Webb, James H(enry), Jr. Peter Braestrup - Essay

Peter Braestrup

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.