10/01/2012 04:39 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Reality vs. Illusion in Vietnam: "Go Ask Alice"

NOTE from the teacher: Our students are continuing to read the extraordinary Vietnam War novel Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Among the many strong email posts of the last few class sessions are these by two UW freshmen, Hannah Dudenas from Oshkosh, Wis., and Stan Gorski of Mountain Lakes, N.J.


"Hippy slammed home the bolt of the machine gun, startling both Jake and Mellas. 'Tell me something, Lieutenant,' Hippy said. 'Just tell me where the gold is.' ... 'Yes, the gold, the fucking gold, or the oil, or uranium. Something. Jesus Christ, something out there for us to be here. Just anything, then I'd understand it. Just some fucking gold so it all made sense.'" (Chapter 4, p. 113)

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes is a novel that shows its readers, through the descriptive experiences of its characters, what the Vietnam War was like. Each Marine shares his own perspective of what was occurring at this point in time... and really helps readers comprehend what it felt like to be in different positions during the war. Some of characters in this novel are basically teenage boys who were thrown into this situation not knowing exactly what they were doing and the reason why they were fighting in the first place. One character in particular, called Hippy, is questioning Lieutenant Mellas (in the above quote) about the real reason they are fighting this war. He wants to know what they could possibly be receiving in return for all of the torture and pain they have been enduring. Being overwhelmed with the hardships of war, Hippy really just wants to know the secret that no one seems to know- why they are fighting a battle that cannot seem to be won. If they were aiming to discover something new or save a great amount of lives, then Hippy would be more interested to fight. But Hippy, and many other Marines like him, just wanted some justification that they were achieving something in Vietnam. That all of their tiresome work was not just wasted effort and time... War and fighting should never be the answer to solving problems in the world. After reading further into the book, and basically experiencing some of the horrific circumstances that these soldiers lived through, I find myself feeling the way Hippy did. I find myself asking, "What were these soldiers really fighting for?"


"Mellas's throat was throbbing again. The grass rushed up toward them, changing from its illusory smoothness to its ten-foot-tall reality." (p. 136).

While I read chapter five of Matterhorn, I was listening to our "In Country" playlist and specifically, as I read this passage I was listening to "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane. I instantly felt a connection as I listened.

The Vietnam War was a war of illusion; the enemy did not fight in traditional ways (except for the North Vietnamese Regular Army in I Corps), they waged guerilla warfare and utilized innocent civilians creating an illusion to the United States troops and forcing them to ask the questions, "Who is to be trusted? Who is friend and who is foe?" Lt. Mellas faces this sense of illusion when his chopper lands in the new LZ post Matterhorn, to rendezvous with Charlie Company. As Mellas's chopper is landing he remarks that the grass looked smooth alas, once he lands the grass is ten feet high and he is surrounded. This illusion of the grass is a metaphor for the entire war... Listening to "White Rabbit" while reading this passage definitely gave an interesting take on the passage considering "White Rabbit" is all about illusions- primarily due to the heavy drug references. "White Rabbit," in a distorted sense, portrays the confusion and illusion in Vietnam -- everyone in country experienced the chimera that is Vietnam and it is a unique experience. By reading Matterhorn the reader can feel the confusion of the troops there; by listening to the music the listener can feel the illusions of Vietnam, and when coupled its hard to know which way is up because there is so much going on, yet so little of it makes sense.