Tradition and the Military, an Interview with James Webb

March/April 1997
American Enterprise Institute

James Webb isn’t likely to forget military tradition as he works in his Arlington office overlooking the Iwo Jima Memorial. The walls, shelves, and tables bristle with mementos of his varied life: military honors; a model of the three-soldiers statue from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (he served on its planning committee), an Emmy won covering the 1983 Marine barracks bombing for the “Mac Neil-Lehrer News Hour,” and bullets from the Civil War.

A 1968 graduate of the Naval Academy, Webb served in Vietnam as a Marine rifle platoon commander, earned high honors for valor, and was evacuated after he suffered serious injuries protecting a subordinate from a grenade blast. Upon leaving the Corps, he earned a law degree at Georgetown University before writing the first of his four novels, Fields of Fire, a Vietnam tale that sold a million copies and was nominated for a Pulitzer. In 1987, James Webb was appointed Secretary of the Navy.

Webb is currently working on another novel. He was interviewed by Scott Walter, Keith Hutcheson, and David Broome.

AE: How important is tradition for the military?

MR. WEBB: It’s the foundation of the military. The thing that sustained me in combat was the notion that I was accountable to the people whom I was leading and to the traditions of the Marine Corps. That’s the bedrock.

AE: The central military tradition is the warrior. How is he made?

MR. WEBB: In any battlefield scenario, maybe 10 percent of the people are at the tip of the sword. I wouldn’t say that the central tradition of the military is to become a warrior. I would say that the most respected tradition in the military is the warrior tradition.

I grew up in the Air Force. My father was a career Air Force officer who had not been a college graduate; he flew bombers in World War II and worked his way up. I was able to watch the whole Air Force thing as a young kid—family dislocations, the bomber thing, the fighter thing, the missile thing.

Then I went to the Naval Academy. I served as a Marine officer. People generally agree that the Marine Corps has held on to its traditions the strongest and has flourished because of it. From the very first day in the Marine Corps, you are told about its battle history and traditions, although frankly some of this is embellished.

Marines know little things such as that the markings on their uniforms tie into the history of the Corps. The officer cap, for instance, has a quatrefoil because when the Marines used to be snipers up in the masts of sailing vessels they would tie ropes on top of their hats so they could be identified by the friendlies and not be shot. The trousers on the dress blues have a red stripe, which only NCOs and officers wear, because at the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican War the NCOs and officers stood and fought. This is for the blood that was shed at Chapultepec.

Marines carry the acts of those who went before them as a conscious burden. There were so many times when I was completely miserable in Vietnam—I remember making night combat moves through miles of rice paddies and hating it but finally saying, hey, I’m doing this, but somebody else did something just as hard or worse. You earn the respect of the uniform by what has happened through other people who breathed the dignity into it, and you feel it’s part of your obligation to pass that on.

AE: What did you learn from your father?

MR. WEBB: In this country today, we are very hesitant to talk about white ethnic culture. In 1974 the National Opinion Research Center broke white Americans down into 17 different ethnic strata, and there was more variation within those 17 strata in terms of educational attainment and family income than there was between whites as a whole and blacks.

The historic strengths of those cultures produce different kinds of talent. For example, 40 percent of the partners in major law firms in this country are Jewish. The Jews come from a tradition of Talmudic law. It is passed down from father to son, at the dinner table. In my culture, which is Scottish and Irish, the Celtic culture, although we were at the bottom of that NORC scale in education and income, we have been soldiers for 2,000 years. The military virtues have been passed down at the dinner table. More than half of America’s foreign-born Medal of Honor winners were born in Ireland. A big part of that was the Civil War and the potato-famine Irish, but it extends far beyond that, and it doesn’t even include what happened on the Southern side in the Civil War. The southern culture is of course very heavily Scottish-Irish.

My family has been involved at some level in every war this country has fought except for World War I, which we somehow missed by virtue of age, although my dad was the only career military person our family ever had. The discussions at the dinner table when I was a kid were, who were the great generals? Which were the important battles? How do you lead people? How do you motivate them? When somebody tells you you are in charge, what are your obligations to those people? My dad would say there are two ways: you can make somebody do something, or you can make somebody want to do something.

