Wednesday, January 18, 2006

James Webb graduated from Annapolis and went to Vietnam as a Marine. He went on to attend Georgetown Law School at the height of the antiwar movement in the early 1970s; Robert Timberg's book The Nightingale's Song recounts some of his experiences there as the only Vietnam veteran in his class:

[Webb] had a number of storied clashes with the school's sizable antiwar clique, which included professors as well as students.

...The professor [of a criminal law class Webb took during his first year] was Heathcote Wales.... Wales, part of the antiwar set, often dreamed up vignettes to explain points of law, at times giving characters the names of his students. The initial question on the first-term final was about search and seizure. It involved a Marine seregeant named Webb who attempts to ship home pieces of jade in the dead bodies of two Marines from his platoon. Webb would later say that he felt like he had been shot as he read the question. "All those broken bodies and nights in the rain, for what? To be laughed at?" he said. Immobilized for a full fifteen minutes, he thought about walking out of the exam, but stayed and finished it.

That night, he went through some of the bleakest hours of his life, repeatedly bursting into tears as he tried to study for other finals. Two days later, he confronted Wales in his office. "I just want you to know it wasn't funny," he told the professor. "I went over to Vietnam with sixty-seven lieutenants, twenty-two died, and it wasn't funny."

However painful, something valuable came of that experience. "I decided then and there never to take any shit on that again," he said, meaning his Vietnam service.

Webb later became Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. Not exactly a guy you'd expect to be sympathizing with opponents of a Republican administration in the midst of a war.

And yet here he is on the op-ed page of The New York Times, lambasting the Bush administration and its surrogates for trashing the reputations of fellow veterans:

IT should come as no surprise that an arch-conservative Web site is questioning whether Representative John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has been critical of the war in Iraq, deserved the combat awards he received in Vietnam.

After all, in recent years extremist Republican operatives have inverted a longstanding principle: that our combat veterans be accorded a place of honor in political circles. This trend began with the ugly insinuations leveled at Senator John McCain during the 2000 Republican primaries and continued with the slurs against Senators Max Cleland and John Kerry, and now Mr. Murtha.

Military people past and present have good reason to wonder if the current administration truly values their service beyond its immediate effect on its battlefield of choice. The casting of suspicion and doubt about the actions of veterans who have run against President Bush or opposed his policies has been a constant theme of his career. This pattern of denigrating the service of those with whom they disagree risks cheapening the public's appreciation of what it means to serve, and in the long term may hurt the Republicans themselves....

As admirers of the administration scrounge for scraps of evidence that opponents of the Iraq War are doing harm to the troops in the field, it appears that James Webb has arrived at a very different conclusion: that denigration of military service is coming from the right this time. It's Bush operatives who are reminding him of Heathcote Wales.

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