Politics and Prose
You’re Walkin’ on the Writin’ Side of Me: James Webb’s Combative Books
Decorated Marine, Cabinet official, U.S. Senator, and now presidential candidate, James Webb has somehow found the time to write books, and they say a lot about him.
A highly decorated Marine, former secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, and former U.S. senator from Virginia, Webb has the credentials and courage to offer genuine leadership to a nation suffering from political dysfunction, cultural decay, and economic decline.
Most Americans, however, have no familiarity with his campaign, and do not even recognize his name. He is currently polling at 1 percent in the Democratic primary, and it seems as if he is running a shadow campaign—occasionally posting to Facebook, making speeches without any media coverage, and giving radio interviews to local stations in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
What distinguishes Webb in private life, as he has spent most of life outside of public service, is his literary career. The author of ten novels and two nonfiction books, he is also an award winning journalist who has written extensively about America and Asia.
He is also an anachronism. He announced his candidacy by posting a 2,500 word essay on his website and Facebook page, and he prefers to speak in paragraphs, rather than 140 characters.
At a time when literate culture continues to decline in America, the Webb campaign poses as many cultural questions as it does political ones. Can a novelist successfully run a campaign in a country where fewer people have any interest in novels? Can a man accustomed to articulating complex ideas in long form writing compete with politicians whose pollsters, speechwriters, and strategists convince them to simplify everything into a slogan or soundbite?
Or does litarary eloquence tip the scales at all, in any direction?
When Webb successfully ran for the Senate in 2006, his opponent, George Allen, and state Republicans attempted to use his novels against him, often quoting some of the most graphic passages, and emphasizing characters’ use of racial slurs. That these novels were set during the Vietnam war, a war in which Webb fought, mattered little to the professional Philistines preying on the ignorance of Virginia voters. No great harm was done, however, since most Virginians seemed indifferent to Webb’s literary career.
The irony, then and now, is that voters incurious about Webb’s novels would in fact gain valuable insight into the candidate’s philosophy and politics by reading his literary output.
I recently read four of Webb’s books in succession. Such an engagement with the work of any serious writer—and Webb certainly qualifies—provides unique access to the workings of the writer’s mind.
Webb’s writing career began in 1978 with Fields of Fire, a novel about several Marines fighting an unnecessary war full of confusion, catastrophe, and chaos in the jungles of Vietnam. With a transparent debt to Norman Mailer’s World War II masterpiece, The Naked and The Dead, Webb uses Fields of Fire to more thoroughly explore warrior psychology than military strategy.
Borrowing Mailer’s time machine technique, Webb weaves flashback chapters into the narrative, giving readers short, but illuminating looks into the pre-combat lives of the main characters.
There is Snake, the prototypical bad ass who enjoyed fighting so much between losing jobs and getting tattoos in his working class neighborhood that he decided to get paid for doing what he does best. Snake’s friend, colleague, and intellectual nemesis in Vietnam is Goodrich, a liberal who left Harvard to join the military, hoping he could learn about the war for himself, and make some positive impact in the process. Then there is Hodges, a character clearly based on Webb himself. Hodges, like Webb, can trace his military ancestry all the back to the Revolutionary War, and he enlists not out of any political enthusiasm for the war in Southeast Asia, or even much support for the Cold War, but because Marine service is his family tradition.
Goodrich’s best friend, Mark, dodged the draft and escaped to Canada. The two men exchange letters throughout the book. In his letters, Mark interrogates Goodrich about his participation in what Mark views as an irredeemable atrocity, but he also congratulates his friend for his courage and his commitment to exercising an ethical check and balance on the barbarism of war.
Goodrich has to hold his tongue and steady his pen when writing Mark, because he learns rather quickly that there is no meaning—and no ethics—in war. As he reflects to himself when returning home without his left leg, “The only meaning was the thing itself. And what good does it get me to know that?”
Considering that the once precocious Harvard drop-out has nothing but a prosthetic and a psychological crisis to show for his war-won wisdom, it is obvious he got little good out of the deal. Jim Webb clearly believes that it would do the readers some good to gain Goodrich’s insight, because he wrote an entire book—terrifying and haunting in its bizarre beauty and brutality—in an attempt to communicate and delineate the existential oblivion of war.
