Politics & Policy

War and Memory

In battle, "Semper Fidelis" is not a meaningless slogan.

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.

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.

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.”

He continues:

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.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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