Fields of Fire

Fields of Fire

3.9 44
by James Webb

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They each had their reasons for being a soldier.

They each had their illusions. Goodrich came from Harvard. Snake got the tattoo — Death Before Dishonor — before he got the uniform. And Hodges was haunted by the ghosts of family heroes.

They were three young men from different worlds plunged into a white-hot, murderous realm of jungle warfare as it

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They each had their reasons for being a soldier.

They each had their illusions. Goodrich came from Harvard. Snake got the tattoo — Death Before Dishonor — before he got the uniform. And Hodges was haunted by the ghosts of family heroes.

They were three young men from different worlds plunged into a white-hot, murderous realm of jungle warfare as it was fought by one Marine platoon in the An Hoa Basin, 1969. They had no way of knowing what awaited them. Nothing could have prepared them for the madness to come. And in the heat and horror of battle they took on new identities, took on each other, and were each reborn in fields of fire....

Fields of Fire is James Webb’s classic, searing novel of the Vietnam War, a novel of poetic power, razor-sharp observation, and agonizing human truths seen through the prism of nonstop combat. Weaving together a cast of vivid characters, Fields of Fire captures the journey of unformed men through a man-made hell — until each man finds his fate.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In my opinion, the finest of the Vietnam novels.”
— Tom Wolfe

“Few writers since Stephen Crane have portrayed men at war with such a ring of steely truth.”
The Houston Post

“A novel of such fullness and impact, one is tempted to compare it to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.”
The Oregonian

Look for these other Bantam novels by James Webb:

The Emperor’s General

and on sale now in hardcover:

Lost Soldiers

Houston Post
Few writers since Stephen Crane have portrayed men at war with such a ring of steely truth.
Tom Wolfe
In my opinion, the finest of the Vietnam novels.
A novel of such fullness and impact, one is tempted to compare it to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.
Webb's book has the unmistakable sound of truth acquired the hard way. His men hate the war; it is lethal fact cut adrift from personal sense. Yet they understand that its profound insanity, its blood and oblivion, have in some way made them fall in love with battle and with each other.
Philadelphia Inquirer
James Webb has rehabilitated the idea of the American hero--not John Wayne, to be sure, but every man, caught up in circumstances beyond his control, surviving the blood, dreck, and absurdity with dignity and even a certain elan. Fields of Fire is an antiwar book, yes, but not naively, dumbly anti-soldier or anti-American. . . . Webb pulls off all the scabs and looks directly, unflinchingly on the open wounds of the Sixties.
In swift flexible prose that does everything he asks of it--including a whiff of hilarious farce just to show he can do it--Webb gives us an extraordinary range of acutely observed people, not one a stereotype, and as many different ways of looking at that miserable war. . .Fields of Fire is a stunner.
Portland Oregonian
A novel of such fullness and impact, one is tempted to compare it to Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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4.15(w) x 6.85(h) x 1.04(d)

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February 1968

There he went again. Smack-man came unfocused in the middle of a word, the unformed syllable a dribble of bubbly spit along his chin, and leaned forward, that sudden rush of ecstasy so slow and deep it put him out. His knees bent just a little and he stood there motionless, styled out in a violet suit and turquoise, high-heeled shoes. He had the Wave and his hair was so perfectly frozen into place that he seemed a mimic sculpture of himself, standing there all still with skag.

Snake peeped into the doorway one more time, still saw no one, and took a deep breath: I owe it to myself. He grabbed a sink with one hand and unloaded with a furious kick, perfectly aimed. Smack-man’s head bounced up like a football on a short string, stopping abruptly when his neck ended. Then he slumped onto the floor, out cold, breathing raggedly through a mashed, gushing nose.

Nothing to it. Never knew what hit him.

Snake quickly sorted through Smack-man, careful to replace each item as he found it. Two ten’s were stuffed inside one pocket. Whatta you know. Smack-man must be a bag man. Smack-man should be ashamed. Snake pocketed the money, laughing to himself: for the good of society, and little kids on dope.

He stood, pushing his glasses back up his nose, and scratched his head, studying his kill. Well, I gotta go tell Mister Baum. What a bummer.

