10/18/2012 11:39 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Games Played by Universal Soldiers

(Note from the teacher: Our UW-Madison students finished reading Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. The experiences of U. S. Marines in Vietnam, and the music that helped them to hold on to their humanity, have been essential aspects of our in-class discussions. In today's blog, freshman Peter Luck of Northbrook, Illinois, and junior Bianca Martin of Baraboo, Wisconsin, have this to share.)


"It occurred to him how much the NVA must hate them, not to get up and run." (p. 479)

With Mellas on the hunt for NVA blood, this line made me think of the song, "Universal Soldier," which I'm most familiar with as being covered by Donavan.

To me, the song explains that no matter who you are in this world, if you are engaged in warfare, you believe that you are fighting the good fight and that others are fighting the evil fight. The song outlines a soldier who fights for all sides whether it is political structure, nation, race, religion, etc. It explains that soldiers everywhere are generally fighting with the same fire and reasons.

As we see with the Marines in Matterhorn in the heat of battle, they aren't pulling the trigger each time to defend democracy so much as defend themselves and each other as brothers. I think what "Universal Soldier" wants us to do is to recognize that even our enemies, in this case the NVA, are human and fight with the same general passion and reason as any other group of soldiers in the world.


"There used to be a great patch," Mellas continued, "near the garbage dump of this little lodging town that I grew up." ... "It's like a car roars down on you with six beefy guys in it. You stand there next to this old kind woman with your berry bucket in your hand and you're suddenly a little scared. All the guys have been drinking. Their faces are covered with masks. They have rifles. One takes the berry buckets and throws them down on the side of the road. They shove you around, laughing a little, as if they're expecting some fun. You're instructed that you're all going to play a game. Here's the rules." ... "The men, that is the boys, have to crawl through the dump from one end to the other. Whenever we come across a can whose lid we cannot see, we must pick it up and show it to the men with rifles. If the can turns out to be empty, we can continue. If it turns up unopened, then we get killed. We get down in the garbage. The dump always has a fire smoldering. The smoke makes you puke and cough. The old grandma's job consists of bringing water to any of us who come up with a clever or pleasing way of revealing the can. We get ribbons if we are particularly clever. Of course, if we refuse to pick up any cans, then we have to stay crawling in the garbage forever, or at least until the strange men get tired of their fucking game." (p. 513)

This section was so telling of how war felt for Mellas and likely other Marines in the thick of fighting. There is so much to say in response to this passage, but I'm going to focus on the basis of war as a game. This idea and feeling is powerful and caused much pain in the hearts of the fighters who lost their friends and also even their own lives. It proves the feeling of a lack of control and thus a complete dependence on the agenda makers back at home.

This passage was striking because it is exactly how I felt reading the book and what I took from what the characters were feeling in their struggles. Upon review of the passage, I instantly thought of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

This confusion as to what is going on runs deep, as well as the need to question whether the war is worth any of the pain it is causing, but no one really can question fruitfully while in the midst of combat. They can just commiserate with one another, as Mellas is in the company of a woman, his nurse. Within the song, Gaye speaks of the different family members, speaking to all people of the time, pleading for love and expulsion from brutality, and this is exactly what Mellas is doing when talking about the grandmother who is running the game. Once again, both the lack of control, and frustration of this lack, is clear. The most frightening part is that it is not up to the fighters as to whether the war will end, but rather our brothers and sisters at home.

"And the game goes on and on and on."