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James Webb, War Novelist

James Webb is the best politician-novelist since Brand Whitlock, the early 20th-century Ohio realist, mayor of Toledo, and protege of the sainted Tolstoyan Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones.

Whitlock was spoken of as a potential Democratic candidate for president; Webb, the much-decorated Vietnam vet, former secretary of the Navy, and ex-Virginia senator, is actively pursuing the nomination of a party whose brain trust consists largely of Ivy League contemners of the working-class whites whom author Webb has defended with eloquent ferocity.

His superb first novel, Fields of Fire [1] (1978), follows into Vietnam a platoon of Marines led by Robert E. Lee Hodges, a young officer from hardscrabble Kentucky who hears ancestral voices as he fights not for the Domino Theory or Robert McNamara but “because we have always fought.”

Hodges’s unit includes an enlistee from Harvard, mockingly nicknamed “Senator,” a “pissant crybaby” who loses a leg yet gains a hard-won wisdom. Senator returns to school a “Real Live Wounded Vet, as rare at Harvard as a miner at a tea party.” Contrasting the mewling children of privilege with the hicks and soul brothers with whom he had served, Senator comes to understand that a “culture gap” dwarfs the generation gap or any other artificial barrier that divides Americans.


This culture gap, as well as his rank-and-file resentment of those warmongers who “had other priorities,” a la Dick Cheney, has been a consistent Webb theme.

In Something to Die For [2] (1991), Webb’s bloodless villain is a defense secretary—a product of Harvard, naturally—who prissily disapproves of the photo of Nathan Bedford Forrest that decorates the office of the elderly Senate majority leader, a Mississippi populist who wants us to tend to our own affairs rather than go abroad to slay dragons.

The secretary, a cuckold who “didn’t have the guts to serve when there was a war on, and now every time there’s a crisis he wants to send them in,” engineers a U.S. intervention in Ethiopia to divert public attention from a scandal involving Japan. He is nicknamed Chicken Hawk by “the fighting troops of America,” among them Col. Bill Fogarty, who recalls of Vietnam: “I killed soldiers I did not hate, to fulfill the desires of politicians I did not love.”

As he tells in his recent campaign-ishly titled memoir I Heard My Country Calling [3], Jim Webb was an itinerant Air Force brat. A nomadic childhood often bodes ill for an adult’s ability to form attachments to people and places, but Webb proudly asserts his Appalachian roots.

In Born Fighting [4] (2004), his treatment of his Scots-Irish heritage, Webb writes of obtaining Confederate headstones for ancestors buried atop a mountain near Alley Hollow, Virginia. As he stands near the graves he feels a rush of defiant pride: “The slurs stick to me … . Rednecks. Trailer-park trash. Racists. Cannon fodder. My ancestors. My people. Me.” marapr-issuethumb [5]

Webb has exquisite taste, lauding Johnny Cash and Steve Earle and Vernon Parrington, the Oklahoma Sooners football coach and author of the populist-inflected literary history Main Currents in American Thought.

(The 2016 race may feature two candidates who share names with praiseworthy pop-music figures: Webb, whose distant cousin Jimmy Webb wrote the achingly beautiful antiwar song “Galveston,” among other hits, and Scott Walker, the public-union-busting Wisconsin governor whose appellative double is the teen idol turned eccentric minimalist who sang the lush masterpiece “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”, only to walk away into his own world of night music.)

James Webb is hardly a pacifist, but next to Hillary Clinton he is a virtual Smedley Butler: the peace candidate, a sharp critic of our Middle Eastern entanglements and their architects.

The tired old categories need a reset. Webb, who praises the “Southern redneck” as “the greatest inhibitor of the plans of the activist Left and the cultural Marxists for a new kind of society,” will be the most powerful voice in his party for drug-law and prison reform, an end to promiscuous military interventions, and closing the chasm between the plutocracy and the rest of us.

Echoing the Populists of the 1890s, especially those who sought a biracial coalition against the exploiters and the imperialists, Webb denies that “America should be governed by a club of insiders who manipulate public opinion in order to serve the interests of hidden elites who hold the reins of power.”

Nothing he writes can be mistaken for a Martin O’Malley tweet or Heritage Foundation issue paper.

It is impossible to read Webb and conclude that he has anything but loathing for the Fortunate Sons—the Jeb Bushes and Mitt Romneys—and the epicene polemicists who do their masters’ bidding. If Webb gets anywhere near the White House, these un-American snipers will deploy, but Jim Webb has faced weaponry more potent than the chicken hawks’ pea-shooters—and he lived to tell the tale.

Bill Kauffman is the author of ten books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette [6] and Ain’t My America [7].

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "James Webb, War Novelist"

#1 Comment By Buzz Baldrin On April 10, 2015 @ 8:12 am

There are no short-term and possibly no long-term solutions for the Banana Republicification of America, so Jim Webb is not my savior.

