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Fighting Words

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Jim webb, elected by Virginia to the United States Senate in 2006, is the finest novelist ever to serve in Congress. One must temper this praise by adding that he is the only novelist of any note ever to serve in Congress. Other nations can claim a Disraeli or a Havel, but when the occasional American writer (Upton Sinclair, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, James Michener) has entered the political ring, it has been on a lark and with predictably dismal results. Webb’s election may hint at future developments, however. As politics becomes more confessional and campaign finance laws complicate the task of raising money, writers who have achieved prominence and riches may be able to leverage these assets into political office.

If so, Webb will be hailed as a trailblazer, but in truth he has never had much in common with his literary brethren. In his new book, A Time To Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America, he complains that “the modern American novel is too often simply an interior monologue, a story about a writer trying to write a story about a writer.” His complaint is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s plea two decades ago that American novelists venture beyond their Manhattan salons and search out “this wild, bizarre unpredictable, hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.”

Webb and Wolfe are unusual among contemporary novelists for yet another reason: One of their principal subjects is manliness. Testosterone roils through Wolfe’s characters’ veins as they navigate through boardrooms, athletic fields, trading rooms, and prisons, but with the exception of The Right Stuff, he has avoided any military dimension. Even then, Wolfe’s topic was bravery in pushing technological barriers, a topic that holds little interest for Webb. Manliness, for Webb, has a precise and bellicose meaning: the willingness to test one’s strength and even life against other men in combat. Physical heartiness is a given in all of his heroes, and to be small or fat in a Webb novel is almost necessarily a sign of moral imperfection. (The only characteristic more highly correlated with degeneracy is a Harvard degree, and, needless to say, one of the most repellent characters in all of his fiction, one Ronald Holcolmb in Something to Die For, is a “physically small and unathletic” Harvard graduate.)

In a half-dozen novels, several of which were bestsellers and earned critical acclaim, Webb has contemplated the martial virtues. We see men preparing for combat; men in the thick of combat; and men adjusting, more or less well, to lives after combat. Women appear, but few achieve independent significance. Webb’s novelistic interest is the frayed romantic attachments between women and the men whose calling is battle. Writing of his long-ago Scots-Irish ancestors in Ulster and the mountains of western Virginia, Webb reports that “the men expected to fight . . . and the women expected their men to fight.” Modern women, even those of Scots-Irish ancestry, have wider expectations of their men, and his novels are unsparing in depicting the havoc military lives wreak on even the best marriages. Webb rejects the happy reconciliation of love and duty suggested in Richard Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars”: “I could not love thee, dear, so much/Loved I not honor more.”

The son of an Air Force officer, Webb grew up all over America and would later mine his varied experiences in his novels. His upbringing did not conform to contemporary standards: “When I was very young [my father] would ask me if I was tough, and then hold out his fist and have me hit it again and again, telling me I could stop if I admitted I wasn’t tough.” Webb’s indifferent record as a student still apparently rankles: In published writings, at least, he seems to have difficulty laughing at himself and his failures, however trivial. Thus it is that Webb — United States senator, decorated war hero, bestselling author — tells the reader that, despite his academic difficulties, he had “the fifth highest score in our school on the psat math test.”

Perhaps it was that psat score, or maybe some discerned spark of greatness, but the Naval Academy admitted Webb to its class of 1968. Disappointingly, he skips over his time at Annapolis, a tumultuous period in the Academy’s history, with little comment. Except for an allusion in one of his novels, Webb never mentions his brigade championship boxing match with fellow cadet Oliver North. In Webb’s view, as recounted in Robert Timberg’s 1995 The Nightingale’s Song, North colluded with a coach to steal the fight. Webb was one of the relatively few Academy graduates in 1968 — North being another — to choose to do their mandatory service in the Marines. He received several medals, including a Navy Cross, for extraordinary acts of bravery in Vietnam, but a leg wound never healed and he was forced to retire from the Marines. Enrolling at Georgetown Law School in 1972, he faced at best coolness and often outright hostility from his classmates and professors. A criminal law exam singled Webb out for mockery, hypothesizing that a soldier named “Jack Webb” was responsible for the death of two fellow Americans and then tried to smuggle jade into the United States. Webb complained to the law school’s dean, who did nothing.

