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His own private Vietnam
Karl Marlantes brings the war to life in Matterhorn, appears at Book Festival
'Matterhorn' author Karl Marlantes

The Matterhorn is a mountain in the Alps. But in Karl Marlantes’ novelized account of his years as a Marine in Vietnam, it’s the code name of a hill to be savagely fought over.

Told through the eyes of a second lieutenant who foregoes the Ivy League to volunteer, Matterhorn is a brutally compelling novel about men in combat, the wastefulness of war, and the racial strife that plagued the U.S. in Vietnam.

Marlantes appears at the Savannah Book Festival Saturday. Here are highlights of our conversation with him.

On Matterhorn’s success

One reason the book’s been so well–received is because of the eerie parallels between Vietnam and what’s going on in Afghanistan. If I just gave you a list of characteristics, you wouldn’t know which war I was talking about:

The enemy can cross the border and we can’t chase them. The enemy is supported by outside money. The government we’re supporting is corrupt. The enemy melds in with the population while we stick out like sore thumbs and don’t know their culture or their language. The enemy is going to stay there forever, we’re going to come home someday and they know it. We have very strict rules of engagement, they have no rules of engagement.

I’m no pacifist. It’s hard to be a Marine and be a pacifist. Of course I thought  we should have gone after Osama Bin Laden, he killed our people. But he  wasn’t there! Okay, sorry, we missed him! That’s what I would have said.

On his portrayal of bad race relations in the U.S military:

That’s gone. I’ve talked to guys currently serving and they say that problem has been solved. Americans should credit the U.S. military for that. That’s where the rubber hit the road in terms of the races learning to work with each other and trust each other.

Novel vs. memoir?

There were so many things I wanted to write about that were encompassed by the war that a single viewpoint couldn’t do. For example, the higher brass. Or getting inside the heads of the African American characters.

The other reason is that fiction has tremendous power because of the ability of reader to identify with one or several characters. When you identify with a character you start to see the world through their eyes.  You see a world outside your own skin. That offers the reader an opportunity to expand and grow as a person, whereas in a memoir there’s always a little bit of distance.

On fighting the North Vietnamese Army instead of the Vietcong:

We never saw any Vietcong up there where we were. In a way I’m grateful because there wasn’t that horrible dilemma a lot of the guys faced in the villages. When a young girl comes up with a basket covered with a towel, is there food underneath it or a hand grenade? We didn’t face that — where we were, if it moved and it wasn’t us, it was the enemy.

What went wrong?

When the decisions were made to go into Vietnam, that was only 15 years after the end of World War II, when real dictators were trying to take over the world: Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo. Looking at it through the eyes of veterans who lived through that, it may have been a mistake to think in terms of monolithic communism, but I don’t think it was cynically done, like any of these conspiracy theories. That’s just the way the world looked to them. Events proved them wrong — two years after we left, Vietnam was fighting China. It was the Vietnamese who took Pol Pot down.

I’ve always told people you don’t need a conspiracy theory when plain stupidity will suffice. And in this case it wasn’t even stupidity, they just made a mistake. Where I get angry is they knew it by what, ’65? And they didn’t do anything about it. That’s where I fault our government.

On avoiding stereotypes:

In any military organization you have a bunch of kids. Where do they learn how to behave? Back then, they’d see John Wayne in the Sands of Iwo Jima and if they made squad leader at age 19, they think maybe they should behave like John Wayne. So they end up in reality behaving like a stereotype. To write it true, you have to let them be.

On today’s soldier and their families:

I was in Fayetteville, N.C., signing books, right outside Fort Bragg. This young mother comes up with her husband in fatigues. She’s got a baby in one arm and hauling a two–year–old with the other. She starts to cry.

I say, Gosh, what’s the matter? She says, “He’s shipping out again in two days.” So I turn to the guy, he’s probably 21, and I say, “Wow, is this your second tour?” He says, “No sir, it’s my seventh.”

We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. My cynical side tells me America can just say “Hell, they volunteered. We pay ‘em.” But it’s too much of a burden on one small section of our country.

You do need a professional cadre. You don’t need to be drafting people for your professional cadre. But if you’re going to be at war for 10 years, then the whole goddamn country better go to war. That’s just how I feel about it.

Savannah Book Festival

Festival Day: Saturday, Feb. 19 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. in Telfair Square

Karl Marlantes speaks at 10 a.m. at Trinity United Methodist Church

Admission: Free