Monday, December 17, 2007

Mini-Review: "A Country Such As This" by James Webb

Jim Webb, the Junior Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia, is a gifted writer of fiction and non-fiction. Because I so enjoyed reading “A Sense of Honor” and “Fields of Fire,” I determined that I would eventually read all of his books. I have just finished “A Country Such As This,” the action of which is set in the time of the Korean conflict and the Viet Nam War.

As is always the case with Webb’s writing, his own experiences as a midshipman at Annapolis and as a Marine in Viet Nam strongly inform his world view and the characters he has created. In this case, the narrative revolves around three roommates from the Naval Academy whose careers veer off in dramatically different directions. Red becomes a pilot with the Navy’s Blue Angels and eventually is taken as a prisoner of war in Viet Nam. Joe becomes a pioneer in the U.S. missile program. Judd, a Marine officer wounded in battle, serves in the FBI, where he is again shot. He eventually becomes a minister and then a Member of Congress. The evolving relationships among these three musketeers and the various women they love serves as a fascinating and satisfying platform that allows Webb to wax eloquent about the cost of war, of leadership, of freedom, and of deep relationships.

In this excerpt, he paints a vivid picture of the history of anti-war movements in the U.S.

He also sets the scene for why the anti-war movement emerged against our involvement in Viet Nam. The lessons seem particularly relevant to the current conflict in Iraq and the response by the American people to that protracted war. Joe’s wife, Sophie, is talking to Judd during the time they are awaiting word about Red as a POW in Viet Nam:

“ ‘It’s just so vicious, Judd. And so wrong. How can they [the anti-war protesters] call themselves Americans?’

‘We’ve always been this way. It’s just gotten more out of hand this time, that’s all. Lyndon Johnson tried to sneak a war past the American people, and whether it was a good war or not became irrelevant. Red understood that. He even wrote me about it before he was shot down. You don’t fight a war when you haven’t articulated what you’re going to do, and expect people to go cheerfully off to bleed for years on end. And Nixon came in with the promise he was going to end it. Once he started pulling people out, that was it. The North Vietnamese have him cold, because the antiwar movement has taken away his negotiating leverage.’

He felt awkward making is speeches. He knew it wasn’t what Sophie wanted to hear: ‘I know I’m not consoling you, much, but I’ve been trying to put this in perspective. Did you know there were antidraft riots in World War I? And did you know that the Selective Service Act only passed by one vote in World War II – in 1940, with Europe already overrun by the Nazis?’

They passed by ugly, despairing neighborhoods along New York Avenue. Judd Smith watched black faces staring at his car, and thought some more. ‘No, here’s a better example for you, Sophie. Did you know that during the Civil War Lincoln had to deal with an antiwar movement? Imagine, the same people who created the abolition movement losing their stomach for the war. Robert E. Lee went north into Sharpsburg to try and defeat the Yankees on their own soil, so that the antiwar movement would force Lincoln to negotiate a settlement. There you have it in a nutshell. The idealists didn’t want slavery, but they didn’t have the stomach for the bloody part of it. They wanted the world to be rational and sane, even when their very cause was the essence of the war!’” (Pages 473-4)

Webb wrote this novel in 1983. In reflecting on the mood of America in the 50’s and 60’s in response to Korea and Viet Nam, he was presciently offering insights to help us to understand the mood of America in 2007 on the heels of years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq.


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