Karl Marlantes and the Vietnam War

Happy birthday 2012 to the United States Marine Corps.  Last year Viet Nam Literature Project marked the occasion by reviewing the Marines who have written about Viet Nam.

Wayne Karlin was just one of the authors who let me know that I had neglected novelist and essayist Karl Marlantes.  Peter Brush volunteered to write about Karl for this year’s birthday.

Peter served in artillery not far from where Karl led infantry.  Among Peter’s duties was to record the activity of his battery.

Peter became an historian, using records he had helped create to examine the war he fought in.  Here Peter establishes by comparison of the novel Matterhorn with the essays in What It is Like to Go to War that the novel’s protagonist Lieutenant Mellas is the essayist’s alter ego.

Peter then refers to USMC histories to point out that Karl arrived in Viet Nam when the Marines changed from stationary to mobile tactics.  Much of the misery in the novel is a consequence of this disruption, a matter of faulty supply.

More significantly the new mobile tactics reflected a strategy of killing the enemy rather than seizing and holding groundThe enemy shot back and at home support faded for such a costly defense of the Saigon republic.  

This sad story is the setting for Karl’s reflections on his war.  Comparing Karl’s novel and his essays with regard to USMC history, Peter helps us hear what Karl has to say.

It is a service that one Marine can do for another and so for the rest of us.  Happy birthday.

Karl Marlantes and the Vietnam War
©2012 by Peter Brush

 HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

During the early morning hours of March 8 1965, an amphibious task force of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet was positioned 4,000 yards off the coast of South Vietnam. At 0600 hours, an admiral gave the order:  “Land the landing force.” Marines of Battalion Landing Team 3/9 moved ashore at Da Nang. This was the first large scale deployment of American combat troops in Viet Nam. The Vietnam War had begun, even if we did not realize it. The trickle became a flood: by the end of the year there were over 38,000 Marines in Viet Nam (iii), and nearly 70,000 by the end of 1966 (319). That year the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) made two major thrusts across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam. In response, the 3d Marine Division was sent north, to Quang Tri province along the DMZ. There they constructed a series of fortified positions to block NVA access to the south: Con Thien, Gio Linh, Dong Ha, Camp Carroll, the Rockpile, Khe Sanh. These Marine bases were well-plotted on NVA maps and became targets for NVA infantry and artillery attacks. The Marine blocking forces proved ineffective. At the end of 1967, the Marines estimated there were over 10,000 NVA in Quang Tri Province (258).

The war was stalemated at a high level of violence and destruction. The 1968 Tet Offensive was North Vietnam’s attempt to break the stalemate and achieve a victory. Although the North failed militarily, the U.S. was unable to exploit its Tet battlefield achievements. Both sides claimed victory in the famous siege of Khe Sanh, which showed neither side achieved victory. The Marines realized their fixed position, blocking force strategy was not working. Khe Sanh was abandoned.

Marine commanders changed their tactics. Marines would no longer remain in static defensive positions. Instead, they decided to adopt the high mobility posture of the U.S. Army air cavalry. According to the 3d Marine Division commander, “The way to get it done was to get out of these fixed positions and get mobility, to go and destroy the enemy on our terms – not sit there and absorb the shot and shell and frequent penetration that he was able to mount” (16). High mobility meant creating temporary firebases. The fixed positions had been supplied by truck, aircraft, and naval shipping.  Living conditions were less than ideal. Tents leaked and provided little cover from enemy fire. Bunkers were dank and rat infested. Still, these fixed positions were better than nothing. Mess halls, showers, and laundry service were sometimes available. The new temporary firebases were supplied by helicopter. Bad weather conditions meant helicopters were grounded. Long periods of bad weather meant long periods without resupply. Living conditions were wretched.

