A War Within James Webb


The Nightingale's Song, by Sun reporter and editor Robert Timberg, probes a fault line that has haunted American society for more than two decades -- the generational chasm between those who fought a discredited war and those who used money, wit and connections to avoid it. The book weaves together the lives of five U.S. Naval Academy graduates who achieved national prominence during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. They are John McCain and John Poindexter, Class of 1958; Robert McFarlane, Class of 1959; and James Webb and Oliver North, Class of 1968.

James Webb, on whom this excertp focuses, was one of the most highly decorated Marine officers to serve in Vietnam, winning the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. Forced to retire because of war wounds, he became a bestselling novelist, winning acclaim for his Vietnam War novel, "Fields of Fire." He later served as an assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy. As an author, journalist and government offical, he has promoted the cause Vietname veterans and worked to assure that the mistakes of Vietnam are not repeated. There has been minor editing an rewriting.

Jim Webb bought a new suit and spit-shined his shoes to a mirror finish for his swearing-in. As friends drove him through the gate, he said to himself, "I'm going to die for the Naval Academy. This is really it." On arrival, the new recruits were herded through lines to pick up uniforms, skivvies, athletic gear, toilet articles, everything a new midshipman might need if she showed up naked and empty-handed. A Marine lieutenant flipped through Webb's personal data forms, saw that he had listed thirty-three separate home addresses, muttered, "I can't believe this."

Struggling under the weight of his suitcase, typewriter and newly issued gear, Webb pushed through a set of double doors in Bancroft Hall when a balled fist slammed into his chest. "Get over there," growled the second classman behind the fist, gesturing toward a dismal group of plebes. Webb was stunned. "Are you allowed to hit us?" he asked in a tone of disbelief. Turning to another second classman, the Fist said, "Hey, we've got a wise-ass over here." Webb quickly brought more grief on himself. "Those are pretty good-looking shoes," said the Fist. "Did you go to prep school?" Replied Webb, proudly, "No, sir. I was in a ROTC unit." Big mistake. Paying special attention to the kid with the ROTC roots, the Fist and his cohorts ordered the plebes to race back and forth through the passageways, up the ladders to the next deck, down some more passageways. Then they ran them down to the barber shop, where they had their heads shaved.

Bits of hair now clung to Webb's neck and back. His new suit was ruined, the fabric mottled by white salt stains where he had sweated through it. In Dahlgren Hall, the cavernous armory where the plebes were to take the oath of office, the humidity settled on them like a pernicious vapor. As proud parents lined the catwalk above them, 1,300 young men listened to warm welcoming remarks from Academy authorities. They were, they were told, the cream of America's youth. Mothers fanned themselves with their programs as their sons passed out below. Webb was struck by the thought that there were two Naval Academies: the real Academy behind the massive doors of Bancroft Hall and the ceremonial one that outsiders saw. Watching teary mothers wave handkerchiefs at their kids, he thought of his own family 3,000 miles away in California, felt miserable and alone. As he and his classmates took the oath, it seemed as if he could hear a giant umbilical cord snap.

Stowing his gear in his room, he decided to make a tick mark on his blotter each time he thought of turning in his chit. That night, as he prepared for bed, he saw that he already had a dozen ticks. Just before lights out, the Fist chewed him out for marking up his blotter. In his rack, in the steamy darkness, he sobbed soundlessly. Not because of the rough first day and the prospect of many more to come. He knew he could handle that. He cried because he knew that no matter what happened it was not in him to quit and that he would probably be an old man before he knew if any of it made sense. He cried for a long time that night. As he later wrote, he cried away his youth.

Shortly after the Brigade returned in September, four seniors who lived down the hall from Webb decided to break the unflappable baby-faced plebe. They told him to report to their room, then ordered him to rig three M-1 rifles, that is, to brace up with the rifles, combined weight about thirty pounds, resting on his outstretched arms. After several minutes Webb's arms started to drop. The firsties removed one of the rifles. Then another. Then the third. Then they ordered him to rig seven books. Then six. Each time his arms gave out he had to start over with one fewer book. Near the end of the grueling half-hour session he was told to rig a pencil, finally a toothpick. As he strained to hold up the sliver of wood, the firsties clustered around him, peppering him with questions, musing that pain was irrelevant, telling him to quit and go home. Hotshot Webb can't even rig a goddamned toothpick, the firsties laughed.

