James Webb's new novel, "A Sense of Honor," uses an incident of hazing at the Naval Academy as a prism -- to break apart one's comfortably monochromatic view of the 1960s into different-hued, overlapping, strangely focused components.
As a novelist, and as a man, Webb is not your passive aesthete without a point of view. He recently told the Reagan administration, which was courting him to head the Veterans Administration, that his terms were independence and direct access to the president to argue the case for his fellow Vietnam Veterans -- as a Marine officer in the war Webb was highly decorated and often wounded. The administration allowed as how it preferred a team player. Webb is a player, all right, but his sport at the Naval Academy was boxing. His novel deals a series of stiff jabs to much of the military establishment and a haymaker to many civilians' 1960s-vintage self-image.
At one level, the novel is about how a model modern samurai, Fogarty, a midshipman about to graduate and become a Marine officer, becomes ensnared by a civilian professor and lawyer as he tries to save a brilliant but very non-military plebe from dropping out. Fogarty is about as far as you can get from a management-oriented military bureaucrat steeped in the lore of systems analysis. Fogarty's tools of leadership are a combination of old-fashioned physical hazing and a program of instilling self-respect in the plebe, Dean, by getting Dean to join him in pushing himself well beyond what is asked of any others -- for example, into sprinting in the dim pre-dawn light along the wet treacherous rocks of the academy's sea wall. The physical demands that Fogarty forces Dean to undertake with him ring far truer, as the essence of leadership, than those things that are done to Dean. Still, it is part of Webb's skill that he makes even skeptical civilians understand how, for these two very believable characters, this mode of leadership could work.
It is also clearly Webb's conviction that such physical testing is essential to mold the modern military man -- and this view has drawn fire from civilians and from many academy graduates as well. That conviction is a reasonable target, even in a debate among heros. Medal of Honor winner and former POW, retired Vice Admiral James Stockdale, for example, recently resigned after a year of heading The Citadel in South Carolina -- in part because he felt that hazing was interfering with the institution's development both academically and as an all-around military training ground.
But you needn't agree on this point with boxer Webb, Marine Webb, victor in hand-to-hand combat with North Vietnamese Webb, to appreciate what novelist Webb has done -- any more than you have to be a Marxist or a pacifist to be moved by Bertolt Brecht's great anti-war drama, "Mother Courage." For at a level much deeper than the adulteries and other diversions that swirl through the book, and also well below the level of Fogarty's arguable method of bringing a plebe along the road to manhood and leadership, Webb is saying something -- skillfully and perceptively -- about what has happened to America's own sense of honor during the last 15 years. This book is no more just about hazing than "Moby Dick" is just about whaling.
Webb is saying that during those 15 years, a part -- by no means all -- of the American military establishment has been the keeper and preserver of some essential values for our society: sacrifice, service and duty, among others. (The Naval Academy is a good metaphor for this -- it is impossible to walk through it without realizing that it is not merely a school for officers but the Navy's seminary and shrine as well.) In the inevitable conflict between those values -- honor -- and the uncaring, intolerant civilian world run by lawyers and their ilk (Webb is a lawyer, too), honor carries a heavy handicap. lHow that conflict was played out in the '60s is the core of the book -- symbolized by Fogarty's elegant gesture in the closing pages.
In many other societies, even in a modern Western democracy such as France, this timeless mismatch of values between the few who serve and sacrifice, and the many who grupily allow themselves to be served and sacrificed for, has had pathological results. In the aftermath of France's withdrawal from Algeria, for example, a parallel event in some ways to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, much of the French military retreated into itself, and its bitterness festered into conspiracy and near-revolution. In our society, this conflict in values produces, instead, fine novels such as Webb's.
Count your blessings.