A while back I read a review of “Matterhorn”, a Vietnam novel by Karl Marlantes, in the Financial Times. It was generally highly regarded so I got it and read it. Briefly it is a great book ruined by a bad ending. At the same time I got “War” by Sebastian Junger, his story of his time with an infantry platoon in Afghanistan. These got me interested in other Vietnam novels so I tracked down “The 13th Valley” by John Del Vecchio.
“Matterhorn” is very personal and sentimental. Marlantes loves his characters and makes you love them. He skips over the politics of the war, mostly, other than showing a moderate-liberal “wasn’t it a damn shame” attitude. He writes with some perceptivity about the battalion officers and staff, a subject not well addressed. But again the ending is totally off.
“War” is of course non-fiction and pretty brutal. I haven’t read any other books by embedded journalists so I can’t compare but Junger seems to be much more in touch with the ethos of these men- he’s highly conditioned and walks with them pretty much everywhere- and is as sympathetic as a magazine writer who lives in Manhattan can be expected to be. If you want to know what it’s like in Afghanistan, this is the book.
“The 13th Valley” is harder for me to get my head around. Del Vecchio was like Marlantes in Vietnam; but while Marlantes was an infantry officer Del Vecchio was an Army correspondent, and so while wearing a uniform and getting shot at, fundamentally an observer and an outsider. And Del Vecchio writes like an outsider, casting a pretty cynical eye on everything. The main character, who might be presumed to be his stand-in, is James Chelini, a suburban college boy and wireman who reports to the 101st Airborne and finds himself in an infantry company as a rifleman. Immediately dubbed “Cherry”, and called that even after he quickly becomes a hardened fighter, he is not entirely sympathetic, less so than many other characters.
The most questionable device of “The 13th Valley” is how the author covers the philosophical and political issues of Vietnam and war in general by having the soldiers engage in long, detailed discussions. Some have criticized this as unrealistic. Del Vecchio has a minor character, a combat correspondent like he was, point out early in the book that the soldiers serving in Vietnam were actually quite educated. Soldiers do spend large amounts of time just sitting around talking, and they do talk about such topics.
“The 13th Valley” talks about the questions at length, comes up with some answers but implies no one is going to listen. It’s a disturbing book and has stuck with me much more than “Matterhorn” or “War”.