Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

I finally got around to reading our Senator-elect’s novel Fields of Fire this week.  To put it into a nutshell, it is a fine book, and you should put it on your holiday reading list.

By now, most of us know Jim Webb’s curriculum vitae, at least in broad outline. A graduate of the Naval Academy, he served with great distinction in Vietnam. Afterwards, he got his law degree from Georgetown, served as counsel to the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, and ultimately became Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. He is now the U.S. Senator-elect from the great state of Virginia

And, he became a famous and distinguished novelist, eventually writing six very well-received novels. This aspect of his career caused a little ripple in his campaign for U.S. Senate when George Allen’s campaign accused Webb of including some titillating sex scenes in his novels. At a rally soon after this revelation, Webb got uncharacteristically personal, questioning Allen’s credentials as a serious literary critic, bellowing at one point, “I have written more books than George Allen has read!” The crowd roared in approval.

Fields of Fire has been compared favorably the great war books such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, or Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

As in those books, Webb focuses on the men in battle, the heroic, the cowardly, the grunts, and those who just want to get it all over with and go home. His characters, heroes would be a word none of them would recognize or accept, are the members of an army platoon going through some of the grittiest Vietnam battles. It follows them for a year, describes their varied backgrounds, and dramatizes their triumphs and tragedies.

As in most of the great war novels, it concentrates on individuals – who for the most part were not involved in the master war strategies, and actually don’t have much of a clue as to why they are really there. The longer the war goes on, the less of a clue they have. And, by inference, the less of a clue their leaders have.

In the long run, “why” doesn’t make much of a difference. Their consuming passion becomes simple survival, regardless of what it takes. Their unit is the defining social structure of their lives. Survival and the survival of their comrades is all that really counts.

It is this singular focus that makes war novels great and in the long run is the most effective vehicle for those who have deep philosophical and moral doubts about war in general. And it is people like Jim Webb whom you want to raise the fundamental questions about war in the public arena.

And, yes, there is some sex in the book. I was shocked! Shocked! That Webb suggested that the grunts who have fought our wars on the ground, most in their late teens and early twenties, even thought about sex. He just wrote about sex to sell some books, he really didn’t believe it.

Fields of Fire is a stunning book. I am proud that Virginia elected him, and anxiously anticipate his work as our Senator.