KARL MARLANTES AND THE WAR

Former Marine Karl Marlantes has written two books about the war: Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War. In library classification schemes, the books are quite different. Matterhorn is a novel. According to a disclaimer, the characters, units, and events are fictional. Matterhorn and some named positions are fictional places. Some of the other places are real. “Novels need villains and heroes, and the ones in this novel are invented” (verso of title page). Libraries classify What It Is Like to Go to War as history, a personal narrative about the Vietnam War. In it Marlantes’ descriptions of combat are highly detailed. This detail is possible because he kept a diary, which he describes as “the battered book I had kept with me every day I was in Vietnam” (196).  He also kept a notebook, filled with minutiae such as medevac numbers, R&R dates for the Marines under his command, defense plans, machine gun fields of fire, possible NVA attack approaches, and patrol checkpoints.

The differences according to library classification notwithstanding, these works have much in common. There are three sources to keep in mind when considering fact and fiction in Marlantes’ writings:

•              The scenes described in Matterhorn, a work of fiction.
•              The scenes described What It Is Like to Go to War, a work of non-fiction.
•              The scenes described in official Marine Corps histories of the Vietnam War (U.S. Marines in Vietnam: the Defining Year, 1968 and U.S. Marines in Vietnam: High Mobility and Standdown, 1969).

Marlantes’ main character in Matterhorn is Lieutenant Mellas, a platoon leader in a company of Marine infantrymen. His unit operated in the northwest corner of Quang Tri province, where Laos, South Vietnam, and the DMZ come together. This area is lightly populated and of little cultural or economic significance. For South Vietnam, it is in the middle of nowhere.

The wretched living conditions of Mellas’ Marines are a constant thread in Matterhorn. Filthy wet clothing clung to the skin, as did leeches beneath the clothing. Exhaustion was the normal condition (1-2). Sometimes they walked without trousers, “waddling to avoid irritating the ringworm that covered them from waist to ankle.” They had “rot on hands and faces” and their “rotting uniforms hung off their thin bodies” (260). In one horrific scene a corpsman performs emergency surgery on a Marine. The situation is life threatening, and no evacuation is possible. The operating room is a crude hooch. The patient lay on a poncho liner above the mud (38-40). Resupply was so inadequate that when a Marine was killed by a tiger, the rest of his squad “threw fingers” to divide up his food and ammunition (161). While patrolling, conditions were worse: “It was the fifth day without food, and the company moved in a stupor” (p. 224).

So too with What It Is Like to GoTo War, and from the very beginning: “We were far from help, and, after attrition from disease and firefights, my platoon was down to twenty-five. After nearly a month of continual moving through the jungle, eating only canned food, without the ability to wash properly or change clothes, some of the Marines were so covered with ringworm and jungle rot that they worked naked to lessen the discomfort” (p. 4).

Marlantes’ character, Mellas, is ordered to have his men construct a firebase on top of an elevated position.  This they do with great difficulty. The firebase is Matterhorn (see Map 1). As soon as construction is complete, they are ordered to abandon it, an order which causes anger and frustration.

Map 1, from Matterhorn (after title page).  Reproduced for the fair use of comparison to USMC maps for the purpose of review.

In fact, Marlantes entered the new Marine Corps tactical environment when he arrived in Vietnam in October, 1968. On November 4, 1968, a company of Marines began construction of Fire Base Argonne on Hill 1308, one-and-one half miles from the Laotian border and just south of the DMZ. This is the same area where Matterhorn is depicted on the fictional map (see Map 2).  Construction was complete on November 11. On December 14, these Marines were ordered to abandon Fire Base Argonne (450-451). After the Marines left, the NVA occupied their former positions.

Map 2, from U.S. Marines in Vietnam: High Mobility and Standdown, 1969, p. 58.

The following March, the 4th Marine Regiment was ordered to attack the 246th NVA Regiment , which was located in northwestern Quang Tri province, just south of the DMZ. This was Operation Purple Martin.  Although the Marines actually constructed Argonne in the same place as Marlantes constructed the Marine position in Matterhorn, Marlantes personally fought in a nearby but different place.

In August 1968, as part of their new mobile posture (Operation Lancaster II), Marines assaulted into a place named Landing Zone Mack, located to the east of Argonne/Matterhorn (see Map 2). In November, when the base at Argonne was abandoned, the Marines improved their position at Landing Zone Mack, only to abandon it. On March 1 1969, Company C, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines (C/1/4), as part of Operation Purple Martin, attacked the NVA who had occupied LZ Mack. Lieutenant Marlantes was the executive officer of C/1/4.