Webb had his revenge a few years later. Fields of Fire, published in 1978 when he was only 32, is still the novel for which he is best known. It is a hand grenade lobbed into the drawing rooms of Georgetown, Cambridge, Scarsdale — wherever rich and spoiled Americans strategized to avoid the draft by finagling bogus medical diagnoses, accumulating postgraduate degrees, or securing cushy assignments in the stateside “reserves.” In the beginning of the novel, a character wanders by a restaurant for the “neat and elite.” Gazing at “the Beautiful People in their stylish clothes, languishing over their just-right meals, he became seized with scorn. He banged on the window and most of them looked back curiously at him as he mashed his face against the pane in a grotesque gargoyle stare and flipped two birds at them.” This is Webb to all his law school professors and classmates and to the entire class from whence they came. In Fields of Fire, Webb settles scores.

Much of Webb’s ammunition is directed at those who attribute America’s loss in Vietnam to the soldiers on the ground, and in particular to the Marines who bore a disproportionate brunt of the battle. (Webb has noted that 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, compared to 1.4 million enemy soldiers. As some have said, the only reason the North Vietnamese won is they never realized they lost.) The novel’s dedication, eschewing the saccharin “to the men and women who served . . .” one has come to expect from war books, is to the injured “Marines.” This is Webb in a tribal mood, and it is probably just as well that his father, whom he adored, served in the Air Force, for otherwise he might more fully have indulged the contempt so many Marines harbor for the other services.

Much of Webb’s ammunition is directed at those who attribute America’s loss in Vietnam to the soldiers on the ground, and in particular to the Marines who bore a disproportionate brunt of the battle.

Fields of Fire, which in large part tracks a platoon as it makes its deadly way through the An Hoa Basin in 1969, has long been included on recommended reading lists for the Marines. It portrays the valor of individual soldiers, as well as the corps’ wondrous power to transform young men of various backgrounds into “the best we have.” One character named Goodrich — an idealistic but, of course, unlikable Harvard student — loses a leg but “finally grew some balls.” No higher compliment is possible in a Webb novel. In a preachy conclusion, rather at odds with the tone of the rest of the novel, Webb presents a scathing portrayal of draft-dodgers and anti-war protesters, who are said to accept the benefits of our rich society while shirking its burdens.

Yet considering the novel in its entirety, it is remarkable that the Marines should recommend Fields of Fire. One officer told me that he read the novel several times while in the Marines but would never have joined had he had read it in college. The cruel lottery of battle, in which the best are maimed and opportunists escape unharmed, is unhesitatingly presented. If some young men’s character is forged in the fire of combat, others are destroyed by the experience. The imminence of death can stir esprit de corps, but it can also promote withdrawal and self-absorption.

Most striking is the novel’s occasionally harsh judgments on the Marine Corps itself. (Webb’s second novel,ASense of Honor, is even more critical in its treatment of the Naval Academy.) A first lieutenant is more anxious about his career than the lives of the men he commands; soldiers in the rear scheme to avoid service in the front. And although Fields of Fire seldom rises above a grunt’s-eye view, the novel hints at the grotesque strategic leadership during the war, the true cause of America’s defeat. As one soldier, having returned home, says, “We just roamed around the bush, or went somewhere on an operation for a while and then left. We just moved in circles mostly. . . . It was crazy as hell.” In later writings, Webb unloads on Robert McNamara and others in the Pentagon who, in their arrogant incompetence, sentenced thousands of soldiers to pointless deaths. In his most ambitious novel, A Country Such As This, one character muses that “there was something almost malevolent in the way Navy and Air Force pilots were being wasted, in the restrictions forced on them.” Webb’s own father, seeing the civilian mismanagement of the war from up-close while on detail at the Pentagon, quit in protest and advised Webb to serve out his time eating ice cream on a ship safe at sea.

It is unlikely that the advice was seriously entertained. Webb was destined to fight. And if asked why, his answer would surely be that it was in his blood.

Blood as destiny is a theme that runs through every Webb novel. It is especially pronounced in A Country Such As This, in which three Naval Academy cadets celebrate their graduation and friendship by slitting their wrists and mingling their blood. “So how does it feel, having Jewish blood?” one jokes. Another character, having become a fighter pilot, infuses blood determinism with mystical powers: “Somewhere back in that Slavic blood there really was a falcon.” Yet another character, poised to launch a suicidal raid on an enemy’s trench in Korea, thinks: “I am doing this for many reasons, but the overriding one is this: because I am Judd Smith, and I am powerless in my blood and soul to do anything else. I am Judd Smith, prisoner of my history.”

