I knew of James Webb the politician before I knew of James Webb the author. I liked what he had to say in the 2016 Democratic primary debates, and would have gladly voted for him had he been the nominee. But that’s neither here nor there.
Fields of Fire is a story that focuses primarily on 3 Marines: Goodrich, an intellectual from Harvard who dropped out of school, Snake, a no-account street urchin from a broken home, and Hodges, a Steve Rogers type of young man who comes from a long family line of men who’d served and died in the American military.
First things first, a warning that there’s a LOT of racial slurs in this book, almost entirely a word that’s derogatory towards Asians but also a few n-words from one of the Marines. It’s a realistic portrayal of Marines in Vietnam in 1969, so if you simply can’t stomach this kind of writing then I can’t recommend this book.
The beginning of the book is slow as the characters and their backgrounds are laid out for several pages. It fits well with the tone of the story, but it does feel long. But once they get to Vietnam things start to pick up. One thing I never really liked was that, with few exceptions, every character is called by a nickname. So you have Snake, Ogre, Cannonball, Senator. I think I know why Webb chose to do this, and it makes sense: I think the squad all uses nicknames because it was easier to lose a Bagger or a Cat Man than it was to lose a Frank or a Steven.
So it makes sense, but it was also a little odd, I thought. We didn’t do that in the Marines when I served but maybe it was different in Vietnam.
Also when the reader gets to Vietnam, Snake has already been there a while, so a lot of relationships have already formed that are apparently tight but you the reader don’t know it yet. It makes sense as a style of writing, and it’s realistic as someone joining a unit in a war would feel a bit ostracized by the close-knit relationships already formed. But for me personally, I didn’t really care for it.
The last 100 pages of the book were simply fantastic, and the ending dared me to give this 5-stars. It was a bit of a surprise but also probably easily predicted, too. I won’t speak about much of it because I don’t want to spoil anything. But one part in the middle of the book that I really liked was a chapter dedicated to a guy who survived 3 deployments to Vietnam and then got out of the Marines, alive and unhurt.
In this chapter, the former Marine is hitch-hiking from Southern California to the north of the state. Along the way he gets rides from blue collar cargo haulers, from a couple of stoners, and from former Marines and soldiers. He ends up talking to them all, mostly about the war and the military.
This character describes feeling like a stranger in a faraway land when he’s in cars with civilians who’ve never seen a war, even those who support the cause he fought for. He Feels awkward and doesn’t know how to converse. But when he gets rides from people like him, the Korea vets or WW2 vets, he’s at ease. He relaxes, smokes a cigarette, and chats freely.
And that’s something that Mr. Webb, myself, and any combat vet can relate to. Coming back from a war, coming back from a place full of people trying to kill you, changes you. Some of us have an easier time than others adjusting back to the civilian world, but it’s still an adjustment.
There’s always gonna be a chasm there between you and civilians, an experience of yours that they can never emulate, and thus they can never truly understand some of the things you might wanna say. And so you don’t even bother saying them. You might talk about the war with them, but it feels unnatural. Like you’re being interviewed on live television. So you choose your words carefully, frame everything in a way that you think will please or satisfy the listeners.
Talking with fellow combat vets though? You can relax. You can have a beer and just let loose. You talk about patrols and the different tactics your unit used. You talk about whether the locals helped or hindered you. You tell the funny stories and the embarrassing ones too. Then, inevitably, heavily, you mention the names of the fallen. You nod your head in solemn testament to the horrors of war, to the sight of a dead or dying comrade.
And then you move on quickly because neither of you want to dwell on those memories in public for very long.
Guess I’ll wrap this up before I get too preachy. Overall Fields of Fire was an excellent book, 4 stars out of 5. If you’re a fan of military fiction and can stomach some offensive language, this one is definitely for you. The ending is a conclusion that you won’t want to miss.
Okay I lied, I will post a spoiler from the end of the book, just because it includes an exchange between two characters that I can’t NOT share. So don’t read further if you don’t want any spoilers!
One of the main characters dies at the end, and he leaves behind his Japanese wife and young son who never knew him. Years after the war, the mother takes the son to the Marine base in Okinawa, the island where they now live. Since the boy’s father is buried in Arlington on the other side of the world, she tells the boy that this base is almost like a family tomb. She tries to explain how his father died and why, and the following conversation takes place.
“Is he buried here?” The boy asks.
“No. He spent the last days of his life here. He is buried in America.”
“But he did not die here. Or in America.”
“No. He died in Vietnam. Far away.”
“Why was he buried in America?”
“Because it was his home.”
“Then why did he die in Vietnam?”
“He was a warrior there. These Americans, they are warriors. They fight in many places.”
“Why? Why do they fight in so many places?”
“I do not know.”
Neither do I, ma’am. Neither do I.