Unlike most of the men and women who populate the higher reaches of American politics, James Webb, the new Democratic Senator from Virginia, is a genuinely interesting person—and one who thinks and feels with some passion. Rare among U.S. Senators, he appears to have made decisions not solely directed toward maintaining his “political viability.” In his youth, he followed family tradition and joined the Marines. As a junior officer he was wounded in combat in Vietnam. Back home he worked on Capitol Hill and wrote a series of novels centered around military life in the 1960’s and 70’s. An Annapolis grad, he served as Reagan’s last Secretary of the Navy.
In my own youth, I happened to work in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Warfare, which was set up in the aftermath of Vietnam to ensure that our forces would be ready for the next round of unconventional warfare. Early on an officer helpfully gave me a copy of the Marine commandant’s reading list, which I commend to anyone who wants to understand how the military thinks about itself. In addition to the expected Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and Mao, I found Webb’s novels on the list. They were far more readable than most of the other books, so I read them all. (For the record, my colleagues preferred Pat Conroy.)
Notwithstanding former Senator George Allen’s attempt to discredit Webb by publishing some of his novels’ sex scenes, the books contained a lot of extremely astute observation about living and striving among the D.C. political class. His heroes were all acutely articulate about the betrayal of soldiers by politicians during Vietnam—a war that Webb insisted was winnable well up until the end, had we wanted to do what it took. Indeed, he took the perspective of the eternal junior officer, brave and honorable, up against the perfidies of cynical and jaded politicians and generals who were no better than pols.
His real-life actions had the same impassioned cast: he resigned with great righteousness as Secretary of the Navy over a fairly minor cut in the planned “600-ship Navy.” As if the lower number challenged his honor. He appears to have left the GOP in similar pique.
It was a clever choice by the Democratic leadership to have the newly elected Senator Webb give the Democratic response to the State of the Union address. He is a solid orator with an impressively deep voice and the ability to formulate standard Democratic ideas in less clichéd language. Predictably he advocated the same economic populism that got him elected two months ago. On the higher-stakes matter of Iraq, the Senator carefully listed all of the members of his family who have served in the armed forces, announced that he had warned in advance that the war was a mistake, and demanded an immediate pullout of a large number of troops. His emotions were barely restrained. But neither feelings nor honorable military service and sacrifice are the ultimate arbiters of the rightness of a military policy, or the virtue of a hasty retreat.
Now that he is a powerful United States Senator it is past time for James Webb to stop thinking of himself as the only honest man in the room. Junior officers lead platoons. There are reasons that they don’t make the big decisions—and lacking the ability to think dispassionately is one of them.