Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam. William Reeder Jr. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016.
Vietnam in 1972. The United States, eager to move away from active combat operations, had passed much of that burden to its allies within South Vietnam, a process known as Vietnamization. Though some embedded advisors supported Vietnamese units during combat operations, much of the US role was providing artillery and air support, as well as keeping South Vietnam’s logistics system functioning. US special operations forces also operated in secret across the Vietnamese border in Cambodia and Laos, attempting to disrupt communist forces operating there. The intent of these efforts was to allow South Vietnam to hold onto the gains hard-won by American forces during the previous decade.
However, as the saying goes, the enemy always gets a vote. In an effort to secure a stronger position at the bargaining table, communist forces leveraged an influx of modern Soviet arms to surge south in large, combined-arms, mechanized formations at the end of March of 1972, in the so-called Easter Offensive. As hard-pressed South Vietnamese units fought back, the United States rushed to provide support.
It is in this environment that William Reeder Jr’s Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam opens. Reeder, an Army aviator with one tour in Vietnam already under his belt, was eager to fly the AH-1 Cobra helicopter into combat, and at his request he was assigned to an aviation unit providing air support to US special forces operating in Vietnam and Cambodia. As the Easter Offensive caused South Vietnamese outposts (and their American advisors) to be surrounded by communist forces, Reeder found himself flying missions in support of those outposts’ defense.
It was on one of those missions in support of a South Vietnamese outpost at Polei Kleng that Reeder was shot down. With his co-pilot dead and his back badly injured, Reeder attempted to reach friendly lines. Despite his best efforts, however, he quickly found himself captured by North Vietnamese Army units and beginning a long and arduous journey north to Hanoi.
Without a doubt, this book has a litany of useful takeaways on a variety of subjects. For those interested in resistance while in captivity, it provides insight into some of the techniques the North Vietnamese used against prisoners of war in their care, including attempts at political indoctrination, questioning the legitimacy of his prisoner of war status to intimidate him into helping produce propaganda, and efforts to break his morale through mock executions and false promises of release.
The book also highlights the inadvertent risks prisoners of war often face from their own comrades. Reeder was attacked multiple times by American aircraft during a short-lived attempt at evasion. He then narrowly escaped being bombed as he was transported north. In addition to the risks he faced personally, he also saw the risks faced by his captors. At certain stops during his journey, Reeder’s captors had to use force against enraged civilians and even other North Vietnamese soldiers,who attempted to take out the frustration and fear caused by American bombing on passing prisoners. Reeder himself is forced to travel to Hanoi, mostly on foot, where he spends the remainder of the war as a prisoner in North Vietnam’s Hỏa Lò Prison, popularly known as the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
This book’s greatest value, however, is not simply as a straightforward historical account detailing one man’s journey into and out of captivity. Through the Valley poignantly captures the profound cost of the conflict experienced not just by one observer, but by all those around him. Throughout his journey north, Reeder encountered dozens of South Vietnamese prisoners who suffered through the same captivity he did. Indeed, during the missions he flew prior to his capture, Reeder provided cover for the evacuation of American advisors from doomed South Vietnamese outposts.
It is this that is perhaps the most worthwhile part of this autobiographical account. Reeder, in heartfelt detail, captures the pain and perseverance that permeates his experience in a way that is profoundly accessible to those reading it. In this respect, Through the Valley contributes to a rich body of writing that has helped leaders and policymakers for centuries understand the human cost associated with deciding to go to war, a cost that those they choose to send to fight will carry home with them. Costs that will influence how those people reintegrate into society, and how society changes as a result.
One can study the maps and statistics outlining the battles of World War I, tracking the movements of divisions and the constant wastage of a static front. But for a scholar to truly understand how that vast effort impacted the political, social, and military landscape for decades after the war, he or she would be lost without intimate accounts such as those from Robert Graves, Louis Barthas, and Ernst Jünger.
Take Louis Barthas. In his wartime biography, Poliu, he recounts the unusual experience of being driven into no man's land with the rest of his French unit due to the sudden flooding of his trench. In doing so, he finds himself in the unusual position of standing opposite German troops in the same befuddled state. In this short interlude, Barthas and his comrades find themselves commiserating with their German enemies over their shared suffering. This encounter humanizes his opposite numbers across no-man’s land; they are no longer rifle targets, but rather human beings.
Over a half century later, Reeder finds himself treading that same ground. During his journey north he encounters formations of North Vietnamese troops that had been attacked by other AH-1 Cobras. ”I felt a flush of pride and remorse,” Reeder writes.
“I was proud, knowing how effectively we supported our American Special Forces teams and South Vietnamese allies…[a]t the same time, I was sad for the human suffering we caused...[it]stayed with me for a long time afterward...I felt for those I’d killed or maimed, their suffering, their families loss, of human lives I’d ended."
Reeder was able to put a face to the targets he had been engaging from the air throughout his tour.
It is far easier to appreciate the value of human capital when we can empathize with it at a personal level.
Emerson once observed that “every new writer is only a new crater in an old volcano.” This is because the written word, at its core, is the capture of human experience which repeats itself across time. It is that common experience that allows us to understand what it is to be human. It fuels empathy and allows us to better understand our fellow man’s experiences, desires, and fears.
Can students of military history divorce themselves from the intimate human experience of battle and still expect to learn the lessons of the past? No. John Keegan understood this. In The Face of Battle, he spent long passages capturing the small details of a British soldier's existence prior, during, and after the Battle of the Somme. Reading Keegan, we can better value the consequences of operational mistakes than with casualty tables alone, turning data into human experience. It is far easier to appreciate the value of human capital when we can empathize with it at a personal level.
Perhaps Reeder’s book is especially timely for students of national security affairs. As the United States finds itself once again providing special operations and fire support to a host nation fighting an enemy bent on its destruction, the same psychological pressures and realities faced by Reeder are being confronted by both coalition personnel as well as all manner of people either captured or occupied by the Islamic State. New craters. Old volcanos. And as we continue to pour support into this fight, there comes with it the same human costs that responsible decision makers and leaders would do well to understand.
Luke O’Brien is an Army officer assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground and is currently a Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Graduate Fellow at National Defense University. He is also an associate member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: A U.S. Army Bell AH-1G HueyCobra in flight. (U.S. Army Photo)
 Reeder, William. Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016. Pp. 77
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 Barthas, Louis. Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, pp. 28
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 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and William H. Gilman. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960, pp. 393