I know for a fact that Karl wrote this book as catharsis. It was cathartic for me as well. I had the honor of serving in the same battalion as Karl in Vietnam, and Matterhorn made me relive events long shrouded in the mists of memory, mists as thick as the clouds that so often enveloped the gray-green mountains where Karl and I operated in that desolate, remote northwest corner of South Vietnam along the Laotian border and what was ironically called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). For his actions in Vietnam, Karl, like Jim Webb, was awarded the Navy Cross, or as I like to call it, the non-posthumous Medal of Honor.
For the Marines of our battalion, the operational center of our existence for several months in late 1968 and early 1969 was one of a series of mountaintop artillery positions designed to provide mutually supporting fires for each other and for the Marine infantry companies that were interdicting North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infiltration routes from Laos to the populated coastal regions of South Vietnam and destroying their bases. In the novel, this firebase becomes FSB Matterhorn (which led a mutual friend and comrade of Karl and me to express the concern that the name Matterhorn
might make people think the book was about bobsledding rather than Vietnam). We had to carry out our mission and survive in the face of obstacles thrown up by a resourceful, determined enemy, mountainous jungle terrain that swallowed us up, and a chain of command that was often unaware of — or did not care about — the realities on the ground.
Since I was involved in many of the same operations as Karl, I could identify many of the characters and episodes in the novel. Thus Matterhorn was something of a roman à clef for me. As I read the manuscript, the memories came rushing back. Karl has faithfully reproduced the sights, sounds, and smells, not to mention the language, of the time and place. But the beauty of Karl’s prose is that he makes it come alive for those who weren’t there. Reading Matterhorn, one understands what it was like to be at the “end of the line,” where the lowly “grunt” implemented national policy whether it made sense or not, where decisions made with Olympian detachment by those up the chain of command often seemed surreal.
Matterhorn reveals in a raw and powerful way the insanity and absurdity of war. It is neither “pro-war,” whatever that means, nor anti-war. It is simply a very powerful story of men at war who are pushed to their limits and beyond, validating Thucydides’s observation that war “brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.” Some do well, others less well.