And in twenty minutes he was on the street again, walking briskly toward nowhere under winter’s lingering chill. His shoulders were raised underneath the gray sweatshirt, guarding hopelessly against the wind. His head was tilted to the side and back. A sneer sat tightly on his face.

What the hell. You gotta believe in yourself. It was the right thing to do.

A gust of wind swooped down from the amber mist of sky and chased him, rattling trash. Next to him the door of an abandoned rowhouse swung open and banged. The boards over its windows clapped against the building. His eyes scanned the building quickly and his narrow shoulders raised against the biting wind again, but otherwise there was no reaction from him.

Gotta be cool, man. Can’t let no empty building spook you.

An old car clanked past him, spewing clouds of oil, and he eyed it also, not breaking his sauntering stride. Driving too slow. Looking for something. Hope it ain’t me.

He was small, with a mop of brittle hair. The hair flopped along his neck, bending with any hint of wind. His face was narrow and anonymous but for the crooked memory of a broken nose and the clear eyes. The eyes were active and intense.

He left the sidewalk, turning inside a rusted fence, and walked up to a rowhouse stairway. He climbed the outside steps, pondering each one as if searching for an excuse not to ascend it, and did a mull-dance on the landing, finally being chased inside by another gust of wind.

Hell with it. Need a beer anyway.

The black stench of air clung to him as he climbed the inside stairs. Sadie stuck her head out on the second landing and he jammed a ten-dollar bill inside her stained cotton robe. The bill never stopped moving. Sadie extracted it with a lightning stroke and ogled it as if it were an emerald. Her wild gray hair came full into the hallway and she called to Snake. He was three steps up from her landing now.

“What you been up to, bad old Snake?”

“Trouble. You know that.” He stopped on the stairs for one moment and gave her his ten-dollar sermon. “Now, go buy that dog of yours some diapers. Or a box of kitty litter. I’m tired of seeing his shit inside the door down there.”

She slammed the door on him. He laughed, continuing up the stairs. Old bitch.

Inside his own door, a vision on the bed. He blinked once at the greater light and focused. It was his mother, in her bathrobe. She dangled imaginatively on the bed’s edge, her chubby legs crossed, neither of them quite touching the floor. Her arms were up behind her head, pushing her hair over the top so that it fell down around her face. She looked as if she were carefully attempting to re-create a picture from some long-forgotten men’s magazine. She watched the door with expectant eyes and dropped her hands in disappointment when she saw Snake. He shook his head slightly, then pulled out a cigarette and leaned against the doorway.

“Uh huh. What are you doing? Paying bills?”

She smoothed a wrinkle on the bed, studying it for a moment, not looking at him. Then she gave her hair a flip. She had bleached it artificial gold again, and she smiled her sugar smile and her sad, remembering voice came across the room on a puffy little cloud, floating lazily to his ears.

“You’re home early, Ronnie.”

“You noticed that.”

She was naked underneath the robe. She leaned forward on the bed, finding the floor with her dangling feet, and the robe fell loosely away, revealing her. Snake shrugged resignedly. Something’s going on. Again. He walked to the refrigerator and searched for a beer but they were gone. There had been two six-packs that morning.

“Old Bones out on a job?” She nodded, watching him from beside the bed.

“You sure he’s working?” She laughed a little. He did, too. The old man’s antics were legendary and unpredictable.

“Man came for him in a truck this morning and he left with his painting clothes on, carrying a sackload of beer.” She shrugged, then looked at Snake with an insightful stare. “From the beer I’d say he’s working. If it was hard stuff...” She made a funny face and shrugged again. “I think he’s working.”

There was nothing else to drink in the refrigerator. “Any coffee?”


He put some water on. She eyed him closely, walking from the bed into the kitchen. “Why are you home so early? Did you get fired again?”

He spooned the instant into the cup. “Yup.”

She grinned, half-amused and half-curious, her eyes lingering on his wiry body. “Was it another fight? How can you stand to fight so much? You’re so blind without your glasses! Was it another fight?”

He checked the water. Hot enough. He poured it into the cup. “Yup. Sort of.”