Many of the discussions that I have with my son are the same way. I don’t push-it just happens. His mother’s father was on Iwo Jima. I did this stuff in Vietnam, and my father did this stuff in World War II. When you see other cultures having strengths that don’t require you to go out and get your butt shot off, this particular cultural strength seems thankless and kind of a curse, but it’s there.

AE: Commandant Gray of the Marine Corps had a reading list which included your novel Fields of Fire. He said officers should read these things.

MR. WEBB: It was great that Al Gray did that. Al wanted to move the Marine Corps away from feeling like the only way you can define yourself as a Marine is if you run three miles a day and do pull-ups.

The great military leaders have had a streak of poetry in them. I think of a guy named Dutch Schultz, a Marine Corps two-star general who wrote some of the most beautiful war poetry I’ve ever read. MacArthur was absolutely poetic in the way that he spoke. The best article I’ve ever read on success in combat was written by George Patton in 1931, when he was a major. If you really want to understand and pass on the traditions of the service, you need to be able to articulate them.

AE: What are the best American novels and movies about war?

MR. WEBB: A book that is often overlooked, partly because of the timing of its publication, is Once An Eagle, by Anton Myrer. Myrer was a Marine in World War II, and in this novel he followed one character from 1916 all the way into Vietnam. That book had a very profound effect on me because I read it right when I got back from Vietnam. It was published in 1968, right after the Tet offensive, when everyone was burned out on that stuff.

I’m still waiting to see a good film about Vietnam. My dad’s favorite on leadership, one he made me watch, was Twelve O’clock High, which is a great movie about having to command people under great duress. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a wonderful movie. This British commander went through an enormous amount of punishment that he could have avoided in order to make the point to his Japanese captors that this was a military unit, and not a random collection of soldiers, that he was delivering to the prisoner of war camp.

There are two non-American books I would recommend. One is The Forgotten Soldier, which is non-fiction, by Guy Sajer. It is the most overwhelming book about war I have ever read. The other is C.S. Forester’s The General, a novel about how the unimaginative officers who could endure the horrendous World War I battles and still persevere were the ones who floated to the top.

AE: A recent article in The New Yorker quotes former Congresswoman and Armed Forces Committee member Patricia Schroeder saying, without discernible remorse, that in the wake of Tailhook, women and gays in the military, and so forth, “what you’ve got in the Navy is a culture cracking.” Would this be something you agree with her on?

MR. WEBB: Where is an old naval saying that it takes 300 years to build a tradition and three days to destroy one. Today’s problems go back a ways.

I’ve recently been spending two or three months a year in Vietnam, and I can tell you they know who won on the battlefield. I didn’t say that 10 years ago, but it’s very clear now. We defeated the North Vietnamese. They now admit they lost 1.4 million combat soldiers. But the failure of this nation to conclude the Vietnam War satisfactorily left the military under question from the outside, frequently from people who had no military experience and who were elected to Congress on virulently anti-military themes.

The real watershed event was the Watergate Congress. When Nixon resigned in August 1974, a lot of Democrats won in safe Republican districts simply on anti-war issues, because no one else was going to run. Tom Downey is a classic example of that. He was around 26 years old, living at home with his mother, never had a job in his life, and all of a sudden, he’s a congressman.

In the summer of 1975, the House passed the amendment opening up the service academies to females. This was a watershed event, but it was done without substantive hearings. It was done without asking for the input of the military leadership. They narrowed the issue down to simply a matter of equality. It was not a matter of military performance. That didn’t matter. I can’t think of another issue passed by the Congress in such a cavalier way that had such a long-term impact in that it diminished the military’s ability to defend its own culture.

I was the first Naval Academy graduate to serve in the military and become Secretary of the Navy. When I got there I wanted to give purely military decisions back to the admirals, to give the uniformed military the same kind of authority that it had in the past. But the reality was that by then, with the cultural change that had been happening on the political side, a lot of them were afraid to take it back.

