Karl Marlantes and the Vietnam War

Click to the Wikipedia entry on Karl Marlantes.

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.

Click to Barnes & Noble page for Karl Marlantes’ novel.

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.

Click to Barnes & Noble page for the collection of Karl Marlantes’ essays.

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.  

Click to the Vanderbilt University webpage of history bibliographer Peter Brush, shown here in his dress blues.

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


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.


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.