Q&A: James Webb, Former Secretary of the Navy

October 30, 2005
The San Diego Union-Tribune

Webb, a 1968 Naval Academy graduate, was a highly decorated Marine infantry officer in Vietnam. He was an assistant secretary of defense and later secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. Webb is the author of six novels, the non-fiction “Born Fighting” and several Hollywood screenplays. He lectured at the James Bond Stockdale Leadership and Ethics Symposium at the University of San Diego Oct. 19 and was interviewed by members of the Union-Tribune’s editorial board.

You were a Marine infantry platoon leader and later a company commander. You were wounded twice and won a Navy Cross. You wrote “Fields of Fire,” widely acclaimed as one of the best novels on Vietnam. And you became, in a sense, a spokesman for a lot of Vietnam veterans. Looking back 25 years, how has the country’s view of America’s Vietnam veterans changed since the 1970s?

First of all, I think with the young people there’s absolutely no comprehension of what the war was about. It is very difficult to teach unless you get specialized courses in universities in this sort of thing. So basically in my experience the Vietnam War is pretty much summed up by people in a sentence or two that we went into Vietnam and it was a disaster and we left. And even on the Vietnamese side, I go to Vietnam a lot. As you know I speak Vietnamese. I can get away from the (Vietnamese government) handlers and talk to people. The official position in Vietnam is that Vietnam fought America, which is not true. The United States attempted to assist an existing government, which lost 245,000 soldiers dead on the battlefield. But I say that because that plays in to how people view Vietnam veterans. I think that the country, even back in ’79 when I was working on the House Veterans Committee, the average American respected the service of the people who were in Vietnam. Today, it’s like: ‘yes this guy did a good job in a horrible endeavor.’ There’s not a comprehension of the level of performance of people who were in Vietnam. It has sort of faded. If you look at the actual battlefield results, there’s no comprehension of how competent our military really was.

Do you think America’s perception (of the war) has changed over the past 25 years given the boat people, human rights problems and Hanoi’s dictatorship? What’s history going to say about America’s role in Vietnam?

One of the reasons that I stayed so involved with this over the years was because really what has been going on has been a quiet battle for how history’s going to view this. And it becomes essential for people who have had different experiences, the combat experience and also stayed with this issue beyond 1973 or 1975 to see how things played out to make that case, to remind people. I had no political views when I went to Vietnam. I trusted the country’s leadership. That was it. I was a 22-year-old guy trying to learn how to lead troops.

Just graduated from the Naval Academy?

Right. But I studied the history of Vietnam. I’ve studied warfare. But I wasn’t going to get into a long political debate about whether the war was just or not. I used to tell people when I figure that out I’ll talk to you about it. Right now I’ve got to go lead troops. After 1978 when the boat people starting showing up, you could only then really begin to discuss what it was we were attempting to do. When you have the witnesses of the truth, 50 percent dying, popping up in the water. But over the past seven or eight years, I think people who have gone into Vietnam, particularly if you’re in the media or if you have some notoriety, you’re usually accompanied by someone who is either your interpreter or your escort. And they are 90 percent of the time Interior Ministry people. They guide people through this. So there hasn’t been a full comprehension of how that society has worked. I started going back in 1991. And it was pretty clearly still a Stalinist state in 1991. What moved Vietnam forward was when the Soviet Union fell, and they lost anywhere from $1 billion to $3 billion a year in subsidies.

And today?

The last three or four years actually have been pretty good. I was back in July and I was pretty impressed with the government leaders that I met with. This is at the province and district level. In a province where I had fought, where 10 years ago the government leaders were really hard-core America haters, apparatchiks. They’ve been able to groom some very competent people. So, on the one hand I don’t think there’s a comprehension at all of the journey. And, on the other hand, compared to some of the other countries in the region, it’s fairly hopeful.

What is your take on the wisdom of our strategy in Iraq and the competence of its execution?