According to the official Marine Corps Vietnam history for 1969, on March 20, after a long delay due to poor weather and lack of helicopter support, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines attacked the North Vietnamese on abandoned Fire Support Base Argonne. In heavy fighting over the next few days, the Marines secured their objectives and drove the NVA away. Fighting was vicious, “The Marine thrust on Argonne consisted of destroying the enemy by employing small fire teams methodically to clear each bunker” (55).

Marlantes was a member of this battalion. In another battle, on another day, he was awarded a Navy Cross. This is second highest award an American military person can earn for valor. His award citation reads much like the attack on Argonne, and notes he led an assault force “up a hill, the top of which was controlled by a hostile unit occupying well-fortified bunkers.” Marlantes “charged across the fire-swept terrain to storm four bunkers in succession, completely destroying them.”

In summary, the descriptions in Matterhorn are a combination of Marlantes’ personal experiences plus the experiences of other Marine infantry units that operated in the same part of South Vietnam at the same time.  On the personal level, although presented as a work of fiction, parts of Matterhorn are based on Marlantes’ own life.  Mellas, in Matterhorn, attended Neawanna High School in a small town in Oregon. Marlantes grew up in Seaside, Oregon, population 6,400. Neawanna is a street in Seaside. Marlantes graduated from Seaside High School, which, according to Google Maps, is located less than 1,000 feet from Neawanna Street.

Mellas went to Princeton. Marlantes went to Yale. Mellas joined the Marines as an enlisted man before attending college.  Marlantes enlisted in the Marine Reserve in 1964 after graduating from high school and before attending Yale.

Mellas was eager to earn a medal in Vietnam.  Mellas’ superior officer was concerned this eagerness could be dangerous, and result in the deaths of fellow Marines. Mellas was advised that after being in combat and seeing what medals cost, “they don’t seem so fucking shiny” (98). Marlantes also wanted medals: “I wanted to be a hero” (155).

In addition to Marlantes and Mellas (the protagonists), other characters appear in both books. In Matterhorn, we meet a larger-than-life Marine called Vancouver. Other Marines are awestruck by the sight of Vancouver.

“Where the fuck did he come from?”

“They couldn’t get John Wayne so they got him.”

“Did you see what that mother was carrying? A fucking sawed-off M-60 [machine gun]. Jesus Christ” (130).

In What It Is Like, Vancouver, who was from Canada, is called Canada.  This awe-inspiring John Wayne had become Rambo. ‘”Canada” was a big, good looking kid from British Columbia. He was six-four and his jungle weight was over 200 pounds. He carried a stripped-down, sawed off M-60 machine gun  .  .  . (90).’

Another Marine common to both narratives is Vancouver/Canada’s opposite. Short in stature, disheveled even by the standards of time and place, and inspiring mostly incompetence and contempt, this Marine teaches Marlantes how a medal’s luster could be tarnished by the circumstances in which it was earned. His rifle jams in the middle of a firefight. His name is Pollini, and Utter.

Matterhorn ( 353) What It Is Like to Go to War (161)
Mellas quickly saw that Pollini hadn’t seated his magazine completely and the upper edge was blocking the passage of the bolt. Mellas shook his head and snapped the magazine into place. He fired a short burst. Utter’s magazine hadn’t been properly seated, causing the bolt to hang up on its forward edge, a common problem with the M-16. I cleared it for him, fired a short burst, and handed the rifle back to him

In the midst of a firefight, for an officer to repair one of his men’s inoperable weapons is a very intimate thing. Doing so probably saved his life. Subsequently, Marlantes won a Bronze Star for saving Utter, an 18-year old Marine rifleman during heavy combat. Marlantes knew his actions were risky, but he wanted a medal. Utter had been shot, and, after being rescued by Marlantes, died of his wounds. After the fighting ended and Marlantes had time to consider the details of the rifleman’s death, Marlantes was unsure whether or not he fired the fatal shot. “I’ll never know,” he said (168). In Matterhorn, Mellas stares at Pollini, now dead, and explains to him “that he really had wanted to save him, not just add a medal to his list of accomplishments.“ The chapter concludes with Mellas trying to banish the thought that he had accidentally killed Pollini. He knew he could not, “If he made it out alive, he’d carry the doubt with him forever” (359). This guilt is complex: after saving a man’s life (perhaps twice), the lieutenant is forced to consider if his actions were ultimately motivated by the desire to win a medal, which led to his firing at the NVA in bunkers, and accidentally hitting the wounded Marine he wanted to save.

