Years ago, when the great American socialist Norman Thomas was speaking at the University of Virginia, he was cross-examined by a self-satisfied undergraduate who charged that Thomas’ call for universal health insurance, federal civil rights laws and federal aid to education were all backed by the U.S. Communist Party. Thomas, a man of great dignity — and no communist — answered simply, “I walk where I choose to walk.”
I had lunch this week with an old friend who, very much like Thomas, walks where he chooses to. A 1968 graduate of the Naval Academy, as a Marine platoon and company commander in Vietnam combat, he earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts — the last for the wounds that left him with shrapnel in his body and a permanent limp. But that didn’t stop him from finishing Georgetown Law at night, going on to write 10 books and become secretary of the Navy (under President Ronald Reagan), a successful screenwriter and an Emmy-winning journalist for his 1983 coverage of U.S. Marines in Beirut.
This friend is Jim Webb, a former Democratic senator from Virginia who wrote and carried to passage the GI Bill, the most significant law to aid veterans since World War II. But long before he was elected to the Senate, Webb had dared to expose the deadly folly of American foreign policy, condemning in writing the total separation of Americans in power in Washington from Americans in mortal peril in the Persian Gulf. His words merit repeating: “If the U.S. military was truly representative of the country, you would have people going through the roof right now.” His disdain for the think tank tough guys who personally avoided serving was clear: “Their attitude strikes me as: ‘You volunteered. You took the money. Shut up and die.”
In the fall of 2002, just before the Bush administration was given — by a sadly supine Congress — the green light to go to war against Iraq, Webb wrote in The Washington Post taking on the “neoconservatives that began beating the war drums on Iraq before the dust had even settled on the World Trade Center” with admirable foresight, proclaiming, “The issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years.” Webb, a prophet with honor, added: “In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.”
So what is Webb up to now? In late 1965, an American C-123 transport was shot down, killing four American crew members and 81 South Vietnamese Airborne soldiers. The crash site in a contested area was not visited until 1974. All of the remains, mostly bone fragments, were gathered into one casket and shipped to Bangkok. In 1986, the remains were sent to a U.S. military lab in Hawaii. The Americans were identified through DNA and given military burials, but there was no manifest with the names of the Vietnamese who died fighting for a country that no longer exists.
Through Webb’s tireless efforts over the past two years — after being ignored by the current Vietnamese government and after the expenditures of time, talent and money — Webb has become the legal next of kin for these forgotten warriors. On Oct. 26, thanks to his tireless efforts, they will finally — some 54 years later — be given military burials in Westminster, California, known as Little Saigon, and laid to rest. That’s Jim Webb: He heroically walks where he chooses to.
Mark Shields is a syndicated columnist with Creators Syndicate.