious cases as a result of being perceived to be exaggerating need for medevacs
• officers without infantry training or infantry branch assignment took turns commanding infantry platoons just so they could get it on their military resumes. It was called “getting your ticket punched”—I remember it well. It resulted in more U.S. casualties, and perhaps loss of the war, because the tourist officers did not know what they were doing.
• incessant radio demands from colonels in the rear for pos reps (position reports: Are you there yet? Are you there yet?) and sit reps (situation reports: What’s happening now? What’s happening now?)
• incessant careerism by the rear area officers—too much careerism and medal-seeking by the junior officers leading patrols and combat missions
• group think favoring getting drunk or high on drugs at every legitimate opportunity and many other illegitimate instances where consuming alcohol or drugs was outrageously irresponsible
• scout dogs that lack the stamina to keep up with humans and have to be carried and babied—we experienced that in ranger school, too
• frequent open hostility between lifers and short-timers
• 24/7 365, shameless ass-kissing by field grade officers of their superiors and rationalizing it as I depicted in my recitation of the “counseling sessions” I repeatedly was forced to endure
• rear-area colonels and generals “proving their manhood” and showing their guts and trying to get promotions, medals, and better assignments by ordering, from the safety of the rear, platoons and companies in or near the enemy to attack in situations where that was overly risky considering the benefits of success, e.g., page 365
I have read a zillion books about combat going back to my childhood. Almost all that were written by combat vets contain practical tips. Matterhorn has more such tips than most of them. If I had more time, I would go back and extract the tips from every combat book ever written that had them and consolidate them into a book that would save a lot of lives of those who read it, especially commanders who read it. I have already done similar things with my baseball and football coaching books.
One that that surprised me in Matterhorn was the marines’ difficulty at getting pilots to support them via resupply, extracting injured, sick, or dead marines, and shooting at the bad guys. I never experienced that in Vietnam. Indeed, once, I had a fever and went to see the doctor in our artillery battalion. (It was very rare for an artillery battalion to have its own doctor. Don’t ask me why.) After a few minutes, the doctor made a call then shocked me by saying a medevac chopper was on its way to take me to Long Binh Army Hospital—after dark. “Jesus, Doc! Isn’t that awfully melodramatic for a fever?” He explained that the Army was so keyed up to get wounded to the hospital ASAP so they had excess capacity almost all the time except during some extraordinary big fire fight. I kind of got the impression that the chopper crew was glad to have the mission even if was only a fever.
I ended up in the quonset hut hospital for a week or so. Fever of unknown origin—never diagnosed. I was also in the hospital on another occasion, albeit without the chopper extraction: gastroenteritis from a meal that was not properly prepared.
As Marlantes depicts it, the marines in I corps (northernmost sector of South Vietnam) had a hard time getting pilots to help them in the various ways that only aircraft can. Partly, he says it was due to the marines own officers failing to agree to requests from patrols in he jungle. Partly it seemed to be reluctance on the part of the pilots and their commanders. I further got the impression from Matterhorn that some men died and others suffered permanent injuries—deaths and disabilities that could have been avoided because of this reluctance
I would not know about that. I never saw or heard of any such thing. I never was landed at or extracted from a hot LZ (a hot landing zone is one that is under enemy fire). But still, I was surprised to read about reluctance of pilots in Matterhorn.
I have always genuflected at the mention of the pilots and medics who were there with us in Vietnam during that war. God bless ’em. All I ever knew was that they were unbelievably brave and generous to those of us on the ground.
When the weather finally allowed the Air Force to attack the enemy on Matterhorn hill, they missed. All but one of their bombs fell uselessly on the back side of the hill instead of the top. Should the Air Force be held accountable for a miss in a fictional book? Not per se, but the military missing happens too often in real life like the naval bombardment before the D-Day invasion. It went over the Nazi bunkers and landed ineffectively behind them. Or the inaccurate bomb drop that killed many Americans in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley depicted in the nonfiction book We Were Soldiers Once and Young and companion movie We Were Soldiers. The Air Force and Navy and Army often miss. Whether it’s too often is for experts to determine. I suspect they do miss too often. And I think the experts don’t want to know or say.
