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Matterhorn

Matterhorn

Author: Karl Marlantes
Rating: 8/10
Last Read: March 2015

Quick Summary: This book follows a young Marine officer and his platoon as they build a firebase and then get sent on various clusterfuck missions through the jungle of Vietnam.

This is called out as a novel, but the author is a decorated Marine officer whose commendation notes read very similarly to the story presented here.  This is a dark picture of what the war was like for many people - and how ego cost the lives of many young men.  The book also paints a stark picture of race relations at the time, and documents struggles between the black and white troops in Vietnam.

The book took a while to get rolling for me, but I think it was worth the read to get insight into this very dark time in our country's history.

My Highlights

Just speaking about the recent near-encounter with an enemy Mellas had not yet seen started his insides humming again, the vibration of fear that was like a strong electric potential with no place to discharge. --loc 67

Hawke had learned long ago that what really mattered in combat was what people were like when they were exhausted. --loc 199

How could you get mad at someone who neither needed to attack nor was at all worried about being able to defend? --loc 955

“Hey, cool it down.” Hawke looked sideways at Mellas.
“You really do have a temper, don’t you?”
“I’m just tired. I usually don’t.”
“You mean you don’t usually show it.
--loc 1014

Shit, Mellas, drink this. It cures all ills, even vainglory and ambition. The only thing that hurts about a rebuke is the truth.” Mellas took the coffee and smiled. --loc 1599

“How much does it weigh?” Cortell, the leader of the second fire team, who was sitting next to his friend Williams, chuckled.
“Man,” Cortell said, “you can’t carry nothin’ lighter than music.”
--loc 2111

He knew he shouldn’t drink so much, especially alone. But he was alone a lot. After all, he was the battalion commander. It was supposed to be lonely at the top. --loc 3225

But he’s not a good company commander in this kind of war. He got on Simpson’s bad side because he got his picture in the paper too often and never gave Simpson credit, which by the way he doesn’t deserve, but that’s the point. The smart guy gives the guy with the power the credit, whether he deserves it or not. That way the smart guy is dangling something the boss wants. So the smart guy now has power over the boss.” --loc 3844

“Shit, Mellas, don’t get your feelings hurt. I didn’t say I didn’t like you, for Christ’s sake, or you’re some sort of bad person. Although I will grant you the company you’ll keep is going to be sleazier than average. Just accept that you’re a fucking politician. So was Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill. So was Dwight Eisenhower.” He paused. “It ain’t like they’re bad people. And they all ran a pretty good war.” --loc 3855

Coates turned to Mellas, his eyes dancing with deep humor. “Cool down, Lieutenant Mellas. Colonel Mulvaney will never let him near the place. You don’t commit an entire battalion to an area covered by enemy artillery that we can’t go after because of political reasons. Add to that uncertain air support because of the weather. That’s why Mulvaney pulled us out in the first place. Return to Matterhorn? Nevah hoppin.”
Mellas was surprised. “Here I thought you were a lifer,” he said, smiling.
“I am, Lieutenant Mellas. But I ain’t stupid. And I also know how to keep my mouth shut.” --loc 4793

“May you be ten minutes in heaven before the devil knows you’re gone,” Simpson said, raising his glass and gulping a large swallow. Blakely was aware that Simpson prided himself on knowing many different toasts in different languages. He smiled appropriately and drank. Simpson drank some more. “Good fucking stuff,” he said. --loc 4915

Now, seeing the Marines run across the landing zone, Mellas knew he could never join that cynical laughter again. Something had changed. People he loved were going to die to give meaning and life to what he’d always thought of as meaningless words in a dead language. --loc 5160

“Does it mean Meaker will die?” Sheller looked over at the two kids he’d picked for death. He didn’t want to answer Merritt’s question. He wanted to lie, even to himself.
“I think you’ll all make it,” he said.
“Don’t fucking lie to me, Squid. I don’t have time for it.”
Again Merritt took a quivering breath, biting back the scream that wanted to erupt whenever he filled his lungs. “If I’m going to live because of Meaker, I want to know it. And I want to live.”
Sheller put his hand on Merritt’s uniform. “The thing is, we might be wasting plasma on Meaker. He keeps bleeding inside and I can’t stop it. You’re not bleeding as fast as he is.”
Merritt looked at Sheller. “I’ll never forget it, Squid. I fucking promise.” Then he turned his head toward Meaker’s unconscious body. “Meaker, you dumb son of a bitch,” he whispered. “I ain’t never going to forget it.”
Meaker died three hours later. Sheller and Fredrickson dragged him out of the bunker and stacked him on the foggy landing zone with the rest of the bodies. --loc 5783

He remembered a lecture about how mortars are fairly ineffective against troops that are dug in. But the lecturer hadn’t mentioned the psychological effect on the troops. --loc 6074

What bothered Mulvaney was that he knew the NVA felt they were buying something worth the price: their country. --loc 6161

And it was his worth that was the joke. He was nothing but a collection of empty events that would end as a faded photograph above his parents’ fireplace. They too would die, and relatives who didn’t know who was in the picture would throw it away. Mellas knew, in his rational mind, that if there was no afterlife, death was no different from sleep. But this cruel flood was not from his rational mind. It had none of the ephemerality of thought. It was as real as the mud he sat in. Thought was just more of the nothing that he had done all his life. The fact of his eventual death shook him like a terrier shaking a rat. He could only squeal in pain. --loc 6310