But I like him for two of the reasons stated in this article: Webb’s old time American populism and foreign policy realism.

Unfortunately, other than as a curiosity, he has little support or recognition in the mainstream media or Democratic Party. And the ordinary people who would most benefit from his flyover country practicality will not read Bill Kauffman’s overdue introductory article.

Glad The American Conservative published this article. Only hope TAC will provide more Webb, less Paul, and better comparisons between their foreign policy positions and bona fides.

#2 Comment By David Smith On April 10, 2015 @ 10:56 am

I simply cannot agree with Senator Webb’s views on abortion: ( [8])

However, I have to admit I’d prefer this Democrat to many (most?) of the so-called conservatives that populate the GOP! At least with Mr. Webb, I hear the echo of the sort of true traditional conservatism, at least when it comes to the elites and militarism, that used to be a vital ingredient of the old Democratic Party.

#3 Comment By michael in nyc On April 10, 2015 @ 11:43 am

I sure wish he would run. It would be great to actually want to vote For someone, than against the lesser of two evils.

#4 Comment By Myron Hudson On April 10, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

He sounds very promising and I hope he runs, if only to expand the foreign policy dialog. The perfect being the enemy of the god, much of the left will reject him on cultural/PC issues.

#5 Comment By JT On April 10, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

His foreign policy seems a bit better but he voted for the NSA wire tapping…at least Rand didn’t compromise on that.

#6 Comment By Webbing On April 10, 2015 @ 2:54 pm

I’ve liked him ever since Fields of Fire, and since I parted ways with the GOP over its increasingly mindless interventionism, I’ve hoped Webb might challenge the Clinton machine.

But he has played Achilles-sulking-in-his-tent a little too long. There’s an unbecoming petulance in Webb the politician that is unexpected coming from the author of the novels.

#7 Comment By Dennis Brislen On April 10, 2015 @ 3:51 pm

Webb is an intriguing prospect. He possesses many positive attributes; intelligence, experience and mental toughness, combined with an ability to think outside the box.

His reputation as a populist independent thinker may play well to disaffected paleo/libs and antiwar/anti-bailout Dems. Of course these attributes will raise eyebrows in the halls of Dem power brokers.

The question ultimately will be, does he possesses the “fire in the belly” to go all out after the nomination? If he does, it is time for him, as they say in hill country, “git after it!”
He is not well known to the Dem rank and file and time goes by quickly.

#8 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 10, 2015 @ 5:06 pm

Is it possible for a person to agree that foreign intervention and the drug wars are not good things without having to buy into all of this chip on the shoulder resentment of “Harvard” and “mewling children of privilege,” and celebration of shallow, pseudo working class heroism, as well as the making of heroes out of traitors who later became Klan leaders and who arguably allowed the racist massacre of POWs by troops under his command?

I find the whole slant here to be utterly unpersuasive. It seems to me that the real “Scots/Irish,” “Appalachian,” “hardscrabble,” Kentuckians and so forth are, in fact, on balance and on average, the biggest war mongers in the American polity. It is all well and good to pretend that the national passion for bellicosity began with Hillary Clinton (or some fictional, prissy, cuckold, Harvard alum SoD who doesn’t love the above mentioned Klan leading traitor and possible war criminal), but the reality is that most of her critics on the right, including most the Southern White Males being valorized here, hate her much, much more for her peacenik, hippyish, McGovernite past than they do for her current neo liberal interventionism. I don’t actually see a lot so support for reforming the drug laws coming from these folks, either.

The reality, outside of the friendly confines of The American Conservative, is that there really is a cultural divide in the USA. And while the other, leftish/liberal, “Harvard” side is certainly not 100% antiwar or anti drug war, the Southern, CSA lovin’, right side is less so. Much less so.

#9 Comment By Rossbach On April 10, 2015 @ 7:16 pm

When he was a senator, he earned a NumbersUSA grade of D+. I wonder how he justifies that to his hardscrabble kin who can’t find a decent-paying job.

#10 Comment By Max On April 11, 2015 @ 3:37 am

Well – it would be interesting to see a real war hero run for the US Presidency.
John Kerry was also a decorated Vietnam war veteran, but I think Sen Jim Webb is more accomplished as a soldier.
I was pretty dumbfounded at how political campaign operatives associated with the Bush camp basically slandered Kerry’s war record – remember the whole swift boat controversy? The media brought out a whole bunch of Vietnam vets, who claimed Kerry was a coward, who ran away from battle – but non of them had actually served with Kerry.
Also – Sen. Chuck Hagel was another decorated Vietnam War veteran and well known critic of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and a Republican. But that didn’t stop members of his own party (and former friends) attacking him viciously during the confirmation hearings for his appointment as Sec. of Defense for Pres. Obama.
Sen. Webb seems more pugnacious and intellectually aware than Kerry or Hagel – so it would be interesting to see what would happen if he decided to run for President.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 11, 2015 @ 9:04 am

. . . always this lingering issue, of killing children in the womb.