Numerous other descriptions are common to both narratives.

  • The Marines traverse terrain so steep they are forced to use ropes to scale cliffs. This is unusual; the ground war is typically depicted as being fought in the jungle. The notion of scaling cliffs with ropes is something I have not encountered before in the Vietnam War literature.
  • The Marines are constantly urged by unknowing staff at higher headquarters to move faster, to reach a series of checkpoints selected from maps with no regard to the terrain. Upon reaching a checkpoint they were given another, and ordered to rush because they were falling behind schedule. There is no apparent tactical reason for this.
  • Both accounts describe resupplying a landing zone so small only the helicopter’s rear wheels touched the ground, leaving the front of the aircraft hovering over the edge of a cliff.
  • Both accounts note that blowing up an enemy ammo dump is harder than you might think. “People have this idea that you just touch a match to an ammo dump and it goes off” (147). “They set off the charge. There was a tremendous explosion, but not even a quarter of the ammunition went off” (176).
  • It was not just the weather and remote locations that make resupply difficult. Incompetence and other foul-ups by higher command also contribute to the misery experienced by these Marines.
  • Mellas was injured in the face by grenade shrapnel and evacuated to a hospital ship for treatment. Same with Marlantes.
  • In Marlantes’ fictional account, Matterhorn was important because “it controls the western end of Mutter’s Ridge,” which was a real place (see Map 3, just above FSB Mack)). Mutter’s Ridge controlled access to Route 9, which was the key to control of the whole province. Mack was where Marlantes won the Navy Cross.
  • The combat is essentially pointless. A hill is attacked simply because it is a hill, and the enemy is there. Marlantes is ordered to “retake the hill “to get our pride back”’ (95).  In Matterhorn, even senior commanders realize the Marines did not need to attack Matterhorn. They had abandoned it before, and they would abandon it again, after retaking it.

Historically, Marines were trained to assault and seize the territory held by the enemy. The pointlessness of the combat in Vietnam is considered repeatedly in Matterhorn.  In a conversation between the battalion senior officers, one of them laments that compared to the Korean War, “It’s attrition that counts in this war. Turf doesn’t mean jack shit.”(341). “Obviously they did not need the fucking hill [Matterhorn]. They’d abandoned it themselves. But [Major] Blakely [the battalion operations officer] knew the fight was no longer about terrain; it was about attrition. Body count” (338).

Although body count, and not terrain, was the goal for the Marines of 1/4, the quest for it did not go well.  According to the battalion command chronology for March 1969, the average strength for the battalion that month was 1,243 Marines and sailors (p. 2). During this period the Marines of 1/4 killed 47 NVA. However, their own casualties at the hands of the North Vietnamese were 32 killed and a whopping 360 wounded (p. 22).

Map 3, from U.S. Marines in Vietnam: the Defining Year ,1968, p. 400.

SEIZING THE HIGH GROUND

Traditionally, military tacticians prefer to occupy the high ground. Elevated terrain gives a better view of enemy avenues of approach. It is easier to direct artillery fire from above, and easier to avoid artillery fired from lower elevations. Soldiers attacking uphill move more slowly and tire more easily than soldiers fighting from the top of a hill or mountain.

However, the war in Vietnam was not fought in the traditional way. Although high points such as Matterhorn/Argonne were initially occupied by the Marines because of their tactical value, they were abandoned when the enemy moved elsewhere. When the enemy returned, the mountain top positions again became targets. In a war of attrition, the goal was to kill enemy soldiers. When enemy soldiers were on the top of the mountain, Marines were ordered to attack them simply because they were there.