At evening meal, Webb managed to anger the same first classmen. Ordering him back to their room, they took turns paddling him with a cricket bat, a prohibited practice. Two steps, then Whack! Each time a blow landed, Webb would holler, "Beat Army, sir!" or "Harder, sir!." Does it hurt, Webb? "No, sir!" The situation was getting out of hand. Even the firsties seemed to know they had gone too far, but no one would back down. "All you have to do is say it hurts," one of them said. "Harder, sir," yelled Webb. Finally, someone broke the paddle on him. "Get out of here, Webb," he said. "Aye, aye, sir!" Webb shouted, racing out the door. Back in his own room, he ran into the closet so his roommates couldn't see him, pulled a laundry bag over his head, and cried for fifteen minutes. Looking back, he says he drew great strength from the experience. He had been tested and had survived. He displayed no bitterness, but 20 years later, when he was Secretary of the Navy, he rattled off the names of the four seniors without a moment's hesitation, as if he were reading from a list.

As Jim Webb and Oliver North struggled to surmount timeless rites of passage at Annapolis, events that would define a generation were encroaching on their world. The Class of 1968 entered the Academy in late June 1964. Though Vietnam would become an issue in that year's presidential campaign, for many Americans it was still a speck on the horizon, about like Nicaragua in 1981 when Ronald Reagan took office. Things changed fast for Webb, North and their classmates. The Tonkin Gulf incident, LBJ's pretext for starting the massive U.S. buildup in Vietnam, occurred in August of their plebe summer. In the winter of their first class year the Tet Offensive took place. Widely misconstrued at the time as a major American battlefield defeat, it marked the beginning of the end of American involvement in Southeast Asia. But the protracted fade to black took another seven years.

During the four years that '68 was at the Academy, the social fabric of the nation was shredded and rewoven in a way that Webb and North barely recognized. Watts burned during the summer of 1965. In April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated and more American cities went up in flames. A few months later, as Annapolis was aglow with the glitter of June Week, Robert Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles. Through it all the anti-war movement was in full flower and high dudgeon. Lyndon Johnson bowed to its pressure in March and announced he would not seek re-election, the victim/perpetrator a discredited war that North and Webb were just getting ready to fight. Then there was the music. Few had heard of the Beatles in June 1963 when North entered the Academy the first (( time. A year later, when Webb arrived and North limped back after his auto accident, they just wanted to hold our hand. By 1968, Sergeant Pepper a year behind them, they wanted to do it in the road.


As good as Webb was as a Marine rifle platoon leader, his men started dying.

James Ward, slim and bespectacled, known to everyone as Snake, was one of Webb's most talented squad leaders. Cool and resourceful in combat, Snake was Webb without the college education and the Academy polish. Webb admired his bush smarts, liked his gentleness and easy rapport with the kids in the villages. He came to think of Snake as both a bleeding heart and the bravest man he ever knew. He encouraged him to apply for officer training. Snake was not interested, even when Webb urged him to reconsider.

The issue became moot in early May as Snake neared the end of his tour. Caught in a vicious cross-fire, partially blinded by grenade fragments, he hoisted a wounded Marine onto his narrow shoulders and was carrying him to safety when a burst of machine-gun fire tore his midsection apart, his lifeless body falling at Webb's feet.

During a two-month period that spring and early summer Webb's platoon had 56 men killed or wounded, the grisly alchemy of war turning replacements into statistics overnight. Snake, Dombrowski, McDowell, Cooper, Mount, Welch, McKinnon, McCart, Baker, Shepherd, Tucker, Jonesy, Lyles, Paison, Soper, McNamara, the first four dead, the others casualties. Webb carefully shielded his emotions from the troops, but the relentless butchering of his men was taking a fearsome toll.

The anti-war movement was of little interest to Webb in those days. He did not recognize the strength and depth of it. As a platoon leader in the bush, he did not have much time for reflection or intellectual musings. There was also a credibility problem. In the America in which Jim Webb grew up, it was inconceivable that the nation could be at war and tens of thousands of men his own age might connive to avoid it, knowing all the while that other young men of similar promise and equally lofty dreams risked living out their futures in darkness, in a wheelchair, or in the next minute.

Webb was promoted to first lieutenant in September 1969. Three days later he was given command of Delta Company, a captain's billet. At twenty-three he was commanding 170 men. Only four were older than he was, all career NCOs, lifers. The rest were mostly 18-, 19,- and 20-year-old kids.

