I just finished A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America by Virginia’s U.S. Senator, Jim Webb. It’s an eloquent extended essay on America that helped me understand why Webb leads the current Intrade prediction market’s pick for Obama’s running mate. Webb, like Obama, is an accomplished writer, the author of several novels, including Fields of Fire, which Tom Wolfe described as “the finest of the Vietnam novels.”
What struck me in particular about Webb’s latest book is what he calls his “passion for history and a desire to learn from it.” He tells what he means by history in this passage:
Not the enumeration of monarchs and treaties that so often passes for academic knowledge, but the surging vitality from below that so often impels change and truly defines cultures. The novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote vividly about war and peace, showing us the drawing rooms and idiosyncrasies of Russia’s elite. But in reality, he was telling us that great societal changes are most often pushed along by tsunami-deep impulses that cause the elites to react far more than they inspire them to lead. And this, in my view, is the greatest lesson of political history. Entrenched aristocracies, however we may want to define them, do not want change; their desire instead is to manage dissent in a way that does not disrupt their control. But over time, under the right system of government, a free, thinking people has the energy and ultimately the power to effect change. (locations 127-136, Kindle edition)
If those words bring to mind Obama’s mantra of change, so will lots of the rest of the book, especially Webb’s early opposition to the war in Iraq. In September, 2002, six months before the invasion, he wrote a piece for The Washington Post titled “Heading for Trouble: Do We Really Want to Occupy Iraq for the Next Thirty Years?” Typically, his argument was cast at a high level of national strategy, informed by his long study of military history. Here is a sample:
Nations such as China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall. Indeed, if one gives the Chinese credit for having a long-term strategy–and those who love to quote Sun Tzu might consider his nationality–it lends credence to their insistent cultivation of the Muslim world. One should not take lightly the fact that China previously supported Libya, that Pakistan developed its nuclear capability with China’s unrelenting assistance and that the Chinese sponsored a coup attempt in Indonesia in 1965. An “American war” with the Muslims, occupying the very seat of their civilization, would allow the Chinese to isolate the United States diplomatically as they furthered their own ambitions in South and Southeast Asia.
There is lots to admire in this book and lots to provoke reassessment of conventional wisdom, even one’s own. Webb’s moving description of what it felt like to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, when soldiers were attacked as “baby killers,” led me to reevaluate my own beliefs from that era, when I joined more than half a million protesters in the Moratorium to End the War march on Washington in November, 1969. To consider changing one’s views about Vietnam is just as difficult now as it was then. Let’s just say Webb’s account of the Vietnam War and the wound it continues to represent for the Democratic Party struck me as original and smart.
The talking-heads analysis of Jim Webb as a Vice Presidential candidate usually comes round to his 1979 article titled “Women Can’t Fight” in Washingtonian Magazine. Twenty-seven years later, Webb was grilled about it by Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” Webb told Russert, “I am fully comfortable with the roles of women in the military today” and noted that his authorship of the article “was vetted twice in Senate confirmation hearings in 1984 and 1987.” In my opinion, his answers to Russert were effective, but a Twitter friend after watching the Russert interview Twittered, “wow. I was giving him the benefit of the doubt to see if he has grown, realized he was wrong – but dang! he can’t say he’s wrong.” I bet he’s closer to saying he was wrong now than he was two years ago.
I hope Webb’s responses to the article enable him to stay in contention as Veep, because it seems as if his strategic skills and experience would be valuable on the ticket. He and Obama sound similar themes on domestic policy, foreign affairs, and the need to overcome a broken political system in the U.S. To have these beliefs and values championed by individuals of such wildly divergent personal backgrounds and temperament–Webb is hot and rugged to Obama’s cool and graceful–would make for a strong ticket and a strong Administration, in my opinion.
I recommend this book highly to anyone who’s as steeped in the Presidential election as I am, and I’d love to hear others’ views on it.