When Jim Webb announced he is thinking seriously about running for president in 2016, it did not exactly excite hearts and minds among the Beltway crowd. The former senator from Virginia was widely regarded as an odd duck who does his own thinking, stubbornly goes his own way. He dropped out of electoral politics after one term in the Senate and resumed his successful career as a writer. Webb’s best-selling novel, Fields of Fire, captured the reality of “the blood-soaked battlefields” of Vietnam where he had fought as a young Marine platoon leader.
When others of his generation were mounting massive protests against that war, Webb was throwing grenades at up close Vietcong fighters trying to kill him and his men. He was wounded twice in battle. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his extraordinary heroism. After Vietnam, Webb wrote books and continued his scholarly studies of war-making and national defense. Ronald Reagan appointed him secretary of the Navy though Webb is a working-class Democrat, descended from hardscrabble country people in Arkansas.
Instead of becoming more hawkish as defense intellectuals often do when they acquire status and influence, Jim Webb has become more skeptical and critical of how US military force is being used and misused. His biography is what gives his candidacy potential significance. It is not that he has much likelihood of winning the nomination, but Webb has a chance to do something far greater for the country. Given his resume and valor in war, Webb has the authority (and the guts) to provoke a profound national debate about the nature of US militarism.
Given the events dragging the United States toward wider war, Americans surely need to hear his insights and arguments. Most politicians and military leaders would not dare touch Webb’s assertions. Their patriotism would be questioned, their careers likely ruined. But no one can challenge Webb’s patriotism or suggest he is driven by careerist ambitions. Military people, both the uniformed ranks and veterans, could recognize Webb is speaking for them and their patriotic commitments. People on the anti-war left, if they listen carefully, can see how Webb’s vision could give political traction to their ideas for shrinking the war-making engine.
Webb’s unique perspective may be familiar to political insiders or readers of his books but probably not to the broad public. Seven months before George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Jim Webb prophetically warned against it. “Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade,” Webb wrote in The Washington Post. Twelve years later he is still right. Webb called Bush’s war “the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory.”
In 2007, Chris Matthews dubbed him “the anti-war warrior.” That’s a clever label, but it fundamentally misconstrued Jim Webb’s position. He is not anti-war in the classical sense—war fought for history’s long-established justifications or real threats to the nation. What Webb opposes are reckless and limitless interventions the United States has initiated during the post–Cold War era of the last three decades.