MUCH OF JAMES WEBB'S artistic vision was forged in the heat and death of the Vietnam war. He led a 28-man platoon that took 56 casualties in one two-month stretch. He woke one night to the sound of one of his machine gunners stabbing an already dead enemy soldier. He was blown up by grenades, watched a 4-year-old child die from shrapnel wounds and heard the bubbling wheeze of air escaping from a soldier's punctured lungs. He had hookworm, dysentery and yaws. Vietnam is a force that resonates through all three of his novels.
His 1977 book Fields of Fire follows the bloody progress of a Marine rifle company through the Anhoa Basin, a region that saw perhaps the most vicious fighting of the war. Much is based directly on what Webb saw as a rifle company commander, including a scene in which a frightened soldier named Goodrich -- known by his nickname ''Senator" -- tries to console Burgie, a dying comrade:
''Patch me up, O.K., Senator? Help me, man."
"You need a doc."
Another earth eruption, an explosion so loud and close that it seemed to come from inside, to be a living part. Burgie still stared, oblivious to the dirt shower. His voice took on a fading, pleading tone, yet he still smiled hopefully.
"Can't you stop it?"
I'm in hell, thought Goodrich, over and over. I'm in hell. He crawled to Burgie's face because he was too afraid to whisper from three feet away. His own face was contorted in fear and anguish. "I can't."
"I'm gonna die. Oh, Buddhist Priest. I'm only nineteen. It's cold, Senator.
"You'll be all right."
"Don't leave me, Senator. Oh God. Don't leave me, man."
"I won't, Burgie. I won't leave you. Now, hold it down. O.K.?"
In 1981's A Sense of Honor, set at the Naval Academy in February 1968, a plebe named John Dean informs gung-ho upperclassman Bill Fogarty that polls show American support for the war has risen sharply since the Tet offensive began two weeks earlier:
Fogarty grunted. "Does that surprise you, Dean?"
"The rise in support, sir? I have to admit it did, sir."
"I thought it would. It didn't surprise me at all. We finally get all these bastards out where we can fight them and we kick their asses. And then the crybabies like that Senator McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy start bitching and moaning. Americans don't listen to crybabies, Dean. If President Johnson's got a hair on his ass, he'll call for a counteroffensive, and there won't be a damn war left for me to fight by the time I graduate."
Webb closes the circle in the 1983 novel A Country Such As This, which traces the lives of three Naval Academy alumni from their graduation in 1951 through the Korean and Vietnam wars. One of them, a pilot named Red Lesczynski, is shot down and endures nearly seven years of starvation and torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp before flying home in February of 1973:
They droned for hours across the ocean, and then entered the continent over southern California. He watched dawn illuminate his country, cities blanketed in smog, the mountains casting long shadows into brown valleys, mist and haze below him like a pastel watercolor painting. From thirty- five thousand feet America was awakening in a mingling of gray and pink and orange. It extended forever to his front, to his future, and he wanted to somehow wrap it up in his arms, embrace it with his soul.
I have been long at sea.
At Shepherd Air Force Base in Texas, they put him and three others on a small T-39 jet, and within hours he was on his way to Andrews Air Force Base, just outside of Washington. Perhaps a person has to know despair, he thought as the aircraft bounded off the runway with the light quickness of a gnat, before he is allowed to experience unmitigated joy."