American units in Vietnam at the time of Matterhorn reflected the divisions at home, especially racial ones. Karl does not flinch from confronting the very real instances of racial problems and bigotry that threatened to undermine the morale and cohesion of Mellas’s company. But under the most adverse circumstances, his men exhibit the trait described by J. Glen Gray in his classic study of ground combat, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. While soldiers may go to war for the defense of their country, political ideology, or religious convictions, these factors are not, in the long run, what sustains them, he writes. “When through military reverses or the fatiguing and often horrible experiences of combat, the original purpose becomes obscured, the fighter is often sustained solely by the determination not to let down his comrades.”
Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale. The commander who can preserve and strengthen it knows that all other physical and psychological factors are little in comparison. The feeling of loyalty, it is clear, is the result, not the cause, of comradeship. Comrades are loyal to each other spontaneously and without any need for reasons.
For the Marines of Mellas’s company, “Semper Fidelis” is not a meaningless slogan.
While writing such books as Matterhorn is cathartic for the writer, there is a second and perhaps more important reason for writing them. As a young woman of my acquaintance, wise far beyond her years, put it in correspondence with me recently, “Free men need such books, and we need such men living among us as testimonies to the sacrifices of their brothers. I think this is the purpose of such books. They are the ones who lived to tell and if they can tell well, I think it is no presumption to assume that this explains why they lived.”
She went on to observe that a real understanding of war and its sacrifices may now be possible, and that accordingly, “Our fighting men will finally get some genuine gratitude. Not sympathy or pedestals; but real gratitude, . . . Every civilian should understand that the veteran has done nothing less and, also, nothing more than what is sometimes required to maintain liberty.”
In the last episode of Band of Brothers, Dick Winters, the real-life veteran on whom the series’s main character is based, says something that drove home the meaning of my time in Vietnam. An Easy Company sergeant had sent Winters a letter that told the following story: The comrade’s grandson asked him if he was a hero. To which he responded, “No . . . but I served in a company of heroes.” That’s the way I feel about Karl Marlantes, Jack Higgins, Tim Rabbitt, Sully, Calvin Spaight, Buz Fry, and many others. They were heroes, my band of brothers. Thanks to Karl for a powerful work of literature and a tribute to those who fought and died at the “end of the line.”
– Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a Marine-infantry veteran of the Vietnam War.