Fields of Fireby James Webb
Hailed as the most important novel to emerge from the Vietnam War when first published in 1978, this book launched a spectacular writing career for James Webb that now includes four bestselling novels. A much-decorated former Marine who fought and was wounded in Vietnam, Webb tells the story of a platoon of tough, young Marines enduring the tropical hell of… See more details below
Hailed as the most important novel to emerge from the Vietnam War when first published in 1978, this book launched a spectacular writing career for James Webb that now includes four bestselling novels. A much-decorated former Marine who fought and was wounded in Vietnam, Webb tells the story of a platoon of tough, young Marines enduring the tropical hell of Southeast Asian jungles while facing an invisible enemy--in a war no one understands. Filled with the sounds and smells of combat, it is nevertheless a book about people, an amazing variety of closely observed characters caught up in circumstances beyond their control. It is a powerful work that brilliantly expresses the basic ambiguity of war: the repulsion of war's destruction contrasted with the grisly attraction of war as the ultimate test of survival. Critics have compared this bestselling first novel to All Quiet on the Western Front and The Naked and the Dead, among other masterpieces, for authentically capturing the fury and agony of combat.
This is the real war in Vietnam, told without histrionics or self pity. For many years the novel has been a part of the recommended reading list of the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Read an Excerpt
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 ecstacy 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 Bose.
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'slingering 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 sixpacks 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."
She looked at him and he knew she could read the rage in him and she seemed burnt-out behind the eyes, as if she were fighting with a part of herself that she did not really care for but could not overcome. She touched his arm lightly, trying to hold him a reassuring moment, and said with that sad voice, "You don't know about love, Ronnie. What love does to people. You're too young to know about love."
He smiled thinly, conscious of Fat Man, who had heard his words and finally stepped inside the door. "Yeah. That must be it." He reached the door. "Later."
"When will you be home?" Just the tiniest effort, like a last particle of hope. He glanced at Fat Man staring dully at him and gave him a tight grimace of a smile, knowing his hate was futile, and accepting that.
"I don't know."
Then Fat Man, whose frayed nerve-wires had finally managed to pulse enough electricity to turn a dim light on in the back of his bruised brain, peered dimly at Snake and spoke with a mashed, gravelly voice. "Nice to meet ya." He spoke slowly, and smiled a half-witted grin.
Now how can anybody hate a dude as dim as that, thought Snake. He probably has to have somebody figure out traffic lights for him so he can cross the street. But Snake still clung to the warm emotion that the thought of cutting Fat Man's balls off gave him.
"Yeah." He slammed the door.
Concrete wasteland, beaten by the years and by neglect into crumbling uselessness. Unpainted fences and gates and little brown squares of yard, cold reminders of more vibrant days. Grass choked out by trash and bottles. Piles of garbage and broken appliances on the sidewalks. Clumps of people gathered in age groups like schools of fish. Women watching him pass with bored but cautious eyes.
He walked onto a wider, more active street. Cars flowed more thickly, constant streams of unstopping, terrified transients. Old business buildings, dying, scarred with signs. Old signs, rain-washed and yearworn, marked candy stores and delicatessens and car clinics and pharmacies. New ones advertised porno shops and liquor stores and bars and grills and pawnshops. Boards over windows. Lighthouse For The Blind, Interdenominational Church, and purveyor of free coffee. Come back to the seed of civilization to save us from what we've become.
Zombie people, regurgitated by the gluttonous monster. Hostile young, running and hunting in wild packs, like the dogs that owned the alleyways. Dudes and chicks, brightly dressed, looking for action. Stolid, broken groups outside liquor stores. Addicts in their twos and threes, many younger than Snake, scratching and sniffing, searching for the bag man.
Snake walked quickly, saturated by it, his face hard with its challenging smirk. He was restless, afraid that some hit man would Just Know that fifty dollars bulged inside his wallet. His eyes constantly swept the sidewalks and the doorways as he walked.
