Off the shelf by Lynn McKeown


Soldier, citizen and renegade


James Webb, Born Fighting; How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, Broadway Books, 2004.

Jim Webb, A Time to Fight; Reclaiming a Fair and Just America, 2008.


The author of these two books has led an eventful life. After a youth spent with his career military father and his family moving from one base to another all over the U.S. and some foreign locations, Webb graduated from the Naval Academy just in time for some of the fiercest fighting in Vietnam. He served with distinction but was wounded badly enough to end his career as a Marine officer. Instead he got a law degree and served  as a Congressional counsel, then in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration, where for a time he was Secretary of the Navy. He had also begun a career as a writer and journalist, publishing several novels, including Fields of Fire, considered one of the best novels about the Vietnam War. Then in 2006 he was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Virginia.

These two books are different in that the earlier is mainly historical and the more recent primarily political, but they are similar in that the author weaves his own and his family’s stories into historical and public events. And, as might be expected from someone who had made a (second) career as a  writer,  they are well written and engrossing. This is a former soldier, now a politician, who can quote T.S. Eliot and an Elvis song, Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower.

The first book, Born Fighting, is the story of the ethnic group Webb’s family belonged to, people who originated in Scotland, emigrated to northern Ireland mostly in the 1600’s, with descendents emigrating to America mainly in the 1700’s. Many settled in the Appalachian regions, then, always restless, into what became the southern states, spreading into the Ohio Valley and other parts of the expanding United States. And all along the way, as Webb tells it, they had to fight – against the Romans in Britain, against the British in Ireland and colonial America, and against their fellow countrymen in America – he mentions several ancestors who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Often, they had to fight just to survive and make a living for their families; they became a large part of the blue-collar workers of America. The Scot-Irish also produced a dozen U.S. Presidents, most notably Andrew Jackson, but also Bill Clinton, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan (the latter two on their mothers’ sides) and a large percentage of America’s military men, including most of the Confederate generals but also Ulysses Grant and, in the World War II era, George Patton.

Webb argues that the Scots-Irish had qualities such as independence, religious piety, and a sense of honor that characterized them over the years and that carried over to the larger American culture. You could say, over-simplifying somewhat, that Born Fighting is a description and defense of American “redneck” culture. (Webb doesn’t like that term and the Hollywood stereotypes it accompanies but sometimes uses it for lack of a better word.) He notes that southern religion and even “country music” developed in the Scot-Irish culture and have great influence throughout America. Webb argues there are unfair stereotypes about southern whites, that both poor whites and poor blacks were victims of southern elites and, in some cases, northern corporate interests.  He also describes in both these books personal experiences of unreasoning hostility toward what he considered honorable military service when he and others like him returned from Vietnam.

Born Fighting will be of interest to anyone (like me) who has Scots-Irish ancestry and also to anyone interested in American history and culture, which Webb argues rather persuasively has been strongly influenced by the Scots-Irish. A Time to Fight, like the previous book, has much of Webb’s own story, but is more a consideration of the problems and politics of contemporary America. (Time magazine columnist Joe Klein noted the similarity of titles and suggested, tongue in cheek, that Webb’s future books could be titled The Fight Goes On and Retired but Still Pugnacious.) Webb’s political persuasion has changed over the years. His family background seems to have been mainly Democratic, and when he took a job with a Republican Congressman his favorite aunt wouldn’t let him in her house. As noted previously, he served in the Pentagon during the Reagan years, where he established a reputation as something of a “renegade.” (He apparently resigned his position as Secretary of the Navy as a protest against some of the Pentagon’s policies.) Recently Webb ran for the Senate as a Democrat and is now considered emblematic of a new direction in that party (being considered by some as a possible Vice Presidential candidate before Joe Biden was picked for that spot).

A Time to Fight is a view of what Webb says is the most problematic time in U.S. history since the Depression–World War II era. He  tells the story of his own entrance into politics, “Dancing with the Bear” in a friend’s phrase, which he uses as a chapter title. He describes his U.S. Senate race against incumbent George Allen and the way passages from his novels were used against him to try to suggest unfairly that he was a writer of pornography. As it turned out, Allen made a gaffe in the campaign, with his “macaca” racial slur, and Webb won the contest by a narrow margin, giving the Democrats a majority in the Senate.

Webb finds fault with much in both parties. Many in the Democratic Party, in his view, have become captives of “interest politics” and have alienated voters with what appears to be an elitist attitude, while the Republicans are blind to the severe economic bind that Americans find themselves in. A chapter entitled “From a Square Deal to a Raw Deal” cites statistics about the immense, growing disparity between the pay of CEOs and the pay of their employees and the equally immense disparity between  the wealthy and most other Americans. And he notes Teddy Roosevelt’s use of the phrase “Square Deal” and the importance of community of interest at all levels of society. Webb quotes T.R. at length about the importance to “our healthy national life that we should recognize this community of interest among our people.” Webb rejects the Republican charge that pointing out income disparities is fomenting “class warfare.” It is Republicans who are promoting class warfare, he says, through their failure to establish a fair economic playing field.

Webb blames both parties, but especially the George W. Bush administration, with its neo-conservative advisors, for what he sees as a disastrous foreign policy. There has been a lack of coherent strategy, in his view, in the U.S. policy toward the rest of the world. The Iraq invasion, in Webb’s view, was a colossal blunder because it completely failed to grasp the complexities of the Middle East with its competing factions. In a chapter entitled “How Not to Fight a War,” Webb details how the attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime was unnecessary and failed to deal with the real problem of Islamic terrorism. But both parties, he says, have a wrong approach to veterans and the military: the Democrats once vilified them (during the Vietnam era) and now see them as objects of pity; the Republicans exploit them for political advantage. Webb has a great deal to say about how the U.S. military is, in his view, mismanaged, including the move away from citizen-soldiers and toward “contractors” who are not accountable for their actions. Also the way high-ranking officers are too cozy with civilian agencies, not making waves that would jeopardize their post-retirement careers. But Webb also notes some high-ranking military who criticize unwise defense policies, often to their own detriment.

Another very powerful chapter in the book, “A Criminal Injustice,” deals with another of Webb’s primary concerns, the U.S. justice system. In this chapter, he details how the prison system in the U.S. has grown exponentially, with a higher percentage of citizens incarcerated than in any other country, with a disproportionate percentage of those prisoners being black men. This has resulted, in Webb’s view, from an unthinking policy of “getting tough” on crime that gets politicians elected but creates more problems than it solves, especially with the lack of agencies and programs to reintegrate criminals into society. Another cause of the huge prison population, he feels, is an unrealistic drug policy, and he advocates more treatment programs and lesser penalties, especially for marijuana use.

Webb’s books are interesting in themselves – he is a very good writer –  and perhaps also of interest for what he represents as someone who previously leaned toward the Republicans but has “returned to his roots” in the Democratic Party. We hear speculation about some of the former Republican “base” having second thoughts about their support for  that party. Do candidates and thinkers such as Webb represent a tide in a new direction? More importantly, Webb’s is a new and passionate voice calling for attention to some serious problems in modern America. Near the end of A Time to Fight, the author recounts some of his Vietnam experiences, including a tragic story of a Vietnamese boy whom he watched die after the child was accidentally injured by Webb’s unit. Why such experiences were included in the book is not immediately apparent, though perhaps they serve to underscore the moral complexities faced in the modern world. Perhaps the book could have been titled A Time to Think. It is a book worth reading for anyone who wants to think seriously about America’s current problems.