I was an early voice saying we shouldn’t go in, that it was not connected to the war against international terrorism, that it was not among the highest national security concerns that we should be considering. My warning before we went in was basically that it was a strategic mousetrap on three different levels. One is that it would involve the nation’s focus and attention and resources beyond military resources to the detriment of other interests. Second was that if you’re going to decapitate a government, you would be draining your force structure. And thirdly, in the sense that we have focused so strongly on the Sunnis while the Shiites have been in a win-win since day one, and as a result we’re empowering Iran.

Has that view changed any now?


You don’t buy the argument that it didn’t used to be about terrorism and al-Qaeda but that now it is?

I think the tragedy in my view of Iraq is that it has created a lot more terrorists than would have existed if we hadn’t gone in. I don’t think it’s a plus that Iraq is filled with terrorists right now. This isn’t a zero-sum game like there’s only X number of terrorists in the world and as a result we’re going to draw them to the flytrap and kill them off.

There are a lot of people who say we made a terrible mistake but we will compound it if we just back out now. Do you agree?

I’m not saying we should pick up everything and leave in six months. I’m saying we made a horrendous mistake going in, in my view a strategic error. This is not a moral comment. There are a lot of situations around the world where I wouldn’t shed a tear if a leader were taken out. The question is where you draw your national priorities and how that plays out. I was in Beirut as a journalist in 1983. It was an incredible experience for me looking at the lay of the land. We had an issue when I was secretary of the Navy where we tilted toward Iraq (during the Iran-Iraq war). I think I was the only guy in the Reagan administration who opposed the tilt toward Iraq in writing.

What’s your recommendation on how we get out?

I think there are two things that need to happen. The first is that the administration needs to say with absolute clarity that we have no long-term aspirations in Iraq. And then the other is to reinvolve a lot of the countries that are in that region. Iran’s probably too dangerous because of the way they’ve moved into the Shiite areas; But to reinvolve the Arab nations and invite them to participate in the solution.

In 1979 you famously wrote a piece questioning the Army’s embrace of females in combat situations. Later you criticized what you saw as hysteria in the aftermath of the Navy’s Tailhook scandal. Do you have any second thoughts on those issues?

My view then, and the decibel level was loud on all sides back in 1979 with the Carter administration. The Carter administration had just ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support a political policy that did not exist. They had ordered them to support removing the ban on women in combat. That’s when I wrote that piece. And the commandant of the Marine Corps at that time, Robert Barrow, who is one of my all-time Marine heroes, stood up to them. He called me after he had done it. He basically said that the deputy secretary of defense had given them that order and they had all smartly saluted except for Barrow. He said I do not believe that is a legal order, I’m going to have my counsel check on it. If it is a legal order, I’m going to explain to the Congress the circumstances under which I’m obeying it. And they backed off. But that’s how high the decibel level was and how much the political intrusion in the military was going on at the time.

But what was your position?

When I was secretary of the Navy, I opened up more billets to women than any secretary of the Navy in history. But we did it the right way. I got my warfare chiefs, the three warfare chiefs, to go down and examine inside their own specialties where women should be absorbed. I had them then report to the chief of naval operations. And then the chief of naval operations reported to me. I had the uniform side make the decisions, the recommendations, and then bring them to me. This wasn’t me standing up there pontificating because I was a civilian official. So when this has been done in a rational way where it works, I fully support it. When it’s an intrusion from the outside, I think that not only I but other people should have questions. So where it is now? I think that from what I can see from a distance it’s working well.

You were secretary of the Navy in the last couple of years of the Reagan administration. You resigned over a matter of policy, specifically budget cuts which began pulling the Navy away from the Reagan administration’s goal of a 600-ship Navy. Now we have about a 290-ship Navy…

And that’s on a good day.

Yes, and it’s still shrinking. How would you assess the overall adequacy of the U.S. military today?

