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Webb’s Vision for Defense

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/webb.jpgSen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) (WDCpix)

Everywhere Sen. Jim Webb goes, someone’s asking him if he wants to be vice president.

The freshman Virginia senator’s appearances on “Meet The Press” typically end with an attempt by the host Tim Russert to elicit a categorical statement of whether or not he’d like to be Sen. Barack Obama’s running mate on the Democratic ticket. Webb usually tries his best to demure. “I’ve never had a conversation with Barack about any of this, so it’s really out of line to speculate,” he told Deborah Solomon in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Webb, on paper, presents much that makes him look like an attractive prospect for the ticket: a Navy Cross-winning Marine veteran of Vietnam; a high-profile stint as Navy secretary in the Reagan administration; early and vocal opposition to the war in Iraq; a giant-killer reputation honed by unseating Sen. George Allen in 2006, and a man-in-a-hurry pace of legislative achievements — most recent, a popular update to the Montgomery GI Bill, providing more benefits to U.S. troops. Unsurprisingly, Webb has attracted a bevy of speculation about his inclusion as a vice-presidential candidate for Obama, the likely Democratic candidate.

Even if Webb doesn’t end up on the ticket — for one, many on the left have rejected Webb for decades-old sexist comments about women in the military — his perspective on defense issues will likely play a large role in the public debate.

Yet Webb still remains unfamiliar to many, and his Vietnam record and ex-GOP allegiance create cognitive dissonance as to what he actually believes about defense. While Webb’s long record of public statements offer numerous clues to his vision for U.S. national security, a novel he published in 1991 might be the most surprising, and surprisingly, informative, part of his record.

As an author — Webb has written nine books — the senator is most famous for “Fields Of Fire,” considered by some to be among the finest novels ever written about the Vietnam War. By contrast, “Something To Die For” is obscure, but no less impressive. In it, Webb applies the lessons of Vietnam to meditate on both civil-military relations and the consequences of making decisions of war and peace without considering the national interest.

“Something To Die For” is both a Washington novel and a war novel, bouncing back and forth between the machinations of Washington and their impact on U.S. sailors, Navy aviators and Marines in the East African country of Eritrea.

Here, in brief, is Webb’s complex narrative: The venal Defense Secretary Ronald Holcomb tries to give President Everett Lodge some breathing room on a crisis with Japan involving a powerful Japanese corporation. This unexpectedly results in a brief but disastrous U.S. intervention in an Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict involving the Cubans, the French and the Soviets. More than 40 Marines die in combat — including the novel’s protagonist — because Holcomb, attempting to outfox the Japan-bashing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, mistakenly believes he can create a limited distraction.

If that sounds like a simplistic tale of virtuous military versus corrupt civilian, it isn’t. Holcomb is abetted by a glory-seeking prima donna, Adm. “Mad Dog” Mulcahy, who styles himself the “Nelson of the 90s” and laments the reluctance of civilian politicians to give him the war that will cement his legacy. The House committee chairman, Doc Rowland, nearly mortgages his career and his reputation to avoid both a war and economic decline at the hands of the Japanese. Interestingly, while there are clear villains in a novel about war, Webb takes pains to avoid superficial protagonists. There are no real heroes in “Something To Die For,” only martyrs.

A scene that reveals much about Webb’s perspective on national security comes early on, and can be viewed as a statement of classical foreign-policy realism. Mulcahy, the commander of Naval forces in the Pacific, arrives on the USS Roosevelt in the South China Sea and assembles its key officers for a briefing about an opportunity to strike a blow at the Soviet Union and its proxies.

It seems a Cuban armor division has arrived in Ethiopia, a Soviet-aligned country, to assist its attempts at reclaiming the breakaway state of Eritrea. Soviet warships are nearby in the Red Sea, a crucial waterway for the global oil supply. A rump force of French legionnaires have come to the aid of the Eritrean government, which expects the Cubans to invade. Mulcahy, conspiring with Holcomb, wants to support the French, who would request U.S. assistance if Washington signals its willingness to provide troops.

Something doesn’t sound right to Marine Col. Bill Fogarty, a Vietnam veteran and commander of the Marine Expeditionary Unit that will, under Mulcahy’s scheme, be sent to Eritrea. The first thing he asks the bellicose admiral: “[H]as the President spoken publicly about this? Is there a national policy, or a declaration of American interest?”

The subtext is that Mulcahy is willing to create military facts on the ground before the country has debated and decided on the wisdom of committing troops to an obscure civil war. Fogarty, clearly the stand-in for Webb, knows the folly of cavalierly using force ahead of a clear national decision. The country could easily forsake the mission when things get bloody — meaning Americans will die for nothing.

That’s what really concerns Webb/Fogarty, more than the procedural question of Mulcahy’s free-lancing. “In terms of strategy, I’m a little fuzzy on what’s going on here,” Webb/Fogarty asks the admiral. “Let me see if I have this right. The Ethiopians are a Communist regime. The Eritreans are — something, I’m not sure what… How is the president going to define our national interest?” Webb/Fogarty’s questioning of the wisdom of Mulcahy’s strategy provokes a risible response from the admiral: “You took an oath, Colonel? Do you remember it?”

Webb does not shy away from implying that the real traitors to the Constitution are Mulcahy, Holcomb (nickname: “Chicken Hawk”) and those who would use other people’s lives — be they Marines, foreign allies, working-class Americans, even adversaries — as means to an end.

But as soon as his fictional Marines are sent into combat, Webb shows that the dishonor of the initial mistake is transformed into an obscenity by a failure to give those Marines everything they need to succeed — resources, strategy and moral support. For example, Rep. Rowland who tried and failed to avert the conflict, fights a rear-guard battle with the administration to punish a Japanese company that sold U.S. military secrets to North Korea. But while the Marines are in Eritrea, when Rowland is invited in a TV interview to criticize the president’s decision to go to war, he replies, “I don’t think any of us should be second-guessing policy while it’s being executed.”

Webb, as narrator, fills in the congressman’s reasoning. “Now Doc Rowland cursed Ronald Holcomb with all his heart. Because he knew he could never question a military operation while young American troops were putting their lives on the line on a battlefield. In a few days he could. But so-called after-action reports were never effective.”

Rowland, however, is an exception. One thing Mulcahy and Fogarty agree on is that civilians don’t understand the military in fundamental ways. During the first hours of fighting, Lodge’s national security adviser absurdly instructs the Joint Chiefs chairman, “Tell your people not to fire unless fired upon. … And if they’re going to have to fire, get back to us.” A military veteran turned Pentagon official — whose career path, it should be noted, resembles Webb’s — laments to himself that even as he works out a political strategy to save Holcomb, “[T]hey’d turn on people like me in a heartbeat.”

The takeaway from Webb’s war novel is that of a relatively coherent vision of national security. War is not one tool of national strategy among many — it is the most awful of human experiences. It is not to be used without a thorough understanding of and appreciation for its objectives, their importance and their consequences. And it is never to be undertaken half-way. If anything, Webb resembles Gen. Colin L. Powell and the generation of Vietnam veterans who ascended to the Pentagon under Reagan defense secretary Caspar Weinberger. (Unsurprisingly, perhaps, because he was one of them.)

But interestingly, Webb is agnostic in the novel about what his conception of the national interest is — offering instead what it isn’t. He offers guidelines for when and how to wage war, but, perhaps wisely for a novel, prefers to give a formula rather than solve a problem.

Presumably a more robust definition of the national interest will come from Webb’s coming non-fiction treatise, “A Time To Fight.”

Until then, politics junkies have a window into one of the most interesting Congressional voices on defense issues — that, additionally, makes a good beach read.

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