War is indeed, as Thucydides said, a “rough master.” Those who have experienced it are never the same as they were before. In the HBO series The Pacific, the father of future Marine Eugene Sledge, a genteel Southern physician who served in World War I, tells his son that “the worst thing about treating those combat boys from the Great War was not that their flesh had been torn, but that their souls had been torn out.” One who has seen a comrade die, or who has looked into the eyes of an enemy he is about to kill lest his enemy kill him, is forever transformed.
Most combat veterans hold these things deep within themselves, often to the detriment of their mental health. Fortunately for the sanity of those who have seen combat, the mists of time often obscure, if not erase, the memory of war’s horrors.
But sometimes the story — with all of the dying, the killing, the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, and the shame — has to be told, in the form of either a memoir or a novel. Although the experiences of a combat veteran may shock and appall the citizen who has been shielded from the horrors of battle, there are two reasons that such remembrance of war is a good thing.
The first is that the writing of a war memoir or a novel serves as catharsis for the writer. Anyone who reads Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front; the books that provide the basis for The Pacific, Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow and Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed; or more recent works such as Jim Webb’s Fields of Fire will recognize this phenomenon. It also applies to a new and very powerful novel by my friend and fellow Marine Karl Marlantes.
The novel is Matterhorn. I have argued that Fields of Fire is the novel that has done the best job of conveying the experience of being an infantryman in Vietnam. But in many respects Matterhorn is more powerful.
Jim Webb, like the protagonist of his novel, Robert E. Lee Hodges, was always destined to be a soldier. He was raised in the Southern martial tradition, so it was only a matter of the man meeting the moment. Neither Karl Marlantes nor his flawed hero, Marine Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, was born to the martial tradition. As a result, Karl’s protagonist is less certain of himself and is forced to confront dilemmas that Hodges does not. Mellas is a study in internal contradictions. But like so many American men of the time, Mellas does his duty. We need our Robert E. Lee Hodgeses, but we need our Waino Mellases as well.