Magazine article The American Conservative

James Webb, War Novelist

Magazine article The American Conservative

James Webb, War Novelist

Article excerpt

James Webb is the best politician-novelist since Brand Whitlock, the early 20th-century Ohio realist, mayor of Toledo, and protege of the sainted Tolstoyan Samuel "Golden Rule" Jones.

Whitlock was spoken of as a potential Democratic candidate for president; Webb, the much-decorated Vietnam vet, former secretary of the Navy, and ex-Virginia senator, is actively pursuing the nomination of a party whose brain trust consists largely of Ivy League contemners of the working-class whites whom author Webb has defended with eloquent ferocity.

His superb first novel, Fields of Fire (1978), follows into Vietnam a platoon of Marines led by Robert E. Lee Hodges, a young officer from hardscrabble Kentucky who hears ancestral voices as he fights not for the Domino Theory or Robert McNamara but "because we have always fought."

Hodges's unit includes an enlistee from Harvard, mockingly nicknamed "Senator," a "pissant crybaby" who loses a leg yet gains a hard-won wisdom. Senator returns to school a "Real Live Wounded Vet, as rare at Harvard as a miner at a tea party." Contrasting the mewling children of privilege with the hicks and soul brothers with whom he had served, Senator comes to understand that a "culture gap" dwarfs the generation gap or any other artificial barrier that divides Americans.

This culture gap, as well as his rank-and-file resentment of those warmongers who "had other priorities," a la Dick Cheney, has been a consistent Webb theme.

In Something to Die For (1991), Webb's bloodless villain is a defense secretary--a product of Harvard, naturally--who prissily disapproves of the photo of Nathan Bedford Forrest that decorates the office of the elderly Senate majority leader, a Mississippi populist who wants us to tend to our own affairs rather than go abroad to slay dragons.

The secretary, a cuckold who "didn't have the guts to serve when there was a war on, and now every time there's a crisis he wants to send them in," engineers a U.S. intervention in Ethiopia to divert public attention from a scandal involving Japan. He is nicknamed Chicken Hawk by "the fighting troops of America," among them Col. Bill Fogarty, who recalls of Vietnam: "I killed soldiers I did not hate, to fulfill the desires of politicians I did not love."

As he tells in his recent campaign-ishly titled memoir I Heard My Country Calling, Jim Webb was an itinerant Air Force brat. A nomadic childhood often bodes ill for an adult's ability to form attachments to people and places, but Webb proudly asserts his Appalachian roots. …

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