It’s good to know that the Democrats, have not eaten all of their conservatives, though they try.

taking on the idelogical left and the wall street crowd at the same time is long overdue.

Not that I hate WS, it’s just lack of any accountability, much less reasonable attending at all to their misbehavior.

#12 Comment By Paul Windels On April 11, 2015 @ 9:45 am

In calling Sen. Webb “the best politicians novelist since Brand Whitlock”, aren’t you overlooking Winston Churchill’s multivolume novels about both world wars?

#13 Comment By Darth Thulhu On April 11, 2015 @ 12:11 pm

As with most populists, he has a hard slog to the nomination. This is unfortunate, given how much better he is on almost every issue of substance in comparison to Clinton.

His likely best case scenario is becoming the Vice-Presidential nominee, but one can always pray he manages to pull off the upset.

#14 Comment By Hibernian On April 11, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

I saw and heard him speak at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics Wednesday night. (David Axelrod the director of this Institute was there also.) He is impressive. As a Senator I think he was better in opposition to the Bush administration, 2007-2009, than he was as a supporter of the Obama administration, 2009-2013. I don’t think he has yet given a full explanation of why he left the Senate after one term; he says he has gone back and forth between public service and private life his entire career. I wonder if there was more to it than that; could it have had to do with conflict with the Northeastern Liberal Establishment? (He almost always voted with the leadership on final passage of legislation, which is disappointing, IMHO.) Also he will have top deal with social issues and his own history of three marriages.

#15 Comment By Johann On April 11, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

“Webb has exquisite taste, lauding Johnny Cash and Steve Earle…” A little off topic, I too like some of Steve Earle’s songs, but can’t stand entertainers like him as a person when they use their fame which is unrelated to politics, to start spouting their political views, whether i agree with those views or not. And who could really admire Steve Earle the man when he is a slave to chemical dependencies? Nothing but good things to say about Johnny Cash though, personal and professional life. He finally straightened his personal life out, more or less.

#16 Comment By joeyman9 On April 11, 2015 @ 3:03 pm

If this guy would run and receive the dem nomination, I’d vote for him over the unlikely GOP Candidate Rand Paul. He has convictions and it would be the first democrat I voted for since Carter (due to Ford’s pardon of Nixon).

#17 Comment By JP McEvoy On April 12, 2015 @ 9:02 am

Anyone but Paul…

#18 Comment By brians On April 13, 2015 @ 8:31 am

David Smith, It’s high time that conservative Christians realize they’ve been played for chumps on the abortion issue. I’ve been a republican the entirety of my adult life, but Webb is the 1940’s democrat I’ve been praying would show up.

#19 Comment By Sandy Daze On April 13, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

Jim Webb, successful man; Naval Academy graduate, combat warrior, lawyer, SecNav, principled departee’ from government during the Reagan Administration, Pulitzer winning author, script writer, author, inter alia, of “Born Fighting.” A man in search of a mission, decides to run for and wins the confidence and trust of constituents, a position as a Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

As a Senator and more importantly as a United States MARINE, positions considered to among the most exclusive “clubs” in the world, he was similar to many of his constituents whom, like myself and perhaps some reading this comment, took a durable oath to

solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.

We, his constituents, looked to his candidacy and eventual election as Senator for the Great Commonwealth of Virginia as an opportunity for a man of distinguished performance and renown character to bring a sense of civility, maturity and intellect to the Senate.

Alas, we were all too stunned with his lock-step support for the administration that has proven itself to be the furthest to the left, most socialist and anti-American administration of all time.

Indeed, on any one of a significant number of votes, Jim Webb could have stood in the breech, defending the honor and integrity of the American Way Of Life. Like so many of his forebears, he could have recalled that he was born fighting and would likely (metaphorically) die fighting, but at least he would be remembered as fighting for America.

As it is, he will be remembered as a lackluster one-term senator from Virginia, who accomplished nothing of substance during his six years in the Senate.

His service in the Senate, probably the last time he will be in government, will be that for which he will most remembered. Some will hold the view that he was a traitor to the Constitution of the United States of America and to the ideals of the American Republic; I am not unsympathetic to that view. But, perhaps calling him a traitor is too unforgiving, given his previous service.

Thus, I will recall Webb as a disappointment of colossal proportions, of a
magnitude perhaps only exceeded by his ego.

Take good care,

#20 Comment By sglover On April 13, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

Yeah, sure, Webb’s bio is appealing. Can anybody name anything that he did or said while he was in the U.S. Senate? Seems to me that what he actually did or didn’t do when he had the chance is at least as important as what we’d like to imagine him doing in the future.