Recall it was from the Army that the Marines adopted these mobile tactics. Shortly after Marlantes was awarded the Navy Cross for attacking the high terrain, Army airmobile infantry units engaged in the best known mountain attack of the Vietnam War. In mid-May 1969, battalions of the 101st Airborne Division suffered hundreds of casualties attacking firmly entrenched North Vietnamese soldiers on Ap Bia Mountain, also known as Hamburger Hill. Americans succeeded in occupying the summit. Two weeks later, on June 5, Hamburger Hill was abandoned. The major result of the battle was widespread criticism of US military tactics. This led to a change in US strategy. No longer would the US attempt to exert maximum pressure on the North Vietnamese. The following month President Nixon announced the first American troop withdrawals from Vietnam.

HOMECOMING

Matterhorn ends with Mellas still in Vietnam. In What It Is Like To Go To War, Marlantes comes home, and devotes a chapter to his homecoming. He faced the wrath of war protesters soon after landing at Travis Air Force Base in California. After his brother picked him up, the protestors pounded their car with signs, and snarled at them.

He joins the spitting wars, acknowledging the image of being spat upon has “become a metaphor for what happened to returning Vietnam veterans.” This is a topic made prominent in 1998 by sociologist Jerry Lembcke (The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam). According to Lembcke, these stories follow a pattern. The perp is a hippy girl or woman and the target is a clean-cut GI in uniform at the San Francisco airport. However, according to Lembcke, these stories were myths; there is no contemporary hard evidence to support the claims. In truth, Vietnam veterans were not spat upon.

Although allowing none of his friends were spat upon, Marlantes claims he was. His account does not fit the pattern as described by Lembcke. It did not happen immediately upon return, and not at an airport. Instead, the event occurred two months after he was discharged. While sitting on a train at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Marlantes spotted “a nice-looking woman.” He wanted to sit and talk with her. Too shy to do so, he sat elsewhere.  The woman, obviously less shy, walked up to his seat, stood in front of him, spat on him, and returned to her seat. Marlantes trembled with shame and embarrassment while other passengers “hid behind newspapers.” Marlantes wiped the spit off and pretended to go back to his reading (177-178).

Marlantes has described his homecoming more recently on a Veteran’s Day episode of NPR’s All Things Considered (November 11, 2011) and in an essay in the Fall-Winter issue of Red Clay, the newsletter of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association. Inexplicably, in neither account does he mention the shocking incident where he was spat upon. In both he mentions the relatively trivial account of unruly and snarling war protestors at Travis Air Force Base.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

Although these three sources (Matterhorn, What It Is Like, official USMC Vietnam histories) describe the same events, they are very different. Matterhorn describes the war from the point of view of Marlantes through his character Mellas. He was 24 years old and had been on active duty only five months when he arrived in Vietnam. Inadequately trained, with little experience, he was immediately shouldered with great responsibility. Written in the historical present, Matterhorn is about his first 90 days in Vietnam. It is an account of fear and hardship. Although he endured much and fought with skill and bravery, the point of it all remained elusive. As the battle was about to begin, Mellas observed, “It was all absurd, without reason or meaning. People who didn’t even know each other were going to kill each over a hill none of them cared about” (343). After the fighting ended, Mellas (and Marlantes) was awarded a Bronze Star, a Navy Cross, and two Purple Hearts. Matterhorn was abandoned,  Matterhorn ends, but the war went on.

What It Is Like to Go to War is Marlantes’ contemporary thinking on the meaning and impact of his own combat experiences.  While Matterhorn is about a young man, the second book is about a mature man who has spent forty years reading, writing, and pondering. Here Marlantes considers war from various perspectives, including ethics, religion, psychology, anthropology, and sociology. In addition to helping him make sense of his own experiences in war, Marlantes wants to help present and future warriors better handle the stresses of combat. What It Is Like speaks with authority because it is so clearly informed by Marlantes’ experiences in Matterhorn. Similarily, the incorporation of his experiences in What It Is Like illustrates the factual aspects of Matterhorn.