I think it’s thin. It’s thin; the Navy, the Army and the Marine Corps. I wouldn’t have a strong comment about the Air Force. The worry that I have (is) with the Navy. How these issues are debated depends on what the national security crisis of the moment is. Five or six years ago people were trying to say that the Army was too large. But what you’re seeing right now with the Navy in my view is it needs some better advocates to really argue about the strategic issues, which is where the Navy is the strongest.

The whole case for sea power.

Exactly. Force projection without having to negotiate basing rights. These sorts of things. The aircraft carrier concept is under attack again and yet every nation that becomes a major power tries to in some way replicate what we’ve been able to do. And it’s a pretty dangerous thing to start undoing that. So the Navy needs better advocates.

What about the Army and the Marine Corps?

When (former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric) Shinseki was talking about a 10 division Army doing a 12 division job, he was right. Even before the Iraq situation. I was a proponent of downsizing the Army and the tactical Air Force, but I think particularly in the Army’s case they went too far. The Marine Corps, I think the Marine Corps has done very well in terms of its force-structure size. The question is how it’s being used. When you’re having these guys do two or three tours over there in Iraq and the Marine Corps taking the higher casualty rates and being out where they are, that’s a question of national policy rather than force.

What is your view of don’t ask/don’t tell as a policy and how it has worked?

I think it’s a good policy for the basic reason that when you look at the confined quarters that people live in, I think you would have some extremely difficult problems if there were more overt lifestyle issues at play. I think there have always been gays in the military and there always will be. Young people living in cramped quarters need to have zones of privacy. And that’s a practical issue the way that I look at it.

So how has the policy worked?

I think it has worked because it allowed people to keep zones of privacy. That’s why I support it.

You recently wrote a book, “Born Fighting,” on the history of the Scots/Irish contributions to this country. What are the most important things that Americans should understand about the contributions of the Scots/Irish?

The Scots-Irish basically created red-state America. I start the book at Hadrian’s Wall with the formation of England vs. the formation of Scotland. And I take the migration from principally southwestern Scotland into Ulster in Northern Ireland where the Calvinists, then Presbyterians, which are now the Baptists, the Methodists and descending religions, were the soldiers for the English/Anglican structure but suffered a lot of the same disabilities that the Irish Catholics did. They migrated almost en masse, huge numbers of them, more than 250,000 migrated to the Appalachian Mountains in the 1700s. From there they moved west, became the dominant culture of the non-slave holding South, etc. They never defined themselves ethnically as much as they did by the cultural values, the family values and this sort of thing. They created populist style democracy in the United States. Andrew Jackson was the first Scots-Irish president. They created in many ways the cultural traditions of the ground forces in the United States military. Stonewall Jackson. Patton. Sergeant York. Audie Murphy. Almost all the generals in the Civil War including Ulysses Grant on the northern side were out of the culture. Gave us country music. And at the same time when you look at socioeconomic benefits, there’s this misperception that white America is a monolith. It’s very stratified in terms of educational attainment and income levels.

The Scots-Irish voted with the Democrats from Andrew Jackson to Vietnam. Since Vietnam, they’ve increasingly voted Republican. The Democrats appear not to quite get this. Can the Democrats win another national election or regularly win them unless they somehow reconnect with this culture that you write about?

They cannot. This cultural group is very much in play. Except for the Christian Right, which is based in this cultural group, it is not directly aligned with either party. But it has tended to vote Republican more because people like Karl Rove, I think, have understood the emotional buttons. But in terms of tangible socioeconomic benefits, it has not benefited by the presidencies of the last three or four presidents. The problem with the Democrats is that they got away from the Jacksonian message. The Democrats used to be the party where people went when they needed a voice on the national level. You cannot develop a national strategy based on group rights, minority rights, you can’t do it. The Democrats need to understand that and get back to what they used to do.

Are you interested in running for political office?

I have been talking to people about running for the Senate next year against George Allen, as a Democrat from Virginia. I have a very good life. I’m not sure that I’m going to do that or not but I have been talking to people. Thinking about it.