Their youth triggered a realization so obvious and logical in retrospect that he was amazed he had not hit on it before. Civilians fight wars. The professional military holds the terrain until wars begin and then civilians fight the wars. He did not focus on the 1960s variant of that proposition, that is, some do, some don't. Nor did it cross his mind that his troops were little more than overgrown boys. "I didn't have that sense then," he said. "I figured 18, 19 was plenty old and plenty tough when I was 23."

The killing and maiming of his men continued. Dale Wilson, a good ol' boy from North Carolina, was due to go home in 11 days when he became a statistic. He was the victim of a booby trap, an American artillery shell recycled by the VC, peerless combat ecologists. "I thought I had been hit by napalm because there was smoke coming off me," recalled Wilson. "The sun was in my eyes, so I tried to cover my eyes with my right hand, and my hand fell off in my face." He came out of his morphine stupor about seven that night. "I realized I had lost more than I thought." He meant his right arm and both legs. He was 19, plenty old, plenty tough.


Battlefield wounds forced Webb to retire from the Marine Corps in 1972 and enter Georgetown law school. He was the only Vietnam veteran in a class of 125. It was a time for misjudgments. An Air Force brat, he had spent nearly his entire life in a military environment. Now he was struggling to find his way in the unfamiliar world of civilians. As he later explained it, "I'm a first-year law student still trying to figure out what civilians eat for dinner."

He learned. Some of the lessons were humorous. One day in the law school cafeteria a couple of classmates were teasing him about spreading mayonnaise on his pastrami sandwich. "What's to you?" he fired back. "You're not even Italian."

Other lessons were not funny at all. On a rainy night early in the term, he paused outside the law library to shake the water from his bush hat. A young woman, like him a first-year student, was doing the same to her umbrella.

"You were in Vietnam," she said, her inflection making the statement a question.

"Yes," replied Webb.

"I've never met anyone who was in Vietnam before."

As it turned out, she didn't even know anybody who had been drafted. How can that be, wondered Webb, taken aback. He did some mental arithmetic, figured the woman had graduated from high school in 1968, the year of the highest draft calls of the war. What's going on here? he asked himself.

Webb insisted that Georgetown was not hell for him, but his criminal law class that first year came perilously close. The professor was Heathcote Wales. Wales, part of the school's sizable anti-war set, often dreamed up vignettes to explain points of law, at times giving the characters the names of students. The initial question on the first-term final was about search and seizure. It involved a Marine sergeant named Webb who attempts to smuggle home pieces of jade in the dead bodies of two Marines from his platoon. Webb would later say he felt like he had been shot as he read the question. Years later, he said, "All those broken bodies and nights in the rain, for what? To be laughed at?" Immobilized for a full 15 minutes, he thought about walking out of the exam, but stayed and finished it.

That night, he went through some of the bleakest hours of his life, repeatedly bursting into tears as he tried to study for the other finals. Two days later, he confronted Wales in his office. "I just want you to know it wasn't funny," he told the professor. "I went over to Vietnam with 67 lieutenants, 22 died and it wasn't funny."

Like so many other veterans, Webb saw the American pull-out from Vietnam not only in terms of lost comrades but as the betrayal of an ally as well. In his novel A Country Such As This, one of Webb's characters, a former POW named Lesczynski, exclaims, "No, I'll never get used to it. It's the most deplorable thing this country has ever done." Glued to the television as Saigon fell in April 1975, Lesczynski reflects Webb's judgment of the retreat: "There was a weakness in his country, in its leaders or maybe its system, that had botched this thing badly, called on citizens to sacrifice and then rebuked their efforts, fading again and again in the clutch."

Webb, like his fictional POW, was repulsed by the images barreling across the screen at him. South Vietnamese clamoring at the gates of the U.S. embassy, American helicopters tumbling from the decks of carriers, the tanks of the victorious enemy rolling into Saigon. Grabbing his books, he drove to school to study for his last set of exams, just days off. He arrived to find students gathered in animated clumps outside the law library, redeemed, intact, to Webb's eye secretly exchanging high fives. He spotted his Quaker friend, the one who had spent two years in Vietnam working in an orphanage, one of the few members of the class he respected.

"Are you really happy about this?" asked Webb.

"Yes, I am," replied his classmate.

"You make me want to puke," said Webb.

