Thursday, June 19, 2008

Review of “Something To Die For” by James Webb

The junior Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia has been in the news as a potential VP candidate to share the Democratic ticket with Senator Obama. So this seems like an opportune time to write about another of his outstanding works of fiction. (I am not referring to the Federal budget, but one of the novels he has penned over the years!) I found his writing so compelling that I am committed to reading all of his published works.

“Something To Die For” is not only well written; it is timely. Webb, the much-decorated Marine who fought in Vietnam, wrote this novel back in 1991. The subject matter involves an ex-Marine who has to choose whether or not to stand for election to Congress from Virginia. How prescient! I agree wholeheartedly with the comments made by the Washington Post Book World when this novel was first published: “Webb is not only a writer of war thriller; he is a genuine novelist of ideas. . . A century hence, James Webb will be studied for the light he sheds on military life and civil-military relations at the climax of the American Century.” As we struggle with how to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to re-integrate into civil society, Webb’s book becomes even more relevant to the mainstream of American life than it was when it was first published in the ‘90’s.

This exchange early in the book reflects the sensibilities of a warrior who watched too many of his comrades die needlessly in the steaming jungles of Southeast Asia:

“As they discussed future needs for amphibious sealift, General Betti had begun to disagree with a young assistant secretary of defense on the likelihood of Third World conflicts in the near future. General Betti had begun, ‘Mr. Secretary, I disagree. I think –‘

And the Young man with the round lawyer’s glasses and the pink shirt with its yellow power tie had cut the career infantryman off with a wave of the hand. ‘Well, that’s the problem, General. You are not paid to think.’

And neither am I, thought Fogarty as he finally answered the Admiral. ‘Of course I’m on board, sir. I’m a professional, you know that. But if we fight an armored column of Cubans in the desert it’s going to cost us. And I’d like to be able to tell my men that the price they’re going to pay is worth it. That it’s important to the country. Vital. Something to die for.’” (Page 72)

A quotation near the end of the novel provides some fascinating insight into the views of the future Senator into the workings of Washington machinery:

“You may wonder why the President keeps listening to someone like Rowland, when he behaves so obscenely. That’s easy. It’s because Rowland has answers, and he knows how to get things done. Even when, sometimes, the wrong things get done, or the right things get done for the wrong reasons. Government requires motion, perhaps even more than wisdom. And there is a constant temptation to depend on those who know how to keep it moving, rather than demanding that it stay on any particular course. But I suppose that’s the grand conundrum, isn’t it?” (Page 382)

This book is worth reading on several levels. It stands on its own as a piece of fiction that tells a tale of characters the readers comes to care about. It also provides some glimpses - through intricately shaded stained glass windows - into the mind of one of the 100 citizens whom we have entrusted to run the upper house of the Legislative branch of our federal government.



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