That night, he went through some of the bleakest hours of his life, repeatedly bursting into tears as he tried to study for the other finals. Two days later, he confronted Wales in his office. "I just want you to know it wasn't funny," he told the professor. "I went over to Vietnam with 67 lieutenants, 22 died and it wasn't funny."
Like so many other veterans, Webb saw the American pull-out from Vietnam not only in terms of lost comrades but as the betrayal of an ally as well. In his novel A Country Such As This, one of Webb's characters, a former POW named Lesczynski, exclaims, "No, I'll never get used to it. It's the most deplorable thing this country has ever done." Glued to the television as Saigon fell in April 1975, Lesczynski reflects Webb's judgment of the retreat: "There was a weakness in his country, in its leaders or maybe its system, that had botched this thing badly, called on citizens to sacrifice and then rebuked their efforts, fading again and again in the clutch."
Webb, like his fictional POW, was repulsed by the images barreling across the screen at him. South Vietnamese clamoring at the gates of the U.S. embassy, American helicopters tumbling from the decks of carriers, the tanks of the victorious enemy rolling into Saigon. Grabbing his books, he drove to school to study for his last set of exams, just days off. He arrived to find students gathered in animated clumps outside the law library, redeemed, intact, to Webb's eye secretly exchanging high fives. He spotted his Quaker friend, the one who had spent two years in Vietnam working in an orphanage, one of the few members of the class he respected.
"Are you really happy about this?" asked Webb.
"Yes, I am," replied his classmate.
"You make me want to puke," said Webb.
Summer 1976. The ceremony was winding down. Minutes earlier Jim Webb had received the Veterans Administration's first Vietnam Veteran of the Year award for a variety of activities on behalf of ex-servicemen. As dignitaries and well-wishers began to disperse, he held up his hand: "Wait a minute. I'd like to say something." The crowd regrouped, wary, not sure what to expect. No one was in the mood for another aggrieved veteran's harangue against the war or the fecklessness of his government. But Webb had something else on his mind, the curious, at times bewildering twilight world inhabited by the soldier not simply untroubled by his combat record but proud of it.
"I don't need to elaborate in front of this assemblage about how incredibly difficult it has been for the Vietnam veteran," he began. "His anonymity and lack of positive feedback about himself and his fellow veterans have intensified all the other difficulties he has faced, including those shared with nonveterans. With the exception of a few well-publicized disasters, he is invisible."
In public discourse, continued Webb, the veteran has no voice, those who opposed the war having long since been accorded the role of spokesman for his generation. His anti-war peers convert their activities into credentials, "much as the veteran of World War II did with his campaign ribbons." By contrast, society seems to view him as an accident waiting to happen. Editorials urge amnesty for those who fled the country, insisting they obeyed "a higher law," leaving unwritten the implication that he responded to something less honorable, even brutish, in choosing to serve.
"To be blunt, we seem to have reached the anomaly where the very institutions, and the same newspapers, who only a few years ago called on us to bleed, have now decided we should be ashamed of our scars."
"Well," said Webb, eyeing his audience, "I'm not ashamed of mine."
The crowd broke into applause. His words had the defiant ring of a manifesto. He had declared that no longer would his generation be represented solely by evaders, avoiders, drug-crazed ex-GIs, and embittered anti-war veterans. He had demanded a voice for the men and women who had fought the war, then returned home unheralded, but with a sense of personal achievement. Above all, he had proclaimed the right of the Vietnam veteran to take pride in his service.