Judd Smith is of Scots-Irish ancestry, as are countless other characters in Webb’s novels, each bearing an autobiographical imprint of one kind or another. The most haunting character in all of Webb’s writings, and the dominating presence in Fields of Fire, is a lieutenant from eastern Kentucky named Robert E. Lee Hodges, Jr. Hodges’s grandmother, like Webb’s own, filled him with tales of his ancestors and their many battles. Pride in their deeds “pulsed through his own dark veins”:

That one continuous linking that had bound father to son from the first wild resolute angry beaten Celt who tromped into the hills rather than bend a knee to Rome two thousand years ago, who would hold out in an icy marsh by standing for days with only his head above water, and who would chew the bark off a tree, fill his belly with wood rather than surrender from starvation and admit defeat to an advancing civilization. That same emotion passing with the blood: a fierce resoluteness that found itself always in a pitch against death, that somehow, over the centuries, came to accept the fight as a birthright, even as some kind of proof of life.

Webb’s lifelong fascination with his Scots-Irish ancestors, and their purportedly fiery Celtic blood, resulted in his first effort at popular nonfiction in 2004, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.

Trekking through graveyards in mountainous western Virginia, Webb writes in the book’s opening that “I’ve been right over there, once upon a time, or at least my blood has.” He traces his ancestry back more than 2,000 years, to the Celtic tribes who battled their way westward across Europe until finally they were “caught in a cruel genetic joke, all their energies bottled up” in isolated Scotland and Ireland. (Recent genetic evidence undercuts Webb’s story: Overwhelmingly, the residents of the British Isles arrived over 6,000 years ago; there is surprisingly little genetic differentiation among those who became the Scots-Irish and Irish Catholics or even the English; and there does not seem to be a close genetic link between the “Celts” in England and the Celtic tribes in Southern and Central Europe.) Whatever their genetic antecedents, the tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall fought with a tenacity that astounded would-be invaders. The Romans and English who, over the centuries, tried to subdue them were occasionally successful but always bloodied. The culture that emerged was democratic and tribal, with attempts to forge a Scottish national spirit slow to develop. In periods without outside invaders, the clans fought amongst themselves with all the passion that, in other times, they reserved for the Romans and English.

The tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall fought with an astounding tenacity. The Romans and English who tried to subdue them over the centuries were occasionally successful but always bloodied.

Having converted to Presbyterianism in the sixteenth century, the Scots faced discrimination from the English, and thousands migrated across the sea to Ulster. There they made new enemies of the Irish Catholics and were still persecuted by the English. So they continued their journey westward. From 1715 to 1775, as many as 400,000 Scots-Irish crossed the Atlantic to the New World and yet again did not receive a friendly welcome. The Puritans in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and the Cavaliers in the South all regarded the Scots-Irish as uncouth: illiterate, quarrelsome, and physically dirty. But they could fight, and they were encouraged to push inland to the frontier, where they served as a safeguard against the Indians.

Sneered at by the East Coast elites in the eighteenth century, despised today by the “upper crust of academia and the pampered salons of Hollywood,” the redneck Scots-Irish are, in Webb’s account, the “molten core” of America. Much of what we still regard as the American character — individualistic, contemptuous of hierarchy, populist, audacious — has its origins in the Scots-Irish. Later arriving groups have sustained an ethnic pride, and even wielded it as a weapon in our increasingly quota-driven society, but the Scots-Irish, so vital to the American spirit, easily blended in and are now lost in the unheralded miasma of “white Americans.” But our very existence and preservation as a country has depended on them: They fought in disproportionate numbers and with characteristic zeal during the Revolution. America still “cannot go to war without them,” Webb writes, noting that West Virginia, which is heavily Scots-Irish, incurred casualty rates in Korea and Vietnam twice those of New York and Connecticut.

Born Fighting aims to  recover the Scots-Irish pride and tell their story. Although often riveting, it suffers from the flaws one expects in the ethnic mythologizing genre. The Puritans and Cavaliers (and the English before them) are the villains in Webb’s tale; scarcely acknowledged is their indispensable role in fashioning the Constitution and formal political institutions that are the envy of the world. By contrast, a respect for the rule of law was never a trademark of the Scots-Irish. Assuming the perspective of his ancestors, Webb writes, with an approving wink, that “justice was a fancy legal term used in Williamsburg or Charleston.” He seems unable to appreciate the grave difficulty with this perspective, as emerges in his air-brushed portrayal of Andrew Jackson, whom he calls “the quintessential tribal chieftain Scots-Irish leader,” a “great man” who transformed American politics “with no other motivation than a passion for the common good.” The fact that Jackson was a “true fighter” prevents Webb from rendering a more nuanced assessment. He makes light of Jackson’s violent temper, his tendency to turn political disagreements into personal feuds, and his brutal treatment of the Indians. And although Webb acknowledges Jackson’s penchant for settling legal disputes by duels, he presents it as a charming matter, not a serious flaw in someone who, as president, is in charge of enforcing the nation’s laws.  

