09/26/2012 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Marines and Vietnam: Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

(NOTE from the teacher: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes is the first novel our students read and is arguably the best novel about Vietnam, or any war for that matter. Mychal ("Ricky") Hermida, a UW-Madison sophomore from New Orleans, had this to say about the chapters he was asked to respond to:)

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes is a war novel set in 1969 Vietnam. The book presents a very real look into the misery endured by United States Marines during the war. The protagonist, Waino Mellas, is a twenty-something, recent college graduate who is now leading a platoon in the Vietnam War. The excerpt I have chosen to comment on a conversation between Second Lieutenants Mellas and Hawke.

" . . . Hawke turned to Mellas. In a very even voice he said, "Mellas, I don't give a fuck which side of me you're on. I just want to find out whether you're going to kill any of my friends or not, and right now I'm not too fucking sure."
Mellas was the first to break. "OK, I wanted a medal."
Hawke eased a little in response to this honesty. He sighed, "Look. Everyone wants a medal. That's no sin. When I first got here, I wanted one, too. It's just that after you've been out here long enough to see what they cost, they don't seem so fucking shiny.
" (Matterhorn, p. 98)

This conversation between Mellas and Hawke was very influential to me. It has affected how I think about every man that we meet in this book and what his agenda is. For example, if Mellas was willing to sacrifice a man or two to earn a medal, then where does this cycle end? Would a Major feel the same way as Mellas (sacrifice) or Hawke (save)? And the Lieutenant Colonel? As the ranks rise, the stakes become higher.

Another interesting consideration, what changes a man's thought process from one like Mellas's to Hawke's? By that I mean, what does Mellas have to experience before his men come before a medal? Will it take one of his men dying? A Purple Heart?

I'm not saying that Mellas will not change. There is a chance that as the novel progresses that Mellas will evolve while in Vietnam. I'm also not saying that every officer is risking men's lives to achieve promotion and accolades. But if one man is capable of it, then it shouldn't be discounted.

This helped me understand the frustration of the Marines who simply wanted the man to his left and the man to his right to survive. The men who offered guidance to incompetent officers to ensure survival. The men who came together for one common goal; to get out of Vietnam alive.

If there is one thing that I have learned over the first few weeks of this course, then it is that Vietnam veterans hold music very close to their heart. With that knowledge, a post like this would not be complete without some musical references.

Two songs come to mind. The first is "Masters of War" by Bob Dylan, and the second is "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" by Pete Seeger.

"Masters of War"describes this vicious circle of risking other people's lives for personal agendas and gains:

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly . . .

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

"Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"describes an inept captain leading his men into "the Big Muddy" until he gets himself killed:

All at once, the moon clouded over,
We heard a gurgling cry.
A few seconds later, the captain's helmet
Was all that floated by.
The Sergeant said, "Turn around men!
I'm in charge from now on."
And we just made it out of the Big Muddy
With the captain dead and gone.

We stripped and dived and found his body
Stuck in the old quicksand.
I guess he didn't know that the water was deeper
Than the place he'd once before been.
Another stream had joined the Big Muddy
'Bout a half mile from where we'd gone.
We were lucky to escape from the Big Muddy
When the big fool said to push on.