In Matterhorn, the grunts on the ground are screaming at the Air Force over the radio that they are overshooting the hill top. Eve though there were a half dozen passes with screaming on the radio in between, the Air Force kept missing explaining it’s hard to hit such a target when you are going 500 miles an hour.
So don’t go 500 miles an hour. The Air Force spends too much time going 500 miles an hour because that speed is cool, and not enough time flying at a less cool but more effective speeds. One of the most effective ground support airplanes in Vietnam was a propeller aircraft left over from the 1950s: the A-1 Skyraider. The fact that the Air Force was more interested in cool-guy speed than effective ground support is to their eternal shame. It got men on the ground killed during the Vietnam war and not just in a fictional book like Matterhorn. The current plane dedicated to ground support, the A-10 Warthog, was modeled after the A-1. It is a jet, but flies at 350 miles per hour.
Better late than freaking never.
One man in Matterhorn extended his Vietnam tour every six months because it let him have 30 days R&R in Bangkok where he spent the month with his favorite prostitute. Another extended his tour every six months because he was the scout dog handler and the higher-ups’ policy was that all scout dogs would be killed when their handler left Vietnam because it was too dangerous to let the dog go back to the states. That’s a dumb policy. World War II scout dogs were sent back to the stateside owners who had donated them to the war effort. Some went home with their handlers.
Matterhorn contradicts another detailed combat book I recently read: War by Sebastian Junger. War says the men in the infantry all loved each other and would do anything for each other. In Matterhorn, the blacks were on the verge of killing the whites. War was non-fiction about the Afghanistan war in the late 2000s; Matterhorn, fiction about Vietnam in 1969. I was in the Army in the III Corps area in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970.
Fragging was widespread in Vietnam. One of my West Point classmates was fragged to death. I was not surprised. He was a total asshole at West Point based on my limited contact with him. But Sebastian Junger made no mention of fragging or sabotage of a fellow soldier within a platoon in War. His story of Restrepo in Afghanistan was all kumbaya or kum-bye-fucking-ya as the Restrepo soldiers would probably put it. There is a documentary called Restrepo about the same subject and time period as the book.
It may be that both Marlantes and Junger are accurately depicting what they saw and that things within the military were really bad during Vietnam. They sure were really bad. My West Point classmates and I intended to make careers of the Army when we entered West Point. But most of us changed our minds and got the hell out ASAP. The stuff depicted in Matterhorn was a large part of the reason why. The stateside anti-war spitting at soldiers and all that was another part of it.That is not in Matterhorn.
The awarding of medals in the U.S. military is generally a scandal. Page 316 tells of the very ambitious battalion operations officer getting a medal for “rallying a demoralized company and risking his life to coordinate its extraction under fire.” The careerist major was flying above the fire fight in question in a helicopter. There would be no need for such a helicopter to risk their lives unless they actually extracted marines on the ground. Coordinating is not extracting. The helicopter was so far above the firefight that it was out of range of normal North Vietnamese Army weapons (machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. They had real anti-aircraft guns and missiles in North Vietnam and on the Ho Chi Minh trail which was a dozen or more miles northwest of “Matterhorn” the fictional mountain top around which the Matterhorn events take place). There is nothing wrong with the chopper being that high up in that situation. It only makes sense. But you do not get a medal for that unless perhaps you are already taking effective fire—evident from tracer bullets, otherwise, how would you know? That is especially true when, as in this case, none of the officers or men on the ground actually in the same firefight got a medal.
Typical. The careerist knows the medal can help him get promoted so he makes sure he gets it. It would also help the men on the ground get promoted, but since he needed to declare them incompetent to make his own accomplishment sound bigger, they get none.
Fictional, but typical. Marlantes’ book about a tour in Vietnam may be fictional, but his tour there was not fictional. Like I said, I do not believe he made up this “deck of cards” set of people and events. He just shuffled it. He collapsed multiple personalities and events into composites and made up names to make it harder to sue him and to save having to spend enormous amounts of time and energy researching facts as we have to do in non-fiction writing. (I have written 33 non-fiction books; 90 if you count editions. I have also written over 5,000 non-fiction articles.)
