Something to Die For (1991)

From bestselling author, decorated Vietnam veteran and former Secretary of the Navy James Webb comes a blisteringly authentic novel of the ruthless politics of war — a searing indictment of those at the top who dictate military policy…and a moving tribute to the courageous soldiers who must pay the ultimate price.

It is a bloody game as old as nations and politics. And it has always been played with the lives of the most loyal and brave.

A thoughtful, powerful work that achieves a remarkable advance on his previous literary achievements and range. In fulfilling his former literary promise, he has revealed to us a new prospect of becoming far more. Let us salute the emergence of a major American political novelist. Something to Die For is something to cheer for…”



Editorial Reviews, Washington Post Book World:  “Webb is not just a writer of war thrillers; he is a genuine novelist of ideas…A century hence, James Webb will be studied for the light he sheds on military life and civil-military relations at the climax of the American Century.”


The Christian Science Monitor: “Fascinating… Webb’s style is like Tom Clancy’s… He has something to prove and he settles the score.”


The New York Times:  “Brilliantly done…Truly frightening… Breathtaking in its vision.”


Washington Times Book World, The Price of Glory
SOMETHING TO DIE FOR; By James Webb; New York: William Morrow and Co., 1991, 333 pp.  
By Martin Sieff, a Soviet and Eastern European affairs correspondent for the Washington Times
May 1991

Scheming phony-toughs of Washington, obsessed with image rather than substance, are willing to sacrifice America’s finest.

James Webb is still under the age of fifty, yet already he can boast three extraordinary careers in the spheres of war, politics, and literature. This remarkable novel is the first of his literary efforts–one hopes it will not be the last–to splice these remarkably disparate–one might even say “trizophrenic”–experiences together. In making such a bold venture, he offers tantalizing hints of becoming a significant political novelist.

Webb, forty-five, was a combat Marine officer in Vietnam and a genuine hero. His many decorations include two Purple Hearts. He went on to transmute his combat experience into the acclaimed novel Fields of Fire, published in 1978 and widely accepted as one of the finest fictional works on the Vietnam conflict.  

Two more acclaimed novels followed, confirming his position as a potential American successor to Rudyard Kipling, bard and champion of his nation’s warrior caste. A Sense of Honor, published in 1981, was a fine evocation of cadet life at Annapolis Naval Academy. A Country Such as This bears comparison with Kipling’s searing poem “Mesopotamia” as a lament for the gallant warriors needlessly sacrificed to expedient, self-serving micromanaging by their political overlords.   

Warrior and Politician

In between, as if by afterthought, Webb also won a 1983 broadcasting Emmy for his prescient television reporting from Beirut the previous year for PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour. Webb enraged senior Reagan administration officials and Pentagon top brass alike by his claims that the U.S. Marines–his former comrades in arms–deployed in the Lebanese capital as part of an international peacekeeping force were enough to attract terrorist attacks and too few and too politically constrained to adequately defend themselves. His warnings proved eerily, prophetically, and tragically true when 241 of them died, killed in their sleep when a suicide truck-bomber slammed into the side of their barracks.        

Nor was this all. Webb served a brief but forceful term as secretary of the Navy in the second Reagan administration before resigning on a point of principle. He had previously served his time in the Pentagon and Capitol Hill bureaucracies and had worked as a lawyer.

Something to Die For seeks to encompass all this astonishing diversity of experience. A scheming secretary of defense and a four-star Navy admiral bent on glory conspire to heat up an obscure crisis in Eritrea, on the Red Sea coast, involving French, Cuban, and Ethiopian forces. The crisis gets out of hand, U.S. forces are sucked into a brief but bloody clash with Cuban forces spearheading the Ethiopian army, and a “damage control” operation is mounted by the administration in Washington to make an unpremeditated, needless battle with a disproportionately high cost in human life appear as a meaningful, strategically significant, and purposeful operation.

Reflecting Webb’s concerns and experience, the novel is set on a dual stage. The American warriors at sea steadily prepare for the impending combat, all too aware of the political dimension of incompetent scheming and cynicism that is drawing them in, yet propelled by their own dreams, passions, and code of honor too. In striking counterpoint, the politicians and military bureaucrats in Washington dance out their elaborate, artificial, and self-serving minuets of power plays, obsessed with image rather than substance, dancing to the tunes of cynicism not principle, pulling political strings yet all the while themselves puppets of a system gone badly wrong.

The theme is not a new one; indeed, it is as hoary as literature and legend. Webb’s young lions, tragically doomed to sacrifice themselves for the most complicated yet aimless of missions, could be Achilles and Hector, condemned to slaughter those they honor on behalf of those whom they despise–Agamemnon and Paris–in Homer’s Iliad. But Webb’s exceptional experience of both frontline combat and Washington intrigue here feeds a highly promising literary gift to produce something unexpected and remarkable.

Fields of Fire was a splendid achievement but it was obviously autobiographical, and many writers have shown the ability to fire off a “single-hitter,” a one-shot classic that they were never able to either match or top. On Vietnam alone, one thinks of Philip Caputo’s novel–A Rumor of War or Michael Herr’s highly impressionistic Dispatches. Neither writer, having exhausted his direct autobiographical experience, again approached such heights.

By contrast, Webb’s two novels following Fields of Fire came impressively close to matching it technically, and they showed tantalizing hints of something more. That promise is now splendidly revealed in Something to Die For, which marries a real moral passion and an acute sensitivity to the complexity of human behavior to a developing but already remarkable literary power–a felicitous style edged with the cutting steel of the searing phrase.