John M. Del Vecchio

The 13th Valley

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The 13th Valley Summary

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The 13th Valley is a 1982 work of historical fiction by war novelist and former combat correspondent John M. Del Vecchio. Known publicly as a Bronze Star war hero for acts while in ground combat, Del Vecchio contributes to the renewed discourse about the Vietnam War with this text. It follows James Chelini through the perspectives of other characters (such as Sergeant Egan and Chelini’s company commander, Brooks) who each respond differently to wartime. All three have (or develop) somewhat nihilistic attitudes toward the meaning of human life, but scrupulously probe each new experience for signs that purpose can emerge. The novel was praised for illuminating the kernel of humanity that persists beneath all human activity, even atrocities like war, as well as for its rich descriptions of terrain on the Vietnamese warfront.

Straying from a clear plot, the novel is written in episodic form. It gradually introduces the characters Chelini, Egan, and Brooks, three highly competent soldiers known especially for their prowess in combat. Each of the characters starts off developing a pragmatic reaction to the immediate realities of war while maintaining doubts about the necessity of war in the first place.

The men arrive in Vietnam and are assigned to the same faction. After their first battle, Chelini is terrified of Egan’s efficiency and apparent lack of emotion as he shoots down enemies. Chelini learns that Egan comes from a military background that has ingrained within him a love of war for its own sake. Egan conceives of war like any other work: It is necessary in order to fend off despair from the untroubled life and obtain moments of satisfaction and joy.

Chelini, in due time, comes to adopt the same position as Egan. The decisive moment is a battle in which an adrenaline rush produces an almost spiritual experience before Chelini escapes unscathed. Ironically, Egan soon develops a desire to leave Vietnam and return to the “real world,” while Chelini’s warmongering increases. Chelini slowly allows his combat experiences to erode his prior education and system of moral values, filling the remaining vacuum with insanity and transforming into a ruthless assassin.

The sole survivor of The 13th Valley’s gauntlet of war trials is Minh, a member of a special Marine program called the Kit Carson Scouts. Minh, Vietnamese by birth, breaks off from his nationality and becomes a Marine in a risky bet for the United States’ victory. Minh provides insight that the Americans lack and adopts an attitude of ambivalence toward war after going through a tenuous integration with American forces.

The American soldiers tend to hate Minh; he reciprocates their hatred, but for different reasons, having seen them destroy his culture. His resentment, ironically, drives his support of the Americans through each battle, augmented by fears of the Northern Vietnam Army, Viet Cong, and his own American “allies.” Despite his insight, by the novel’s end Minh never reaches a whole sense of self or even satisfaction with his fractured identity. Instead, he becomes a kind of ghost, not much different than the Vietnamese people he left behind.

While all its characters suffer, the novel concludes with hope for a brighter future. An intimate episode takes place where Chelini endures psychological trauma after hearing that Egan and two other friends, Brooks and Doc Johnson, have been abandoned by fleeing troops on a hill within the Khe Ta Laou valley (from which the book’s title gets its name). Thomaston, Chelini’s new commander, had forced him to board an evacuation helicopter despite the fact that his friends are wounded on the ground. In response to the news, Chelini begins to regurgitate the phrase oft-uttered among American troops, “Don’t mean nothin’,” when Thomaston cuts him off. Chelini, now supposed to be a ruthless assassin, considers his commander’s exhortation to decommission the nihilistic expression. The encounter is ambiguous and may suggest either that meaning can be drawn in the wake of war, or that the war engine perpetuates itself by suppressing any knowledge of its inherent pointlessness.

Written a decade after the end of the American insurgency of Vietnam, The 13th Valleydoes more than extend or recapitulate a well-known narrative of suffering. It looks with renewed attention at the universal phenomenon of the soldiers’ attempts to find meaning, knowing deep down that they are just the pawns of abstract and alienated political entities. Del Vecchio’s book is therefore a meditation on the construction of war narratives themselves.