Jim Webb, the junior senator from Virginia, who defeated the incumbent Republican George Allen in 2006, is or has been: a best-selling author; a screenwriter (Rules of Engagement, and another in the works); an Emmy-winning documentary producer; the author of a large number of articles and book reviews; an Annapolis graduate; a boxer (he lost a legendary and controversial championship match at Annapolis against Oliver North1 ); an autodidact who grew up a military man’s son and indifferent student but on his own became a passionate reader of history; a first lieutenant and Marine rifle platoon commander with Delta Company in Vietnam, where he won the Navy Cross for heroism (the second-highest award in the Navy and the Marines), the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts; a graduate of Georgetown Law School who then worked on the staff of the House Veterans Affairs Committee; a teacher of English literature at the Naval Academy; and an assistant secretary of defense and then secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. Webb resigned from that position after losing a long battle to block a reduction in the size of the Navy at a time when the Pentagon was under orders to cut its budget. In The Reagan Diaries, the former president wrote, “I don’t think Navy was sorry to see him go.”
Webb is a serious writer, not a politician who writes books on the side. His first book, Fields of Fire, published in 1978, when Webb was thirty-two, is a sweeping, unflinching novel about Vietnam featuring two of life’s losers who signed up for lack of anything else to do. It conveys with stark vividness, and also a touch of farce, the stench, the filth, the fear, and the bewildering unexpectedness of fighting an elusive enemy in a jungle. Fields of Fire has often been called the best book about Vietnam and likened to the war writing of Norman Mailer and Stephen Crane.
Webb’s identity as a writer is as important to him as his military record, if not more so. He writes about military subjects not just because he knows them (though his books can take him many years and numerous drafts) but also because he has something he wants to say. Fields of Fire, he told me recently, was “a revisionist novel,” written at a time when the American troops who fought in Vietnam had become targets for the anger against the war. Webb said that in his Vietnam novel, “people didn’t have to apologize for being there.” He added, “I had a forum and I had an obligation to people who served there to make their service understood.” In his new book, A Time to Fight, a collection of essays, part autobiographical and part about his thoughts on politics, he describes how, after John Kerry in 1971, upon his return from Vietnam, gave testimony before Congress that condemned American soldiers for acts of cruelty during the war, Webb refused to shake his hand for twenty years. To Webb, this was a matter of principle. (But he came around, and voted for Kerry for president in 2004.)
The outrage stirred in him by derision of the men who had served in Vietnam contributed to his reputation as an angry man, but other events led him to set his anger aside. “Then came 9/11 and I said, OK, we have to let it go and fix where the country is.” “In the Democratic caucus, people’s views on Vietnam are way to the left of me, but it doesn’t matter in how I approach other things anymore.”
The warrior in Webb came naturally; it was in his heritage. He shows this in his one book of nonfiction (before the current one), Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,2 which traces the history of this large but largely overlooked ethnic group who emigrated from Scotland to Northern Ireland and then
directly to the wilderness of the Appalachian Mountains, bypassing even the rudiments of colonial civilization…while also bringing a cultural regression in terms of education and social refinements.
These rural and blue-collar people, Webb writes in Born Fighting, have become “the greatest arbiters of American politics.” The “original Jacksonians” and strong backers of Franklin Roosevelt, they became “Reagan Democrats” when traditional Democrats ignored them and “the core culture around which Red State America has gathered and thrived.”
Webb’s fierce pride in his own people tells us a great deal about him. Though he grew up in different parts of the country, he identifies most closely with the people who live in the mountains and hollows of southwest Virginia, among whom he has countless relatives. His father came from there and he has a brother living there. Webb proudly describes his brother as “a real mountain man.” The Scots-Irish, he wrote, produced the nation’s warriors and its country music, and “the building blocks of America’s working classes.” Yet, he said, “no other group has been so denigrated, attacked, and even feared by America’s ever more interconnected ruling elites.”
Fighting for their country, Webb writes, gave the often poor and poorly educated Scots-Irish a measure of respect (just as the military academies offered them an otherwise unavailable decent education). They fought in every war in our history and Webb’s ancestors fought in each of them as well. One of his forebears crossed the Delaware with George Washington. Country music, sometimes known as “the white man’s blues,” he writes, grew out of a meld of the “Celtic lyrical and instrumental traditions” with the backcountry people’s isolation and deep Protestant religiosity, and was “a way for an increasingly illiterate population to share the teachings of a Bible that many could not read.” Other songs, he writes,
reflected life’s hard lessons, or the playful and even sly humor of a people who were on the one hand intensely religious but on the other unapologetically wild.