Summer 1976. The ceremony was winding down. Minutes earlier Jim Webb had received the Veterans Administration's first Vietnam Veteran of the Year award for a variety of activities on behalf of ex-servicemen. As dignitaries and well-wishers began to disperse, he held up his hand: "Wait a minute. I'd like to say something." The crowd regrouped, wary, not sure what to expect. No one was in the mood for another aggrieved veteran's harangue against the war or the fecklessness of his government. But Webb had something else on his mind, the curious, at times bewildering twilight world inhabited by the soldier not simply untroubled by his combat record but proud of it.

"I don't need to elaborate in front of this assemblage about how incredibly difficult it has been for the Vietnam veteran," he began. "His anonymity and lack of positive feedback about himself and his fellow veterans have intensified all the other difficulties he has faced, including those shared with nonveterans. With the exception of a few well-publicized disasters, he is invisible."

In public discourse, continued Webb, the veteran has no voice, those who opposed the war having long since been accorded the role of spokesman for his generation. His anti-war peers convert their activities into credentials, "much as the veteran of World War II did with his campaign ribbons." By contrast, society seems to view him as an accident waiting to happen. Editorials urge amnesty for those who fled the country, insisting they obeyed "a higher law," leaving unwritten the implication that he responded to something less honorable, even brutish, in choosing to serve.

"To be blunt, we seem to have reached the anomaly where the very institutions, and the same newspapers, who only a few years ago called on us to bleed, have now decided we should be ashamed of our scars."

"Well," said Webb, eyeing his audience, "I'm not ashamed of mine."

The crowd broke into applause. His words had the defiant ring of a manifesto. He had declared that no longer would his generation be represented solely by evaders, avoiders, drug-crazed ex-GIs, and embittered anti-war veterans. He had demanded a voice for the men and women who had fought the war, then returned home unheralded, but with a sense of personal achievement. Above all, he had proclaimed the right of the Vietnam veteran to take pride in his service.

In 1978, Jim Webb published his first novel, Fields of Fire, a widely acclaimed best-seller about a Marine rifle platoon during a few bloody months in 1969. Keeping the politics of the war offstage, Webb challenged the reader to engage in the actions of his characters, dusting each scene with ambiguity, offering no pat answers. The success of the book led to a stint teaching writing at the Naval Academy. While there, he produced a magazine article entitled "Women Can't Fight," which caused an uproar. Published in 1979, the article questioned the growing political sentiment for women in combat roles as well as the presence of women at the service academies, which commenced in 1976. He argued that Congress, in requiring the service academies to admit women, had diluted their mission, which he saw first and foremost as the training of combat leaders. It was a relentless but generally controlled attack. He applauded the advances made by women over the previous decade in business and the professions, including the military, said he could imagine a woman president. But it was folly, he argued, to use the armed forces and the service academies, as Congress seemed determined to do, to placate interest groups and as test tubes for social experimentation. Women were angry, liberals gasped, Navy and Academy officialdom excoriated Webb.

The wounds never had a chance to heal. During his brief teaching stint at the Academy Webb began an Annapolis-based second novel that on publication in March 1981 again scorched his alma mater. But it did much more. A Sense of Honor breathed life into the Academy, distilling its essence into 300 pages of crisp prose and crackling dialogue.

Webb took the reader on a guided tour of the Yard, mustering a crew of vivid, robust characters barely recognizable as the polite, housebroken young men beaming vanilla smiles at tourists. His midshipmen were lusty, often profane, some of the Academy's officers fools and martinets. Bancroft Hall was portrayed for what it is, or perhaps what it was -- an incubator for combat leaders, a place where sometimes it's more important to spit-shine your shoes to a blinding gloss than to study for a chemistry exam.

Other than Academy officials, few readers managed to miss the message. Carey Winfrey, in the New York Times, said Webb's "flawed Academy ultimately emerges . . . as a place where such out-of-fashion concepts as duty, honor, country can still be evoked without irony." On the op-ed page of the Washington Post, R. James Woolsey, President Clinton's first CIA director, said, "The book is no more just about hazing than Moby Dick is just about whaling."

The comment Webb treasured most came from Herman Wouk, a World War II 90-day wonder who put his Navy experience to work in writing The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Said Wouk in a note to Webb, "You have written the Academy a bittersweet Valentine that the Academy will never understand."

Webb already knew the Academy would not understand. He found that out in early 1980, a few months after publication of "Women Can't Fight." His old radioman, Mac McGarvey, was in Washington. Webb thought he might enjoy seeing the Academy and dining in the Mess Hall. He called a midshipman friend and asked him to make the arrangements. When Webb and McGarvey entered Bancroft Hall, a forlorn, apologetic mid greeted them. McGarvey's chit had been approved, he said, but not Webb's. McGarvey wanted to leave, but Webb insisted he stay. Then Webb wandered into town and ate alone, beginning a banishment from the Academy that would last for the next four years.


