The 13th Valley

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1994

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.

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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 an extremely negative portrait. Yet the other extremes, bravery and heroism, also receive a just emphasis. Del Vecchio handles both aspects of the image of the American “boonierat” (a combat soldier who lives in the bush) with appropriate ambiguity and with sensitivity.

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So great is the novel’s realism that all of the personality disorders, the impersonal triumph of place over person, and the insidious sense of personal ineffectualness create an overwhelming impression of dehumanization—an oppressive reality that is perceptible to the reader. Life and death are depersonalized as the euphemisms “blow away,” “waste,” and “scatter” replace “kill” to make death seem merely routine and to dissociate and insulate oneself linguistically from reality. Another linguistic shield that gained great currency from Saigon to the DMZ is both insulating and existentially plangent as it prohibits reflection and denies the relevance of any personal involvement with reality: “It don’t mean nothing.” In a novel that questions the meaning of conflict, the meaning of life, of war, of the American presence in Vietnam, the meaning of individual liberty and of values, the phrase is a jarring reminder of the perceived futility of such questions and of the necessity for blocking negative reality from consciousness. Just as multiple images of animal behavior and mindlessness combine to underscore the notion of dehumanization, so the abdication of reason and meaning trenchantly underlines the inhumanity of the world Del Vecchio re-creates.

Each of his characters denies the possibility of meaning on one level yet continues to probe his own motives and situations for precisely some glimmer of meaning. The characters themselves, Chelini, Egan, Brooks, and the rest, are bewildered not about what they must do (they perform outstandingly well in combat) but about the necessity for their doing it at all. Clearly, Egan and Chelini are pulled in distinctly different directions. Egan knows and Chelini learns a love of war for its own sake in the exhilaration of a firefight. Unlike Chelini, Egan has a strong desire to return to the World and leave Vietnam behind forever. Chelini certainly desired this before his first mission and thought Egan insane for being the soldier he was; as Chelini loses his own sanity and becomes an efficient killing machine that frightens even Egan, the reader realizes that Chelini’s education in brutality is now complete. Of all the characters, only Minh, a Kit Carson Scout who rallied to the South after the devastation of Hue in the Tet Offensive of 1968, clearly knows what he is about—that he has broken ties with his own culture and created tenuous links to the American military. Minh is both hated by and hates the people he serves and, more important, hates the need to serve them: having seen much of his culture disappear, he has only hate to drive him on and fear that he will be killed by the NVA or Viet Cong or put at risk by the Americans. Like all the Vietnamese in this and most books on Vietnam, Minh is never fully realized.

The novel’s ending personalizes the impersonal, dehumanized situation of war in a surprising yet ambiguous way. Chelini, clearly out of control with a classic case of “the Nam” upon hearing that Egan, Brooks, and Doc Johnson, who were left behind on the knoll of the Khe Ta Laou valley, are listed as missing in action, begins to utter the formulaic “Don’t mean . . .” when he is cut off by the new company commander, Thomaston, who urges, “Don’t say it, Soldier.” This ending could indicate some return of meaning, but it could also cloak meaning by denying expression to its denial or its affirmation. Thomaston, one remembers, is a short-timer with very few days left in his tour; he also forced Chelini to board the evacuation helicopter and to leave his wounded friends behind.

Del Vecchio is at his best describing the terrain, logistics, and operations, all of which feel authentic, right down to the authentically absurd briefing, the reprimands for exercising initiative in the field, and the inflated rhetoric of the field commander’s eulogy. The characters most often ring true in their “boonierat” personae but ring false notes when they engage in high-flown discussions on such subjects as war, the nature of conflict, and the psycho-biological bases of aggressive action. These discussions and the level of self-expression seem the same, no matter which character is speaking; and they seem woodenly stilted in ways that undercut the novel’s otherwise strict fidelity to life as lived in the trenches. A master of detailing the vicissitudes of daily infantry life from the common physical maladies to the mental distortions of the Vietnam syndromes, Del Vecchio either fails to address the philosophical issues and questions he has his characters probe or, quite possibly, is out to suggest that the war’s dehumanizing effects are such that rationality and sustained rational discourse have become impossible. L-T Brooks, for example, is one of the many college-educated troops whose active vocabulary is limited to a few hundred words, yet his draft of “an inquiry into personal, racial and international conflict” is both highly articulate and somewhat overwritten as it captures the desperate need for and the impossibility of making sense out of the disparate phenomena that contribute to the many kinds of war.

Consistently, in the strainings of Brooks and the others, Del Vecchio reminds the reader of the immense cost of the war, of human costs that transcend the price of hardware. In the year of the Khe Ta Laou offensive, the My Lai massacre was becoming public knowledge, massive antiwar demonstrations took place in the United States, and four students were killed at Kent State University and two at Jackson State University in the rallies. In Paris, the Hanoi representatives reiterated their claim of 1969 that there were no NVA troops in the South. All of these events and others like them highlighted in Del Vecchio’s chronological table form the historical background for the private hells of the combat troops of the 7/402, private hells that meld into a communal one during the last day of the operation in the thirteenth valley.

Del Vecchio is not at all ambiguous in his handling of the war in terms of its personal consequences for his characters. He is also very much aware of the larger issues of the war for its participants and for the United States. The war at home split a nation along generational and other lines; the memory of that war and the presence of its living victims, both veterans and boat people, have until recently been ignored or pushed aside. It is likely that Del Vecchio’s novel will help those too young to remember Vietnam and the United States’ involvement there to gain an appreciation of “what it was really like.” The novel may also serve as a corrective to a particularly American cultural phenomenon that affects every chapter of American history: inevitably, some have begun to romanticize the Vietnam conflict. While the controversy over Vietnam and the strident reminders of other potential Vietnams continue to be heard, Del Vecchio’s testimony of fiction based in fact may be helpful in establishing that, after all, it did mean something.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23

Library Journal. CVII, September 15, 1982, p. 1768.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, August 15, 1982, p. 1.

Newsweek. C, July 26, 1982, p. 71.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, June 4, 1982, p. 60.

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