The 13th Valley
John M. Del Vecchio’s penetrating first novel is very near the core of a renewed national debate about the Vietnam War. A decade has passed since the last American troops officially left Vietnam in March, 1973. In a relatively short period following the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, the army of North Vietnam (NVA) overran the army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), seized Saigon (April, 1975) and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. In 1975, the anti-Communist Popular Liberation Front was organized. It is not without some irony that one of the major actions that turned many Americans against the war, the bombing of NVA and Viet Cong sanctuaries in Cambodia (April, 1970), found its counterpart shortly after the fall of Saigon when the Vietnamese helped the Khmer Rouge seize Cambodia and later occupied that country. The Vietnamese are currently (1983) engaged in warfare against nationalist guerrillas in Cambodia and along the Laotian and Thai borders and have recently increased provocations along the Chinese border, precipitating the second conflict with China in four years. The United States in 1983 increased the number of military advisers it provides to Thailand. The decade since 1973 has produced a growing consciousness of the plight and the valor of veterans of the war in Vietnam, the continuing effects upon them of the traumatic stress of combat, and the heroism they evidenced as well as the toll which jungle warfare exacted of them. The decade has also produced a long overdue memorial to those who served in the war and several national symposia, including a recent ten-year-anniversary conference at the University of Southern California, as well as a center for the study of war and recovery at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
In The 13th Valley, Del Vecchio raises several important issues and some haunting, inescapable questions as he portrays unrelentingly the way things were during operation Texas Star (August, 1970) in the Khe Ta Laou River valley about twenty miles southeast of Khe Sanh and twenty miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated South Vietnam from the North. One chief question the novel raises concerns where fiction begins and fact leaves off. Del Vecchio was himself a participant in Texas Star, and he traces the novel’s genesis to the encouragement of an anonymous soldier to let people know “what it was really like.” Del Vecchio unquestionably achieves this goal in his fictionalized account of both the broad outlines and the frenetic details of the operation against an extensive NVA supply and logistical base in the thirteenth valley west of Hue near one major artery of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The breadth of this novel is such that while never forgetting to tell the tale, Del Vecchio manages to touch upon most of the human issues connected with the war. His individuals and their personal situations represent significant problems of military personnel in the Vietnam era. The pervasive sense of isolation and disorientation from familiar surroundings affected troops at every level, from the rear echelon to the front lines. One antidote to isolation has traditionally been the camaraderie of military units: this existed to some extent but was frequently marred, as Del Vecchio shows, by racial violence. The factor that most vitiated camaraderie, however, was the structure of the new military itself: troops did not train together, travel together to the theater of operations, or remain together for extended periods. The rotation system was such that companies and battalions were constantly assimilating new personnel and losing those who had survived a year’s tour of duty. Not only did the rotation system reinforce alienating isolation, but it also had, not infrequently, the further negative effect of putting an infantryman who survived a jungle firefight on a Monday back on the streets of his hometown the following Saturday night. Having come to his unit alone and left it alone, the veteran, without fanfare and without parades, was simply dropped back into an American society bitterly divided about the war itself. No victory but the questionable victory of personal survival could be his: the war was still on, and the war was not popular. It is against this background, the reality of war in the jungle and the further reality that it was not appreciated in many senses in “the World” (as the United States was known in soldiers’ slang) that Del Vecchio’s characters deal with their many problems.
The several syndromes these characters evidence and discuss among themselves have verifiable long-term consequences and form part of the residual legacy of Vietnam. Among them are the ambiguities of psychosexual disorientation, the pervasive abuse of drugs and alcohol, especially when on “stand down” from active operations, and various self-destructive behavior patterns; together these form...
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