May 1, 1987. Jim Webb stood at relaxed attention on the sun-drenched steps of Bancroft Hall, preparing to take the oath of office as as the nation's 66th Secretary of the Navy. Assembled below him on the weathered yellow bricks of Tecumseh Court were hundreds of well-wishers, a brigade honor guard, and most of his few close friends.

Blending pomp, color, and tradition, the scene had a timeless quality, the flapping of flags in the fresh spring breeze deepening the sense that some natural order was in the process of being fulfilled.

That same breeze carried an abundance of echoes, some pleasant, most of mixed timbre, others plainly discordant, nearly all embodied by the trim figure about to be sworn in as the civilian head of the Navy and Marine Corps.

Nearly two decades had passed since that June day in 1968 when a more innocent Jim Webb had triumphantly hurled his white midshipman's cap into the air to celebrate his graduation from Annapolis and his commissioning as a Marine second lieutenant. That moment had coincided with the somber announcement a continent away in Los Angeles that an assassin's bullet had claimed the life of Robert Kennedy.

From even further afield had come the distant rumblings of a war whose appetite for young men like Webb and his classmates remained ravenous despite the growing realization despite the growing realization that it was already lost.

There were more personal echoes. Those familiar with Webb's turbulent relationship with Annapolis suspected that his choice of the Academy for his swearing-in had been guided by something more complex than the affection of an old grad for his alma mater.

Symbolic of the tangled association, dawn that day found the trees fronting Tecumseh Court in bloom with the undergarments of female midshipmen, a taunting declaration by the women of the brigade that they were at Annapolis to stay. Academy officials, publicly aghast, plucked the dangling skivvies from the trees long before the ceremony commenced.

Webb was sworn in by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who called him "a true American hero." The ceremony concluded in unorthodox fashion. Overruling the objections of traditionalists, Webb had arranged for country-western singer Lee Greenwood to serenade the assemblage with his hit single of three years earlier, "God Bless The U.S.A." The catchy, patriotic ballad had been the campaign anthem of the 1984 Reagan re-election juggernaut, sung with gusto by the GOP faithful amid cascading red, white and blue balloons from one end of the country to the other.

The post of Secretary of the Navy has traditionally been a stepping stone to higher office. Webb's recent predecessors included two sitting U.S. senators, John Chafee of Rhode Island and John Warner of Virginia. Teddy Roosevelt had served as assistant Navy secretary prior to the Spanish-American War. FDR held the same position under Woodrow Wilson during World War I. During those same years, across the Atlantic, the First Lord of the Admiralty was a budding British politician named Winston Churchill. For Jim Webb, on that triumphant day in 1987, all things seemed possible.

Less than a year later, in February 1988, Webb abruptly resigned to protest budget cuts proposed by the Pentagon that made Ronald Reagan's goal of a 600-ship Navy seemingly unattainable. The story of his resignation was carried on the front page of most major American newspapers. His tenure had been stormy. He had questioned the Reagan administration's decision place Kuwaiti oil tankers under American protection in the xTC Persian Gulf, believing the U.S. was unwisely tilting toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, and warned that American military involvement in the gulf could turn into a quagmire, much like Vietnam.

He continued his opposition even after Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and the U.S. mililtary buildup that preceded the Persian Gulf War commenced. On Jan. 12, 1991, the day the Senate debated whether to authorize the use of force in the Gulf, he addressed a small anti-war gathering of military families, reducing abstractions to flesh and blood. "You don't use force, you send people," he declared. "You send young people who have dreams, who want a future."

President Bush "has been maneuvering the nation toward war for several months," he said. Bush fought with distinction in World War II, said Webb, "but with all due respect none of his children served in Vietnam."

After the speech, Webb -- who would mute his criticism once hostilities broke out -- led a token protest march on the Capitol, effectively severing what few ties he still had to the Republican Party establishment. He displayed neither concern nor remorse.

"I'm comfortable saying what I said," he insisted as he and about 60 other nonbelievers trudged through the cold, gray Washington morning. "The rest will take care of itself."


Robert Timberg, a Naval Academy graduate and Marine veteran of Vietnam, is deputy chief of The Sun's Washington Bureau. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Stanford and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. He was The Sun's White House Correspondent from 1983 to 1988

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