She sat down and leaned over the table, admiring him. “How can a man be fired for ‘sort of’ being in a fight?”

He joined her at the table and sipped his coffee. Perfect. Then he lit another cigarette. “Well. It all started when I had to clean the women’s room.” She nodded eagerly, already knowing that he would make it into a great story. She had always told him that he shouldn’t fight but she cloyed him with attention when he did. She had always admonished him to be civil but at times like this he was John Wayne, straight out of Dodge City. He casually sipped his coffee.

“I put the sign out in front of the door, you know, so nobody will walk into the room when I’m cleaning it. Then I wait until all the girls are out of there, asking each one when she leaves if there’s anybody else still in there. I don’t want to get into that kind of trouble, moral turpitude is a bust, you know that. Finally I go in and clean the toilets and the sinks, and I’m starting to mop the floor when this nigger dude stumbles in. Got a Jones on, I can tell the minute he walks into the room. He’s just shot up, too. Don’t know where the hell he got off, maybe right there in the movie room. Don’t know if he could cook up without being caught but I guess it’s as good as any other place. Nobody ever gave a damn when a match was lit that I ever saw. Maybe he was snorting. Who knows. He looked too out of it to be snorting. He was out on his goddamn feet. You know he’s out of it if he walks into the wrong bathroom. Moral turpitude and all.”

She reached over and took one of his cigarettes, ogling him as if he were telling a bedtime story. Really grooving on it. “Yeah. O.K. So what did you do?”

“Take it easy. Don’t steal my lines, all right? The dude walks into the bathroom, taking a couple steps and then stopping, nodding out right on his feet, leaning all the way forward at the waist, all the way out. Then he wakes up real quick and goes ‘whoooeeee, whooooooeee,’ like that, and then falls asleep again, there on his feet. I don’t know how the hell he made it to the bathroom. Well. I watch him do that a couple times. He smiles when he wakes up like everything’s O.K. I try to check his fingers to see if he’s got the poison but I can’t tell, and he’s pretty strong when he wakes up. Figure he’s just got a strong shot in him.

“He’s dressed pretty good. That don’t always mean anything, I mean, why the hell would he be in a movie in the afternoon if he’s worth a shit, it’s a lousy movie anyway. But you never can tell.”

He flipped his cigarette into the cluttered sink and slowly lit another, enjoying her eagerness. “Didn’t know what to think, to tell you the truth. Coulda been anybody. But I watched him dropping off like that, and checked those clothes out, and I figured it was worth a shot.” She nodded quickly to him, smiling, enraptured by his logic. Snake laughed ironically. “It was like the Lord his-self delivered him to me. Here we are in the girls’ room, with a sign out front that says ‘CLOSED,’ ain’t nobody coming in, ain’t nobody there to say what happened, this dude is so far gone he could take a picture of me and still not remember me. Well. Just had to make me a play.”

She was still smiling. She leaned forward in anticipation. “So you punched his lights out.”

He laughed a little. “Well, I thought about it. You know John Wayne woulda dropped him with a poke between the eyes. But I figured the motherfucker would break my hand. Nigger heads are like that, you know? So the next time he gave a whoooeee I kicked him right between the eyes. Pow!” He checked her face out. She was ecstatic. It was the high point of her day. “Kept my toe pointed so I wouldn’t put my foot between his eyes. Don’t need no murder rap from a junkie dead inside a toilet. Popped his nose like a light bulb. He had twenty bucks and four bags on him. Took the bucks. Left the bags.”

She stared at him curiously. “So how’d you get fired?”

He squinted, sipping coffee. The coffee was almost gone. “Well, I had to report it. Everybody knew it was me inside the girls’ room. Found Mister Baum and told him a dude got pushy with me when I tried to make him leave the girls’ bathroom. Told him the dude looked a little drunk and started shoving me, so I poked him in the face.”

She squinted back. “Sounds like a pretty good story to me.”

