The Valley. John Renehan. New York, NY: Dutton, 2016.
The Valley ends as it begins, with the protagonist, Will Black, sitting in a rental car outside a place he is not expected and perhaps would be unwelcome were he to leave the vehicle and walk to the front door. In one instance, the reader knows exactly why he is there. In the other, like other questions raised in the course of this debut novel by former U.S. Army officer John Renehan, the reader may never find the answers. What the author has fit in between is a thrilling crime novel set in a deep valley of Afghanistan’s remote Nuristan province with an amateur gumshoe detective played by a disgruntled but capable Army lieutenant sent to conduct a by-the-books investigation at the remotest of combat outposts.
An S-1 (Administrative) officer living out his remaining time on the Forward Operating Base (FOB), Lieutenant Black is assigned a 15-6 investigation, a basic inquiry used by the army to look into allegations of misconduct. Ostensibly dealing with a simple Rules of Engagement (ROE) violation by a young infantry private, Black’s investigation leads him on a deep and twisting journey up the titular valley to a Combat Outpost (COP) at the “edge of the empire.”
Where It Succeeds
As a crime novelist, Renehan shows potential in this first novel to stand with the likes of George Pellecanos and Dennis Lehane. And Renehan, who never deployed to Afghanistan during his time in the Army, has done his research on Afghanistan and its people. He draws sweeping geographical descriptions similar to travelogues like Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, which Renehan credits as a primer of his research. He has also tapped into a skill that makes him stand out amongst some other “war story” novelists: his characters speak and relate to one another in a way that will be very familiar for those who have deployed.
I have always enjoyed listening to—even when not participating directly in the conversations - the patois of military life. The varied accents, the joking camaraderie, the “taking the piss out of one another” in order to test friendships as well as thickness of skins. The stilted conversations between senior officers or enlisted while talking down in rank to those who do the grunt-level, day-to-day work of a military at war. Renehan, a lawyer in his life before the Army, was commissioned as a 32-year-old lieutenant and spent 6 years in the Army. His knack for representing how soldiers talk to one another makes it seem as if he spent a full career amongst soldiers. His advantage in this case is that he has but one officer to speak for in the vast majority of the book, and that officer is one who is drawn as holding a barely disguised resentment of other officers while at the same time representing professionalism, a sense of duty, and, most importantly for the story, his moral obligations—both to the soldiers and the Army.
USMC Command and Staff College Professor Rebecca Johnson, in her piece for The Strategy Bridge #Profession and Ethics Series, tells us that “morals can be understood as ‘that which strengthens the community.’” LT Black’s morals make him an intriguing character because, while flawed—he is no recruiting poster come to life—we see him pushed to investigate a seemingly minor military infraction in which his initial intention is to simply “Do the job, write the 15-6,” and get back to his FOB. Once the neat story of a “warning shot” amongst restless natives begins to unravel, his sense of duty—Johnson’s Fifth Ethical Responsibility of service members—prevents him from completing his mission as cleanly as expected. In Black’s case, before even departing on the mission, he has written and signed a memorandum requesting release from active duty. Yet his professionalism and sense of duty to the soldiers at the COP prevent him from leaving well enough alone.
There is a story told—or retold—in the novel about a World War II veteran who had been a sailor on a small ship sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The man and his family travelled to the Pearl Harbor Memorial site to commemorate the anniversary and to pay their respects to his fallen comrades. The old sailor requests—to his family's chagrin—that his last will be edited to ensure that when he dies, his ashes are returned to the site. That night, the old man died in his sleep. On the face of it, the stories portrayed in the press were of sweetness and how he had gone to be with his fellow soldiers one last time. In truth, through interviews with his new widow, he had never really left Pearl Harbor and had been a shell of a man since 1941. Renehan devises this section of the novel through a tense time of revelation. A character of seeming comic relief recounts the tale of the old veteran around a campfire and then turns the story on its head by revealing that the fallen sailors were no longer there to join. The ship had been raised and their remains buried elsewhere when the wreck was salvaged for its precious resources during a time of war. The old sailor would be resting beneath the water—all by himself.
Renehan skillfully returns to the ideas of this tale during the denouement of the novel. To go further would be a disservice by this reviewer to those who enjoy the point of mystery novels, but it illustrates his capability with nuance, humor, and attention to detail in the service of illustrating the humanity of each character, despite their failings.
Where It Doesn’t
The ibex, a wild and hardy goat native to austere mountain habitats is, by necessity, a skillful climber. Mir Samir, one of the most imposing peaks in Afghanistan, rises above those surrounding it on the Western entrance to Nuristan. Its summit has only been reached twice, by a German expedition in 1959 and a Japanese one in 1965.
Three years before the first successful summit, Eric Newby, in his book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, relates a tale revealed by natives of Panjshir Valley during a long night around a campfire. In 1956, Newby and his travel partner, Hugh Carless—an officer of the British Foreign Service—are preparing to attempt a summit of Mir Samir and the locals are busy explaining—through varied folklore, rumors, and supposition—how the mountain and the valley came to be named. When the Afghans learn that the duo plan to climb the mountain, one elder of the group informs them that only one creature, only one time, had ever successfully reached the peak. During the great biblical flood of Noah, the rugged ibex climbed higher and ever higher as the waters began to rise in the Panjshir Valley. Far above where he had ever had a reason to reach before. The waters continued to advance, filling the valleys and covering the surrounding mountains but still the ibex climbed, trying to escape his fate. When the ibex reached the high peak of Mir Samir, he stood bravely awaiting his wet demise. Just as it reached his abdomen, the water stopped, which is why the ibex has a white belly. The ibex had never climbed that high before. He never climbed that high again. The waters alone—and fear for his life—drove him to those heights.
