Sen. Webb on Military Sons and Fathers

Jim Webb and his son Jimmy in Afghanistan last year. i i

hide captionJim Webb (left) and his son Jimmy in Afghanistan last year. The younger Webb recently returned home from Iraq.

Courtesy Jim Webb
Jim Webb and his son Jimmy in Afghanistan last year.

Jim Webb (left) and his son Jimmy in Afghanistan last year. The younger Webb recently returned home from Iraq.

Courtesy Jim Webb

Read an Excerpt

On this Friday before Father's Day, we take a few minutes to talk about the tradition of military service in families — about fathers and sons going to war. One person who knows about that is Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA). An outspoken critic of the Iraq war, Webb writes in his book Born Fighting about the political contributions of his Scots-Irish ancestors and their commitment to serving.

"They go into the military because they love their country, because they have family traditions — in the case of my family all the way back to the American Revolution," Webb tells Renee Montagne. "And when the time comes, there's a sense of obligation among many to live up to the people who went before you."

Webb's father entered the military in World War II. Webb himself fought in Vietnam, and his son has just returned from Iraq.

In his book, just reissued in paperback, Webb writes about his own, military father:

Watching firsthand the Johnson administration's dissembling to Congress and disrespect of military leaders, he urged me more than once to go into the navy, find myself a nice ship where I could, as he so often put it, "sit in the wardroom and eat ice cream," and not risk myself as a Marine on an ever-deteriorating battlefield. Once I did receive my orders for combat, my father put in his papers to retire from the air force, telling me he "couldn't bear to watch it" while still wearing a military uniform.

Webb talks with Montagne about his family's military tradition and about serving, even in conflicts they don't support.

What did you think when he said that to you?

Well, my dad and I had many, many conversations over the period before I went to Vietnam and he would get very emotional. In fact, that's the only time I ever saw him cry was when I went to see him just before I went to Vietnam. One of those odd, serendipitous moments where "Danny Boy" came on the radio.

You know, in a sense it was the way that I've looked at my son's experience. I'm enormously proud that he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps during the worst part of the Iraq war, to leave college because he felt that it was time for him to go do what we have generally done.

You realize of course, probably better than anyone, that you're the model and your father for what [your son] did.

Well, there's a whole lot to be said for, whatever the politics of a war are, for people who believe in their country, and who are willing to step forward and take those risks because they believe in their country. It sounds intellectually odd, but emotionally it's correct.

How do you reconcile that as a person in uniform and actually fighting?

You know, I got that same question from a young Marine a few years ago when I visited Quantico. His question to me was, "I don't believe in this what we're doing. I don't think it's the right way to go. What do I do when one of my Marines asks me that question?" And I said I'll give you the same answer that I used to give myself during Vietnam. And that is that the war isn't going to go away whether or not you or I like it — we're talking as young second lieutenants, not as senators here — and, given that, my instincts, my responsibilities are to do the job and to get as many people back as I can. And that's really the duty of a young military leader.

I'm guessing that you might have seen it coming yourself that your son would also want to serve. But when it became a reality during wartime, what did you think?

It's very, very tough. I mean, it's tough as a father, as you might imagine, and it was tough having to deal with it as a public figure, particularly because I was in the middle of a campaign. I didn't go through anything differently as a father than hundreds of thousands of other people, but it's harder, I think, to be a parent when someone is sent into harm's way than it is to be that person. I mean, in terms of how you handle the emotions.

I can finally understand what my parents went through when I was in Vietnam. It's probably the hardest thing you'll have to go through as a parent.

Excerpt: 'Born Fighting'

Book Cover:  'Born Fighting'

Glad Soldiers, Accidental Scholars

World War II and its aftermath were heady days for those of Scots-Irish descent, elevating this culture with its unique mix of individualism, self-reliance, kinship, and courage from its regional dominance of the Southern backcountry to a subtle but powerful position of national prominence. In international affairs, every element of the Scots-Irish ethos was vital to the strength of the American military while at the same time its values were naturally opposed to the Soviet Union's repressive, expansionist form of communism. Domestically, Scots-Irish folkways had become deeply embedded into the nation's blue-collar communities in every region except the Northeast. And at the individual level, people whose families had for so many generations lived in utter poverty were for the first time reaping the benefits of the American dream on a meaningful scale.

