John M(ichael) Del Vecchio Joe Klein - Essay

Joe Klein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like so many other classic American war novels, "The 13th Valley" follows a traditional course: A diverse group of men, gathered together to make war, proceed to transcend racial and ethnic differences, become brothers in combat, suffer horribly, fight an apocalyptic battle and—rather surprisingly, since this is a novel about Vietnam—win. At the end there is another conventional scene, a service for the dead and missing. The battalion commander, who had hovered above the fray in a helicopter, addresses the survivors: "I feel humbled to stand before so many brave and valorous men…. I want you to understand what your valor has achieved…. These men we honor here today can rest in peace, assured that progress in Vietnamization, for which they gave their lives, is being made."

These words are received by the men with a curious mixture of pride, apathy and disgust. They know they have "faced possibly the toughest obstacle life can throw at you and have conquered it," but they know too the horrible, hollow absurdity of the cause. After all, this is Vietnam in 1970. The antiwar movement at home has reached its zenith, troop withdrawals have begun, and it is clear there will be no light at the end of the tunnel. Those who remain and fight—the youngest, most nihilistic army ever fielded by this country—have few illustions. They are not the cocky, idealistic doughboys or G.I.'s of previous wars, but call themselves "grunts" and "boonierats." Their comrades are not killed but "wasted" or "blown away." Their battle cry, which echoes throughout this powerful and frustrating book: "It don't mean nothing."

It is to John M. Del Vecchio's credit that by the end of "The 13th Valley" we fully appreciate the irony of that double negative, since it meant a great deal to those who were there but accomplished nothing. There have been a number of excellent books about Vietnam … but none has managed to communicate in such detail the day-to-day pain, discomfort, frustration and exhilaration of the American military experience in Vietnam as well as this first novel by a former combat correspondent…. (pp. 1, 16)

Clearly Mr. Del Vecchio has taken it as his mission to make us aware, as precisely as possible, of the personal, unheralded sacrifices made for "progress in Vietnamization." He has taken an improbable group of characters and placed them in an unusual—for Vietnam—combat situation but, despite...

(The entire section is 1003 words.)