Throughout the book, characters die without any foreshadowing or warning, allowing new characters to enter, and leaving no time for reflection or remembrance. Goodrich reports Snake and others to his superiors for executing an elderly, defenseless Vietnamese man who could not explain the presence of dead American soldiers near his village. But Goodrich’s act of conscience has tragically unintended consequences. Snake dies saving Goodrich’s life, lifting him out of a bomb crater and carrying him to safety only to get shot through the stomach for his trouble. The only comfort his mother has is her confidence that the government will give her son a medal. Snake, before his enlistment, promised her that he would bring her back a medal. But that promise will never come true, because Goodrich’s complaint knocks Snake out of consideration for any commendation. Webb describes the effect on Snake’s mother in prose that makes you feel as though your heart is being ripped out of your breast.
The tragic irony is an echo of the amplification emanating throughout the entire book: War is the ultimate teacher of the Shakespearean insight that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Webb’s raw and ruthless depiction of civilian murder and wartime destruction leads the reader subtly but inexorably to an anti-war conclusion. So it is all the more arresting when Webb ends his novel with an indictment of the anti-war left. The best novels are full of contradiction, and Webb’s condemnation of the war is every bit as believable—and convincing—as his disapproval of the idealistic solutions proferred by activists and theorists with no proximity to the problem.
Politically, it becomes clear why Webb, despite his liberal record on criminal justice, organized labor, and economic policy, has a conservative reputation. He embraces limits, and resists the temptation of “progress” by governmental mandate. It is also clear that, even if he must employ the language at campaign rallies, he is not a populist. Considering that the demagogic xenophobia of Donald Trump, and to a much lesser extent, the saccharine simplicity of Bernie Sanders, are providing ugly illustration of the dangers of populism, especially in a country with a largely uninformed public, Webb’s belief in leadership by credentials and expertise is welcome.
Novels, even those with political implications, are not manifestos. All politics aside, Webb’s writing stick with you long after you’ve laid it aside, because he possesses a deep insight into the mind of the warrior and the after effects of combat, and he articulates that insight with subtlety and profundity. Drawing from such obvious influences as Hemingway, Mailer, Ambrose Bierce, and Stephen Crane, Webb instructs his readers, especially men, that the soul is a reservoir. Acting with courage fills it, and acting with cowardice drains it. Snake’s battlefield courage fills his reservoir. And Goodrich replenishes his reservoir when, at the close of Fields of Fire, he dresses down an anti-war rally from the podium while his audience chants and waves banners supporting the Viet Cong.
In Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, Webb offers a history and appraisal of the unique contributions his own ethnic group have made to his country. The hero of a later novel, Lost Soldiers, echoes the thesis when he explains the derivation and definition of the word “redneck”: “It’s our culture. The Scots-Irish in America. Because we work with our hands, the upper classes always looked down on us. They call us redneck because our necks get red working in the sun. And fighting is our sport. Not golf … Any kind of fighting. Fighting in a war, fighting in a bar, fighting with your friend, fighting with your boss, fighting with your wife.”
Norman Mailer once claimed that his ambition was nothing short of “inciting a revolution of consciousness in the American mind.” Promising to collaborate with Republicans, oscillating between parties, Webb the politician seems every inch the pragmatist. But in his art, his wild imagination and his ambitions are utterly Maileresque. Webb wants to rework and reorder the existentialist orientation of the reader, to help that reader journey from passivity to passion, and from acquiescence to action.
Webb is a fighter, and he comes from a long line of fighters. So does Brandon Condley, the protagonist of Lost Soldiers, a Vietnam veteran who cannot, in body or spirit, stay out of Southeast Asia too long. On a detail to recover the remains of American POWs and MIAs in present day Vietnam, Condley discovers that a traitor who deserted his post and helped the Viet Cong kill Americans is still alive. At that moment, Condley commits his whole life to tracking down the murderous saboteur, to make him accountable for his crimes.