During this same period, the intense philosophical debates that opposed the values of this culture, and the radical political movement that was part and parcel of those deliberations, were being nurtured in geographic, intellectual, and academic venues where the Scots-Irish themselves seldom ventured. Quite often, the grist of the arguments for revolutionary change was the product of social and political experiences in a Europe that the Scots-Irish had long ago left behind. But the intellectual and social forces that were growing in the universities and cultural enclaves of "progressive" America were little more than distant noise to the Scots-Irish, who were fighting an entirely different political and economic monster. Some of them were climbing out of more than seven decades of poverty and colonialism in the South. Others were packing scant belongings and setting out on their rough journeys north or west.

When war ultimately came to America in 1941, their cause was simple, and true to their long history: to defeat their country's enemies on the battlefield. In the war's aftermath, the occupation and rebuilding of Japan and Germany seemed to them a ratification of their own version of democracy. That the Soviet Union immediately pursued an expansionist agenda once the war was over, even as its ugly repression of its own people continued apace, only convinced them further. And the postwar economic boom in America, which brought many of them jobs and cars and decent houses in suburban neighborhoods, was icing on the cake. America was the land of the free, the hope of the world, and they had helped make it so.

No sooner had World War II ended than the Cold War began, and the country was forced to confront an aggressive, competing system of government in a variety of dangerous crisis points around the world. From 1950 to 1953, a war in Korea consumed the country's emotional and intellectual energies as well as the blood and sacrifice of its citizens. A few years later, in 1957, the Soviet Union was the first to enter the space age, the launch of Sputnik bringing with it all the military dangers inherent in intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons thousands of miles away. And America found itself both bewildered and unprepared.

After Sputnik was launched, my father, then an air force major, brought our family tradition of pioneering into a new generation. Still lacking a college education, he was nonetheless chosen by the air force to become part of one of the most urgent missions in the nation's history: to build a missile system capable of protecting the country against the very real Soviet threat. On short notice our family of six traveled from Alabama to the isolated wilderness of California's central coast, where an old, eighty-five-thousand-acre National Guard training base named Camp Cook was being transformed into Vandenberg Air Force Base.

In the space of one year the military population at Vandenberg expanded from nearly zero to twelve thousand people. At the beginning, the base had no family housing. We lived for a while crammed into a five-dollar-a-night motel room in Pismo Beach, my father driving more than fifty miles each way every day along narrow, two-lane mountain roads to and from the base, leaving before dawn and coming back well after dark. Later we rented a small home in Santa Maria, cutting his commute in half but seeing him just as seldom, and finally we moved into a base housing project that had been scratched into the rough, vine-covered hillsides of Vandenberg. Having spent the fifth grade in England, the sixth in Texas, and the seventh in Alabama, I went to three different schools in the eighth grade alone, the third school a converted World War II hospital complex on the base. The old, yellow, wooden buildings sagged with age and disrepair. Chalkboards and desks had been erected in the low-ceilinged, dimly lit wards. The original hospital had been built above ground, with crawlspaces under it for ventilation. Snakes, jackrabbits, and skunks often found their way below the creaking floors of the classrooms. Rather than purchasing dead frogs pickled in formaldehyde to dissect in science class, my partner and I would simply crawl underneath the building and catch a few toads.

It was chaos in the classrooms, kids from military towns and bases across the nation thrown suddenly into this remote, old hospital complex with its long interconnecting hallways and its odd, haunting memories of wounded soldiers who had once suffered in rows of beds where now we sat in lines of desks. Most of us, including me, were unwilling and unruly students, jarred from normality, frequently disruptive, and always cynical. Fights broke out routinely, on the playgrounds and even in the classrooms. It was not unusual for firecrackers to be thrown across the classroom when a teacher turned toward the freestanding blackboard. The shortstop on my Babe Ruth League baseball team left us in midseason, heading off to jail. Two years later my second baseman on that team was shot while trying to rob a store. We were accused by a few teachers of being "military trash," which, one surmised, must have been somewhere below white trash, because some among us were black and others were brown. But we laughed that off—what kind of teacher would settle for a job in this isolated, intellectually barren region, anyway?

