Webb, James H(enry), Jr. Raphael Sagalyn - Essay

Raphael Sagalyn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.