While the sparse prose of Fields of Fire echoes Hemingway, Lost Soldiers is written with a poetic grandeur that beautifully conveys Webb’s love for Vietnam and his sadness over the inevitably of defeat and loss of meaning, no matter the battle.
Evoking Condley’s relationship with Vietnam, the novel’s omniscient narrator explains, “He had memories along its banks. Some of the memories were horrible. A few of them were good. But all of them had meaning. And what was life if it brought you no meaning?”
Condley never finds the answer to that question, and it hangs in the air like smoke rising from a bomb crater, especially when he wrestles with the problem of meaninglessness: “Sometimes he woke up in a panic, knowing that after all the dreams that once had mattered and the struggles that had in the end simply drained out the wishes and the hopes, after the years of trying to live without owing anybody anything, without playing the whore to any other man, he had finally comprehended that all of it added up to nothing more than a trick.”
If meaning is the essential fuel and tool for living with motivation, it is also the ultimate trick. Goodrich discovers that hard lesson in Vietnam, and Condley continues to live and work in Vietnam, long after the war, because he seems intent on replacing that lesson with something else. When he finally finds his man, and flexes the rough hand of justice, he finds that the real tragedy is, perhaps, that the contradiction of man’s search for meaning, and the elusiveness of meaning, is irreplaceable, only navigable.
In A Country Such As This, Webb uses the promises, myths, joys, and wounds of American life to navigate the same rocky ground. An epic novel that sprawls across four decades, it begins in the ’50s and follows several friends through military enlistment, careers, marriages, and divorces, all the way to the ’80s.
Democracy promises a process of meaning in the making, allowing a country to continue to alter and amend its story, and along with it, its conception and projection of itself. In A Country Such as This, Webb uses the lives of friends, each somehow involved with public life, to delineate the triumphs and futility of the democratic experiment.
Judd Smith, one of the main characters, believes that loyalty to culture and people—duty and honor in service—is important above all else. Even while in service, he is haunted by the question, If it is a challenge to truly construct an individual identity, how can an entire nation construct an identity?
As one character reflects while looking at the various monuments in Washington, D.C., “They once had left him invigorated, bristling with pride. They still did some of that, but now they also reminded him that he was weary. It was June 1976, and the country was approaching its two hundredth birthday on the edge of a decade of defeat—the defeat of war, the defeat of a president and his minions, and most of all the defeat of confidence, the shattering of the very nucleus of what it had always meant when one thought of the word ‘American.’”
The word “American” has coninued to be battered and leached of meaning in the 39 years since Webb wrote that sentence. No longer home of the world’s most stable middle class, and currently undergoing rapid imperial decline and cultural decay, “America” possesses even less power, as a word and a concept, than it did following the horror of Vietnam and the scandal of Nixon.
Jim Webb would like to persuade Americans that he is the candidate most fit to rescue the country from its downward drift and restore its sense of purpose, fairness, and justice. But can America handle a politician who communicates with the sophistication of a novelist, especially one whose entire literary output, in all its brilliance and evocative resonance, is an investigation into the possibility of meaning—or meaninglessness.
An electorate eager to believe in American exceptionalism, and always ready to see themselves as occupants of a “shining city on the hill,” are not likely to celebrate a former senator who, even if “born fighting,” does not seem certain, or even confident, that life has any meaning at all.
The good news for Webb is that most Americans won’t read his books, even if they are the poorer for it. The bad news is that he seems too smart, too nuanced, and too complex in his thinking, writing, and speaking to convince a large number of Americans to support him. It is hard to imagine how a novelist with Webb’s talent, erudition, and artistry could live with himself while parroting the mindless slogans and clichés that pass for political discourse on cable television.
As a novelist, Webb has dealt with the depths of the human experience—loss, tragedy, emptiness, anxiety. As a politician, he is forced to compete in the world of the superficial. The sad irony is that the more Webb fails to gain political traction in the increasingly absurd presidential news cycle, the more relevant his novels will become. If America pushes its most serious candidate out the side door, it might still profit by reading that candidate’s literature on loss of faith, on resilience in the face of pain and tenacity in the tedium of struggle.