When Waino Mellas joined the Marine Reserves, the United States wasn’t involved in Vietnam. He saw the reserves as a straight-forward way to help pay for his Ivy League education. But when he graduated from college, he felt compelled to keep his “promise” to Uncle Sam and ends up as a second lieutenant leading a platoon in Bravo Company in the deep jungle of the Quang-Tri Province of Vietnam, near the Laos border. The book is told through his eyes as his company fights not only the North Vietnamese Army, but also the heat, monsoons, malaria, thirst, hunger, leeches, trench foot, jungle rot,Agent Orange and land mines, and an enemy who sometimes feels like unrelenting apparition. Bravo Company is charged with taking the hill the army has named Matterhorn, and after a bloody, devastating campaign, they are ordered to build an outpost there, only to be told to abandon it almost immediately after completion for a new mission. Thanks to new technology, the war is being directed by a lt. colonel and his second-in-command, who are stationed safely away from the bloody and horrific battlefields. Not only Simpson drink too much, his motives are often suspect and he misses reports that leaves the company stranded without food, water or ammunition.
It took Karl Marlantes, a decorated marine who did serve in Vietnam, over thirty years to write this book. At 600 pages, it’s certainly not a quick read, but for readers who want to know what the war was like for the regular grunts, it feels spot-on real, showing the life-affirming camaraderie between the soldiers, as well as the violent and unyielding horrors of guerrilla warfare. Although it’s almost more a character study than a plot-driven novel, readers will find it impossible to put down, once immersed into the lives of Mellas and Bravo company. To aid the reader, Marlantes has added chart of the main characters and a map of the fictional area around Matterhorn to the front of the book. In the back, he has included an invaluable glossary of military terms, slang and jargon. I especially appreciated this because his characters and plot could be authentic, without making me feel lost as a civilian reader.
This is not a decent book about the Vietnam War, it is a great book! It has been compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, and in my opinion may just be a better book. This vividly told book dropped me into the middle of the war, right along with Mellas. The combat sequences were authentic and engaging, even while difficult to endure. I felt his frustration and pain when he lost soldiers; or was told, no, there won’t be any resupply today because the military can’t take the risk of losing its choppers worth millions of dollars just to bring your troops food and water. When the racial tension between soldier bubbled over into dangerous territory, the reader feels as afraid for the men as Mellas does. This compelling novel may become the Catch 22 for this war. Especially now as the United States continues its part in the was in the Middle East, this book should be assigned reading for all officers to remind them of the mistakes we’ve made in the recent past so we don’t repeat them again.
I recommend this book to all readers and can’t rate it highly enough. For fans of Tim O’Brien’s books and anyone interested in what really went on with the foot soldiers in this war, this is a must read.