Having said all that, I was surprised at the open zeal for medals and promotions to company commander among the junior officers in Matterhorn. When I was in Vietnam, we would occasionally see an officer who seemed to be seeking medals. That apparently got at least one of my classmates killed. To his partial credit, he went out alone on that suicide mission. Others take their platoons or companies with them on a mission or sub-actions that makes no sense other than as a quest for bravery medals. That can get not only the glory-seeking officer killed, but also, or instead, one or more of his men who was not going to get a medal no matter what he did because of his low rank. Seems to me the only thing on your mind in combat should be accomplishment of the mission and the welfare of your men. Glory-seeking and careerism, prominent in this book even at the lowest officer levels, are immoral motives in combat. I was never involved in a fire fight or the imminent expectation of one so I have no experience on which to conclude that I would have been pure of heart in that situation. Although I believe I amply proved my total lack of careerism whenever I had the chance. Medals, on the other hand, were never a possibility for me so I cannot say I resisted the temptation to pursue any.
Speaking of an officer getting one of his men killed pursuing a medal, Marlantes has the character think he accidentally did that, “to get a piece of ribbon to show proof of his worth. What a great joke that ———— would probably get a medal for killing one of his own men. It seemed appropriate that the president would probably get reelected for doing the same thing on a far larger scale.”
That is all too typical behavior of young men who are insecure about their worth or manhood—the type the military targets in recruiting. The military and the nation uses those immaturities against the young men in question, often to the point of getting them killed.
I was surprised at how much the marines in Matterhorn were at the mercy of weather. They were in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, probably the most dangerous part. Yet they were generally out of artillery range including both Army and Marine cannons and Navy battleship guns. That meant they were reliant on their own mortars, which are relatively small, limited-range weapons, and fire from aircraft, namely helicopters, fixed-wing planes, and bombers. Also, they could only be resupplied and get evacuation of wounded and dead by chopper. Yet in spite of this extreme reliance on aircraft, they area was frequently socked in by clouds and/or fog which meant no resupply or evacuation. And that, in turn, meant dead marines, aggravation of the condition of wounded and sick marines, and inability to accomplish missions.
Seems obvious to me that when you operate in the most dangerous part of South Vietnam, and the weather is often bad, you must have full artillery coverage. That means more bases within range of where the marines in question are patrolling. Old technology though it may be, artillery is all weather. You can even adjust fire by hearing when you cannot see where the rounds are hitting. You fire in the general vicinity of the enemy, making sure to stay away from your own people, then adjust the fire based on sound like “left 500” which means the target is about 500 meters to the left of where your last shot hit. Aural fire adjustment is not ideal, but bad weather does not stop you from firing the way it did back in the Vietnam era with aircraft.
As far as resupply is concerned, the obvious indication is you must reduce the patrol radius of the marines. That is, they must stay within a day or two of their bases so they can walk back when they are approaching end of food, medical supplies, water, and ammo. That, in turn, means more bases in areas that the U.S. military expects to control. Scheduling a patrol where the duration of the patrol exceeds the amount of supplies the marines can carry when they begin means reliance on aerial resupply. Since that cannot be relied upon, the scheduling of such a patrol is irresponsible. Relying on marine toughness to make up the difference is mindless. Marine toughness can stretch food and water and sleep deprivation somewhat, although not without reducing combat effectiveness. But marine toughness does not have a damned thing to do with ammo, medical supplies, food and water beyond limits of human endurance, treating sick and wounded whose conditions exceed the capabilities of combat medics, or carrying the dead.
If the U.S. military does not have the resources to do it right, go home. That appears to be the case today in Afghanistan. I did not think it was the case in Vietnam when I was there, but Matterhorn makes it sound like that was, indeed, the situation in northwest I Corps.
I once wrote a theatrical play about my experience in the Army. And I joined two playwright groups to work on it. I was discouraged about it. They told me how to rewrite it and I did that with the first act. After the re-write, everyone loved it. They then wanted me to do the same with the second and third acts. I was unable to bring myself to do it.
Basically, they said the lifer characters in the play were too bland and one-dimensional.
Yeah. That is more or less the behavior they have to engage in to get along. So what’s your point?
