A War Within James Webb


The Nightingale's Song, by Sun reporter and editor Robert Timberg, probes a fault line that has haunted American society for more than two decades -- the generational chasm between those who fought a discredited war and those who used money, wit and connections to avoid it. The book weaves together the lives of five U.S. Naval Academy graduates who achieved national prominence during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. They are John McCain and John Poindexter, Class of 1958; Robert McFarlane, Class of 1959; and James Webb and Oliver North, Class of 1968.

James Webb, on whom this excertp focuses, was one of the most highly decorated Marine officers to serve in Vietnam, winning the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. Forced to retire because of war wounds, he became a bestselling novelist, winning acclaim for his Vietnam War novel, "Fields of Fire." He later served as an assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy. As an author, journalist and government offical, he has promoted the cause Vietname veterans and worked to assure that the mistakes of Vietnam are not repeated. There has been minor editing an rewriting.

Jim Webb bought a new suit and spit-shined his shoes to a mirror finish for his swearing-in. As friends drove him through the gate, he said to himself, "I'm going to die for the Naval Academy. This is really it." On arrival, the new recruits were herded through lines to pick up uniforms, skivvies, athletic gear, toilet articles, everything a new midshipman might need if she showed up naked and empty-handed. A Marine lieutenant flipped through Webb's personal data forms, saw that he had listed thirty-three separate home addresses, muttered, "I can't believe this."

Struggling under the weight of his suitcase, typewriter and newly issued gear, Webb pushed through a set of double doors in Bancroft Hall when a balled fist slammed into his chest. "Get over there," growled the second classman behind the fist, gesturing toward a dismal group of plebes. Webb was stunned. "Are you allowed to hit us?" he asked in a tone of disbelief. Turning to another second classman, the Fist said, "Hey, we've got a wise-ass over here." Webb quickly brought more grief on himself. "Those are pretty good-looking shoes," said the Fist. "Did you go to prep school?" Replied Webb, proudly, "No, sir. I was in a ROTC unit." Big mistake. Paying special attention to the kid with the ROTC roots, the Fist and his cohorts ordered the plebes to race back and forth through the passageways, up the ladders to the next deck, down some more passageways. Then they ran them down to the barber shop, where they had their heads shaved.

Bits of hair now clung to Webb's neck and back. His new suit was ruined, the fabric mottled by white salt stains where he had sweated through it. In Dahlgren Hall, the cavernous armory where the plebes were to take the oath of office, the humidity settled on them like a pernicious vapor. As proud parents lined the catwalk above them, 1,300 young men listened to warm welcoming remarks from Academy authorities. They were, they were told, the cream of America's youth. Mothers fanned themselves with their programs as their sons passed out below. Webb was struck by the thought that there were two Naval Academies: the real Academy behind the massive doors of Bancroft Hall and the ceremonial one that outsiders saw. Watching teary mothers wave handkerchiefs at their kids, he thought of his own family 3,000 miles away in California, felt miserable and alone. As he and his classmates took the oath, it seemed as if he could hear a giant umbilical cord snap.

Stowing his gear in his room, he decided to make a tick mark on his blotter each time he thought of turning in his chit. That night, as he prepared for bed, he saw that he already had a dozen ticks. Just before lights out, the Fist chewed him out for marking up his blotter. In his rack, in the steamy darkness, he sobbed soundlessly. Not because of the rough first day and the prospect of many more to come. He knew he could handle that. He cried because he knew that no matter what happened it was not in him to quit and that he would probably be an old man before he knew if any of it made sense. He cried for a long time that night. As he later wrote, he cried away his youth.

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