“I thought so, too. But you know them hebes. Always worrying about getting sued. He tells me, ‘Snake, you can’t just go round hitting people when you work in a place like this.’ I says, ‘Mister Baum, you know I never started a fight in my whole life, but I just can’t let people push me round, no matter where I work. What kind of a man lets people push him round?’ And he says, ‘Snake, I think you done a good job for us but I gotta can you.’ And he fires me and gives me full pay for the week. Plus I got the nigger’s twenty bucks. Not bad, huh?”

She nodded approvingly: not bad. “What happened to the nigger?”

Snake stacked the coffee cup in the sink. “Who cares?” His face showed a moment of sparkle. “If he’s got a hair on his ass he’ll sue Mister Baum.”

She leaned back in her chair, laughing. Not a bad story. Then she smiled and he could tell she was remembering again. She shook her head a little. “You’re so bad, Ronnie. And so young to be so bad. Doesn’t anybody scare you? Don’t you like anybody?”

He did not answer. The question was rhetorical. He stifled the retort that once was commonplace, that she was not one to be lecturing anyway. She continued, though, in a rare moment when the emotion of the memory overwhelmed the reality of the present. “And you were stupid to quit school. You always did so well.”

Again he did not answer. She’s talking about history, he mused. Don’t do no good to talk about it. Won’t change it. And it was nothing but a hassle, anyway. Rules rules rules.

She gave him an acquiescent smile and floated those pillowed, remembering words again. “Well, I guess you’ll be out job-hunting tomorrow morning, huh?”

“I don’t know. I’m getting sick of it.”

She shrugged, avoiding his eyes. She had already said too much. Or perhaps it would have been one of the rare days when her memories mounted until they drove him back into the street. Who knows. There was a measured clomping on the stairs then, and the door burst open. No knock.

A reddened face peered expectantly into the room as if it were his personal possession. The red face was meaty, heavy-bearded, framed by thinning black hair. The nose was mashed and grainy and the eyes seemed dull, unfocused. The man had huge hands and a belly that hung over his belt.

Snake understood immediately. He felt humiliated, but mostly he was embarrassed at being in the way. She’s going to do it, he thought, starting for the door, there’s no way I can ever stop that. Her life, anyway. She wants it and I got no right to get pissed. But he looked at the animal that had just entered his home for the purpose of smothering his mother underneath his rolls of fat and muscle, stroking that most special part of her insides, and his neck crawled with a rage that did not delude him as to its depth.

He knew that he could kill this fat man whose only pertinent fault was that he wanted to fill Snake’s mother with the one thing she desired more than anything else. He could kill him and laugh for weeks about it. For one pulsing, heated flash he seriously considered using his knife. Then he became embarrassed at his own rage. I got no right, he decided. Don’t do no good, anyway. It’s what she wants. Hell with it.

Fat Man looked dully at his mother, seemingly too unfocused to understand. Maybe he’s jealous, Snake mused. That’s a laugh. He decided that he must leave the apartment, get out of their way. Fat Man was still standing in the door, half in and half out, trying to figure the whole thing out. Snake reminded himself that he would have to laugh about Fat Man once he escaped the apartment. Christ, is the bastard dumb. Where does she find ‘em? But I bet he has a big one.

He turned to his mother and said, for the benefit of Fat Man, “Well, I’m cutting out, Mom. Catch you later.”

