The story follows 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas and the US Marines of Bravo Company as they wind their way through the jungles of central Vietnam, uncomfortably close to NVA-infested Laos and only miles from the demilitarized zone. It’s also home to Matterhorn, an imposing hill around which the novel revolves. Bravo Company sallies forth from its base on Matterhorn in pursuit of an ever-evolving series of missions, from searching for NVA units to claiming new ground for more bases. The most draining of these forays finds the marines giving up Matterhorn for a haul through the unforgiving jungle. As the jungle stretches out before them, their encounters with the enemy and the terrain leave them toting the wounded and the dead long after food and water reserves are depleted. Cut from the lifeline of resupply helicopters, the marines are lost to the world in the jungle’s unforgiving fog.
After narrowly surviving that harrowing sojourn, Mellas and Co. are looking forward to some quality time in the rear. They get it, but only as a part of “Bald Eagle” duty – cooling their heels at the edge of the helicopter launch pad, waiting to be called into the thick of a firefight to support marines in need. In his characteristically straightforward but powerful prose, Marlantes writes that “all day Bravo Company dug in the clay, filling the green plastic bags, trying to forget that at any second, an officer in an air-conditioned bunker in Dong Ha or Da Nang could call in the helicopters that would carry them to some unknown spot in the jungle where they would die.”
“Matterhorn” is most memorable in fusing the horror of combat with the horror of surviving far from the front lines. The bitter racial divides, the soul-rending search for meaning in a war that offers none, the feeling of being powerless at the hands of superiors who view death as a cost others must bear so they can be promoted, are every bit as vivid as what the marines experience in their exquisitely chronicled clashes with the enemy. Anxiety does not let up at base camp. Indeed, the marines find greater solace amongst each other out in the bush, where racial and class divides disappear in the rush of the firefight.