The Taser's Edge

Matterhorn (Grove Press, 2010) by Karl Marlantes

When Matterhorn came out last year, I immediately knew I would read it. I’d love to know more about Vietnam, yes. More interesting than that was the author, Karl Marlantes, who served as a Marine inVietnam and then spent three decades writing this novel.

Unsurprisingly, Matterhorn is an ugly experience. The opening conflict, for instance, is a man getting a leech inside his urethra on patrol; no one but a medic is available to help him, and that’s not the most comfortable of impromptu surgeries. The book shares a lot of its spirit with Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and has a similar effect on the reader. I entered in more fully to both novels because I knew that they wrote out of their authors’ experiences. (For the record, however, Tim O’Brien is better than either Marlantes or Mailer at the actual craft of writing, and I’d re-read his stuff before any other war author except perhaps Hemingway.)

Matterhorn is a big book, and it took me a long time to get into it. I tend to be someone in love with the well-crafted sentence, while Marlantes is more in the powerful narrative school of writing (a la Graham Greene). By the end, however, Marlantes had me stylistically satisfied.

Beyond learning my history and spending my leisure time, I read war novels and watch war movies because, unsurprisingly, I came out of Duke Divinity thinking about Christianity and pacifism. If you read this blog, you’ve heard the following spiel:

Some activists are actually pacifists; some thinkers (Hauerwas included) are actually pacifists; however, no one under 30 is a real pacifist unless they’ve been through something extraordinary. Pacifism is too hard for someone that young to get.

Matterhorn is not an anti-war novel in the sense that Full Metal Jacket is an anti-war movie. Full Metal Jacket says war is evil. Matterhorn says war is unavoidable because the world is fallen. It’s difficult to emphasize how strong of a difference that is, so I’ll try again.

FMJ shows that war is hell through showing what it does both to the “bad guys,” to civilians, and to the “good guys.” That, to me, is what most of the best anti-war art does and claims: War is hell, therefore we need to exercise non-violent means of change. Some of it just says, War is hell, full stop.

Matterhorn, however, says that war is not the problem, but the symptom. You can try fighting the symptom but it will always return because the underlying sickness continues on. The way that the nations and peoples of the world relate to one another doesn’t just make war possible; it makes war inevitable because it’s necessary.

So my question then is, Do pacifism and non-violence get at the underlying disease or are they just symptom management?