Vandenberg at its beginnings had all the chaos of an isolated frontier town; a raw but accessible wilderness where I spent much of my time hiking and camping, a social structure that saw air force enlisted men dating high school girls, and a lack of contact with the more sophisticated world. More important, it was serious work that our fathers were doing far away along the fringes of the sea, where they had built block houses and launchpads and were testing scientific concepts that no one in history had ever before put into play. Our fathers were not scientists, although civilian scientists and engineers frequently worked alongside them. But they were doers, fixers, mechanical geniuses, risk-takers, and, more than we even understood, they were on an urgent mission involving national survival, with little time to lose.

For two years I rarely saw my father except on holidays and on Sundays, even though we were living in the same house. He was gone before I got up. He was usually still gone when I went to bed. He took no leave and had no vacations. Now and then we would be sitting in our hospital ward of a classroom and the ground would shake and the sky would roar and we would rush outside, hundreds of kids emptying out of the buildings within a blink so that we could stand in the school yards and look westward toward the sea where the latest attempt to launch a missile would fill our eyes. The Thor missiles particularly were the world's greatest firecrackers. More often than not during those first years they went off course and had to be destroyed. Some blew up on the launch pads, some just above them. Sometimes they went sideways instead of following their planned trajectory out into the sea. One of them ended up soaring ever higher, never rolling into its turn toward the sea, and finally exploding just outside the farm town of Santa Maria, where large pieces of metal showered the strawberry fields. We would cheer even when they blew up, for if nothing else we knew that we were watching an attempt to make history somewhere out there in the block houses next to the sea.

Despite Vandenberg's remoteness, we knew viscerally of its importance. In 1959, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev made a train journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco during a visit to the United States. The rail route passed through the outer fringes of Vandenberg, near the sea. As the train left the little village of Surf and entered the base's property, Khrushchev famously folded his arms and turned his back on the facility, staring out into the Pacific Ocean until his railroad car was again on civilian soil.

Other strangers knew of us as well.

One summer day as we were playing baseball on a field next to our housing project, we heard that a group of protesters was on its way to Vandenberg, presumably from San Francisco far to the north, in order to march against the Bomb. Stuck as we were in this remote outpost that had no recreational outlets save a base gym, an old movie theater, and a one-room "teen club," the thought of a group of outsiders traveling to the base in order to protest its activities seemed preposterous. Several friends and I made our way to the main gate, where the base commander had augmented the normal air police contingent with a fire truck. Dozens of military kids gathered at the edge of the base perimeter, looking querulously through the chain-link fence.

The protesters were standing in the ice plants and sagebrush on the other side of the dusty, lonely highway, a scraggly, rather confused group of no more than a hundred people holding "Ban the Bomb" signs and gathering their courage to try to enter the base.

Suddenly—almost resignedly—they began walking across the highway. When they neared the gate, the fire hoses opened up, washing them back to the other side. Their mission somehow accomplished, they took a few pictures, mostly of themselves, and then walked slowly away, as wet and beaten as whipped puppies.

We laughed and cheered, more at their oddity than at their cause, which from the confines of our lives seemed too ludicrous even to be taken seriously. How could they not comprehend the seriousness of Russia's missile advantage? And who would even notice that they had come? But less than ten years later, after I returned from a hard year of combat in Vietnam, those protesters and their soul mates would own the streets. Seeing me in my Marine Corps uniform, it was they who would laugh. And it was I who would feel odd.

The missile program at Vandenberg succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, and over time Vandenberg itself eventually became a stable and thriving community. My father flourished as well, finally working in an area with so many unknowns that his natural intelligence trumped the sophisticated education of many around him. He "wrote the book" on the complicated process of bringing together the many pieces of civilian and military hardware and technology into the actual assemblage of workable Atlas missiles on their launching pads. He was promoted early to lieutenant colonel and assigned to the Strategic Air Command's headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Predictably for us, this meant three new homes and two new schools in the next two years.