AE: At one point in the early 1960s, the Army Chief of Staff went to the White House to resign over policies being made in Vietnam, but after arriving changed his mind and went back to the Pentagon. He later said it was the greatest single mistake of his life. Should our military leadership resign when they think the services are being misused for social experiments?

MR. WEBB: First, they should vociferously defend their traditions and culture. In rare cases, a resignation is appropriate. They really haven’t done either for a long while.

One of my great heroes is General Bob Barrow, who was Commandant of the Marine Corps in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In 1979, the Carter administration lined the Joint Chiefs up and ordered them to support eliminating the restrictions on women in combat. I wrote an article strongly opposing the idea, and Barrow called me up the day the article came out. All the Joint Chiefs except for Barrow had said, aye aye, sir, we’ll go over to Congress to testify in favor of eliminating restrictions on women in combat.

Barrow told the administration, “Number one, I don’t believe that’s a legal order. You cannot order me to support a policy that does not yet exist. That is not civilian control of the military; that is civilian manipulation of the military leadership.” He told the Deputy Secretary of Defense he was having his aides’ research whether it was legal to force him to support a proposal not yet established as national policy. And he said if it was legal and he was required to testify with a favorable opinion, he was going to explain to the Congress the circumstances under which he did so. They backed off.

General Barrow took over as the Commandant of the Marine Corps the same way I would take over a rifle company. I’m going to give you the best job I can, and if you don’t like what I’m doing, fire me. That is what people need to do.

AE: Is that Carter administration incident at all analogous to Clinton’s policy on gays in the military?

MR. WEBB: The issues of privacy and potential favoritism are just as great in isolated operating units with females as they are with gays. Loyalty, fairness, accountability—that’s what makes the military work.

When people ask me about gays in the military, my response is, Why don’t you people have the courage to talk about what is happening in the operating units with women?

AE: When you were Secretary of the Navy, you tripled the number of seagoing jobs open to women. Why?

MR. WEBB: When Secretary of Defense Carlucci came in, he announced that he wanted to remove all the restrictions on combat for women. It was totally contrary to our own administration’s policy, but he said, “I don’t have Cap Weinberger’s hang-ups on that.”

I had been receiving pressure to resolve the issue of what exactly is a combat assignment. Where is the line drawn? I wanted the uniformed military to make that decision. So I convened a group of 28 active-duty people, male and female. I sent them around the world. They came back and reported to me through the Chief of Naval Operations, who supported their findings. One of their recommendations was to define combat vessels by type of ship. My view had always been that the biggest difficulty of female assimilation on ships is the length of deployment. Their recommendation surprised me, but the process was the right process, and so I accepted it. Now I think we need to look at it again.

AE: Is it still possible to have a strong military and warrior tradition? Can Beavis and Butt Head be turned into Marines?

MR. WEBB: They always have been. No democracy can survive without two things, and we are in danger on both counts. One is a strong public education system, so that no matter where you start, you believe you have the opportunity to make something big of yourself. Second, you cannot have a true democracy if, in times of crisis, only some people are at risk. Every different part of the country, culturally, must be at risk if the nation is at risk. Unfortunately, that risk-sharing has fallen by the wayside since Vietnam. When I was in Vietnam, I thought we were all over there. Then after I was wounded and came back to work on Capitol Hill, I started calling around. I called Harvard and asked how many people graduated from Harvard College from 1962 to ’72 and how many were killed in Vietnam. The answers were 12,595, and eight. They later said 12. In World War II, by contrast, Harvard lost 691 killed in action.

If you separate out the governing elites from the people who are vulnerable to public policy, you get problems. In order to understand the risks you are putting my nephews or my son through, you have to feel somewhat at risk yourself. Today for the first time that I know of, the government’s entire national security team is composed of people who have never worn a uniform-from the President, to the Secretary of Defense, to the National Security Advisor. Not only that, but if you look at the people in the administration, who’s got anyone personally at risk?

