FIELDS OF FIRE
By James Webb
Penguin Random House, $7.99, 480 pages
“Fields of Fire” is the finest piece of literature to come out of the Vietnam War, and it has been republished on the 40th anniversary of the original. This will give a whole new generation of readers a chance to understand the reality of Vietnam vice the caricatures that have been portrayed since the fall of Saigon in 1975.
“Fields of Fire” launched the very successful literary career of its author, James Webb, who has gone on to write a number of other best-sellers. Along the way he has also served as a Reagan administration official — most notably as secretary of the Navy — and as a Democratic senator from Virginia.
Vietnam was an infantryman’s war, and Mr. Webb describes the day-to-day experience of a Marine Corps infantry platoon in graphic and gritty detail. It is not a fun book to read, nor is it meant to be. The soldiers and Marines who comprised the bulk of our Vietnam infantry were thrown into some of the nastiest conditions ever experienced by American warriors.
Small platoons and companies spent weeks at a time in the bush fighting the Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnamese regulars. Their only communication with the rest of the world during these sweeps was occasional helicopter resupply to bring in more ammo, food and mail as well as to evacuate the dead and wounded — of which there were many. It was not unusual for an infantry platoon to suffer over 100 percent casualties in the course of a “grunts” tour. Although the characters in the novel are Marines, Army infantry veterans of the Vietnam War will be reminded of their own experiences.
The book seems real because it is. It is a novelized version of Mr. Webb’s tour in Vietnam. The book’s characters are real people with fictional names. The Marines are a mix of ghetto kids, hillbillies and lower-middle, middle-class youngsters whose parents could not afford to get them into college and the accompanying student draft deferment. Most did not want to be there, but they got very good at what they did.
In the bush, they were a band of brothers, but when they occasionally got to the rear areas they were subjected to all of insanity that America in 1969 had to offer. That included drugs, racial conflict and general indiscipline. Like Mr. Webb, the platoon commander Robert E. Lee Hodges is a Scots-Irish Southerner with a family history of military men going back generations. Lt. Hodges is challenged to keep his platoon together through the horrors of combat and the chaos of the rear areas.
The Vietnam War was a unique experience for the American military — and hopefully, it will remain unique. The grunts who fought it were caught between a government that was mismanaging the conflict and people at home who had become increasingly discouraged or actively hostile toward the people sent to fight it. It is easy to remain motivated when you know that if you survive you will be greeted at home with brass bands and parades. It is much harder when you know you’ll be met with indifference at best and likely hostility by people with student deferments, faked medical infirmities, or who left the country to avoid service.
To clear their consciences, many of these became the most vocal and obnoxious of the anti-war movement. Mr. Webb again nails this aspect of the home front when one of the platoon’s Marines returns stateside due to wounds and returns to college. Again, this is the experience that Mr. Webb had when he returned wounded from the war and went to law school. He began writing what became “Fields of Fire” as a catharsis.
The Defense Department and the military services would like to forget that Vietnam ever happened or at least paint it in a heroic light. Mr. Webb tells it how it really was. The Marines in the book fight the way the author’s Marines actually fought. They weren’t generally fighting for patriotism or some other abstract — they were fighting to keep themselves and their buddies alive. There is nobility in that, and Mr. Webb captures it well.
Mr. Webb was one of the most highly decorated Marine Corps officers to come out of Vietnam. The fact that the survivors of his platoon — and later his company — remain close to him is a tribute to his leadership skills. This reissue of the book will introduce a new generation of military personnel and their civilian masters to the reality of a war that we don’t want to repeat.
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.