Karl Marlantes was born in Seaside, Oregon on the 24th December 1944, meaning that he will be 76 years of age before the end of 2020. Seaside is a small logging town and Marlantes attended Seaside High School, graduating in 1963. He attended Yale University having won a National Merit Scholarship and trained with the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Class during his time at Yale. He was then awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to University College Oxford and he completed his master’s degree in Oxford after his military service in Vietnam.
After just one semester at Oxford, Marlantes signed up for active duty with the US Marine Corps as an Infantry Officer and served with the first battalion, fourth Marines from October 1968 to October 1969 in Vietnam. During his time in Vietnam he was awarded the Navy Cross for his role in leading an assault on a hilltop bunker complex. Additionally, he also served in Vietnam as an Aerial Observer and was awarded a Bronze Star, two Commendation Medals for valour, two Purple Hearts, and ten Air Medals.
The definitive Vietnam War documentary is entitled simply, The Vietnam War and was completed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in 2017. The documentary is set out in a ten-part series – it is available on multiple viewing platforms and it is very highly recommended for anyone who is interested in war generally or is interested in the Vietnam War in particular. Karl Marlantes contributes significantly to the documentary reflecting on his experiences in combat during the war.
Following on from active service, Marlantes served a further year of active duty at the Marine Corps Headquarters. As is clear from The Vietnam War documentary Marlantes to this day suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It is interesting that Marlantes published his first novel, Matterhorn, at age 65, some forty years after leaving the Marine Corps.
Karl Marlantes’ epic novel of the Vietnam War, Matterhorn, was published in 2010. Sebastian Junger of The New York Times described it as “one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam – or any war”, and despite being epic in scale at over 750 pages, the novel became an international best seller.
The book is a fictional story set in Vietnam, but it is apparent that it is at least semi-autobiographical given Marlantes own history in Vietnam and this semi-autobiographical aspect certainly adds significantly to what is already a gripping novel.
The book takes its title from a US Marine Forward Base which is occupied by the Bravo Company of the Marines. The base is just 3km from Laos and just 2km from North Vietnam – the most isolated outpost for American troops in Vietnam. Notwithstanding the isolation however, the Matterhorn is a virtually impregnable fortress carved out of the mountain jungle. The base has state of the art weaponry and fields of fire have been carefully established from the deep bunkers constructed by the Marines themselves. In short, the isolation of the fire support base is more than compensated for by the relative safety of the location for the 180 marines stationed at Matterhorn.
The action begins to unfold as the book’s hero, Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, a 21 year old new arrival in country, who is part of the Bravo Company receives instruction to abandon their mountain safety zone and are instructed to progress deep into jungle territory in pursuit of a North Vietnamese Army Unit of unknown strength. The Marines attempt to pursue what is effectively a virtually invisible enemy and the major threats that they face on a daily basis include disease, tigers, possible starvation, and leeches (An early episode setting out one Marines’ interaction with leeches would, in itself make the entire book more than worthwhile) are set out in vidid detail.
It is clear at all times that Bravo Company are effectively pawns being used by higher level ambitious Officers – the Officers themselves are of course safe back in barracks and have no real picture of the day to day reality of warfare in the jungle. The racial tensions within the group add a further layer of suspense and it is apparent that the enemies within the US Army are almost as dangerous as the North Vietnamese Army itself. In the mind of every Marine and in terms of physical reality looms the relative safety of fire base Matterhorn which they have been instructed to abandon to the North Vietnamese Army without a shot being fired.
What sets this novel aside from other war-based novels is the fact that the story is not based on endless action sequences. It is in fact character driven and you will find that you will take Bravo Company very much to heart and share their trials and tribulations with them.
To this reviewer, Matterhorn expertly captures the absolutely pointless nature of the vast majority of the Vietnam War and the tragic nature of the lives lost on all sides of the conflict.
Matterhorn is an epic novel and it is highly recommended to readers – this reviewer awards it a rating of 90%. Karl Marlantes will be remembered forever for this magnificent novel.
What It Is Like to Go to War
As noted above it took Karl Marlantes 40 years to come to terms with what happened to him in the combat zones of Vietnam. During this 40-year period he gradually constructed the fictional novel Matterhorn. As noted above, Matterhorn is highly recommended to all readers – the Vietnam War has become the catalyst for some magnificent writing on both the American and Vietnamese sides of the conflict but it is fair to say that many people would acknowledge Matterhorn as the definitive Vietnam novel giving it the highest ranking among a number of magnificent novels of the war.
It is difficult to believe that Karl Marlantes at the age of 22 abandoned Oxford University voluntarily and signed up for active service with the US Marine Corps in Vietnam. He went from a pampered University existence into an insane war which actually had no defined military objective. Virtually meaningless metrics like “kill ratios” and “body counts” were developed by the US Military to try and make some semblance of sense of a war that simply made no sense whatsoever.
There is no doubt that what happened to Marlantes during his 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam was the most profound experience of his life, but it is worth noting that what happened after he came home was almost as bad. Contrary to the approach in Matterhorn, What It Is Like to Go to War has no fictional veneer over the truths which underpinned the fictional Matterhorn. In the case of What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes’ own real-life experiences are the basis for the scenes portrayed. The book sets out Marlantes’ own experiences of combat, it is sometimes confessional in nature and often times philosophical, but above all else it provides a frank answer to the question What It Is Like to Go to War?
The book never becomes a cliché with Marlantes providing significant insights into the training and combat experience associated with the life of a Marine in the US Marine Corps. Marlantes never becomes overly apologetic, nor does he roll out any over the top patriotism – he simply attempts to set out his story as frankly, bluntly and honestly as he possibly can. Marlantes deals admirably with the stark realities of war in a way that is truly unique and this nonfictional follow up to the fictional outing, Matterhorn is again highly recommended – this reviewer awards it a rating of 88%.
Marlantes published Deep River in 2019. The book is a fictional representation of a Finnish family’s relocation to the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the 20th century. Effectively, the protagonists of the novel are forced to flee Russian oppression in Finland and three siblings settle amongst a community made up largely of Finns in a town called Deep River on the Western edges of the United States.
While building new lives in America, the family simultaneously try to maintain traditions of a home that they can never hope to return to, in Finland. The Deep River community focuses largely on logging for a livelihood, but the female hero Aino Koski gets centrally involved in organising the, at that time fledgling, labour movements of the United States.
As with Marlantes’ debut outing Matterhorn, Deep River is epic in scale coming in at over 700 pages. However, the fictional account of one Finnish family’s evolving fortunes, in what is effectively the Western frontier of the United States is set out superbly and is dramatic, exhilarating and supremely entertaining.
While it is undoubtedly Matterhorn for which Marlantes will be primarily remembered as an author, Deep River is also highly recommended to readers who are interested in a life spent opening up new territory and/or family sagas. This reviewer awards it a rating of 80%.