#21 Comment By sglover On April 13, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

EliteCommInc. says:

taking on the idelogical left and the wall street crowd at the same time is long overdue.

Are we talking about the real Democratic Party, or the one in your imagination? Because in practically every campaign since McGovern’s that I can remember, there comes a time when the Dem nominee performs a very public Sacrifice the Cartoon Leftie ritual. Who can forget Sister Souljah, or what’s-his-name the clergyman Obama knew in Chicago?

The Democratic Party is fundamentally a business party that happens to have inherited some leftist blocs because of accidents of history, and because the Republican Party seems determined to repel anybody who doesn’t fit its notion of “real Americans”. For all practical purposes there is no ideological left, unfortunately, in American politics.

#22 Comment By sean On April 13, 2015 @ 8:31 pm

I wish this article had been written eight years ago (and maybe it was) because unfortunately that when Sen. Webb’s moment came and went.

Webb could have been the Presidential candidate of 2008 who could have attracted the antiwar vote on both the Right and Left in the manner of someone who has seen war and who has credibility with the Scots-Irish constituency. After its their kids who do a good chunk of the dying in war. That would have been a very powerful coalition to run on.

Instead, Webb stayed in the Senate for just one term and Hilary Clinton transformed herself into Norma Rae to to save herself against Obama. There was no one to challenge either her views or explain his. Thus no real foreign policy discussion So Obama became President, Clinton extracted being Secretary of State as her tribute for party unity and no real change while the antiwar movement goes into deep hibernation.

Seven years later Webb wishes to be President despite the fact that was Obama’s coalition which helped him win his Senate seat over Allen. Actually, the Scots-Irish of Virginia stayed loyal to Allen. What possible coalition could elect Webb now? Is the first primary he’s going to compete in the Oklahoma primary? It’s too bad he’s engaged in a fools errand now, because back then, he would have been pretty formidable.

As for the Scots-Irish, they’re pretty much screwed. They won’t vote at all for the Democrats, so they’re not in the coalition which is better positioned to win the White House and instead for a warlike GOP who will be the first send their families off to war in Iran, Yemen or Ukraine. Political death or actual death. That’s an awful choice.

#23 Comment By Bill On April 18, 2015 @ 9:08 pm

This piece makes me wonder if Mr. Kauffman pays any attention to actual politics (and I certainly wouldn’t blame him if he doesn’t!) or has taken to living his life solely within the realm of rhetoric (and his local community.) Many in the TAC crowd displayed similar enthusiasm for Webb when he ran for Senate. I think, however, that it may have been someone at TAC who later admitted that Webb “talks like Pat Buchanan and votes like Harry Reid.”

Webb is a master of rhetoric, and he has carefully cultivated an appealing persona. He is also a lackluster one-term Senator who voted in lockstep with the liberal-Democratic party leadership on every big-government and socially liberal issue, who undertook few initiatives or efforts of his own, and who then got out as soon as he could, probably to avoid more tough policy choices. He had his big chance to demonstrate that he had real convictions, and he demonstrated that he has none. I don’t see how he can be assessed as anything but an opportunistic phony.

Single-issue antiwar candidates might see something in him, but I don’t see him offering anything of substance to merit broad conservative support.

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 20, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

“For all practical purposes there is no ideological left, unfortunately, in American politics.”

In my view, that left would comprise those who contend for “same sex marriage” {And it really a powerful minority}, after birth and late term abortions, those who argue for euthanasia, the redifinition or the termination of marriage altogether as normative community standard, who contend thet the Consitution should be viewed in context of international frames democratic ideas/theories, nongender/transgender restrooms, “hate crime legislators”, that laws ought to attend to inidvidual hurts as Constitutional harms, that human rights supercedes constitutional rights, that economic and social concerns — are borderless.

Now there was a time when such ideas were ony intellectual exploration, now they exist as policy advances. The silence of the middle and right left should not be construed as a body subsumed by far left thinking, though I understand why one might argue as much.

#25 Comment By Shelly On May 23, 2015 @ 2:22 am

I know this is a late post, but I just read this. — Upon his departure from the Senate Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and one of the nation’s most respected political commentators, said, “Many people run for the Senate to be something, rather than do something, but not Webb. For a one-term Senator he’s got quite a legacy. I’ve watched senators serve three, four, five terms and have less to show for it.” And Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin observed, “I have seen first-hand his extraordinary knowledge and understanding of the issues … and I have no doubt Jim Webb’s service to our nation will long continue.”

#26 Comment By Alan Miller On June 2, 2015 @ 7:43 pm

Jim Webb is a principled man with a built-in B.S. detector. Both of which probably doom his presidential prospects because he’s not afraid to speak truth to power. When Reagan broke his promise of a 600-ship Navy, Secretary Webb resigned. When Sen. McCain tried to shortchange veterans on the expanded G.I. Bill, Webb stood up to him.