Webb, James H(enry), Jr. Essay - Critical Essays

Webb, James H(enry), Jr.


James H(enry) Webb, Jr. 1946–

American novelist and nonfiction writer on military subjects.

An Annapolis graduate and Vietnam veteran, Webb uses his experiences and sensibilities to examine certain truths about human nature which he feels are "illuminated in a combat environment."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Raphael Sagalyn

Like all good war novels, Fields of Fire pulsates with the horror, comraderie and yes, the joy of men at war. Webb's driving narrative draws you right into the poncho hootches and marine trenches that ring the village of An Hoa. His prose is often awkward ("Bagger shook his head miserably," "the first Sergeant sat among a gaggle of clerks") and verbose, but it is enhanced by authentic dialogue and the inimitable patois of jungle combat: Baby Cakes and Cat Man are Number One soldiers (the very best); when the enemy launches artillery shells, it's time to retreat ricky-tick (immediately, if not sooner); and when Lieutenant Hodges says, "I think we've all gone dinky dau," he expresses a universal truth that needs no translation.

The novel is essentially plotless, relying instead on bittersweet vignettes….

Thematically, Webb's key character is Will Goodrich, a Harvard student who enlists in the Marine Band but is mistakenly assigned to the front lines. Senator—as he is called—is his fellow grunts' foil, the timid soldier, the moralist. Not until after he re-enrolls at Harvard—predictably, Senator is the one who survives most intact—does he find the courage and soldier honor that eluded him on the battlefield. Confronted by war protesters on a football rally field, Goodrich lashes out at the students who could never understand, the ones who had not been there…. Webb's contempt is obvious, but Goodrich is too stylized and the climactic scene too contrived to be totally convincing.

Still, Fields of Fire deserves to be read, not as "the most powerful war novel in a generation,"… but as a vivid reminder of what it was like to live through the war most everyone would now like to forget.

Raphael Sagalyn, "'Fields of Fire'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 17, October 21, 1978, p. 43.

Gene Venable

Fields of Fire, is, on the whole, a successful, realistic, well-written portrayal of the Vietnam War.

Webb shows the war to be in a wasteland where men learn to live, die and kill in a world which torments those who stumble into it.

Webb tells horrifying tales, which seem closely modeled on actual experiences, to give readers a picture of the war which will haunt them for a long time.

Unfortunately, the end of the novel is uncalled for, and it may obscure the realism of the rest of the book for all but the most discerning readers.

Webb trys to give his novel a moral. The moral is that antiwar protesters had no right to put down a war they didn't understand.

Set aside logical objections one might put to Webb's anti-protester rhetoric. Ignore the fact that many of the most militant protesters were Vietnam veterans themselves. Webb should have stuck with the war, which he knew and understood….

Gene Venable, "Fiction: 'Fields of Fire'," in West Coast Review of Books (copyright 1978 by Rapport Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. 4, No. 6, November, 1978, p. 32.

Josiah Bunting Iii

That A Sense of Honor is … successful as fiction owes little to the author's skill in developing "character"; the cast is familiar enough. The novel is compelling because an essential question is honestly and simply posed and an honest, somewhat complicated answer is attempted. The question is this: How should a professional military man be prepared for his career of service? There is a corollary inquiry: What pressures can legitimately be applied to test, and to temper, the military novice? All military academies implicitly endorse the notion that the best way to prepare people for real stress is to devise a reasonable approximation in school. True; but how is such stress to be created? Who shall administer it? Can the purpose of education and training, fundamentally antipathetic, be served in the same institution, at the same time? Education, after all, aims to prepare people to ask intelligent questions; training habituates to obedience.

The sufferers—variously denominated plebes, smacks, doolies—are at the mercy of upperclassmen. In A Sense of Honor, one plebe, infelicitously named John Dean, presents a familiar pathology. He is very "bright"; but he is also terrified, and he is not very "military." An excellent student with a strong bent for science, he is hopelessly rational in what is portrayed as a closed world of jarring and unreasoning authoritarianism….

His principal...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Carey Winfrey

In James Webb's taut second novel ["A Sense of Honor"],… he returns to terrain he has personally reconnoitered. A 1968 graduate of Annapolis, he writes as only an insider could of that peculiarly costly education. His uncanny ear for the raunchy vocabulary of military life (he must have taken notes) is matched by his evocation of its spit-and-polish claustrophobia and its inherent contradictions: loneliness in the midst of camaraderie, brutality mixed with decency, pain with pride, honor with death and destruction….

It's a shame that the principal plot covers familiar ground. John Dean … is a sensitive, scholarly and totally unmilitary plebe who'd better shape up or ship out. Fogarty, a gung-ho first classman, decides to hasten Dean's maturation by methods that, though officially outlawed, are unofficially tolerated. Under Fogarty's harsh but well-intentioned "guidance," Dean begins to get with the program. But which way is Fogarty's moral compass pointing?

Mr. Webb manages to keep the balance so delicate that readers will have to decide that one—as well as run a number of other ethical shoals. The only hint the author gives us of his own feelings is to be found in the words of a disillusioned, war-wounded Academy marine. "I love the military all the way down to my nerve-damaged toes," he tells his girlfriend. "It's the chicken-feed I hate."

It is Mr. Webb's considerable accomplishment that even readers who know nothing about the military will understand that.

Carey Winfrey, "Trouble at the Academy," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 5, 1981, p. 15.

Peter Braestrup

Unlike most first novels, [Fields of Fire] transcended the autobiographical; it was neither confession nor sermon; it had a plot; its characters grew and developed; it told a tale of men at war that not only engrossed the reader but made him think. And although a sermon can be discerned in Webb's shorter, second novel, A Sense of Honor, it is neither stated nor the core; rather, it is the by-product of the novelistic craft that conceals it.

The tale is set at the Naval Academy during February, 1968, against the background of the Tet offensive, and growing antiwar, antidraft sentiment on civilian campuses. (p. 36)

As in Webb's first novel, the background detail is dense and accurate; pre-1970s Annapolis comes alive. And the men are more complicated than a short summary would suggest. "What did I yearn for?" Captain Lenahan asks himself. "This uniform, these precious silver bars. Command. Silliness, to a doctor or a lawyer or a banker; but a creed worth dying for, to me. "Fogarty begins to question the System after a good friend dies in Vietnam; and, at the end, he asks the Navy, in effect, what it wants the Academy to produce: a leader like himself or a technology-manager like Dean? Congress and the Pentagon are tearing the Academy apart by demanding both.

Webb's good ear and cool eye fail only when it comes to the book's womenfolk; none of them … seems quite real, or quite essential to the story. Which may explain why these women remain a bit of a mystery to Webb's lusty menfolk….

Fields of Fire was a more powerful novel than is Sense of Honor, if only because of its more powerful subject. But Webb's second book has its special value as a timely, unfashionable reminder that schooling, testing, developing future military commanders is no ordinary educational task…. (p. 37)

Peter Braestrup, "'A Sense of Honor'," in The American Spectator (copyright © The American Spectator 1981), Vol. 14, No. 9, September, 1981, pp. 36-7.