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Fiction Imitates Warmaking Reality

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SOMETHING TO DIE FOR. By James Webb, William Morrow, 333 pp., $19.95

IN the kiss-and-tell world of Washington politics, the motto of many officials who leave in a huff (or are pushed) is ``don't get mad, get even.'' For some, it comes through published memoirs - like Donald Regan helpfully explaining Nancy Reagan's fascination with astrology. For others in the American imperial court, the dagger comes cloaked in fiction. In either case they're generally two parts catharsis, one part history.

During the Reagan years around the Pentagon, one of the most fascinating characters was James Webb, assistant secretary of defense and then Navy secretary. A 1968 United States Naval Academy graduate and Marine Corps officer, he was one of the most highly decorated combat veterans of Vietnam. Webb went on to earn a law degree, then he began writing fiction before reentering government service. His r'esum'e seemed to show a smooth transition from war hero to successful civilian.

But like a piece of shrapnel under the skin, there was something that irritated Webb, something that would not let him go quietly and obligingly into the world of bureaucratic and political manipulation, dissembling, and intrigue. After less than a year as Navy secretary, he resigned in protest over administration policy, leaving smoking holes of bad feeling behind him.

In ``Something to Die For,'' his fourth novel, Webb gets back at his former adversaries like a marine with a knife in his teeth - purposefully and not too subtly. Or perhaps more accurately, like the boxer he was as a Navy midshipman.

The scene of battle in this book shifts back and forth between Washington and (whether presciently or coincidentally) a piece of desert just across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. The military side of the story involves the civil war in Ethiopia over Eritrean independence, a war that briefly escalates to include Cuban and Soviet forces on one side, French and American on the other.

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