There are two scenes in The Valley provoked by either a fear of death, like the ibex, or a search for answers which drive Black to climb—alone or with the soldiers of COP Vega—for reasons unclear to the reader. In both instances, Renehan evokes a sense of panic borne from disorientation. Also in both cases, he holds off on revealing the significance of those climbs until much later in the novel. That tendency is one major flaw that isn’t alleviated. A number of mini-mysteries—from the history of LT Black that is teased throughout the book as a significant foundation of his psyche and his reputation amongst the soldiers, to a gift passed on by a suspicious quartermaster he goes to see before leaving the FOB, and even to the very opening scene of the book—are never clarified. The reader, expecting a self-contained story, is left to wonder if the revelations were edited out mistakenly or simply forgotten. Only by reading follow-up interviews with the author do we find out that they “might’ be answered in later books within the same universe created in The Valley. For some, that factor may cause disappointment that the overall novel will have difficulty overcoming.
A critique offered by others is that Renehan wrote the book, not just with sequels, but with a film in mind. There are characters and scenes that seem either extraneous or form-fit for the screen. In researching for this review I came across a blog post written by Renehan in which he essentially—but not overtly—describes his perfect soundtrack, to the point of identifying songs he envisioned playing over pivotal scenes. I link to it here but would advise against searching this out until after reading the book, unless you seek spoilers.
For strategists, the book will raise questions—intentionally or not—about the use or misuse of American assets and lives in remote locations for little gain. The purpose of COP Vega in The Valley is superficially to interdict the flow of foreign fighters from Pakistan. The soldiers are told their mission is complete but due to “strategic realignment,” their withdrawal has been delayed. Are they holding a position on the “edge of the empire” and dying for no purpose? Renehan doesn’t seem to trust the reader to come up with this presumption and quite literally uses a brick wall to make the point and beat the reader’s head against late in the novel.
A Farewell to Kings
When LT Black is sent to the COP to investigate the 15-6, there is some brief discussion on the political aspects of an ROE change that increased the number of 15-6s dealing with warning shots and the negligent discharge of weapons. The author has publicly stated he has no political agenda, is not making a statement with the novel, and the allegorical aspect is difficult to discern unless you “squint just right.” That said, accepting Renehan’s position that he’s not making a statement and the political-military environment is just a backdrop, what strategists will find particularly enjoyable are the aforementioned relationships and conversations that ring particularly true to military life, especially the professional responsibility and ethics aspects which Renehan explores through the personal experiences of the soldiers as they react and give answers or deflect Black’s investigation.
One particularly offensive character we meet through Black’s investigation explains his defensiveness through the backstory of a harrowing incident for the COP defenders who have taken and continue to take heavy casualties in service of their dubious mission. The revelation of that experience does little to soften Black towards the soldier, but it does serve to remind the non-veteran and some who have never deployed beyond a FOB and into remote outposts like that described in COP Vega, that for guys on the line who have witnessed the true horror of what human beings are capable of doing to one another in war, going out the next day to “win hearts and minds” is not an easy ask. The cognitive dissonance and incongruity of purpose is palpable. There are those who can compartmentalize and those who cannot. Renehan does little more to explore this, but it was never his intention.
Having listened to the Military Writer’s Guild Book Club podcast on The Valley and from reading the FAQ on the author’s own website, there is an insistence in the critical world that John Renehan cribbed the theme from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or at least the Stanley Kubrick version in Apocalypse Now. Renehan, for his part, denies vociferously having even read or watched either. Having made the mistake of listening and reading to those critiques before picking up the actual novel, this reviewer must come to his defense. While I see the parallels—dark journey up a dangerous valley/river at the behest of higher headquarters to investigate abnormalities in military/trading company operations where impenetrable fog/mist is encountered and many die—I see a much closer kinship, and an inspiration that Renehan owns up to proudly, in Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Man Who Would be King.” In this case, there is an attempt by foreigners to build up/subvert a kind of king among the natives, followed by a plot to loot the kingdom. In each, there is a crucifixion and a mysterious amulet or touchstone that is received by the protagonist under unexplained circumstances and which becomes a deus ex machina. In both stories, the plots begin to unwind upon meeting the village chief or holy man for the province. In the case of Kipling, the gift grants access to the kingdom; for Renehan, Black twists this expectation and nearly destroys everything the Americans have achieved.
The Valley is a strong first novel that neatly straddles the line between “war novel” and “crime novel.” There are no deep national security questions or answers provided in the novel, but it is an exciting read. The characters and the scenarios are certainly affected by the coherency of mission or lack thereof and Renehan has skillfully created a cast of immersive voices within the world of our last 15 years of war in Afghanistan.
This discussion of The Valley continues in an interview with the author here.
Marc Milligan is a U.S. Air Force officer and pilot. He holds an MSIR and has deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and multiple worldwide deployments as a combat aviation advisor and mission commander. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:
Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.
Header Image: View of Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan. Once a key base for the Mujahideen during the fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980’s and 90’s, the Valley - made its own province in 2004—is now one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the country. (Homayon Khoram/UN Photo)