Webb's war novel poses predicament WAR IN THE GULF


February 13, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

ARLINGTON, VA. — Arlington, Va.

You'd think he'd be basking in the glory of having been right on the money.

Having had the prescience or foresight -- or at least some kind of luck -- to have written a novel about America's entry into a high-tech desert war in 1991 just as perestroika disintegrates in the Soviet Union.

Eerily close to reality, some have said. Uncanny.

But author James Webb, highly decorated combat veteran and former secretary of the Navy, isn't doing any gloating as he talks about "Something to Die For," a "cautionary tale," as he calls it, published next week. He crafted his story, he says, by thinking about the "four or five major areas of abrasion" in the world that affect the United States, then "inventing a military action."

But now, because of his position on the non-fiction military action in the Persian Gulf, there's little glory for Mr. Webb to wallow in. Only a predicament to grapple with.

While he supported the first deployment of troops to the gulf, he has spoken out vociferously against this nation's subsequent buildupof troops and spearheading of the war. He believes the United States could have achieved its goals through continued sanctions and a "more reasoned use of the military" -- a cruise missile, for instance, to take out Iraq's nuclear capabilities.

But on the other hand, now that war has begun, he's reluctant to say anything that might demoralize the servicemen and women there. "I know what it's like to be fighting when the people are not behind you," says the 45-year-old Vietnam veteran, who was decorated eight times in that war.

It's been an uncomfortable, emotional dilemma for a former Marine who, paradoxically, would love to be over there fighting with the troops he calls "my people, the people I identify most closely with in this country."

When he spoke against the administration position in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, he looked at all the Republicans -- many of them former colleagues -- as they stared back, "looking at me with this sense that I am betraying something . . . It really hurt."

One newspaper wondered if he was not a "closet pacifist." Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and longtime adversary of Mr. Webb, says, "His reaction to the Persian Gulf crisis is almost predictable. He made up his mind early on that this was a mistake. And once he's made up his mind, no one can convince him otherwise."

And then there are the radio call-in shows, a requisite part of the book tour gig. In New York last week, a man called to berate him for his stance on the war saying, "You ex-military guys, you guys, you've lost your GUTS!"

"I said, 'Y'know, I don't need some guy hiding behind a telephone in New York City willing to bleed to the last drop of somebody else's blood to talk to me about guts.' What does it mean to lose your guts? I'm supposed to be for [war] any time they plant the flag?"

Ironically, this very dilemma is one faced by Col. Bill Fogarty, a central character in Mr. Webb's latest book. Colonel Fogarty, who commands the contingent of Marines sent to deter aggression on the shores of the Red Sea, fears his troops are being used as pawns, and the war used as a way for politicos to divert the country's attention from economic and political woes back home.

Mr. Webb, a Naval Academy graduate and enthusiastic company commander in Vietnam, says it appears he's been wrongly pigeonholed as "Jim Webb -- warrior."

To the contrary, he says, "I have not been a pull-out-the-guns-and-go-shoot-people-up guy. It so happens I have a military background and a very deep interest in military and political history."

He adds, "I may have been the only guy in the Reagan administration who opposed the tilt toward Iraq [in 1987-'88]. I thought we were being manipulated by the Kuwaitis and Saudis on behalf of Iraq."

zTC But it's not easy to pigeonhole Jim Webb -- author of the highly acclaimed "Fields of Fire" and other novels, lawyer, journalist, former Marine, former counsel for the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, former assistant Secretary of Defense and former Secretary of the Navy.

"A totally accidental career," he explains with a laugh. "I'm still trying to figure out what I'm supposed to do."

In the past, he has alternated between writing and government service. He began his most recent book after clashes with then Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci over budget cuts led to his resignation from the top Navy post, 11 months after his appointment.

The writing, he says, allows him to reflect after a period of intense activity.

"In government, you go in, you've got 20 people waiting for you when you walk in the door . . . It's decision, decision. Yes, no, yes, no. Concur or not concur or see me! Boom boom boom!

"In writing, it's sitting by yourself, reflecting and thinking and trying to deal in the ambiguities, trying to keep the ambiguities there."

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