The Matterhorn. Maybe the word conjures for you the exhilarating rush and campy music of the ride at Disneyland. Maybe the first image called to your mind is the Swiss mountain itself: Bright, snow-capped, icily defying you to scale its peak.
For me, The Matterhorn is a novel by local Woodinville author Karl Marlantes. It’s a bit of a monster of a book: 600 pages hefty, and that’s just the outside. Upon opening it, the fresh ink-and-paper scent falls immediately away into the stench and grime of a company of Marines slogging through the steamy hell of Vietnam in the year 1969.
Now, I’ve never really delved into the history of the Vietnam War. As a history nerd, the soft spot in my heart has always been reserved for World War II. There’s something so epic, so huge, about the Allied war machine that smashed into the dictatorships that presumed to rule the world. Suckers. But The Matterhorn really made me sit up and take notice. Really grabbed me by the eyeballs and compelled me to follow its hero, Oregon boy Waino Mellas as he suffers through jungle rot, leeches, and gunfire.
Due warning: This novel, like most novels about war, is not for the faint of heart – and most definitely not for the weak of stomach. As a veteran of the Vietnam War, Karl Marlantes is almost ruthless in his narrative. It’s graphic, and no horrific detail is skimmed over in disingenuous deference to human modesty or political correctness.
So if you’re able to face that kind of stark honesty, good for you. Because The Matterhorn is more than just an accounting of events. Even as he fights to survive, Waino Mellas contemplates war, ponders the numb indifference of the world, thinks to himself:
“Everybody dies, but not everybody cares. It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opened himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away.”
It’s about war. Which brings me to my social agenda for today. Sorry, if you thought I was going to just review a cracking good book, you were mistaken.
It’s been 8 years since we sent troops to Afghanistan, 7 since we deployed soldiers to fight in Iraq. And public awareness of our war in the Mideast has sadly faltered since then. Take any other war in our history as a united nation (or even before we were a country, I mean really) and the sad reality is this: Never before has the American civilian population been so unaffected, or unaware, by a war our country chose to participate in.
Another bombing in Iraq? A rise in troop levels, a drop in troop levels, what does it matter? The price of food at the grocery store, whether or not we can keep our jobs, whether or not we’ll be able to go to the big game next week, whether or not that new restaurant is any good – these are what occupy our thoughts. Our government never asked us, as civilians, to sacrifice anything, and why should we? Isn’t that why we have soldiers, so that we don’t have to worry about that sort of thing?
And that’s fine. I mean, I respect however you might feel about our wars overseas. And I’m just as desensitized towards that violence as anybody else – just look at what I read for fun. What concerns me are the veterans of the wars we currently wage. They’re being asked to fight and die and most of them will never hear a thank you. Most of them are judged for signing up in the first place. And, hey, until one of them sits down for thirty years to write a book about what it was like, or until we have an HBO special about it, maybe those soldiers won’t matter to you at all.
But if they do, you can take action. Small action. Action that won’t disrupt your day a bit, and it doesn’t matter if you know someone who has been deployed overseas or not. I’m saying write a letter. Write a card. Send a care package. There are nonprofit organizations that could use a little help – whether it’s putting together boxes of socks and deoderant to send to our soldiers overseas, or just baking cookies for families who pray every day that a loved one will come home safe – they’re out there, and any one of them would be so grateful for a moment of your time.
Me, I recommend Soldiers’ Angels. I’m on the letter-writing team and every week the organization sends me the names and addresses of a couple of soldiers who could use a little support. A short, quickly jotted letter where I can say, Thank you, sir, ma’am, for all that you sacrifice. Sometimes they write back. Sometimes they don’t. That’s not the point, you know.
And P.S. Back to The Matterhorn. I recommend you purchase it, because I tried to get it at the library and I ended up putting it on hold as requestor number 121 of 136. Ha. It’ll be next year before I see that one come available. Also, you can see the times and places the author will be discussing the book here.