He kicked a page of newspaper that the wind whipped past him and as it rose he caught it in his hand. It was yesterday's front page and there was a large picture of a man swaddled in bandages being hurried down a rubbled road on a stretcher. The men who hauled the stretcher seemed somber and determined. Above the picture the headlines read "Marines Retake Citadel at Hue."
Snake stopped walking and stared almost enviously at the picture. There's some mean motorscooters for you. Uh huh. Well, I'm gonna get me some of that. Bring me home a medal. No more mopping up other people's pee. That's right.
An old man swaddled in dirty wool noticed that Snake had stopped moving, and approached him cautiously. Snake caught the movement, threw the newspaper away, and put his shoulder into the man as he strode past him.
"Fuck yourself, you old fart."
He found Zimmerman's Candy Store, more recently Diamond Jim's Entertainment, now boarded up and gutted by human vultures. On the other side was Mack's.
Gonna taste Mack's needle one more time before I blow.
Two years earlier, when he was christened Snake, he had gone to Mack, who provided him an inerasable baptism. It began at his wrist and curled up his forearm, an angry black flecked with bits of deadly chartreuse wrinkles and a crimson mouth. Snake wore his symbol proudly, much as the rich flaunt jewelry. It was a display of his tastes and beliefs, a symbol that spoke for him. He loved his full forearm of Snake. He wanted another one.
Mack was burning a huge orange spider onto the shoulder of a sailor. The sailor had his jumper off and was studying a rivulet of blood that was trickling down the back of his arm from the needle. The sailor nonchalantly gripped a towel, soaking up the blood as it leaked down from the spider. Mack stopped now and then, wiping blood delicately from the area he was cutting, careful not to erase the template outline. Snake watched briefly and nodded to the sailor. Good choice. Boss tattoo. Orange. Truly heavy color for a spider.
The designs were on the walls, hundreds of them. Snake studied them, searching for the one that would announce him to the world. At last he found it. Lost in the middle of a hundred designs on the center wall at one moment, it jumped out at him and filled his senses at the next.
There was a skull perched atop crossed daggers. Around the daggers twined two snakes, their heads staring fiercely at the skull. Above the skull, in wide letters, was U S M C. Underneath the daggers it read Death Before Dishonor. He stared at it. All the right colors. Black and orange-red and a green that matched the other snake on his left arm. Oh, heavy. There it is.
Mack gauzed up the sailor and he pulled his jumper on and paid Mack. He came from behind the counter and nodded affably to Snake, his brother in ink, and departed. Snake pointed to his choice and moved behind the counter. Mack nodded curtly and found the proper template in a drawer.
He took Snake's arm and shaved and washed it, spraying the forearm with a soap solution kept inside a Windex bottle. Then he wiped the arm down with a towel wet from other brandings. Snake nodded approvingly. Very sanitary.
The preliminaries thus completed, Mack pressed the template onto Snake's forearm, marking the outline of the New Him in black powder, and cut the gun on. Snake watched the gun move slowly along the outline, blue spark jumping from the tip into him, cutting snakes and daggers and words into his skin. He gritted and bled a little and dug it. Deep burn. Boss tattoo.
Mack worked carefully, expertly, his baggy eyes protruding from his face. He was covered with his own choices, arms and neck and chest saturated with four decades of brandings. A man who put himself into his work. Finally he spoke, with slow, bored words, his eyes still intent on Snake's forearm. "You in the Marines?"
Snake watched the skull being shaded in. "Nope. Not yet."
The skull was finished. Green wrinkles brightened the snakes. Mack cocked his head. "Ain't this kind of ass-backwards? None of my business. I'll put general stars on yer shoulders if you want. But most guys wait till they been in awhile. Like that swab was just in here. Gave him a goddamn anchor two, three weeks ago."
Snake shrugged. "What the hell. When I make up my mind I make up my mind. Know what I mean? Felt like getting it today."
Mack colored the words. "What if they don't take you?"
