Asking whether writers who are not veterans can write credibly about war and the military is dumb, for writing about any subject succeeds to the extent it is well imagined and written, not because it emanates from the lived life of its author. Asking if readers who haven’t served in the military or seen war can accurately assess war writing is actually a more intriguing question. The answer’s “yes,” but there are also interpretive possibilities. Veterans lean into writing about war with an extra-level of attentiveness, while also being determined not to be impressed too easily. They are eager to see their own experiences reflected and critical of failed efforts to get the details right, so their enthusiastic sympathy for a book rises in proportion with which they can identify with characters, settings, and events portrayed on the page.
So it was for me on reading John Renehan’s novel The Valley. No fiction written so far about Iraq and Afghanistan has resonated so personally with my own experience and impressions. The physical geography of Army bases depicted in The Valley might well have been mine during my time in Khost, Afghanistan, with FOB Salerno, Spera Combat Outpost, and a tiny OP on the hill above Spera COP very nearly matching Renehan’s fictional equivalents. Scenes portraying long convoys to a remote outpost and a battle-as-it-was-fought-over-the-radio from an outpost Tactical Operations Center are also experiences I have lived through many times. Flashbacks in The Valley to episodes set at “land navigation” training sites at Fort Benning, Georgia, triggered recollections about my own formative experiences on the legendary Yankee Road North and South map-and-compass courses during Officer Candidate School, Infantry Officer Basic Course, and Ranger School. Even the novel’s central conceit—that of an officer assigned to conduct a meaningless Article 15-6 investigation in the midst of a warzone—reflected my own tour-of-duty. During my deployment, I spent three weeks conducting a senseless 15-6 investigation to determine the whereabouts of a unit’s lost property at a time–the 2009 national elections–in which the concentrated devotion of every American officer was required to make sure the mission went well. Finally, Renehan even uses the phrase “time now” multiple times–how could I not like that?
Novels are places where the nuances of social life are explored, and The Valley corroborates my experiences in this regard, too. Contemporary war fiction hasn’t spent much time portraying officers, but The Valley features a gamut of brass-wearing major and minor characters who conform to type while also displaying individuality. Most of the novel is focalized through the eyes of its protagonist, Lieutenant Black, and it seems clear enough that his views are also those of the author, who himself was a field artillery officer. Black reminds me of many disgruntled lieutenants I have known over the years, their Army hopes dashed and now seething with resentment and salivating to get out. Stuck behind a desk in the unit personnel office, Black burns with envy of a platoon leader still in command of his unit:
Derr spent most of his time outside the dreary midsize base where Black spent all of his time, stomping through the Afghan backhills with his platoon and shooting at people. It was precisely what Derr had imagined he would be doing when he set out to become an Army officer, and the universe had graciously given him no reason to question his assumptions…. When he had paper-type business he needed help with, he made his way to Black, to be found reliably behind his desk doing precisely the opposite of what he had imagined when he became an Army officer.
After travelling to COP Vega, Black observes a picture of Lieutenant Pistone, the COP’s officer-in-charge. It would take stones the size of the super-blood-moon for a fobbit such as Black to critique the leader of the most dangerous outpost in the battalion area of operations, but Black quickly sizes up Pistone as a lightweight:
Black was a quick study of the various sorts of people who are attracted to the military. There was a lot of different ones, but he felt he could peg Pistone pretty quickly. Geek made good.
He had known the type before. The brainy guy who was never good with the girls, never got picked for the team, spent an ineffectual childhood probably getting picked on a little bit, developed a nice put-upon complex. Then he discovered the military somehow and learned that even if you are all those things you can still get to do this. That your military life can stand as a triumphant ongoing Fuck You to all the guys who’d always been cooler.
He became your squared-away supersoldier, in his own way. Fastidiously organized, diligent about physical training. Not necessarily a good leader.
He walked around with the sound track of his freshly awesome life playing in his head. He tended to forget that succeeding in the military was not so much about his own cosmic journey to heroism as it was about how good he was at dealing with people, handling people, taking care of people. Sooner or later, the Army turned on him, left him friendless there as in life.
The Valley also features a nice portrait of Black’s battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Gayley:
True, the beating bureaucratic heart of the Army had a slobbering crush on officers like Gayley. Somewhere in a lab at West Point his instructors had mixed him in a bowl, whipping into him the precise proportions of accountability, flawless attention to detail, chipper optimism, and bold cooperativeness, folding in a hardy tolerance for paperwork and a relentless professional ambition, with a dash of tanned physical perfection for flavor….
He was a little of everything and a little of nothing. He yelled at the right people, didn’t yell at the wrong people, didn’t fail in his duties, didn’t cause surprises or embarrassments. He was just so.
Black doesn’t hate Lieutenant Colonel Gayley exactly, or even think he’s incompetent, but the chin-up façade of perfection irritates him. It’s the kind of manicured remoteness that gets many officers branded “not real people.” Black, on the other hand, isn’t consumed with maintaining appearances at all costs and is shown bonding quickly with enlisted soldiers and standing up to NCOs used to steamrolling wishy-washy officers. It’s a fantasy image of being the lieutenant every young officer dreams of being, but few are consistently. In the context of The Valley, it’s proof that the overall Army mission is screwed because it doesn’t recognize the true leaders of combat soldiers in its midst. That’s not exactly my impression of how the Army recognized or didn’t recognize excellence, but it’s not entirely wrong either.