What one veteran remembers
The anger and divisiveness that have been the legacy of Vietnam in America are, symbolically at least, finding a bit of healing resolution this Veterans Day weekend.
On Friday morning a statue depicting three soldiers in battle gear is being unveiled near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where many veterans of that war will gather to remember those with whom they served.
Among veterans of the Vietnam war, one in particular has articulated the combination of pride and frustration that resulted in the addition of the statue to the controversial black granite wall that is inscribed with the names of the 58,022 men and women lost in Southeast Asia.
He is James H. Webb Jr., highly decorated ex-marine, critically acclaimed author, and now (at age 38), one of the younger senior civilians in the Department of Defense.
''What you had before was raw emotion, which I do not think is a complete metaphorical statement for service,'' Mr. Webb says. ''You had raw grief - and service is a lot more than that.
''What you have now - given that there was going to be a wall - is as complete an emotional statement of what it means to serve as you can.''
From a grove of trees between the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, the three bronze figures gaze toward the black wall. An American flag stands nearby. The inscription at the base of the pole says, ''This flag represents the service rendered to our country by the veterans of the Vietnam war. The flag affirms the principles of freedom for which they fought and their pride in having served under difficult circumstances.''
The inscription was written by Mr. Webb, who knew well those difficult circumstances and who has brought a unique perspective to his new job as assistant secretary of defense.
The new statue, he says, ''adds a human face'' to this country's way of remembering Vietnam vets. And in much the same way, Webb himself adds a personal element to the preparations for war - and especially the human costs of armed conflict - that senior defense officials must concern themselves with.
When he was sworn in at the Pentagon earlier this year, Webb made sure that half a dozen men from his old unit in the 5th Marine Regiment were there - several of whom, like him, had been badly wounded.
''What I said in my little speech,'' he recalls, ''was that my principal memory from combat was being stripped naked as far as my responsibilities went to the whims of the policymakers.
'' Being in the position that I am now, the one clear obligation that I have is to make sure that the needs of the person who is now down there, stripped naked, will always, always, be considered.''
Not long after his graduation from the US Naval Academy and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1968, Webb became a platoon leader and company commander in Vietnam. By the time his tour of duty ended, he had been awarded the Navy Cross (the nation's second-highest military award), Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts.
After his medical discharge he obtained a degree in law and wrote three novels based on his military experience and interviews with other veterans. Two of those books were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He also worked for the Veterans Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives. Last year he won an Emmy Award as a correspondent for the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour covering the US marines in Lebanon.
Webb is now responsible for Reserve and National Guard affairs at the Pentagon, a demanding job that oversees more than 1 million ''citizen soldiers'' and billions of dollars in equipment.
''Now, I'm sort of on a weird sabbatical,'' he jokes. ''But I will always view myself as a writer. The next two (books) I want to do are broad historical novels.''
Like one of the principal characters in his first novel, ''Fields of Fire,'' Webb traces his roots in military service back a long way. Three of his ancestors fought in the Battle of King's Mountain, where mountaineers from Virginia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas defeated British troops 200 years ago.
Webb's great-grandfather rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee Cavalry during the Civil War. His father is a retired military officer. His father-in-law was at Iwo Jima, and his wife, JoAnn, was an Army nurse in Vietnam.
On Veterans Day, he says, it's not just the men he served with that he thinks about.
''It cuts a lot deeper with me,'' he said. ''Veterans Day - Armistice Day - was at the end of World War I. When I think about that, I think about how little in this country we understand continental war. We lost 55,000 men in World War I in combat. The French lost 1.7 million. The Germans lost 1.8 million. The Brits lost 750,000. The Scottish - with a population of just 41/2 million - lost 155, 000.
''All of those things go through my mind,'' he mused. ''Next to the unanswerable quandaries of religion, I think what combustive materials go into war is something that no one really has an answer to. But I think about it a lot.'' His present job at the Pentagon, he adds, ''affects me a lot.''
Several years ago, Webb was well known for his strong views on military conscription and women in uniform. He wrote and spoke in favor of a return to the draft and against the rapid increase in the numbers of women in the armed forces, which was advocated by the Carter administration.
As a senior, politically appointed official, Webb has to measure his words carefully when speaking about such issues today. But he gives the impression that his views have moderated, that the angry young man of five years ago has mellowed at least a little.
Webb still opposes having women in combat or aboard US Navy ships, he says, because of their ''impact on cohesion of a unit.'' But he favors the opening up of more noncombat military jobs to women, especially in the Air Force.
He agrees that the armed forces are getting plenty of high-quality volunteers today and that a draft is not needed for the foreseeable future. But he notes that all of the Western European countries (except Britain) have mandatory military service for young men.
''Belgium doesn't need conscription. Sweden doesn't need conscription. But they do it because they believe it is healthy in a society for an individual to recognize that he is a part of something larger than himself,'' he says. ''And for that reason, I think that conscription is not a bad thing.''
Jim Webb is well acquainted with the horrors of war. With three children (two girls and a boy), he has a stake in seeing that war is prevented. Along with a handful of sand from Iwo Jima and various military artifacts in his spacious Pentagon office, there's a child's teddy bear to remind him of that.
But Webb also firmly believes in the value of time spent in uniform, both to the individual and the country.
''There are many affirmative sides to military service,'' he says. ''And I don't have any hesitation recommending it.''