It’s easy to say, send a few troops to Somalia. To Bosnia. Zaire. Rwanda. The order-givers have no comprehension. One culture pays while another culture moves things around. That’s not the way this country is supposed to be.

AE: The Wall Street Journal ran an article last year about Beavis and Butt Head-type kids going to Parris Island and coming out something so different that their own mothers couldn’t recognize their sons. One of the interesting twists was that the sons were disgusted by their own former lives, their own former friends, by the society around them.

MR. WEBB: Yeah, that guy hates what he was, and he’s not going back to it because he’s risen above it. These guys have found a camaraderie that will sustain them for the rest of their lives. You don’t get that sitting on the block.

It amazes me, the number of extremely successful former Marines. You go up on Wall Street and they’re everywhere. These aren’t always people who went to really good schools or who have incredible native talents. They’ve just learned how to be men.

As for the disdain for weakness in former buddies, it’s always been that way. We used to talk about it when I was a Marine. If you think you feel alienated from somebody back on the block when you made a voluntary choice to go into the service and they are still just screwing around, think about how you feel when you went overseas and got your butt shot off and came back and they called you names.

But when you had conscription in place, you had shorter average enlistment periods, higher personnel turnover, and a lot more people with military experience going back into the community. So it was a lot easier to have camaraderie when you went home, because people there had been through it.

AE: Not all traditions are good. During my time in the Air Force I noticed the tradition that you’re not supposed to challenge authority. Because decisions are unchallenged from within, they sometimes go in the wrong direction.

MR. WEBB: Your experiences are probably a product either of poor leadership or of the end of conscription and the evolution of this professional military, which encourages less questioning than when we had a citizen military. The American military was founded on the right of the soldier to ask why. It drove von Steuben bananas at Valley Forge. He came from the Prussian experience. He kept saying, These Americans, they always want to know, “Why?”

AE: You harshly criticized Admiral Boorda, the Chief of Naval Operations who recently committed suicide after making controversial decisions on Tailhook and gays and women in the military, and being investigated for wearing ribbons he hadn’t earned. What do you make of the Boorda affair?

MR. WEBB: The military tradition is, you wear your ribbons right. I have never in my life seen a senior Marine with his ribbons on wrong. When I was Secretary of the Navy, I had to personally sign off on every transfer of an admiral. These packets would include an eight-by-ten picture of the individual, and I got in the habit of checking the ribbons they were wearing as one way to get to know who the admirals were. The ribbons are the roadmap of your career.

I never once questioned whether any individual deserved an award that he was wearing. What I was doing was looking at the correctness of how they were wearing their ribbons. When I first started this, a tremendous percentage of the admirals in the Navy were wearing their ribbons wrong. The problem is, if the admiral isn’t wearing his ribbons right, then why should the petty officer care? I announced that I wasn’t approving any transfer of any admiral whose ribbons came up to my office wrong. I don’t have any regrets or apologies to make for the fact that I was attempting to enforce a tradition in the correct way.

For some time before the Boorda suicide, I had been criticizing Navy leaders for failing to adequately defend their service in the wake of Tailhook and so forth. My efforts were not directed purely at Admiral Boorda but at many senior leaders who had let the Navy’s culture be wrenched by political manipulation. In a speech to the Naval Institute earlier in the year, I had warned against sacrificing military principle and loyalty to further one’s personal career, and I criticized the way some great officers had been stigmatized and pushed out of the service for political reasons.

I was talking to all the admirals, not just Boorda. I was saying, “Where are the senior officers who are supposed to step forward and defend their institution when it’s being torn apart?” When good men were railroaded without a shred of due process, who was speaking up? The number-one tradition in the military is loyalty from the top down: Take care of your people.

AE: Speaking of the top, what do you think of Bill Clinton?

MR. WEBB: I cannot conjure up an ounce of respect for Bill Clinton when it comes to the military. Every time I see him salute a Marine, it infuriates me. I don’t think Bill Clinton cares one iota about what happens in a military unit.