War porn, puss

Written By: Edward Wilson
Published: January 12, 2011 Last modified: January 5, 2011

If it’s bad manners for one writer to slag off another, than my manners are about to be appalling. Karl Marlantes’ much-hyped hike back to Vietnam is tedious and boring drivel. The quality of the writing is not just bad, it’s embarrassing. But there are flaws that go far beyond mere prose style. All right, I know the book is fiction, but the cover quote about “unrivalled authenticity” suggests it is fiction being marketed for its realism. Now, as a Vietnam combat veteran myself, I found that many of Marlantes’ accounts of battle – “The attackers and defenders joined together and bellowing, frightened, maddened kids – firing, clubbing, kicking” – did not ring true. Perhaps this was because Marlantes experienced things I missed (or, for that matter, any of the combat veterans I knew personally). So I accepted that the marine who was eaten by a tiger – “He ate him, man. He jumped him and dragged him off and ate him” – was “unrivalled authenticity”.

I’m a fair person and not a braggart, and I know a lot of dudes saw far worse shit than I did in 1969 and ’70. So, maybe, there really was a sword attack. Yep, a sword attack. In Matterhorn, Vancouver, a machine-gunner who has just been disabled by a bullet through the bone of his upper arm and another that “tore apart his shoulder” (wounds that would floor us lesser beings), draws a sword and, with “his helmet fallen off, blond hair matted with blood”, attacks a group of NVA soldiers. This isn’t Vietnam; this is Aguirre, Wrath of God. Werner Herzog pulls it off, Karl Marlantes doesn’t come close. Matterhorn isn’t literature, it’s cartoon war porn of the lowest sort.

There is, however, a more important issue than cliché-ridden prose and lack of trueness. It’s to do with the way most novels and films about Vietnam coming out of the United States miss the main points: 98 per cent of the casualties were Vietnamese and the Americans were the bad guys. As the artist Souheil Sleiman puts it: “American films like The Deer Hunter aim to purge the nation’s guilt and deflect our thoughts away from the atrocities US soldiers inflicted on the Vietnamese.”

Books such as Matterhorn and films such as Platoon subtly draw us, he says, “to empathise with the killer. And without a second thought, we start accepting their motives.” I suggest that all copies of Matterhorn contain an account of the My Lai (aptly pronounced “Me lie” in Vietnamese) massacre to put Marlantes’ war story in perspective. Among the 504 civilians murdered was a baby fumbling for his mother’s breast at the very moment his head was shot off, numerous victims of rape, sexual assault and torture, as well as girls found with mutilated vaginas. Rusty Calley, pardoned by President Richard M Nixon, later made $2,000 a time for after-dinner speeches and is still regarded as a hero by many on the right.

Although A River in May, my own novel about the US war in Vietnam, received critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize, it will never be a bestseller like Matterhorn. None of my characters engage in suicidal sword attacks or are carried off by tigers. But my book does begin with a Vietnamese voice and ends with a Vietnamese voice. It is their country and the war was almost exclusively their suffering.
My book has too many faults to list, but the controversial ending is uncompromising and I have no regrets for writing it. There comes a point when a soldier has to make a moral choice. This choice might be a refusal to fight or – as Lopez decides in A River in May – to change sides and join forces with the enemy. That bit is fiction, I didn’t do it – but I wish I had. Maybe the NVA would have let me train the tigers. Here, puss…