Karl Marlantes has traveled a long way from his childhood home in Seaside.
The former Marine lieutenant who received a Navy Cross, Bronze Star and two purple hearts while fighting in Vietnam and later wrote "Matterhorn," a best-selling novel about his experience, has had his personal mountains to climb.
Marlantes talked about some of those mountains and what he learned from his journeys Wednesday night at the Columbia Forum.
"Matterhorn didn't exist," he said, "but it represents all the hills taken and abandoned... . I'm not a pacifist; I'm trying to sort out in my mind what is ethical and not ethical."
Stationed in the DMZ near the Laotian border in 1969, 1st Lt. Marlantes received the Navy Cross for his participation in heavy combat north of the Rockpile where Company C sustained numerous casualties. After marshalling the remaining forces, he "initiated an aggressive assault up a hill," according to the commendation, and surprised a hostile unit of North Vietnamese soldiers controlling the hilltop. There, Marlantes, who was seriously injured, destroyed four bunkers and established a perimeter defense.
The commendation notes that his "heroic actions and resolute determination inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in a decisive rout of the North Vietnamese Army force with minimal friendly casualties."
There, Marlantes' novel was born. After numerous attempts to get it published for nearly 35 years, Marlantes finally captured the attention of a small press, El Leon Literary Arts, in 2009. Atlantic Monthly Press took over publishing this year. "Matterhorn" is No. 2 on the Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers bestseller list for hardcover fiction and is high on the New York Times Books List.
Born in Astoria and raised in Seaside, Marlantes said his father fought in World War II, and he always heard about "the service." In those days, the military draft was like a "bad day fishing"; because there was no war at the time, there was no thought of avoiding the draft by heading across the Canadian border.
Marlantes joined the Marines when he left Seaside High School but received a deferment to attend Yale and later traveled to England to attend Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.
But by the time he enrolled in Oxford, five fellow Seaside High School boys had died in Vietnam, and Marlantes said he had felt guilty. He left Oxford to begin his Marine service. He served in Vietnam and later as a mobilization plans officer at the Pentagon.
After his service, he said, he wanted to write the "Great American Novel" about the war. But it is more than about combat, he said, it is about how 19-year-old kids grow up in the midst of battle.
"What we are asking them to do we usually leave to the gods," Marlantes said. "We ask them to kill somebody or make a decision where somebody is killed. Nineteen-year-old kids are the best weapons; a 30-year-old will think about it and ask questions.
"There are times we fail to do the diplomacy or come to an agreement. War is what happens when you fail and you ask kids to clean up the mess."
Warriors are those who choose sides and are 100 percent devoted to that side and use violence, risking death or maiming, he said.
"If you're a policy maker in Washington and you take a side and use violence, you're using a Marine as a weapon," Marlantes added. "Warriors choose sides; warriors choose violence."
But, modern warfare that includes killer drones that can be controlled thousands of miles away, adds another element to the definition of "warrior," Marlantes added.
He recalled the night he went to the annual Marine Ball, with his medals pinned to his uniform. A young sergeant who had served in Iraq came up to Marlantes, obviously in awe because of his Vietnam service.
"I was a rock star to him," said Marlantes, laughing. "And then he asked me, 'How did you do it with such primitive weapons?'"
Wars occur when certain fundamental beliefs cannot be debated, he said. "Unfortunately we lack tolerance."
But before a country goes to war, government leaders must ask, "'What are you willing to make your kids pay for freedom?' I don't think policy makers consider that," Marlantes added.
He said he worries that the military is becoming too separate from the general population and that deploying soldiers to a battle zone several times is causing families to fall apart.
Conducting pre-emptive strikes, he added, also is disturbing. By striking first, countries might begin a war that can't be won.
"If you make a judgment that you're going to war pre-emptively, you're doing something vigilantes do. If you do this, you're always playing defense," Marlantes said.
"I think we have to take that risk; I think we have to wait. Even if it's nuclear weapons in Iran, we have to wait. Because if we're wrong and hit them, then that would be a worse crime.
"We often fail to think clearly about what we do. If we thought about who our warriors are and what we ask them to do, I think there would be fewer wars."
An audience member asked Marlantes what was different about warriors fighting in World War II, Vietnam and Iraq.
"Not much changes," he replied. "What's really important to young people fighting wars is that they're in a group of people they love and you don't want to let them down. Other reasons for a war fall aside.
"They drink beer, talk about their girlfriends and don't think about other things. That's what the older generation is supposed to do."
When asked to describe the difference between serving in Vietnam and in the Pentagon, Marlantes recounted how, when he was at the Pentagon and in charge of organizing a massive drill involving several states he mixed up the code names for the time zones.
"The first thing I learned is that innocent mistakes can be compounded into disasters," Marlantes said. "Unfortunately, in the military people die."
The same was true in his novel, he added.
"My villains aren't bad as people. My villains have shortcomings. But if they have shortcomings, they die. We fill our systems with real people with real shortcomings."
Some of those attending the forum who had served in Vietnam said Marlantes' talk caused them to recall their experiences.
Cannon Beach resident Peter Lindsey, who served in the Army Artillery in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, and who grew up in Seaside with Marlantes, has a small role in the "Matterhorn's" first chapter as Lance Cpl. Lindsey. The young soldier is overdue for R&R. Lindsey said he was "completely flattered" by the reference and could relate to the scenes contained in the book.
Chuck Hillstead, a lawyer in Cannon Beach who served in the 101st Airborne Division from 1968 to 1970, called Marlantes a "really interesting guy."
"But I think he's too nice," Hillstead said. "I'm of his philosophy, but I'm much more radical."
Mike Calog, of Warrenton, an Army ranger in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, said he is reading "Matterhorn" in small increments "because it takes me back to places I don't want to be."
"If you go through a chaotic thing like that and don't learn something, you're in sad shape," Calog said.