Monday, August 13, 2007

Understanding Those Who Served in Vietnam and Beyond – A Review of “Fields of Fire” by James Webb

You may know Jim Webb as the person whose narrow victory shifted the balance of power in the U.S Senate from the Republicans to the Democrats when he defeated the incumbent from Virginia, George Allen, in last November’s hotly contested election. I know him as the Naval Academy classmate of several friends of mine, and as an outstanding author of groundbreaking novels and thought-provoking works of non-fiction.

Several years ago I read “A Sense of Honor.” For a more complete description of this novel, see my earlier posting from last November:

I have always intended to read Webb’s other novels, but was waiting for the right time to begin. Having been deeply moved by reading Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s seminal work, “On Killing,” I felt that now was as good a time as any to read Webb’s acclaimed Vietnam novel, “Fields of Fire.” The timing of my reading of this masterpiece could not have been better. This work of fiction, based upon Webb’s own experiences as a decorated Marine in Vietnam, powerfully corroborates all that Grossman proclaims in “On Killing” about the price that our warrior’s pay when they go into battle. Tom Wolfe, whose own writing has garnered numerous awards, calls “Fields of Fire”: “The finest of the Vietnam novels.” I agree with Wolfe’s evaluation.

The blurb on the back on the Bantam paperback edition of “Fields of Fire” gives a very fair and concise summation of what this book is about:

“They each had their reasons for being a soldier. They each had their illusions. Goodrich came from Harvard. Snake got the tattoo – Death Before Dishonor – before he got the uniform. And Hodges was haunted by the ghosts of family heroes. They were three young men from different worlds plunged into a white-hot, murderous realm of jungle warfare as it was fought by one Marine platoon in the An Hoa Basin, 1969. They had no way of knowing what awaited them. Nothing could have prepared them for the madness to come. And in the heart and horror of battle they took their new identities, took on each other, and were each reborn in the fields of fire . . .”

After I reviewed “On Killing” in last week’s White Rhino Report posting, the author, Dave Grossman, wrote to me to express his appreciation for what I had written. In my response to him, I wrote about the connections that I see between his treatise on killing and Webb’s novel about the same topic:

“Great to hear from you. I am glad you appreciated what I wrote about "On Killing." I will finish ‘On Combat’ by the end of this weekend, and plan to review it later this week. In between, I have just read Jim Webb's Fields of Fire,’ which I found to be a wonderful fictional companion piece to your writing. I know Jim a bit through some of his Naval Academy classmates. I had read ‘A Sense of Honor’ a few years ago, and had been waiting for the right time to read ‘Fields of Fire.’ The insights I had gleaned from ‘On Killing’ and ‘On Combat’ made my reading of Webb's work all the more meaningful and poignant. In his fictionalized narrative, he describes virtually all of the phenomena that you have described about killing and combat: involuntary loss of sphincter control, reluctance to fire, posturing, fleeing, guilt, PTSD. It was as if the two of you had collaborated.”

Towards the end of “Fields of Fire,” Snake is faced with a decision about whether or not to re-enlist and remain in “the bush” in Vietnam. I will share a prolonged excerpt to give you a good sense of the character of Snake and of Webb’s insightful writing. In this passage, Snake has just made the decision to stay in the Marines for one more tour of duty in Vietnam.

“One hour later the deed was completely done. Snake left the tent, weighted with a ponderous emotion, and strolled along the powdered dirt roads until he found himself at the western edge of the combat base. He found an empty sandbag bunker (it would be occupied at dusk) and climbed onto its roof and sat heavily, moodily peering across the fields of concertina, like a king on a throne, surveying his wide domain.

Far to the west the mountains rose fierce and blue and ominous, above low layers of thick white fog. They seemed peaceful but he knew their secrets, understood their mysteries more completely than he had ever mastered anything before. He was a comprehending denizen, master of a violent world.

He watched the mountains, and the almost quaint repetitions of paddy and treeline that led to them, and acknowledged that he could do this forever. He sensed that, beyond the terror that was today, there was a fullness that no other thing in the remainder of his life would ever equal. That, beyond doubt, the rest of his life would be spent remembering those agonizing months, revering their fullness. That, yes, he was now twenty – well, almost twenty – and what would always have been the greatest, the most important experience of his life, had almost passed. If he were to go back now – when he did go back – there was nothing, not a thing, that would parallel the sense of urgency and authority and – need. Of being a part of something. And of being needed and being good.