Moreover, he says, country music “has been almost alone in directly capturing the military experience.”
He has written a screenplay called “Whiskey River,” to be produced and directed by Rob Reiner and set in that region, about two generations of service members in which the son, returned from Iraq with PTSD, is called back to active duty before he has recovered; his father, determined to keep his son from risking his life in Iraq again, kidnaps him. Webb sought to find a way of writing about the soldiers in Iraq that wasn’t bathetic, and to make a movie about the war that people would want to watch. And he makes his people the good guys. Webb is disturbed by Hollywood’s lampooning of poor Southern whites, one of the few ethnic groups, he observes, that it’s still safe to make fun of. Though he has an aversion to the word “redneck,” in 2006, referring to his screenplay, Webb told a Washington Post reporter that too often the villains of movies had been “towelheads and rednecks—of which I am one.” He worriedly emphasized to the reporter that he was employing other people’s stereotypes.
Webb was a warrior-intellectual, interested, he writes in A Time to Fight, in “all the aspects of war”—as a defense analyst “consumed by the notions of military strategy” and “as a novelist and journalist covering the military and writing about wars and their societal impact.” After he was forced by serious injuries to leave Vietnam, he continued what he calls his “self-induced professional education,” concerning himself with the longer-term consequences of wars, as well as how to prevent them. “I began to think harder, in a different way, and I began to write,” Webb says in his new book. “The former boxer and infantry officer had learned how to fight with his brain.”
Webb didn’t shy from inviting controversy. In an article titled “Women Can’t Fight,” in The Washingtonian magazine in November 1979, he argued against the policy of allowing women into combat. He maintained that sexual tensions in such an intimate, twenty-four-hour environment could cause problems of discipline and morale, and put women at risk of mistreatment. Annapolis’s Bancroft Hall, a dormitory housing four thousand males and three hundred females, Webb wrote, characteristically, “is a horny woman’s dream.” He argued that women weren’t fit to lead men in battle. (Under pressure to expand the role of women in the navy, Webb, as naval secretary, opened thousands of new naval assignments to women, and his Senate campaign produced several servicewomen who came to his defense.) Webb also weighed in against the jury-selected design by American artist Maya Lin for the Vietnam Memorial. He felt that the proposed black marble slab incised with the names of Americans who died in Vietnam was “defeatist” and “too morose”—he called it “the black ditch of shame.” At his insistence, statues of three soldiers (also at his insistence one of them black) were placed beside the slab, marring, for many, the striking austerity of the monument.
Never fearing to be an iconoclast, Webb defends the Vietnam War as strategically necessary. His attachment to Vietnam remained strong: in 1991, he returned there and, he says, “tried to build bridges between the two countries.” He brought some Vietnamese to America, “largely those who suffered at the hands of the North Vietnamese after 1975.” (Webb thinks Americans haven’t paid enough attention to the suffering of South Vietnamese after the war: the thousands marched off to “re-education” camps, or the more than a million who fled by boat.) He started a small consulting business to advise American companies that were interested in doing business in Vietnam, and took them on trips there. When I jokingly asked Webb if this made him an international wheeler-dealer, à la Henry Kissinger, he laughed and replied, “It wasn’t very lucrative; we were a little early.” During his postwar dealings in Vietnam he met and years later married his current and third wife, Hong Le, now a lawyer in Washington. Webb speaks fluent Vietnamese.
Jim Webb’s route to becoming a Democratic senator from Virginia was circuitous, and his party affiliation has taken a meandering path. Like much of his family, he had been a Democrat. But he quit the party over Jimmy Carter’s grant of amnesty for those who had avoided the draft, and he supported Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush (and George Allen) in 2000. But as he was doing research for his book about the Scots-Irish, he developed an admiration for Andrew Jackson and realized that at heart he himself was a Jacksonian populist. Jackson’s working-class people were his own people as well. He also found himself becoming alienated from the Republican Party over the Iraq war and over the party’s rigid positions on social issues. (Webb supports abortion rights and civil unions, but he’s not a down-the-line liberal. Like his people in southern Virginia, he opposes gun control laws.)