Webb bristles with resentment at the unflattering portrayals of Southern rednecks — as slaveholders and racists — that one has come to expect of elite America. There is much that fairly can be said here, but Webb overstates his case. Determined to rescue his ancestors from any measure of opprobrium, Webb cites evidence (in several of his books) that only 5 percent of white Virginians owned slaves. A more telling statistic is the percentage of Confederate households that owned slaves. The answer is probably almost a quarter in border states such as Virginia and a third or more in the states of the Deep South.

Skipping lightly over Jim Crow laws, Webb vents elaborately about Northerners “raping” the South during Reconstruction and in the decades that followed. Among other flaws of this account, given that Webb so often touts as a virtue the Scots-Irish indifference to conventional status and wealth, a simpler explanation for the South’s historic economic backwardness suggests itself. A “take this job and shove it” attitude may be manly and admirable, but it is not conducive to climbing the corporate ladder, and even Webb acknowledges that the Scots-Irish “emphasis on boldness and raw audacity would also have its drawbacks as America became more sophisticated”; that is, as the economy put less of a premium on physical labor and courage and more on intellectual skills and teamwork.

But what of the South’s recent economic success? Acknowledging that Arkansas — ground zero of the caricatured cousin-marrying, know-nothing redneck — is the headquarters of Wal-Mart, the third richest corporation in the world, Webb nonetheless writes that Wal-Mart’s wealth has not “trickled-down.” This would be news to many residents of northwest Arkansas, and one suspects that Webb is chilled to contemplate the modern redneck, with all that once-fiery blood, sitting in a cubicle in Bentonville tracking diaper sales in the new Des Moines superstore. That Celtic blood is running a bit thinner these days, it would seem. (The same could be said of the blood of the Irish who remained in Ireland, who have seemingly beaten their swords into spreadsheets on their way to becoming a capitalist powerhouse.) Yes, Scots-Irish West Virginia incurred high casualty rates in Korea and Vietnam, but Webb fails to carry this analysis forward. In the latest Iraq war, that state’s casualty rate is only slightly above the national average and well below that of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska. Ultimately, Webb concedes that his references to the blood of the Scots-Irish are to a large extent metaphorical; his real focus is the fighting and individualistic culture they brought to America.

This culture is now centered in states that vote Republican in national elections. Undoing the connection between the Scots-Irish culture and the party of Lincoln is the core of Webb’s project in A Time to Fight.

It is as a Republican that one of Webb’s autobiographical characters — a Naval Academy graduate from western Virginia who receives the Navy Cross — is elected to the House of Representatives and, at the novel’s end, is poised to run for the Senate. And it was as a Republican that Webb himself began his political career, first as a Hill staffer and then in the Reagan administration. Yet Webb was never altogether at home in the Republican Party, rubbing shoulders with the country club set. Like many in the 1970s, Webb turned away from the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party had turned away from him, and “lost its historic emphasis on working men and women.” Abandoning its traditional focus on “economic fairness,” a phrase Webb bandies about but never defines, the Democratic Party became a hotbed of antimilitary and anti-American sentiment. Instead of Andrew Jackson’s concern for “farmers, mechanics, and laborers,” the Democratic Party emphasized such issues as racial quotas, abortion, gun control, and the environment.

In Webb’s view, the top echelon of the Democratic Party still consists of people who made their bones fighting the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s and whose priorities are misguided as a result. Despite these concerns, he threw in with the Democrats soon after President George W. Bush’s election in 2000. He suggests there were two reasons. First is that the Republicans have, through various policies, coddled the “very rich” in ways that have entrenched a money “aristocracy.” America, in Webb’s view, is calcifying along class lines, and he makes disapproving references to globalization, immigration, nafta, the wto, and executive compensation. The second reason for Webb’s political conversion was the invasion of Iraq. He belabors his misgivings with this venture, documenting their origins prior to the messy occupation that turned some cheerleaders into skeptics. The wisdom of the invasion can, of course, be fairly debated, but Webb takes the charge a dubious step farther, accusing the war’s planners with not simply negligence, but “conscious deception.” He adduces little evidence to support this latter claim, and it would seem that Webb’s animus towards the Bush administration has skewed his judgment. He berates Republican leaders as “‘chicken hawks’ who talked up the war [in Iraq] but who had ‘other priorities’ when it came to serving” in Vietnam. It sometimes seems that Webb is unable to quite trust a man who has never been in combat, especially when he opines on matters of state. As he writes in one novel, veterans “purchased their right to congregate and debate American foreign policy by sailing off to places like Belleau Wood and Biak Island.”