When the Cuban missile crisis erupted in October 1962, the nation was fortunate that the officers and airmen at Vandenberg had done their work, for if the United States had not developed a strong deterrent program of its own, Soviet missiles would have remained in Cuba, only ninety miles away from our shores. If this had happened, certainly the politics not only of the Cold War but also of the Americas themselves would have evolved far more dangerously. As that crisis unfolded, my father spent an entire week without sleep other than catnapping on military aircraft as he shuttled endlessly between Vandenberg and Offutt, coordinating the air force's preparedness to launch missiles at a moment's notice should the president so decide. Finally he passed out at a conference table at SAC headquarters and had to be hospitalized.

For this and other such work my father was again promoted early, this time to colonel with only two years as a lieutenant colonel, which was almost unheard-of, even for better-educated and more urbane academy graduates. Just after I graduated from high school, he was chosen to command the only composite missile squadron in the military, taking a unit responsible for launching Thor, Atlas, and Scout Junior missiles from a success rate of 11 percent to a perfect record of thirteen successful launches in a row. One of his tasks was shooting Atlas missiles into the Johnston Atoll while a version of Nike antiaircraft missiles attempted to intercept them from facilities on the island of Kwajalein—the first, embryonic efforts at an antimissile defense program.

In addition to all this, the old man was steadily sneaking up on his life's great dream—a college degree. He had been the first to study beyond the eighth grade; the first to finish high school; and for twenty-six years, whenever the chance had presented itself, he had been accumulating college credits. A night school class at some isolated military post; a correspondence course; a military school that might qualify for credit by one college or another; even the electrician's course he had taken after high school; all were piled together year after year until he crossed the magic threshold. Once assigned to Offutt Air Force Base, he spent three nights a week at the University of Omaha in addition to carrying his sensitive and demanding workload at SAC headquarters. Fats Domino released a song during that time called "Three Nights a Week You're Gone," and we joked that it was written especially for him.

Finally, in the winter of my senior year of high school, James Henry Webb, Sr., bagged his diploma. It was, shall we say, a Great Santini Moment. My father was never given to subtlety or understatement. As my granny used to put it, and not in a complimentary way, "Your daddy likes it loud."

I watched him from where I sat in the front row of the expandable bleacher seats at the University of Omaha's men's gymnasium, trying to comprehend the depth of his pride. His chin was lifted; he was high on adrenaline. His prematurely gray hair looked almost fluorescent as he walked toward the podium in the midst of a long line of men and women half his age. The presenter put the cherished paper in his hand. And then he broke out of line and walked across the gymnasium floor, drawing immediate attention in front of perhaps a thousand people. He looked like he'd just won the Super Bowl, or maybe the heavyweight championship. And his burning eyes were on me.

I groaned inwardly, looking at the floor and holding on to the top of my head, stunned that he would really be doing this. In seconds he was standing before me, sticking the diploma into my face as if it were a pointer. He began yelling at me, sky-high with the emotion of a dream that I was already beginning to take for granted. I had just been selected for a scholarship to the University of Southern California, and in a year would be off to the Naval Academy. But this simple piece of paper had been my father's unreachable fantasy for nearly three decades.

What was he telling me? What was he screaming in his moment of triumph, as dozens of others watched in amusement and mild puzzlement? "You can get anything you want in this country, and don't you ever forget it!" Yes, I thought, swallowing back my cynicism in the face of his raw energy. Even if it takes two hundred years.

There was little that the upperclassmen at the Naval Academy could teach me about military leadership when I reported to that institution in the summer of 1964. Leadership, he had told me time and again, was simple. Forget the textbooks. You can make somebody do something, or you can make him want to do something. Who would you rather work for? I had watched my father for a lifetime, learning both from his example and from the wisdom of his mentorship. And every time I told myself how much I hated the regimen and the numbing routine of Annapolis—which was almost daily for four years—I would also give myself a humility check. For how quickly would he have traded twenty-six years of night school for four years of this?

