When President Bush gave his 2006 State of the Union speech, Jim Webb hadn't yet decided to run for the US Senate. But he had no doubts about the war in Iraq, which he called "the greatest strategic blunder in modern times."
Tuesday night, Senator Webb is giving the Democratic response to this year's State of the Union – an unusually high profile for a freshman. But no Democrat in the Congress is more primed to talk on the No. 1 issue in congressional politics: the endgame in Iraq.
"We have never clearly defined what a win is – never, not since 2002," says Webb, on a brisk walk through the Capitol basement after President Bush announced an increase of 21,500 troops in Iraq. One of them will be Webb's son, Jimmy, whose Marine unit has just been extended for an additional 60 days in Iraq.
A decorated combat marine, Webb knows – and can articulate – the human face of war with an authority that is rare on Capitol Hill. As a company commander in the An Hoa Basin during the Vietnam War – the setting of his first of six bestselling novels, "Fields of Fire" – he was awarded the Navy Cross for exceptional heroism, three medals and two purple hearts. He dedicated that 1978 book to "the 100,000 Marines who became casualties in Vietnam. And for the others who became casualties upon their return."
As a law student at Georgetown University Law Center, Webb represented and later cleared the name of a marine convicted of war crimes in Vietnam, three years after his suicide. With the House Committee on Veterans Affairs from 1977 to 1981, he became the first Vietnam veteran to serve as a committee counsel on Capitol Hill. In 1987, President Reagan appointed Webb to be secretary of the Navy, but he resigned in 1988 over deep budget cuts that the Congress mandated for the Navy.