I was told I had to make every character interesting and make the reader care about each and everyone of them. So I did in that rewrite of the first act. Why did I not do the same to the second and third acts? It was bullshit. I had to give emotions and motives and character to the bad guys that I never saw in them in real life. Their lack of such things in real life was the villain I was battling in the military. The “correct” way to write a play is a sort of relativist “everybody’s entitled to their opinion and no one’s opinion is better than anyone else’s” mush. Try selling that to Ayn Rand—or me.
One theater expert recommended I read The Caine Mutiny Court Martial play which he said was like mine. I did. In it, one of the key dialog exchanges is the non-lifer officers dismissing Captain Queeg, the lifer central character as a total loser. That is what Queeg was. But novelist/playwright Herman Wouk has the lawyer who represented the mutineers snarl at them that Queeg was a noble soul who was defending his country between the wars in the 1930s while the mutineers were just fancy schmancy college boys who lacked that sense of duty.
Queeg’s service before World War II started was not noble, or at least that was not the salient characteristic of his motive for being in the military. Lifers generally stay in because they think they could not do as well in civilian life. They lack self-esteem and self-confidence and, in most cases, to paraphrase Churchill, “They are humble men who have much to be humble about.” My West Point classmates were almost all extraordinarily successful in high school—class president, team captain, and all that. They probably would have been very successful had they gone to civilian colleges. Those that stay in seem to do so because they believe they are doing well in teh eyes of the Pentagon (probably they are mistaken about that), inertia, they sign up for some stuff that extends their tour until they find they are too close to retirement to get out, and so on.
Also, in the Caine Mutiny and in the non-fiction World War II military, the fancy schmancy college boys were on the same damned ship as the Queegs. Peacetime service in the military, while potentially dangerous, is almost always a sleepy sinecure. War-time service is extremely dangerous. Lifers get the lion’s share of the retirement bennies, but the draftees and guys who serve for three to five years then get out do most of the fighting and dying—and before Korea, winning of our wars.
A few lifers who get promoted earlier than their peers early on think they’ve got the military game figured out and they are good at it so they are heading for the top of the military which is a fairly big deal if you get there like Petraeus. Most are mistaken. It’s a steep pyramid. See my article “The U.S. military’s 30-year, marathon, single-elimination suck-up tournament or How America selects its generals.” Most lifers are not ever promoted ahead of their peers and are resigned to their fates and stay in because of lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. Also, the officers are treated as super big shots—almost royalty—with all the saluting and “sir’s” and faux aristocratic affectations of the officer corps. Guys like Queeg would be Willy Loman’s on the outside. No salutes. Loman’s wife scolds her sons that although Willy was not a great man, “attention must be paid” to the Willy Loman’s of the world. In the military, if you are an officer or an NCO, it is. Regardless of your lack of accomplishments in the military, paying respect to those who decline, or fail, to earn respect is a matter of rigidly-enforced ritualistic etiquette. That attracts the Willy Loman’s—and repels potential good officers.
I also wrote the book Succeeding. In it I urge people not to succumb to “Little Old Me-ism” which is aspiring to great things then convincing yourself that “little old you” could never do that and not even trying. The key to succeeding in life is to know thyself and match your unique combination of strengths and weaknesses to a career. The problem with the lifers is that they get tangled up with the military when they are teenagers then succumb to inertia and the many tricks the military uses to string you along until about the 8- to 12-year point when they figure the present value of the retirement bennies will lock you in. You only get tiny pay raises after that point; relatively big ones before it.
My complaint about the lifers is not that they tried and failed at civilian life, but that they didn’t even try, and that getting saluted and called “sir” causes them to fall prey to the delusion that they are smarter and better than their nominal subordinates—to the point where they treat their subordinates abominably. As I have said in other articles about the military, I believe it is the “Lucifer Effect” discovered by Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo. No one should be surprised when one of those subordinates kills Lucifer.
Marlantes does his version of the Caine Mutiny “make the lifers lovable” speech on pages 454 and 455. His argument is the lifers have no alternative, which is partially correct, and that guys like Lieutenant Mellas, a Princeton grad, do not fully appreciate that the lifers cannot choose the same path as the Ivy Leaguers because they lack the tools.
On page 455, he has a lifer officer say,
Mellas, you’ve got everything I wish I had. It just makes me jealous to see you so fucking give-a-shit about it.
He is referring to Mellas’ Princeton degree, brains, good looks, and so on.
I got almost the exact same stuff from the lifers when I was in, only it went like this:
Reed, I’d give me right arm to have that West Point degree you have! And you can’t wait to fucking throw it away! Why the hell did you go to West Point if you didn’t want to make a career of the Army!? You guys should have to stay in the Army for 20 years!
Then they would punish me severely for being a West Pointer who could not wait to get out, far more severely than if my source of commission had been ROTC or OCS.
My answer to that question, which I had to give over and over throughout my four years as an officer, was,
Sir, I did not go to West Point. A 17-year-old prior version of me did. That 17-year-old did not know who he was and he did not know what the Army was. I am 23 (or whatever) now. I now know who I am and what the Army really is. We are not compatible. I figured that out in the middle of my West Point years but I could not resign because the Vietnam War had started and I just would have gone into the Army as an enlisted man. So I stayed to get my degree. Now I am working it off as an indentured servant with you guys. Sorry about taking a slot at West Point away from a career officer, but I thought that’s what I was when I went there.
Another argument between Mellas and the lifers goes like this,
So why are you leaving?
I fucking hate it, that’s why. I’m sick of the fucking lies and covering the lies with blood.
That’s no fucking answer! You guys take off and leave it to the liars and the asslickers and the troops get fucked over even worse…if the good guys don’t stay in.
I went through almost that exact same conversation a number of times, too. Mine went like this.
The setting is the mess hall or officers day room or officers club after most people had left—both in Vietnam and in the states The guy talking to me is a company commander (from another company, not mine) or battalion staff officer—usually a major S-3 (The same position and rank of “Blakely” in Matterhorn) for some reason. The conversation is friendly. They can’t keep up pretending I’m a piece of shit 24/7.
Jack, you know the Army needs young officers like you. The stuff you complain about does really need to be changed. If you leave, who’s gonna get it changed?
Sir, I agree that the Army needs officers like me. But they will not have a single damned one because they treat us like criminals or mentally ill. Officers like me are all getting out. I know a whole bunch of them among my West Point classmates. The answer to your “Who’s gonna get it changed” question is no one, sir. Every “counseling” session I have had starts with the same sentence: “Lieutenant Reed, you can’t change the Army.” They’re right, sir. I’m outta here as soon as I’m allowed to. Guys like you are going to have to change it, sir.
They shuddered at the thought. And they changed absolutely nothing. See the rest of the “counseling” session at my military integrity web page. None of them would risk any of their precious political capital for such purpose. They used it all to try to get promoted and get choice assignments.
Are there people who truly are best off in the military? Probably yes, but that would require a rather odd combination of obsequiousness and “whatever” regarding the course of one’s life. The military is a Kafkaesque nightmare—intercontinental temping in a hidebound bureaucracy. If that’s your dream job—after you have tried civilian life—enjoy.
I said above that the book was mainly about misery. Now that I have finished it, words like squalor and deprivation and depravity seem more accurate. I was particularly bothered by all the getting drunk. That was also a theme in the non-fiction book War by Junger. I could see why Marlantes needed to depict men getting drunk once, but not why it happened again and again in his book. When you read a 600-page book, you figure the author and editors needed all 600 pages to tell thee story correctly. I disagree in this case. His describing one night of dangerous, selfish, depraved drunkeness was enough for me.
I may be a special case. My dad seemed to be a decent guy who was turned into a mean drunk by his being drafted into World War II. He was not driven to drink by combat experience. He was a company clerk, the job made famous by “Radar O’Reilly” of M*A*S*H. I think he just became a drunk because it was the cool thing to do on a pass in the states or in Europe. Probably all of his buddies were decent guys before the military, but groups of young men tend to descend to a lowest common denominator that is well below what any of them did before joining the military. In California now, it is illegal for teenagers to transport a passenger under the age of 20 unless a licensed driver who is at least 25 is also in the car. Multiple teenagers cause each other to behave much worse than a single teenager would behave. They need a similar rule for military personnel walking around on a pass.
Marlantes seems to me to celebrate his characters’ drunken binges and hangovers. Reminds me of the ski club I was in one year when I was in my mid twenties. At the meetings, every mention of alcohol or sex got a laugh. My sense was that the group felt it would not be cool to not laugh at all such references regardless of the quality of the joke. Marlantes is in his 60s. Seems like he should have edited that stuff out at some point when he grew up. He might protest it is really the way people behaved in the Marines in Vietnam. I suppose so. And because he wrote it, more will now behave that way trying to live up to the marine image in Matterhorn.
The book is too long, but I have no other complaint about it.
It is a good book for those who are considering entering the military—I think. By that I mean it will quite appropriately talk you out of it. Or at least it should. Maybe I forget what it’s like to be 17. Maybe 17-year-olds will be turned on by all this combat squalor and death. If so, I am reminded of the Vietnam era Australian folk song with the recurring line, “God help me, I was only 19.” (documentary video of it being performed is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEurc7kX8FA.) There is a translation of the lyrics from Australian to American at my web page www.johntreed.com/combatpoems.html.
If you read Matterhorn, and still can’t wait to join the military and go to war, God help you. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a fucking brain and you’re not so immature and insecure about your manhood that you figure following in the footsteps of Marlantes in Matterhorn does not seem like a good idea, you and your parent are welcome.
I saw Marlantes interviewed on C-Span. One of the big topics there and in many written discussions about him and his book is it took him 35 years to get it past the wall of gatekeepers in the traditional trade book publishing business.
Marlantes is a Rhodes Scholar. So is Bill Clinton. So is Craig Mullaney whose book Unforgiving Minute I also reviewed.
The more I learn about Rhodes Scholars, the more narrow its meaning becomes in my mind. I now think a Rhodes Scholar is someone who got valedoctorian or salutatorian level grades in college. That requires smarts and diligence in the hard subjects like math, science, and foreign languages. But it requires political suck-up skills in the soft subjects like english and history. You listen carefully to see what the teacher wants to hear and then tell them what they want to hear in homework, class participation, and tests. You also have to interview well. That’s it, period. A Rhodes Scholarship means those things and only those things. You draw more general conclusions about the intelligence of Rhodes Scholars—that is, fall prey to the “halo effect” with regard to such people at your peril.
So are Rhodes Scholars smart? Apparently not—at least in the general sense we assumed. Rather, they are smart and diligent in hard subjects, consummate suck-ups in soft subjects, and they inteview well, a skill which is probably related to consummate sucking up in soft subjects. They are capable of appalling stupidity in other areas of life like Mullaney’s almost quitting West Point because they taught cadets how to use a bayonet there or Marlantes’ 35 years of begging publishers to accept his book.
How damned dumb do you have to be to take 35 years to get a good book published? My first book was published in 1978 when I was 32—by a traditional big book publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Since then, I self-published 89 more. I even wrote a book about self-publishing called How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book in 2005. That book is now in its second edition.
Some will point out that Matterhorn is not a how-to book. Well, to a large extent, it is pretty infomatitve about infantry best practices as I said above. But my book on how to write, publish and sell your own how-to books applies to all types of books except for the marketing chapter. I never marketed a fiction book, but much of what you do to market how-to books, like sending out review copies to those who might review it, is the same for all genres.
Another great book on the Vietnam war—Stolen Valor—was self published by B.G. Burkett, after trying to get it published the usual traditional, big publisher way.
Rich Dad Poor Dad is a piece of crap book. But it is also the best-selling financial book in history. Its author is not only not a Rhodes Scholar, he is so dumb I doubted his claim that he graduated from college. In fact, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy give give him a diploma. I have requested a recount of his grades but no dice.
I am not a Rhodes Scholar. Burkett is not a Rhodes Scholar. For Christ’s sake, what in the hell would possess anyone, let alone a Rhodes Scholar with the second highest bravery medal, to keep begging trade book gatekeepers to publish a Vietnam book for so long!?
If you are having trouble “getting your book published,” stop trying to “get it published” and publish it yourself. See my book for details. It’s prety easy. To see all my books, got to my home page www.johntreed.com.
I would like to talk to Marlantes about his book and my review of it. For one thing, I want to make sure I got it right. I could not find a way to contact him on line. I hope he gets in touch with me. My contact information including phone number is at the bottom of every page of my Web site. Another author of a military book did contact me after I put that request in my review.