Extend? Hell, yeah. I’ll extend until this goddam thing is over.

He sensed that it was all here, everything, and there was none of it there. All of life’s compelling throbs, condensed and honed each time a bullet flew, the pain, the brother-love, the sacrifice. Nobility discovered by those who’d never even contemplated sacrifice, never felt an emotion worth their own blood on someone else’s altar. The heart-rending deaths. The successes. All here. None there, back in the bowels of the World. Except for the pain, and even that a numbed, daily pain, steady, like blue funk, not the sharp pain of an agonizing moment, capable of being purged, vindicated, replaced by a beautiful, lilting memory: Baby Cakes was a Number One dude, you know? He’da died for me. And I killed ‘em back for him.” (Pages 365-6)

Webb hints at the universality of the warrior’s experience down through the centuries as Lt. Hodges ruminates in the midst of an attack:

“The sky lit and the mist began to lift and the fields were lush, rain-soaked, and green. Hodges peered along the treeline and could see the other Marines of the company set in at its edge, watching also. They lay in the mist and weeds, faceless in their distance, and it struck him that he was watching a timeless vision: the taut stillness of a hundred men frozen by their individual fears. This part of it, at least, was eternal. They could have been anywhere – in a jungle clearing on Saipan, a quarter-century before. In the sweet spring grass at Shiloh. No matter. These were his people, passed down by time to fill a warrior’s conduit, and this was where he belonged. He dreaded what the rumbling tanks, the sputters of machine guns would bring, but at the same time the very prospect energized him with awe and determination.

Bred to it, like a bird dog.” (Pages 385-6)

In a poignant and prescient passage near the end of the book, Webb describes the character, Goodrich, derisively dubbed “Senator” by those in his platoon, returning to the ivied halls of Harvard as a wounded veteran who does not fit in anywhere.

“It took the school experience to make him realize how much he had changed. He became something of an instant curiosity on campus, a Real Live Wounded Vet, as rare at Harvard as a miner at a tea party. He remained silent in his classes, and was alternately cynical and sardonic when called on to recite. Between classes he was recognizable on the long stone walks, a solitary, limping figure whose head was often down, who worked his artificial leg with effort and seldom looked or spoke to the ones he passed.

He would play a game with himself, walking through the hallways and the crowded cafeterias. Conversations would drift toward him from the groups of people nearby – all the subtleties and nuances of Vietnam: Moral Obligation Dominoes Containment Nuremburg Geneva Intervention Hearts and Minds . . .

And he would wonder if any of them saw him limp. He tried to walk correctly, exerted much effort in his attempts. But it doesn’t matter. They can’t see me, I’m too fucking real.

But it cut him deeply . . . I try, he would mourn. I really do. Not as hard as I could, I guess, but I’m not one-way about this. And I can’t try any harder. I’ve lost respect for these people. They’re so – ethereal. In fact, they’re downright spacy.

He continued to contrast them with the members of his squad in Vietnam, and slowly he came to realize that his deep exposure to each group had spoiled him, detaching him from the other. It had not been in him to accept the primitive viciousness that came naturally to Snake and some of the others. He was equally uncomfortable with the fog-headed intellectualism of his schoolmates. His classmates and professors reminded him of Tocqueville’s descriptions of the stratified, vaporous intellectuals who brought about the French Revolution in the name of unattainable ideals. Someone needs to clue them in, he would muse, about what’s really happening down there where the spears fly.

Then one day the thought knifed through the pillbuzz that he was the only one who could do it. It he could ever gain the energy to confront the stares.” (Pages 443-5)

There you have it! The fictional character, Senator, gives rise to the real life Junior Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Clearly, Jim Webb found a way to summon the energy to confront the stares. He stood for office that he might be in a position – through his writing and through his serving in the U.S. Senate – “to clue them in . . . about what’s really happening down there where the spears fly.”

This is a book that speaks eloquently from the past to the challenges of the present – and the future.

Enjoy – and learn!


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