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Fields of Fire 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
TheLoon More than 1 year ago
I am of the Vietnam generation depicted in this excellent book. I have studied and lived through these events and times. No book I have read has ever done a better job of explaining the "why" of the men who fought in Vietnam and, perhaps, many wars. I would like to pick at one minor problem I had. This novel is buried in dead American soldiers. My recollection is that the death rate was much lower than what is depicted in this book. Yes, many served, many fought under horrible conditions, many were wounded and many of them died. But, the dead rate really seemed pushed by the author to drive home his points. But, don't get me wrong. This is a very fine book.
Mark56 More than 1 year ago
Many Vietnam war stories have a strong cynical political view point or a strong expose of the horror and depravity(not that this war or most wars do not have a fair share of this). Mr Webb takes a different approach. I believe that many of the scenes were gleaned from his own experiences as a highly decorated Marine in Vietnam. Yes, he does inject the horror and waste of life, but I think his overall spirit throughout was the exisitential experience of young men fighting this war. Not the heady esoteric existialism of a French parisian cafe. This was an ordinary existentialism of the common man or the everyman, who knew they could die a horrible death any minute. These kids(and I say kids because many were so young, Webb himself was only 23 years old as a company commander in 1969) showed immense courage when the need be but deep inside they all just wanted to go home ("back to the World").Like many of our wars this was the classic case of ordinary young men who were sucked into this terrible war and thrust into an extraordinary situations and they dealt with it the best they could.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Extreme but great book....captures the reality...USMC vietnam vet
Calcpro More than 1 year ago
I am a decorated Vietnam vet. Two tours SOG 1964-1965. This book is very slow. It's really a study of various persons and their experience. This is not an action story if your looking for that. I was disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Different branch (USN) Different era (earlier) Different area (Bassac River). The Delta. I wouldn't want the job of trying to write a book about it. What James Webb writes about is a different world. I got news for some wanna be vets of "Viet Nam", some days were freakin' boring. How do you make a day where you got two hours of sleep the night before, interesting? A diary would bore the hell out of most people and it would not sell. You want to know what interests me most? Stuff of recollections. Pleasant funny stuff. Descriptions of Saigon that hold water. Like the meanest cops were not MP's or the Shore Patrol, they were the Armed Forces Police. You did not go into Northwest Saigon because it was there the province chiefs had their homes. The ARVN there were not the Abbott and Costello versions as shown in a lot of Vietnam novels. They were hard and they were good. And mean. And they did not go into the delta and they did not go into the highlands. They guarded their boss. The industry of converting MPC to Francs to Dollars. Illegal as hell to be caught with dollars. Dope? We were warned that pot or Thai Stick meant a general and a possible trip to Portsmouth. Webb wrote his version of "The Bush" and all I can say is thank god for barrack on stilts, hot chow, and an occasional trip up 4 to Saigon. I wanted to read someone else's perspective and it wasn't pretty. I ran the wrong way to the trench in a night mortar attack and woke up in Japan. The special forces camp 3km to the west was over run as was the ARVN company.. Ah what the hell now it doesn't mean anything. But I am constantly amazed by the number of slick gunners I run into who cannot seem to recollect how to disassemble and clean a 60 or M2. Or what kind of engines and drive the river patrol boats used. BTW the book is worth reading. Most aren't.
Octlow More than 1 year ago
Well written story of VN between 1969-1970 and a group of young courageous men who struggled with death, life and all the gray area in between. I have read most of the VN books but, by far, this was the very best of all of them. James Webb describes each character, with humbling gentleness, and takes the reader into their lives, passions, and dreams. To me this is a "must read" to understand the men who served in VN.
funrunner1977 More than 1 year ago
This book is extremely well written. You learn to deeply care for the characters, through both their background stories and their time in Vietnam. The book obviously is about the Vietnam War, but the parts that don't actually take place in the rice patties and jungle are what make this book. Don't get me wrong, the skirmishes and battles are very well-written and taken from the author's own experience in that hellish world, but the examination of our society is key. I wasn't alive in the 60's and you can see video footage and generalized descriptions about the era, but actually seeing how the times and experiences molded these young men (and a woman) into who they became, their motivations for what they did, and even the eventual justifications for some occurances is what made me give this book a 5-star review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a combat veteran of the Vietnam War like Mr. Webb although he was a Marine & I was a River Patrol Boat officer operating primarily in the canals of IV Corps. To me this book accurately describes the conditions and facts existing at that time as well as the emotions of those fighting the war. Almost everything I read in this great novel tells exactly what I would have told had I been articulate enough to describe the country, the smells, the people (Americans as well as Vietnamese) and what combat was really like. Although readers who have not been to the Nam or have not been in combat might not fully understand and accept the pictures Mr. Webb paints, this book is the closest I've seen to a "bible" of what it was like to be there in that era. The best book, by far, I've seen on the Vietnam War.
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Col. Donald G. Cook was the first man to receve the meddle of honer in vietnam he was a senior marine advisor serving in the Phouc Tuy province in 1964-1967
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