But hard times were coming, for him, for myself, and for a lot of others who shared our history and our traditions. The Vietnam War put the brakes on the Scots-Irish ascendancy that had begun with the outbreak of World War II. In the coming two decades, the traditional notions of military service as well as the very foundations of what it meant to be an American would take a terrific beating. The Scots-Irish, whose ethos has always been so closely identified with patriotism and respect for military service, would serve in great numbers during this war and in a historic anomaly would, in many cases, be ostracized from many academic and professional arenas as a direct result of their service.

During the summer of 1964 the two most glaring issues on which disagreement had been simmering between the Scots-Irish Jacksonians and the emerging radicals erupted into public view concurrently, with the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to a full-scale war in Vietnam. And it was above all the war in Vietnam that allowed the radicalism that had been spawning for two decades in academia and the professorial journals to burst forth as a political movement that would challenge many of the basic presumptions about American society.

For the Scots-Irish Jacksonians, Vietnam was a real and often brutal war, one in which a high percentage of their sons and brothers fought. As two examples among many, the South had by far the highest casualty rate during the war, a rate 32 percent higher than the Northeast, and the Scots-Irish stronghold of West Virginia had the highest casualty rate of any state. This service, and these casualties, were occurring at a time when the draft laws gave liberal exceptions to those who remained in college, and when the more advantaged members of the age group were actively counseled on how to avoid military service. Only 11 percent of the draft-eligible males in the Vietnam age group actually went to Vietnam, and only 33 percent served in the military at all. To have one's life interrupted for years at an early age, and then to return not only without honor but also shouldering the blame for all the supposed evils of a war that others avoided, is the formula for long-term societal disability. And this is exactly what occurred.

Contrary to popular mythology, the baby boomer generation was far less liberal than the media images of the day seemed to portray. As Michael Lind documents in his book Vietnam: The Necessary War, "Few American students in the sixties were radical. At the height of the antiwar movement in 1970, only 11 percent of American college students identified themselves as 'radical or far left.'" These numbers became magnified in the mind-set of most Americans and over time impacted heavily on the respect shown to those who had served. Small though it was, the radical movement that opposed the war was heavily represented in major academia, where it affected the minds of an entire generation of intellectually gifted students and also had a wide and lasting impact on other institutions, such as major media and the arts, through which Americans historically have gained emotional insights and formed their opinions. And the ever-growing unpopularity of the war allowed the radical movement to expand its reach to a large number of well-meaning Americans who simply wanted the war to end, and to develop alliances with an array of political groups whose causes went much farther than the conflict in Vietnam.

Despite the political misfeasance that characterized the course of the war, it is important to remember that the causes that brought the United States into Vietnam were not unsound. Forty years ago Asia was at a vital crossroads, moving uncertainly into a future that was dominated by three different historical trends. The first involved the aftermath of the carnage and destruction of World War II, which had left its scars on every country in the region and also had dramatically changed the role that Japan played in East Asian affairs. The second was the sudden, regionwide end of European colonialism, which created governmental vacuums in every second-tier country except Thailand and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines. And the third was the emergence of communism as a powerful tool of expansionism by military force, its doctrine and strategies emanating principally from the Soviet Union.

The governmental vacuums created by Europe's withdrawal from the region dramatically played into the hands of communist revolutionary movements, especially in the wake of their takeover of China in 1949, for unlike in Europe, these were countries that had never known Western-style democracy. In 1950 the partitioned country of Korea exploded into war as the communist North invaded South Korea, with the Chinese army joining their effort six months later. Communist insurgencies erupted throughout Indochina. In Malaysia the British led a ten-year antiguerrilla compaign against Chinese-backed revolutionaries. A similar insurgency in Indonesia brought about a communist coup attempt, also sponsored by the Chinese, which was put down in 1965.