And then? A career in law? A little prestige? A little money? Perhaps a political office? And then, dead. Dead. The laughter turned him inside out, exposing his most secret parts. He lay before God as a woman opens herself to a man, with legs apart, stomach exposed, arms open. But unlike some women, he did not have the inner strength that allowed them to do such a thing without fear. There was no woman’s strength in Mellas at all. --loc 6317

Mellas’s new insight didn’t change anything, at least on the outside, but Mellas knew he wouldn’t play dead. He’d been playing dead all his life. He would not slip into the jungle and save himself, because that self didn’t look like anything worth saving. He’d choose to stay on the hill and do what he could to save those around him. The choice comforted him and calmed him down. --loc 6324

Dying this way was a better way to die because living this way was a better way to live. --loc 6327

Resting it against a log, he settled in to watch and wait. An hour passed. Goodwin had the patience of a born hunter. He lived in no-time, leaving it only briefly to shift his body. --loc 6346

The lecture from the Basic School floated into his memory. “A Marine never surrenders as long as he has the means to resist. And we teach you fucking numbies hand-to-hand combat. So if your hands are blown off, you can surrender—only you’ll have to raise your legs.” They had laughed. --loc 6668

“Next to Column in the Defense, the Funnel Breakaway could be my greatest contribution to military science yet,” --loc 6751

“I always thought deep down we were the same,” he said. “We are the same. Hell, I got two white great-grandpas, just like you. It’s just that we seen things differently so long we ain’t able to talk about it much.” --loc 6780

“You think someone’s going to understand how you feel about being in the bush? I mean even if they’re like you in every way, you really think they’re going to understand what it’s like out here? Really understand?” “Probably not.” “Well, it’s like that being black. Unless you’ve been there, ain’t no way.” --loc 6783

“Look. The colonel’s an asshole. The Three’s an asshole. Fine. I agree. All I’m saying, Mellas, is don’t you ever wonder why they’re assholes? Do you think they enjoy spending every minute of their tiny lives worried that someone’s going to shit on them because one of their companies didn’t make a checkpoint on time? I’m not saying to forget that they’re assholes. I’m just saying when you call someone a name, have some compassion. Label the shit out of them, but who they are and who you are is as much about luck as anything else.” --loc 7183

“You’ve got brains, you know where you’re going, how to get there. You call that nothing?” --loc 7192

Being human was the best he could do. Without man there would be no evil. But there was also no good, nothing moral built over the world of fact. Humans were responsible for it all. He laughed at the cosmic joke, but he felt heartsick. --loc 7900

There were white girls in Sydney. Round-eyes. Maybe he’d go to the outback. A quiet farm with sheep. Maybe he’d fall in love there. Maybe he’d save his eye. Everything seemed to be part of a cycle as he stared into the gray nothingness above him, hearing the wash of distant waves on a warm beach, feeling the sun pulling his body upward like evaporating rain. --loc 7920

“Between the emotion and the response, the desire and the spasm, falls the shadow,” --loc 8004

Emotion constricted Hawke’s throat. He suddenly understood why the victims of concentration camps had walked quietly to the gas chambers. In the face of horror and insanity, it was the one human thing to do. Not the noble thing, not the heroic thing—the human thing. To live, succumbing to the insanity, was the ultimate loss of pride. --loc 8285

Dead people ain’t worth shit. They just big nothins. --loc 8436

He also knew that although Henry’s image had taken a hit, power always trumped image—and, he was beginning to learn, ideology. Power was the ability to reward and punish. Henry could reward with money and drugs. He could punish by withholding money and drugs. A nice combination. Ultimately, however, Henry wielded the power of punishment held only by a self-selected few. He was willing to murder. China knew that if a man could kill someone, everyone knew that he could kill anyone. The only way to stand up to that kind of power was to be willing to --loc 8469

Revenge would heal nothing. Revenge had no past. It only started things. It only created more waste, more loss, and he knew that the waste and loss of this night could never be redeemed. There was no filling the holes of death. The emptiness might be filled up by other things over the years—new friends, children, new tasks—but the holes would remain. --loc 8875

He knew that there could be no meaning to someone who was dead. Meaning came out of living. Meaning could come only from his choices and actions. Meaning was made, not discovered. He saw that he alone could make Hawke’s death meaningful by choosing what Hawke had chosen, the company. The things he’d wanted before—power, prestige—now seemed empty, and their pursuit endless. What he did and thought in the present would give him the answer, so he would not look for answers in the past or future. Painful events would always be painful. The dead are dead, forever. --loc 8890

Each of the names evoked a remembered face, an outstretched hand reaching down from a rock or across a rushing stream—or a look of fear as a friend realized that death had come for him. --loc 8918

The chanting went on, the musicians giving in to the rhythm of their own being, finding healing in touching that rhythm, and healing in chanting about death, the only real god they knew. --loc 8921

He knew that all of them were shadows: the chanters, the dead, the living. All shadows, moving across this landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things as they moved but leaving nothing changed when they left. Only the shadows themselves could change. --loc 8926

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