James Webb, Iraq, Vietnam, and Novels

February 22, 2004

Brad DeLong quotes approvingly from James Webb ripping the Bush Administration for pursuing a war of choice in Iraq.

Bush arguably has committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory. To put it bluntly, he attacked the wrong target. While he boasts of removing Saddam Hussein from power, he did far more than that. He decapitated the government of a country that was not directly threatening the United States and, in so doing, bogged down a huge percentage of our military in a region that never has known peace. Our military is being forced to trade away its maneuverability in the wider war against terrorism while being placed on the defensive in a single country that never will fully accept its presence. There is no historical precedent for taking such action when our country was not being directly threatened. The reckless course that Bush and his advisers have set will affect the economic and military energy of our nation for decades. It is only the tactical competence of our military that, to this point, has protected him from the harsh judgment that he deserves.
Strong Stuff. DeLong presents Webb as an "unmuzzled republican." He is right, I think, to point out the grumbling from the Cold War military establishment about the way that the Bushies have conducted the war on terror, and Webb is right to remind us that not only was Iraq a war of choice, it was a war expressly explained as the answer to a clear and future threat - GWB never explicitly stated that Saddam Hussein was an immediate hazard, just that if he were not overthrown then eventually he would aid some large-scare terrorist attack on the USA. The only thing in the Bushies' original call to arms that was time critical was that the soldiers had already begun to deploy and they could not be pulled back or rescheduled without losing their training edge - a line that sounded distressingly like the way the generals in August 1914 told their politicians that they had no plans to reverse or even halt mobilization once it had begun. The time-critical aspect of Iraq appears to have been the neocons' belief that an invasion in the Middle East followed by a democratic republic in the Middle East would have a therapeutic effect on other states in the region.

But that is not why I wanted to blog on this, much as I like DeLong's thought and much as I agree with Webb's comments. DeLong frames Webb as a Reaganaut and a former Secretary of the Navy, which he was. He does not point out that Webb has had an unusual career after leaving the Pentagon. The man went from running the Navy to writing novels, novels with specific messages about the state of the union and the dangers of American foreign policy. My copies are all in boxes. I liked several of them and wanted to talk about them, so the following is from memory.

I first encountered Webb through his 1985 attempt at the Great American Novel,
A Country Such as This, a book completed shortly after he left his day job. Webb looks at three classmates at the US Naval Academy, an institution he had written about in his 1981 novel, and traces them through graduation just after World War Two, through Korea, and into the Vietnam era: one is smart, and becomes a very unhappy rocket scientist; one is the All American Boy, a second generation Polish-American from coal country Pennsylvania; one is an Appalachian mountain boy who becomes a Marine, an FBI agent, a minister, and a US Representative in that order. The All-American Boy (Webb calls him that) dies in an accident while exploring a Pacific Battlefield with a Japanese friend - both are obsessed with the war and obsessed with making connections across the Pacific: something that makes sense when we remember that the story of the early 1980s was that the Japanese industrial juggernaut was going to eat America's lunch.

In other words, the book is very much a creature of its times, of the early 1980s, and of a set of worries that the US was trapped in the past, losing track of its future, weak on morality and, most importantly, weak on community. The All American Boy comes from a tight-knit community, the rural minister creates one. It is a good book, I might have to go re-read it.

Afterwards, Webb wrote a series of cautionary tales about the dangers of getting involved in the third world without a clear set of missions. Like his A Sense of Honor (1981) and A Country Such as This, they were meditations on the meaning of masculinity in the post modern age, but unlike them they also carried a direct foreign policy message - don't mess with dirty little wars, and certainly don't mess unless you know exactly what you are getting into and why you are going there.

All of Webb's books are, to some extent, an attempt to make sense of the Vietnam War - why was the United States involved, what were the various costs of our involvement, what if anything did we gain from our presence there, what are the lasting legacies of the conflict, and what are the real mistakes of the war that we must be careful not to repeat. In his earlier novels Webb was skeptical of the war and skeptical of the common 1980s myth that the US could have and should have tried harder to win in Vietnam, and this is one of the things that distinguished him from a Reagan White House that was looking for a winnable war. Note that I am working from my memory of almost 20 year old newspaper accounts and from his fiction. I would have to do research to figure out the role that Webb played in the Carter-Reagen military buildup. I want to say that he worked hard to rebuild the armed forces after Vietnam and that he worked hard to keep the military and the national presence around the world from being frittered away uselessly, but don't quote me on that.

Webb has a long track record of preferring that the US exercise what Joshua Micah Marshal has recently described as "soft power" - influence, economy, culture and desire - rather than "hard power" - soldiers and violence. I remember from the 1980s that Webb was something of an odd duck in the Reagan White House. I am not surprised that he has decided to become something of an odd duck by attacking GWB - his criticism is in character for the man and his record, even if DeLong affects surprise that a Republican would turn the knives on a sitting president for doing something stupid.

Read his novels. They are good action-adventure with a foreign policy component and some very good thoughts about the differences between manhood and adulthood.

Posted by Red Ted at February 22, 2004 07:50 AM | TrackBack