The situation inside Vietnam was the most complicated. First, for a variety of reasons the French reversed their withdrawal from their long-term colony after World War II, making it easier for insurgents to rally the strongly nationalistic Vietnamese to their side. Second, the charismatic, Soviet-trained Ho Chi Minh had quickly consolidated his anti-French power base just after the war by assassinating the leadership of competing political groups that were anti-French but also anticommunist. Third, once the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953, the Chinese shifted large amounts of sophisticated weaponry to Ho Chi Minh's army. The Viet Minh's sudden acquisition of larger-caliber weapons and field artillery such as the 105-millimeter howitzer abruptly changed the nature of the war and contributed heavily to the French humiliation at Dien Bien Phu. And fourth, further war became inevitable when United States–led backers of the incipient South Vietnamese democracy called off a 1956 election that had been agreed upon after Vietnam was divided in 1954.

In 1958 the communists unleashed a terrorist campaign in the South, followed later by both guerrilla and conventional warfare. Within two years, Northern-trained terrorists were assassinating an average of eleven government officials every day. President John Kennedy referred to this campaign in 1961 when he decided to increase the number of American soldiers operating inside South Vietnam. "We have talked about and read stories of 7,000 to 15,000 guerrillas operating in Viet Nam, killing 2,000 civil officers a year and 2,000 police officers a year, 4,000 total," said Kennedy. "How we fight that kind of problem, which is going to be with us all through this decade, seems to me to be one of the great problems now before the United States."

The United States entered the war reluctantly, halfheartedly, and with a confused and ineffective strategy. But its leadership felt morally and politically compelled to do so, and even such major newspapers as the Washington Post initially supported the effort. The U.S. recognized South Vietnam as a separate political entity from North Vietnam, just as it saw West Germany as being separate from communist-controlled East Germany, and just as it continues to distinguish South Korea from communist-controlled North Korea. And South Vietnam was being invaded by the North just as certainly (although with more sophistication) as North Korea had invaded South Korea.

There has been little historical recognition of how brutal the war was for those who fought it on the ground. Dropped onto the enemy's terrain twelve thousand miles away from home, America's citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that may never be truly understood. Those who believe the war was fought incompetently on a tactical level should consider that the Vietnamese communists admit to losing 1.4 million soldiers, compared to South Vietnamese losses of 245,000 and American losses of 58,000. And those who believe that it was a "dirty little war" where bombs did all the work might contemplate that it was the most costly war the U.S. Marine Corps has ever fought. Five times as many Marines died in Vietnam as in World War I, three times as many as in Korea, and there were more total casualties (killed and wounded) for the Marines in Vietnam than in all of World War II.

That the war was pursued with honorable intentions does not mean that those who conceived and implemented our strategy deserve any prizes. My own father, who had defined for me the notion of loyalty, became disgusted with Defense Secretary McNamara's so-called "whiz kids" after being assigned to the Pentagon in 1965.

When I was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1968, he was working on a highly classified program he could not discuss openly, but which I later learned was a satellite linkup from Vietnam to Washington, giving civilian leaders full daily oversight of the war. Watching firsthand the Johnson administration's dissembling to the Congress and disrespect of military leaders, he urged me more than once to go into the navy, find myself a nice ship where I could, as he so often put it, "sit in the wardroom and eat ice cream," and not risk myself as a Marine on an ever-deteriorating battlefield. Once I did receive my orders for combat, my father put in his papers to retire from the air force, telling me he "couldn't bear to watch it" while still wearing a military uniform. Sitting at the kitchen table in his government-issue quarters at Andrews Air Force Base, fighting back the temptation to break the law and share classified information with me, he was ferociously intense, this man who had found his life's calling by flying bombers and cargo planes and perfecting the art of shooting intercontinental ballistic missiles. And he was telling me, as a father and a military professional, that this strategically botched war was not worth my life.

Finally he found the words that communicated his unease without violating his oath of office. "Do you realize Lyndon Johnson is going to know you're wounded before your division commander does? And do you know what that says about the ability of the American military to fight a long-term war?"

He was wrong. Lyndon Johnson never knew I was wounded, because by then Richard Nixon was running the show.

