War is hellish and hateful. But even more hateful is the “chicken-hawk” who cheerleads and champions war while ducking any personal risk of engagement for himself, his blood relatives or his social peers. These are the tough-talking, think-tank commandos in and out of Washington, including the press corps, who love to expropriate the language of the combat they have done everything to personally escape.
Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf silenced the flatterers who tried to lionize him after his successful leadership in the Persian Gulf War: “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.”
Long before the Democrat would become the first graduate of the Naval Academy to serve as secretary of the Navy, under President Ronald Reagan, 23-year-old Webb was a Marine company commander in Vietnam combat where he earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
Proud of his service in that war, Webb has never hesitated to challenge directly those who, so often as a first resort, urge sending American Marines and soldiers once more into harm’s way. Rebuking those national security types who are able to reduce flesh and bone into policy abstractions, Webb has been emphatic: “You don’t use ‘force.’ You send young people who have dreams, who want a future.”
By 32, Webb had written Fields of Fire, which Tom Wolfe called “the finest of the Vietnam novels” and in which a Marine sergeant returns to Vietnam for a second tour after visiting his hometown in the states and says: “Lieutenant, you’d hardly know there was a war going on. It’s in the papers ... but that’s it. Airplane drivers still drive their airplanes. Businessmen still run their businesses. College kids go to college. It’s like nothing really happened except to other people. It isn’t touching anybody except us.”
Vietnam then, Iraq after that and Afghanistan now. History teaches us the painful truth that the strength of a nation is measured directly by the will and the resolve of the people of that nation to stand together through individual and universal sacrifice for the common good. War demands equality of sacrifice. Yet we, the vast majority of Americans, have shown in the 21st century that we prefer instead to pay no price, to bear no burden, thank you.
This past week, introducing President Barack Obama to a Virginia crowd, Webb reminded his audience that at least one American politician was capable of straight talk. Referring to Gov. Mitt Romney’s “comments about the culture of dependency in our society,” Webb continued: “Gov. Romney and I are about the same age. Like millions of others in our generation, we came to adulthood facing the harsh realities of the Vietnam War. ... This was a time of conscription where every American male was eligible to be drafted. ... I have never envied or resented any of the choices that were made as long as they were done within the law ...
“These young Marines that I led have grown older now. They’ve lived lives of courage, both in combat and after their return, where many of them were derided by their own peers for having served. That was a long time ago. They are not bitter. They know what they did. But in receiving veterans’ benefits, they are not takers. They were givers, in the ultimate sense of that word. There is a saying among war veterans: ‘All gave some, some gave all.’ This isn’t a culture of dependency. It is part of a long tradition that gave this country its freedom and independence. They paid, some with their lives, some through wounds and disabilities, some through emotional scars, some through lost opportunities and delayed entry into civilian careers which had already begun for many of their peers who did not serve.”
Washington doesn’t understand how much it will miss Mr. Webb of Virginia.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.