Until he became a Senator, Webb was best known as a warrior, a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who went to Vietnam a year later as a Marine lieutenant. For nine months he faced combat almost daily in the killing fields of the An Hoa Valley, before injuries forced him from the front lines. He has studied law, become an acclaimed author, even won an Emmy for his reporting from Beirut for PBS in 1983, but it's the Vietnam experience that informs Webb to this day. A fierce defender of those who fought in that war, he believes the cause was just, if horribly mismanaged. As for his own life, he says, "You never really leave the battlefield; I was older at 24 than I am today."
Rare for a man who expected to be a military lifer, Webb has published eight books, fiction and non-. His literary career is so important to him that he maintains a separate writing office across the river from Capitol Hill. His latest book, 'A Time to Fight,' is a challenge to his fellow Democrats to return to (or at least honor) the working class, to focus on fairness, and to correct economic injustice. The book grew out of his frustration during his first year in the Senate. "[Liberals] leave the room if a fight breaks out," he e-mailed me in the early going.
To his friends, Webb has always been a complex man with many interests, with a formidable intellect that's always locked and loaded. One of his closest friends in the Senate, Jon Tester, the organic farmer with the flat-top haircut and a waistline to match the Big Sky of his home state of Montana, says with a chuckle that Webb is always prepared with facts and figures. "We were in Kuwait together," Tester remembers, "and an embassy officer was giving us a standard briefing on the area when Webb cut him off and proceeded to lecture him on the real facts of the Middle East and Iraq."
If he did wind up on the Democratic ticket as Obama's running mate, Webb could claim many constituencies. As military offspring he attended nine schools between fifth and 10th grades, living in Alabama, Missouri, Texas, California, and Nebraska. His neighborhoods and classmates comprised a melting pot of ethnicities in one big blue state and a mix of red states, a natural complement to his hardscrabble family roots.
As a boy Webb became fascinated with Asia after he got hooked on James Michener. He still remembers spending his grocery delivery tips on a mango so he could taste the exotica he knew only from books.
Yet his days and nights in Vietnam were not starry-eyed versions of some enchanted evening. On that January 2006 trip there, we made our way to an abandoned airstrip that was once the resupply artery for a sprawling marine base. Webb looked to the now peaceful hills thick with jungle canopy and said, "I love this place. I also hate it."
We talked about the day his radioman, Mike "Mac" McGarvey, a close friend, lost an arm to a land mine. As Webb rushed to his side, tears in his eyes, Mac said to him, "Knock that shit off, lieutenant. It's just an arm."
No Swift Boater could challenge Webb's own heroics in Vietnam. He won the Silver Star for rescuing wounded marines in a clearing directly in the line of enemy fire. Less than three months later he was leading a patrol deep in enemy territory when they discovered a camouflaged bunker. In a fury of grenades and gunshots, Webb captured three enemy soldiers, wounded two others, shielded one of his men from an explosion, and, though wounded, crawled into one of the bunkers to recover valuable intelligence documents. He was awarded the Navy Cross.
Our trip was his 15th visit to the country, part of a continuing journey of personal discovery and determination to heal old wounds opened by a primal fight between the country he loves and the one in which he fought. "I just like the people and the culture of Southeast Asia," he told me. "And I think we should be paying much more attention to them in our foreign policy. People forget that the largest Muslim populations in the world are in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia."
Webb's wife Hong accompanied us on our tour. She was the seven-year-old daughter of a South Vietnamese fisherman when her family fled ahead of the communist takeover. They landed in New Orleans, where Hong grew up working in fish processing plants and starring in the classroom. She went to the University of Michigan and then to Cornell Law School. Now a prominent securities lawyer in the D.C. area, she's a striking beauty with a quick sense of humor. Hong lingered behind in one village on our trip, while Webb and I chatted up some local workers a few hundred yards away. When we returned for her, we found her laughing; she told us the village women warned her that we were Americans and would try to kidnap her.
Fights have always mattered in Jim Webb's life. In a way, combativeness is genetic for the red-haired, pug-nosed, literary-minded senator. Under another chest-thumping title, 'Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,' he wrote about famous and obscure American immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, including family members. As he has with most of his books, Webb drew heavily on his own family's history in 'Born Fighting,' and he does again in 'A Time to Fight.'