My professional career in writing and government is entirely accidental. At the age of twenty-two my dream was to become a general officer in the Marine Corps. Had I not been wounded, I would never have gone to law school. And had I not gone to law school, I would never have fully comprehended the disdain that many of the advantaged in my generation felt for those who had fought in Vietnam, or the ingrained condescension of the nation's elites toward my culture. And had I never been exposed to this unthinking arrogance, I would not have begun the journey of discovery that, over three decades, finally led to this book. And so, in an odd way, it can be said that I owe all of this to Ho Chi Minh, and to Richard Nixon's post-Tet campaign offensive of 1969.

I was fully prepared for what awaited me in Vietnam. At the Naval Academy, I became one of six finalists for the position of brigade commander despite having less than stellar grades, and was one of 18 in my class of 841 to receive a special commendation for leadership upon graduation. At the grueling Marine Corps Officers' Basic School in Quantico, I had graduated first in my class of 243, scoring 99.3 in leadership and also winning the Military Skills Award for the highest average in the areas of physical fitness, marksmanship, land navigation, and military instruction. Few things in life have come as naturally to me as combat, however difficult those days proved to be. And conversely, few things have surprised me so completely as the other world I entered a few years later when I arrived at the Georgetown University Law Center.

1969 was an odd year to be in Vietnam. Second only to 1968 in terms of American casualties, it was the year made famous by Hamburger Hill as well as the gut-wrenching Life magazine cover story showing the pictures of 242 Americans who had been killed in one average week of fighting. Back home it was the year of Woodstock and of numerous antiwar rallies that culminated in the Moratorium march on Washington. The My Lai massacre hit the papers and was seized upon by the antiwar movement as the emblematic moment of the war. Lyndon Johnson left Washington in utter humiliation. Richard Nixon entered the scene, destined for an even worse fate.

I spent my tour in the An Hoa basin southwest of Da Nang, where the 5th Marine Regiment was in its third year of continuous combat operations. As a rifle platoon and company commander, I served under a succession of three regimental commanders who had cut their teeth in World War II, and four different battalion commanders, three of whom had seen combat in Korea. The company commanders were typically captains on their second combat tour in Vietnam or young first lieutenants like myself, who were given companies after many months of "bush time" as platoon commanders in the basin's tough and unforgiving environs.

The basin was one of the most heavily contested areas in Vietnam, its torn, cratered earth offering every sort of wartime possibility. In the canopied mountains just to the west, not far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese Army operated an infantry division from an area called Base Area 112. In the valleys of the basin, main-force Viet Cong battalions whose ranks were 80 percent North Vietnamese Army regulars moved against the Americans every day. Local Viet Cong units sniped and harassed. Ridge-lines and paddy dikes were laced with sophisticated booby traps of every size, from hand grenades to 250-pound bombs. The villages, where many battles took place, sat in the rice paddies and tree lines like individual fortresses, crisscrossed with trenches and spider holes, their homes sporting bunkers capable of surviving direct hits from large-caliber artillery shells. The Viet Cong infrastructure was intricate and permeating. Except for the old and the very young, villagers who did not side with the communists had either been killed or driven out to the government-controlled enclaves near Da Nang.

In the rifle companies we spent endless months patrolling ridgelines and villages and mountains, far away from any notion of tents, barbed wire, hot food, or electricity. Luxuries were limited to what would fit inside one's pack, which after a few "humps" usually boiled down to letter-writing material, towel, soap, toothbrush, poncho liner, and a small transistor radio. We moved through the boiling heat with sixty pounds of weapons and gear, causing a typical Marine to drop 20 percent of his body weight while in the bush. When we stopped, we dug chest-deep fighting holes and slit trenches for toilets. We slept on the ground under makeshift poncho hootches, and when it rained we usually took our hootches down because wet ponchos shined under illumination flares, making great targets. Sleep itself was fitful, never more than an hour or two at a stretch for months at a time as we mixed daytime patrolling with nighttime ambushes, listening posts, foxhole duty, and radio watches. Ringworm, hookworm, malaria, and dysentery were common as was trench foot when the monsoons came. Respite was rotating back to the mud-filled regimental combat base at An Hoa for four or five days, where rocket and mortar attacks were frequent and our troops manned defensive bunkers at night.