The US went to war in Vietnam to forestall the establishment of a Communist government in Vietnam. When sealing the borders failed to work, we adopted mobile tactics. Our strategy was attrition. Rather than displace the enemy in order to occupy territory, we sought to kill the enemy. When we failed to kill the enemy at a sufficiently high rate in a tolerable period of time, the nation grew dissatisfied with the effort. We withdrew, and so lost the war. Ironically, the strategy of attrition was successful – but for the Vietnamese, and not the Americans. Our military effort began because the Communists were on the verge of success. When our effort ended, the Communists were successful.

Matterhorn exemplifies this futility. As our nation was scarred by its Vietnam experience, so too were Mellas and Marlantes. The Marines’ adoption of mobile tactics made difficult living conditions even more difficult. Hilltops were seized at great cost in order to deny them to the enemy, and subsequently abandoned. The Marines killed the North Vietnamese, and the North Vietnamese killed the Marines. The Marines did much but their efforts were futile. In the end, Mellas left northwestern Quang Tri Province, and the Marines left Vietnam.  In 1967 and 1968 I spent several months in the same area where Marlantes earned his medals. Years later I went back for a visit. Now there are farms that grow mushrooms and peppers. There is essentially nothing except unexploded ordnance to indicate the Marines were ever there.  The only way to know what happened is to remember. Or, you could read Matterhorn.

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Do You Know Jim Smith?

Click to larger image of Saigon 1974 photo at the website Finding Jim Smith.

Jim Smith put Kim Phuong and brother Lam with three cousins on a flight out of Saigon as the Republic of Viet Nam fell.   Their mother Phan Thi Nuoi didn’t make the plane.

Jim visited twice as they grew in Florida.   The children would like to learn more about him.

1972 photo supplied by Krista Page of Texas, grand-daughter of James Thomas Smith, Jr.

Was he James Thomas Smith,  Jr.? That Jim Smith retired as lieutenant colonel from the Army then served from 1965 as United States Agency for International Development province representative around Nha Trang.

An adoption form lists James Lee Smith of Odessa, Florida who worked for “PAE, Inc.”, perhaps Pacific Architects and Engineers.  Kim’s adoptive father says Jim spoke of rebuilding ships for the Saigon navy.

Was he the Jim Smith of Southeast Asia Computer Associates from Honolulu with offices in Hong Kong and Saigon?

Phan Thi Nuoi remains sent from Malaysia to the United States.

Kim manages Community Affairs & Grassroots for Southwest Airlines. She married Peter Delevett, now a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.

Early on they found her mother’s family in Viet Nam. They visit as often as they can.

With the family at Soc Trang, 2003. Pete stands in blue at back and Kim sits at right.

Kim and Pete and everyone else would like to be in touch with Jim’s people. If you have further information on Jim Smith or an adviser or contractor like him please let Kim and Pete know.

Viet Nam Literature Project blogs about our encyclopedia, our comics and translations as we develop our university program. Donors receive our print newsletter and annual comic book.

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Jane Irish

Click to read "Beautiful Wreckage" by W.D. Ehrhart.

Jane Irish’s new show War Is Not What You Think will be up until March 29 at La Salle University Art Museum and at the Connelly Library.   Jane collaborated with John Baky’s collection Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam War.

She painted watercolors and fired vases illustrating poets from the collection such as David Connolly and Philadelphia’s own John Balaban and W.D. Ehrhart.   Her collaborations with Bill and David evoke the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, subjects of her 2005 show Operation Rapid American Withdrawal.

Click to enlarge "Some Things Can't be Handled" vase with David Connolly poem.

John’s translations from Vietnamese hang with artifacts from that country.   Jane lays out riches which scholars travel across the world to dig from Connelly.

Director John Baky started the collection thirty years ago as a librarian.  He had served as a military policeman in Viet Nam.

Library director John Baky with artist Jane Irish at center. Poet W.D. Ehrhart at far left with curator Carmen Vendalin. Poet John Balaban at far right with museum director Klare Scarborough. Installation watercolor in background.

He has steadily collected the range of the American imagination of that other country.   Jane’s show includes a display of Connelly holdings with research products.

War is not what you think.  It is what many other people think, the reality of whose fantasies Jane and John display.

Viet Nam Literature Project blogs about our encyclopedia, our comics and translations as we develop our university program. Donors receive our print newsletter and annual comic book

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