A Country Such As This, by James Webb, New York: Doubleday (hardcover); Bantam Books, 588 pages, $3.95 (paper).
Born in the mid-'50s, I have many childhood and adolescent memories tinged by images of the Vietnam era—nightly scenes of combat and body counts on the evening news, student protests, funerals for local boys not much older than myself, and many more. On my 18th birthday, I dutifully registered for both the right to vote and the draft, although the selective service system had sent out its last notices two years before. Perhaps as a result of being so close to the turbulence without actually being a part of it, I have always had difficulty in forming a clear understanding of the forces and events that strained the ties of American society more than any time since the Civil War. I suspect that there are many others—probably both older and younger than I—who share the problem.
James Webb's recent novel, A Country Such As This, goes a long way toward making sense of the Vietnam-era maelstrom. Webb, currently assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, was one of America's most-decorated Vietnam veterans—earning the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze medals for valor, and two Purple Hearts—before returning to graduate from Georgetown University's law school and write his first book, the Pulitzer-nominated Fields of Fire.
In A Country Such As This, Webb explores the 25 years between 1951 and 1976 through the lives of four graduates of the US Naval Academy (from which Webb himself graduated). It is a work vibrant in its realism, no doubt inspired in large part by Webb's own personal experiences, along with those of numerous historians, veterans, former POWs, and wives of former POWs who shared their time and emotions with him in interviews.
It's not only that Webb paints vivid images with words, whether of the interior of a navy Blue Angel jet or a Vietcong prison camp, but that he also populates the book with characters who express intriguing ideas and observations. One scene, for example, has a military bureaucrat in Vietnam briefing a group of visiting members of Congress on the logic of a plan initiated in 1952 under which Vietnamese villagers were forcibly evacuated to almost 12,000 "strategic hamlets" in order to "provide physical security from Viet Cong terrorism and to sever the social ties the VC have established." "We're interested in keeping communism out of South Vietnam," prophetically responds one fictional legislator, "not creating the ideal laboratory conditions for it to grow!"
A Navy pilot ponders "the almost malevolent" way that he and his fellow airmen "were being wasted." "They flew against railroad yards" yet "were not allowed to attack MiG training bases." "They could not attack Soviet missile sites until they were operational, and then, of course, it was like walking down the tube of a cannon."
And from a frustrated general trying to understand the concept of a limited war: "the man sends us against the North day in and day out. Not against targets that will hurt the North Vietnamese, but against 'interdiction targets.' I don't know how many pieces of railroad track I've blown away in the last five months. But I can guarantee you that Russia and China and the other communist countries have been replacing them as fast as we've been blowing them away. The North Vietnamese probably love what we're doing. It keeps their people united. It doesn't really hurt them. And it keeps the aid rolling in from the communist bloc."
Webb also reserves dialogue for comment on domestic affairs during Johnson's "Great Society" years. As he lounges in a Capitol Hill park, a congressman, anticipating Charles Murray's indictment of Great Society programs in his widely discussed 1985 book, Losing Ground, sees a squirrel carefully eating a discarded potato chip. "The squirrel had lost its ability to feed itself," he muses. "Well-meaning people such as himself had tossed it scraps until it became dependent on their kindness, unable to survive without it. Do we do this to people, too?"
A Country Such As This is not a new book—it first appeared over two years ago, and the paperback edition has been available since April 1985. But as study of the Vietnam years and their lessons for today loom larger, especially as we ponder intervention in Nicaragua, the book's relevance can only grow.