We had been told while in training that Marine officers in the rifle companies had an 85 percent probability of being killed or wounded, and the experience of "Dying Delta," as our company was known, bore that out. Of the officers in the bush when I arrived, our company commander was wounded, the weapons platoon commander was wounded, the first platoon commander was killed, the second platoon commander was wounded twice, and I, commanding the third platoon, was wounded twice. The enlisted troops in the rifle platoons fared no better. Two of my original three squad leaders were killed, the third shot in the stomach. My platoon sergeant was severely wounded, as was my platoon guide. By the time I left my platoon I had gone through six radio operators, five of them casualties.

These figures were hardly unique; in fact, they were typical.

Many other units—for instance, those that fought the hill battles around Khe Sanh, or those with the famed Walking Dead of the 9th Marine Regiment, or that were in the battle for Hue City or at Dai Do—had it far worse.

When I remember those days and the very young men who spent them with me, I am continually amazed, for these were mostly recent civilians barely out of high school, called up from the cities and the farms to do their year in Hell and then return. Visions haunt me every day, not of the nightmares of war but of the steady consistency with which my Marines faced their responsibilities, and of how uncomplaining most of them were in the face of constant danger. The salty, battle-hardened twenty-year-olds teaching green nineteen-year-olds the intricate lessons of that hostile battlefield. The unerring skill of the young squad leaders as we moved through unfamiliar villages and weed-choked trails in the black of night. The quick certainty with which they moved when coming under enemy fire. Their sudden tenderness when a fellow Marine was wounded and needed help. Their willingness to risk their lives to save other Marines in peril.

In July 1969, I was hit by two grenades while clearing a series of bunkers along a streambed in a place of frequent combat called the Arizona Valley. The first grenade peppered me lightly on the face and shoulders. The second detonated behind me just after I shot the man who threw it and a second soldier who was pointing an AK-47 at me from inside the same bunker. I was hit in the head, back, arm, and leg, and the grenade's concussion lifted me into the air and threw me down a hill into the stream. I still carry shrapnel at the base of my skull and in one kidney from the blast. But the square, quarter-sized piece that scored the inside of my left knee joint and lodged against the bone of my lower leg would eventually change the direction of my life.

I did not pay much attention to my wounds. I had seen dead Marines, multiple-limb amputees, high-arm amputees, severed spinal cords, bladders ripped open by shrapnel, sucking chest wounds, even one Marine who had been shot between the eyes and out the jaw only to come back to our company after three months in a Japanese hospital. Like so many others during this woefully misunderstood war, I rejoined my unit as soon as possible. I belonged in the bush. Returning to my company before the leg wound had completely healed, it soon became infected. I ignored the infection and the joint itself eventually became septic, complicated by a small, razor-sharp piece of shrapnel that migrated into the joint's open spaces and chewed on the cartilage whenever I walked or ran. I would not learn the full extent of this damage until I completed my tour and returned to the United States.

There followed two years of surgeries and physical therapy as I tried to rehabilitate my leg and remain in the Marine Corps. In 1971, I was put on limited duty and assigned to a desk job on the secretary of the navy's staff. Following a surgery in early 1972, the joint unexpectedly swelled and drained heavily through the stitches, an indication of continuing infection in the bone, and I was finally referred to a medical board. The operating surgeon wrote that, because of the infection, the articular cartilage "was so markedly destroyed that one could easily indent it with a hemostat" and commented that "It is remarkable to note the amount of weight he has succeeded in lifting when one considers the condition of his knee pathologically, indicative of the motivational factors that have sustained him as a Marine officer." He then concluded that "This man is highly motivated and wishes to excel in what areas he can perform in the Marine Corps; however he has diligently exercised for three years with no improvement; indeed, with worsening."

I had recently become one of 16 first lieutenants out of a group of more than 2,700 to be promoted a year early to captain. I loved commanding infantry troops. I had never given any thought as to what I might do if I became a civilian. And now I was one.

Excerpted from Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America Copyright © 2004 by James Webb. Published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Purchase Featured Music

Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America

by Jim Webb

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: