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The Heart of the Tale: Reflections on Karl Marlantes’ Novel Matterhorn

By Dan Guenther

On May 3, 2010, Karl Marlantes, author of the best selling novel, Matterhorn, appeared at The Tattered Cover for a reading and a book signing. Reading a section of the novel to a packed audience, the former Marine officer, Oxford scholar, and Navy Cross winner, also told the story of his novel’s thirty-year evolution. As one might expect, the Vietnam veterans attending among the audience were a diverse group, representing many units and all the services, and reflecting a wide range of experiences from Northern I Corps and the Laotian Border, the setting for Matterhorn, down to the sluggish rivers and canopied mangroves in the Rung Sat Special Zone, where the Mobile Riverine Force once patrolled.

I sat back and observed the interactions among this eclectic group, drawn to this reading from all over Colorado, some dressed in Western garb, a few looking like old professors, others wearing Harley-Davidson vests and colors, studded with badges from their old Vietnam units, each one so different, yet all having a common interest in the novel, Matterhorn. It was clear that many had already read the book, and when it came time for questions, the discussion brought out the extent of that diversity, drawing out the issues of race, fragging, alcoholism, and the challenges of leadership that unfold within the book. At one point, a woman behind me asked if Karl was Waino Mellas, the protagonist in the novel, and to what degree the Matterhorn was autobiographical? Karl Marlantes replied that while the novel was fiction, he drew upon his own experiences in the writing.

Karl’s comments during the discussion rang true to my own experiences, and I was very impressed by his humble manner. Listening to the audience responses, I couldn’t help but remember what a well-known Marine general, Lt. General Paul Van Riper, once told me at a Mike Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines Reunion, held back in July, 2005. Lt. General Van Riper said that as a story is told and retold by each of those who shared the experience, the narrative collapses, and the heart of the tale is revealed through those collective perceptions, and a deeper understanding unfolds of what happened and how things went down. Different chapters of Matterhorn cover how many things went down in Vietnam, from racial conflicts to the boredom and the ennui of Marines weary and dissatisfied with their leadership. Upon that common ground Marlantes tells his story, and one has the sense as they read that in the telling he is touching upon things deep within all our varied experiences, things that the veterans in the audience still share, and to that extent are representative of that troubled time.

Recently a friend of mine, Don, living “down under” in Sydney, Australia, sent me an email that he was returning to Vietnam. Like me, my friend is a former Marine officer who served southwest of Da Nang in Dodge City and on Go Noi Island, as well as out along old French Route 4 beneath the seething and soggy jungles of Charlie Ridge. He was evacuated from a grunt company in Third Battalion, Seventh Marines in late 1968, while I stayed on in Vietnam, extending my tour through 1969 as a track vehicle platoon leader for Alpha Company, Third Amtrac Battalion.

When I received the email, I was excited for him, and linked him up with another grunt Marine, my friend Bill, currently living in Da Nang and teaching English. They connected via email and hit it off right away. In many ways I was envious, not being able to return to Vietnam due to health reasons.

A few years ago my friend Bill returned to the Marble Mountain area, where I also served, to help track down the whereabouts of a long lost Vietnamese ally who lived south of Da Nang, in the shadow of that great monolith the Vietnamese call Thuy Loan, and what we remember as Chin-Strap Mountain. He returned to Colorado briefly this last Christmas and we met for breakfast. Bill seemed to be very much at peace with himself and his experiences, currently living on China Beach. He also is a great storyteller, and listening to him tell of his travels out to the A Shau Valley along the Laotian Border brought back many memories for me.

It occurred to me then how each of us has our own unique story to tell as we share the different accounts and histories from that time. Others, for a variety of reasons, choose not to share those private experiences. For many of us, it has taken a lifetime to find, and perhaps a better word is todiscover those truths that are at the heart of the tale. I hope when my Marine buddy Don returns to Vietnam next month he will experience it in the same way that Bill has, with a sense of healing, as that past, with all its contradictory complexities, is again brought to light.

A few weeks ago I sent Don a copy of Matterhorn. Thus far he has been as moved as I was by this remarkable novel. I encouraged him to pass it on to others in his community so that they might better know the hardship and sacrifices that were made by those serving in all branches of the armed services during the Vietnam War, to include those many allies who stood with us. There is a quality to Matterhorn that is worth passing on. It is a haunting thing arising out of the author’s honesty and courage that brings us closer to those collective perceptions and that deeper understanding Lt. General Paul Van Riper once talked about, and that many of us yearn for. Those truths still linger with me now, long after I have finished the book.

Perhaps those “down under” that read Don’s copy of Matterhorn will pass on the story once again, both in book form and through word of mouth. I hope so. Lest the service of those who were lost be forgotten. That process of passing on the story through word of mouth and oral tradition is truly a form of real and enduring immortality, where in the telling a spirit is enabled that endures in the memories of those who heard the tale, a tradition older than Homer and the hubris of Achilles.

We all have our own evolutions, some finding personal meaning for our Vietnam experiences over the years, others just as sure that those efforts are futile. Many remain convinced that we were all complicit in what went down across that wine-dark South China Sea. I believe that is one of those truths at the heart of Matterhorn, waiting to be discovered by each one of us, and in our own terms. That said, in the end we all are eventually destined for some measure, if not by being lost, then by bearing the dark weight home.

Dan Guenther, former Captain, USMC, Vietnam, 1968-70

June 2010


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