Webb seeks to reclaim the Scots-Irish culture for the Democratic Party, but it will be a tricky sell as long as the party’s standard bearer, in unguarded moments, derides those who “cling to guns or religion.” In the hopes of galvanizing his fellow Scots-Irish, he tars the Republicans as the party of the rich, but it is not a wholly credible accusation. Had Webb cast his gaze at his fellow senators, he would be forced to acknowledge that the richest (Kerry, Kohl, Rockefeller, Kennedy) tend to be Democrats. Webb’s preference for classically manly activities renders him skeptical of the value of any labor, such as investment banking, that does not generate calloused hands, and he singles out the great Goldman Sachs for censure; but in fact these masters of the universe have given more to Democrats than to Republicans in the latest election cycle by a two-to-one margin. Although he complains that “an uncaring amorality has seized much of America’s business community,” Webb offers few, if any, concrete proposals to promote “economic fairness,” and the book’s concluding chapter fails to deliver on its portentous title: “What Then Must We Do?” The chapter meanders for some time, recounting his experiences as a platoon leader, then riffs into a discussion of a movie and a novel, and only in the final page is the flaccid punch line delivered: America should “find good leaders and hold them accountable.” Suffice it to say that Webb’s rifle is locked and loaded, as it has always been, but he is still looking for a target.

Jim webb, unapologetically pugnacious, is a distinctive figure in American politics and letters. His taste for battle and prickliness about honor render him, to some extent, inappreciative of the benefits of peaceable capitalism. And his spiritedness is not a natural fit in a country becoming richer and softer. Soon after his election to the Senate, he displayed his fighting spirit at a White House function. Webb declined to have his picture taken with the president, but Bush cornered him on the State Floor of the East Wing. “How’s your boy?” the president asked, referring to Webb’s son, a Marine. The senator-elect responded curtly, “I’d like to get them out of Iraq.” The president continued, “That’s not what I asked you. How’s your boy?” Webb cut off the exchange: “That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President.” The encounter was studied at the time, with much of the inside-the-Beltway opinion critical of Webb’s alleged boorishness. It would indeed seem that the setting called for a gracious acknowledgment of the president’s regard for his son. Yet let us consider this from Webb’s perspective: The president expected a showing of deference, and rather than indulging him, Webb responded with manly frankness. In A Time to Fight, Webb refers to his refusal to consent to a picture with the president, but not the verbal exchange: “I have since regained a more proper sense of courtesy.” If Webb truly repents his performance at the White House that day, it might mean that he is becoming, if by small steps, a little bit tamer and more civilized, a little bit more like everyone else in Washington, D.C.

As part of the Democratic Party’s outreach to Scots-Irish voters, Webb was touted for a time as a possible vice-presidential candidate. Yet his own election to the Senate may hint at the difficulties Democrats will face in reclaiming this segment of the population. In the three counties in western Virginia that Webb has specifically claimed as his blood, he lost overwhelmingly to his Republican opponent. It was not the Scots-Irish who launched Webb into the Senate, but the affluent, effete, chardonnay-sipping voters of Arlington County in northern Virginia: exactly the sort of people Webb has despised his entire life. It is a rich irony, though not one he seems inclined to savor, that he won Arlington by 30,000 votes, allowing him to eke out a narrow victory state-wide.

Whether he admits it or not, Arlington is Webb’s political base, and perhaps there is some poetic justice in this fact. Just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Arlington is the home of our nation’s most famous military cemetery. A character in one of Webb’s novels — one of his martyred Marine lieutenants — stipulates that he be buried there “so the gutless wonders in Washington will have to look at his grave every day when they drive to work.” I assume that Webb shares this sentiment wholeheartedly and will one day join his father in Arlington Cemetery. In death, as in life, he can remind his gutless countrymen of their debt to those who, in blood or fighting spirit, have preserved America’s Scots-Irish heritage.