Best Defense

Renehan’s ‘The Valley’: A fine new novel about one outpost in the Afghanistan War

A review of John Renehan's The Valley, a new novel about one outpost in the Afghanistan War.

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By Nathan Webster

Best Defense guest columnist

“Spooky” is the word that best describes Michael Herr’s vision of Vietnam in Dispatches. The word “spooky” can describe a nervous horse, skittish at something just out of the rider’s field of vision. For people, it’s an otherworldly sensation, a feeling of being just slightly off-kilter.

John Renehan’s The Valley, which will be published in March, captures the same eerie haze, now placed in his fictional world of an isolated Afghanistan combat outpost on the farthest reaches of the Korengal Valley. The main character, Lieutenant Black, is an out-of-his-element staff officer conducting an after-action report. For him, everything seems seen through a lens warped ever so slightly. He shares the uniform as the COP’s soldiers, but is never home among them.

I believe Renehan’s slow-simmering sense of alienation has best captured in literature the mood of the little outposts of Iraq and Afghanistan, screened off on the ground by high T-Walls, and then the sprawling alien horizon from the roof. But for me, especially the Joint Security Station in Bayji, Iraq, manned by a company of the 82nd Airborne in the summer and fall of 2007, where I visited in July that year, an embedded photojournalist.

“Joint Security Station” is an already-outdated term that doesn’t belong anywhere here at home. Perfectly antiseptic, even more when abbreviated to “JSS.” The acronym doesn’t carry any emotion by itself. When one of Renehan’s characters describes the fictional Combat Outpost Vega, some real feelings come across, easily translated to the real world of Bayji’s JSS Arvanitis-Sigua:

“Anyway, we’re it. Us and some E-fives” – buck sergeants- “and a buncha joes, out here flappin.”

Renehan’s tense mystery is built around Lieutenant Black, a not-entirely-reliable narrator, the soldiers of COP Vega, and the Afghans of Darreh Sin. Remnants of British colonial work or the Soviet occupation make occasional appearances in the isolated valley.

But the main character is the COP itself, and what it does to people. Within its barely-secure walls are elements that reflect my own memories of a cramped and wary group of soldiers. The real-life soldiers didn’t always share The Valley’s vision of desperate claustrophobia and creeping paranoia, but the ingredients were all there.

Like Lieutenant Black, I arrived uninvited, and while an Army veteran of Desert Storm myself, our shared experience went only so far. Like Black, I was welcomed with friendliness and bonhomie by some, distant detachment by others. A reporter can share in the stories, just as Lieutenant Black does, as someone new to talk too – but there’s often a point where the soldiers realize they’re being “observed” and turn the spotlight on the fresh face. By the end of a story they might laugh at, not with:

“That, sir, is loyalty,” he said. “Your boys is your boys, even if you just met ‘em.” He took a theatrical drag as he other sniper nodded his approval. “Y’all got that on the officer side of the house?”

Black gave him a look that, to his surprise, made the kid shut his trap. No one else said anything.

The Valley reflects the inherent, but necessary, meanness of men at war, in these tight conditions away from the sprawling Forward Operating Bases. The book does perhaps a better job than Sebastian Junger’s nonfiction “War,” which often focused on building his subjects into flawed heroes. The Valley is much closer to an unvarnished truth of encroaching nastiness. I’m sure the JSS veterans would disagree to some extent, and think my memories are too melodramatic – and that’s likely true. Still, The Valley put into words the discomfort and dread that I am certain everyone felt one time or another:

“How do you know they are bullshit questions when you don’t even know what they’re about?”

“Don’t have to,” Shannon said tersely. “You’re bullshit, so they’re bullshit.”

I don’t even mean “mean” in a bad way, like that fictional exchange; in real life, it lurked in minutiae. Like throwing rocks at the stray cats that stalked underneath the Humvees, or stealing someone’s candy, stuffed in the bottom of their sleeping bag. It’s easy for an outsider to take it personally. Rolled eyes, for example, when they think someone doesn’t see. Or hidden warnings among the men not to talk, to walk the other way if they see a reporter coming. But a JSS is too small for those sorts of secrets to stay untold, and for every soldier willing to obey, there’s another who will lean against a sandbag and say, “you know we were told not to talk to you, to bullshit you, to not tell you the truth,” and he’ll smile because he’s passing on secret knowledge. And he’ll smile because he has power to make his audience aware of the distance, whether we speak the same language or not. Like one of the lieutenants said, before I left went out with some of the men, “be careful, Nathan, it’s not 1991 anymore.” Of course he meant it in a friendly way, but I was aware of all my Desert Storm “experience,” whisked away just like that.

So much of recent wartime literature – even the best – still depends on nostalgia for ideas about the best of men, and the concept of brotherhood and sacrifice. The Valley strips that away and, freed as a crime thriller narrative, can focus on the dishonesty and distrust – at each other, at superiors, at the outside world – that was probably more reflective of the actual day-to-day living, at the fictional COP Vega, or a real-life JSS.

In Bayji, a crack crawled down one wall, bricks dislodged and jutting out – left over damage from a truck bomb that nearly took down the whole building. The commander was blunt about the very visible damage, even more never-wracking underneath the tons of sandbags lining the roof above the crack – “the building’s fine.” Which didn’t stop the rumors that the engineers had needed to make three trips before allowing the building to be occupied, that they had beseeched the battalion commander to evacuate before the building simply collapsed. One side not believing the other, the other not caring if they were believed because it didn’t matter – nobody was going anywhere.

Looking back seven years later, one of the Bayji veterans summed up his decision-making process – he could sleep inside the building where there was air conditioning, or outside where there wasn’t. Everyone made due with what little they had, just like COP Vega:

Cooler cases filled with cold cuts and bags of spongy white bread, with an open box of mustard and mayo packets off to the side. But it wasn’t MREs. The joes at the table chomped their limp sandwiches greedily.

There is no final message in The Valley, no trying to fit events into the war’s greater significance. The narrative gets a little confusing at the end, tripped up a bit by double-crosses and contrived surprises. But like a good film-noir mystery, the protagonist finds out something he didn’t want to know.

At the end of my 2007 trip, I talked to a few soldiers on their quiet week of rotation back at the FOB, away from the dread of the JSS. One of them joked with his platoon leader – “My wife’s sending a box of cigars, sir. What do you say we smoke them, the last time we leave the JSS?” I asked him what brand of cigars and he looked at me like I missed the point – “I dunno. Big ones. Like they got in movies.”

Good memories or bad, I think nobody would smoke a cigar, or even think about it, leaving a place that didn’t matter.

Nathan S. Webster embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division and 25th Infantry Division in Iraq from 2007-09. He is a Lecturer of English at the University of New Hampshire, and is an Army veteran of Desert Storm.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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