You expect an electric crackle, the deep whine of machinery, a bolt of red across a planetary foreground, the roar of rocket engines. Wrong. When the United States Space Force (USSF) is in action, it really couldn’t be less cinematic. Anti-visual even. Yes, the Earth is still an astonishing sight from our perch at the Earth-Moon L4 Lagrange point, but battle itself is rather anticlimactic. No explosions. No starfighters careening this way and that.
There is craft involved when an author places the work reviewed in context, not just temporally and with other similar works, but alongside its counterparts in the arts—in poetry, music, film, or theater. This craft is what makes a book review enjoyable and when the author strings it together just right, it approaches art.
The information age, a phrase famously coined by Berkeley Professor Manuel Castells in the 1990s, described a tectonic shift in our culture and economy which we generally take for granted at present. From our current vantage point, replete with ubiquitous pocket-sized personal computing and communications devices, it is hard to imagine a world we cannot convert our data or social networks into physical resources and access. We keep our data in the cloud and call upon it when we need it, regardless of where we are. We log into AirBnB, and somehow money we have never seen transfers to someone else who will never see the money, and that becomes a room for an evening. The idea of a brick-and-mortar video store, such as the 1990s-staple Blockbuster Video, is hopelessly anachronistic in the era of Netflix.
Everything was in place. While the US and allied forces were still struggling to fully defeat enemy denial of service attacks, they had been able to communicate in short bursts with subordinate units. The plan was set. Land-based long-range missiles would initiate the attack by destroying enemy sea based jammers. At the same time, a manned-unmanned teaming attack, combining stealthy Air Force UAVs for targeting and Army long range missiles, would pinpoint and destroy the enemy’s air defense nodes to begin to regain contested airspace.
The United States faces a changing and more uncertain military future. The military dominance that the United States easily assumed following the end of the Cold War – and demonstrated in the Gulf War – is no longer so assured. Potential American adversaries are developing capabilities to challenge American strengths. The American military must develop new concepts and capabilities to continue to guarantee the military supremacy Americans expect. Multi-Domain Battle is an effort to develop these necessary concepts and capabilities. It will provide the means to counter adversaries who seek to break the current American military system. Multi-Domain Battle will deepen and expand current joint doctrine. It will allow the services to move beyond synchronization and converge their capabilities in their respective domains to open windows of relative advantage in a domain or several domains to gain the initiative. The concept also specifically challenges land forces to adapt and prepare for situations in which the complete American control of the air, sea, cyberspace and space, formerly a forgone conclusion, is no longer. This fictional depiction describes how the United States military might apply Multi-Domain Battle as a concept to defeat a near peer threat. The story does not describe any real potential adversary. The majority of geographic locations are fictional. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to any real individual is accidental.
The night before, he had dreamt about back home. It was pure, pleasant torture, a dream like that. He was back on his family’s farm, tilling the ground. Cursing at the ever-present rocks that seemed to get gleefully in the way of the blade. Maine grew rocks. And if you could convince it to stop growing rocks, you could grow other things.
The Valley was named one of Wall Street Journal’s Best Books of 2015 and Military Times listed it among their Top 5 in a year of strong work from authors like Jesse Goolsby, Eliot Ackerman, and Seth Folsom. Tom Ricks compared its author to Jane Austen. The book, by former U.S. Army officer John Renehan, is a thrilling crime novel set in a deep valley of Afghanistan’s remote Nuristan province, and today he chats about The Valley and other things with Marc Milligan.
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.
Once, in India, after years on campaign, Alexander’s men threatened to mutiny. They were worn out and wanted to go home. Alexander called an assembly. When the army had gathered, the young king stepped forth and stripped naked. “These scars on my body,” Alexander declared, “were got for you, my brothers. Every wound, as you see, is in the front. Let that man stand forth from your ranks who has bled more than I, or endured more than I for your sake. Show him to me, and I will yield to your weariness and go home.” Not a man came forward. Instead, a great cheer arose from the army. The men begged their king to forgive them for their want of spirit and pleaded with him only to lead them forward.
Climate change caused by human activity is settled science. Implications for the future of public health, the economy, and the global order of states are recognized as a real concern around the world. The European Union is strong, but NATO is not. Mid-East turmoil has compromised oil production there. The United States global hegemony is over. Complete energy independence from the rest of the world has resulted in an isolationist stance wherein the US has withdrawn from NATO as well as her other international obligations. The US remains a seeming world power with respectable military and diplomatic influence, but only grudgingly and apparently by force of reputational versus relational power. This is the scene, but not the story, and the focus is not America.
We are locked in with Jake; we know his thoughts and feelings, or at least we know as much as Hemingway lets us know. Jake's inability to connect with those around him is as emotional as it is physical, and the first-person narrative allows the reader to experience some measure of that isolation. Fitz, however, is not alone in his head with the reader. His failing connections with those around him are not completely severed lifelines. The third-person omniscient perspective allows Morgan to explore not just Fitz's feelings but how his injuries affect those around him, those trying to help him, and those who depend on him. The shift in perspective from one to the other underscores a shift in our own perspective on the injuries of war since Hemingway's own experience: no one should have to travel the road alone.
In the end, a static list cannot capture the depth and breadth of the WarBooks, not least because we hope to see the WarBooks continue to grow and evolve just as we and the other contributors to it will. But pausing periodically to reflect on the list and consider the wisdom in it is important…if only to help one to choose the next book destined for our shelf.
This novel shows us all the scars, reminds us of the broken parts within each of us, and the fragile world on which we try to ground ourselves. It is a reminder that whenever we return, we listen for the call of our name, for some hint that we matter, an echo of who we were, always and forever searching for ourselves across the years in a place we’ve lost along the way.