War Writers and War Readers: More on John Renehan’s The Valley

My advisor team, prior to deployment to Afghanistan. Fort Riley, KS, 2008
My advisor team, prior to deployment to Afghanistan. Fort Riley, KS, 2008

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.

War Crime: John Renehan’s The Valley

ValleyEx-US Army officer John Renehan’s novel The Valley surprises and pleases at many turns. The story of an Army infantry lieutenant assigned to conduct an official Article 15-6 investigation of a seemingly minor incident at a remote outpost in Nuristan province, Afghanistan, The Valley maps the highly structured form of a crime novel onto the equally structured form of a war novel. Rather than forced, the mash-up of genres in Renehan’s hands feels harmonious and productive. 15-6 investigations are a fact-of-life for Army officers—I did about ten of them while I was in—and so in The Valley the conceit serves plausibly to expose how awry might go a small, isolated unit, and the LT-as-private-dick motif breathes new life into the many-times-told tale of a junior officer’s disillusionment.

The Valley’s protagonist is Black, no first name given, who at novel’s opening is pushing paper at battalion headquarters after losing his position as a platoon leader. Black’s appointment to investigate a wayward weapons discharge by an American soldier outside Combat Outpost (COP) Vega, the most remote and dangerous outpost in the battalion’s area of operations, is just another indignity he must endure before he can quit the Army. After a long convoy up the rugged valley of the novel’s title, Black is met at COP Vega with hostility from the outpost’s soldiers. They clearly hold out on him, they clearly are wracked by internal strife, and they clearly are beholden to the charismatic sway of the outpost’s two senior sergeants, Sergeant First Class Merrick and Staff Sergeant Caine. COP Vega’s nominal officer-in-charge, Lieutenant Pistone, departs the outpost on the same convoy that brings Black to it, and in the week before the convoy returns to exfil him, Black learns that Lieutenant Pistone has been an ineffective, cowardly leader and yet also somehow connected to wrongdoing far more consequential than the weapons discharge that prompted official investigation.

Sensing the basic rottenness of COP Vega, Black begins kicking over rocks to discover what creepy-crawly things lie beneath. The unit’s manning roster doesn’t match up with the personnel actually on COP Vega, and its relationship with the town nearest the outpost is abysmal, even by Afghanistan standards. A second, smaller outpost, unknown to higher headquarters, exists on the heights above COP Vega, its raison-d’etre both tactical and things more nefarious. Most significantly, Black learns that Sergeant First Class Merrick and Staff Sergeant Caine hate each other, and one or the other or both has gone rogue and taken factions of the platoon with him. A mysterious “Other Governmental Agency” American comes and goes, leaving behind enigmatic hints about COP Vega’s dark mysteries. At stake, Black further discovers, are the valley’s poppy growing and heroin distribution networks, into which at least some of the Americans have enmeshed themselves both for personal profit and narcotic bliss. As Black strings together clues that threaten the prevailing balance-of-power, he places his own life and everyone else’s life on COP Vega, precarious to begin with, in even greater jeopardy.

Renehan narrates the story mostly through Black’s perspective, but withholds description of the key cognitive leaps made by the sleuthful lieutenant as he uncovers the extent of COP Vega illegality—we see him acting on his intuitions, but we are never sure what exactly he has perceived that propels the successive steps of his inquiry. The result is a thrilling speed-read to The Valley’s end as the reader, or this one anyway, goes near-crazy to learn precisely what evil has befallen COP Vega and who is responsible. There are red herrings galore, as well as some seemingly gratuitous and even goofy plot turns, but rather than quibble, I would love to meet someone else who has read The Valley so we can argue about its many what-the-hell-was-that-all-about moments.

Comparisons are said to be odious, but perhaps also apt in consideration of The Valley’s achievement. The novel reads as if Renehan had grafted JK Rowling’s (aka Robert Galbraith) The Cuckoo’s Calling onto Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, and then mixed in elements of Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War. The fiercely independent Black bears much resemblance to Cormoran Strike, the gruff, no-nonsense veteran turned private eye driven by spite and ethics to uncover wrong-doing in The Cuckoo’s Calling. Like The Watch, The Valley plumbs the rank-based social dynamics of life on a middle-of-nowhere American outpost in Afghanistan, but where The Watch enfolds its storyline in the reassuring purview of its stalwart outpost commander and first sergeant, The Valley suggests power and authority invested in the chain-of-command corrupts rather than ennobles. Like Wynne’s War, The Valley contains brisk moments of action-adventure that begin on a remote Afghan outpost and then grow ever more exotic as its heroes journey outside the wire. But more so than Wynne’s War and The Watch, The Valley finds a compelling story through which to showcase its thematic interests. In Renehan’s view, poor leadership and poorly-defined missions unleash moral chaos and then evil among soldiers in small units left alone to fight the war as they can. Where Wynne’s War seems fanciful and The Watch pulls its punches, The Valley’s noir and police procedural elements convey a moral seriousness—a bigger message—that manages to implicate the entire US military mission in Afghanistan.

John Renehan’s The Valley. Dutton, 2015. This review by no means exhausts my interest in The Valley, so I hope to return to it in a future post.

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