I recently posted a review of Karl Marlantes' book, Matterhorn, here. My review, based on my reaction to the book, and on my perception of war based on the book. Yesterday I received a comment on my review of the book from one Mike Brown, West Point, Class of 1966, who served in Vietnam on two occasions. His post deserves to be quoted here verbatim:
"I regard MATTERHORN as one of the best, if not THE best, tale of combat that I have read. I'm a veteran of two tours in Vietnam. One of my tours was as a forward observer with the infantry. I found Marlantes' descriptions consistent only with the mental pictures of someone who's "been there/done that." I'm a few pages from having read Sebastian Junger's WAR. Junger writes from the perspective of an embedded reporter. It's not the same as the perspective of someone whose behavior is structured by total interdependence with a team and a hierarchy. Nonetheless, I think that Junger has a credible grasp of the soldiers with whom he bunked. The difference between the soldiers in the two books is scary. I found a lot good in Marlantes' Marines. The Marines came to their fight with some notion of an idealistic orientation. There was some notion of goals and mission. There was also disillusionment. The command mismanagement seeded doubts and, over time, caused highly motivated young men to become cynics for life. I share that experience. The words of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address sustained my first year in the field, and, even after LBJ's "betrayal" of March 1968, the words continued to ring. They didn't, however, carry into my second tour. The Marines at MATTERHORN went into it motivated by something greater than themselves. Junger's soldiers in Afghanistan come out less admirably. They remind me of those in the movie, "Casualties of War." There is not a sense of idealistic goals. Rather these soldiers are depicted as motivated by their war as some kind of a game in which the ultimate goal is to keep from getting killed. The soldiers do not project a feeling that there is a sort of orientation on a focus that involves anything beyond themselves. As a private citizen, I'm troubled by our nation's involvement in Afghanistan. Our president has not been able to articulate anything that assures us that he has a clear objective in mind. I'm sure that this translates to much confusion in the ranks. In Junger's narrative, the soldiers "like" what they're doing. They profess a feeling of gratification in being in combat. Marlantes' Marines do not like their task in that way. They view their enemy sympathetically as humans. I like Marlantes' Marines better."
After re-reading Mike's comment a couple of times, as well as my original review, it occurs that Mike was in part taking my views to task in a very gentlemanly, well articulated manner. But that's only peripheral to the point I want to make here.
After exchanging e-mails privately with Mike we've realized we're on opposite sides of the larger political divide in the U.S. But we did agree on a couple of military-related issues that rose to the surface from our individual readings of Matterhorn.
These exchanges have reinforced several points I've found to be true about the effects of literature:
- Literature such as Matterhorn, written in a reasonably objective manner, can be legitimately interpreted in a number of ways. My review and Mike's comment are such examples.
- These interpretations are usually based on the readers' life experiences. Mike and I both have military backgrounds, for example, but those experiences are as different as land and water.
- While the effect of such literature seems to divide readers into separate camps, the deeper import is to present an opportunity to find common ground.
Where is this common ground, in the case of Matterhorn? As Mike and I have indirectly discussed, it lies not in ideology or the value of political and strategic decisions made regarding, for instance, the Vietnam War, but in its individual, human aspects. What was the effect of the war and the manner in which it was begun and prosecuted on the individual soldiers, sailors, and marines – on both sides?
Truth in literature lies, not in dogma or social manifestations of power, but in the manner in which story is presented in order to cross such divides and to heal them. All people have separate, private life experiences. And we are, of course, separated intrinsically by our individual nature. Still, there's something buried deep in human experience that's common to all. We're all curious creatures, for instance. We aspire, we create, we learn, we love. This is literature's meat.
Perhaps the most universal (but commonly ignored) aspect of war's nasty business – in which we can see such human commonality – is in the willingness to sacrifice one's well being, even one's life, in order to protect others. If this were not there, we would be pitiful, isolated creatures.
While Marlantes doesn't hammer on this point in his writing, it's there. It's there in the reticence of Waino Mellas to take a young NVA soldier's life, in the urge of Marlantes' Marines to protect one another, in their urge to understand why, from many social perspectives, they're all together in that forbidding territory.
War is – or should be – a social act of last resort. In it, the extremes of human nature are inflated, I think, to demand that its participants ask: How did human differences come to be separated to the point of killing and destruction? Where in the fog of war do the answers to human values lie?
Literature does the same thing. It exaggerates in order, not to present readers with answers, but to ask the deeper, human questions. And these are always there, for all, in each individual experience.