The Jim Webb Story

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…

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