Snake laughed, watching the needle. Here comes Dishonor. "You shitting me, Mack? I walk. I talk. I'm crazy as hell. They'll take me." He considered it for another moment. "If they don't I'll come back and you can put a rose over the whole thing and put `Mom' under it. All right?"
Mack grinned slowly. "Yeah, you're crazy enough. They'll take you."
The tattoo was finished. Mack gauzed and taped it. In two days the tape could be removed and the snakes and skull and daggers and words would be forever Snake. He pushed down his sleeve and paid Mack and walked into the street once again.
He walked for an hour, bored and freezing. He passed a famous restaurant, one of those places that yet survived in the wasteland as a gathering place for the neat and elite. He stopped and stared through the large plate-glass window that bordered the sidewalk, gazing at the Beautiful People in their stylish clothes, languishing over their just-right meals. He became seized with scorn. He banged on the window and most of them looked curiously back at him and he mashed his face against the pane in a grotesque gargoyle stare and flipped two birds at them. Fuck you. All of you. Then he laughed hilariously for one short moment and scrunched his shoulders and continued on his undirected journey.
On the street it was black and cold and he walked hurriedly, shivering. Concrete walls hovered close to him, filled with predatory animals, creatures of the night. He was their prey. He fondled his knife tentatively and walked closer to the street, on the very edge of the sidewalk. He passed a few bored streetwalkers and a half-dozen bars. Dim melancholy lights and jukebox music and brackish odors surrounded him near every bar, inviting him to stop and die a zombie death.
Three blocks. Four. A car braked hard and pulled over next to him. He walked more quickly, not acknowledging the car's arrival. It crawled along beside him. A window rolled down. He glanced and saw a heavy-lidded face peering at him with stupored, hating eyes.
"Cocksuckin' dicklickin' mohfucka."
He looked behind him and ahead of him on the street. No cops. Yuh-oh. Bad news. There were four hating figures in the car. The heavy-lidded face mumbled at him again.
"Hey. Cocksuckin' dicklickin' mohfucka."
He jogged along the sidewalk and became enveloped by new brackish minglings. To his right was the No-Name Bar and Grill. He ducked inside, shaking his head.
What the hell. I was hungry anyway.
He bought two hamburgers and a cup of coffee at the No-Name, eating quickly at the counter. On one wall there was a jukebox. Its music cut through the barriers of Snake's subconscious. All the people going places, the singer moaned. Smiling with electric faces. What they find the glow erases. What they lose the glow replaces. Behind him a middle-aged couple was dancing. There was no dance area. They groped each other tightly, the dance an excuse to discover carnal parts of each other. The couple turned and a chair fell over. Someone swore at them. Someone else chided loudly, "It must be love."
The dancers did not hear. They were off in stupefied Nirvana, riding on each other's flesh. The chair was uprighted and the jukebox once again pervaded. You can live without direction. And you don't have to be perfection. And life is lovein a neon rainbow.
Snake ordered another coffee and drank it slowly, listening to the jukebox. He did not like the No-Name but there was no better place to go. He sat alone at the counter, watching people absently. They were all the same to him: dead. They'd merely forgotten to stop breathing.
Finally he could no longer stand it. He paid the tab and left a ten-dollar tip, rationalizing that it was Smack-man's money anyway, and grooving on the rise he provoked from the apathetic bartender. Then he walked quickly, half-jogging through the streets. It was late and bitter cold. The air attacked him and he shivered nakedly in its crispness. He reminded himself that he must get a coat. Then he remembered that he would not need one. In a few short days he would be gone.
There was a recruiting station at the wasteland's edge. It fed on creatures from the run-down rowhouses. They were vital sustenance.
The next morning Snake awoke early and walked to the recruiting station. He wore his father's coat. His father had not returned from his paint job of the day before. Old Bones, mused Snake, snatching the jacket, is in bed with about five bottles somewhere.
At the recruiting complex he contemplated the signs that advertised each service. Each sign promised to fill some void in his experience. "Tradition." "See the world." "Fly with us." He was not impressed. He had already chosen the Marines for one reason: everybody talked about how bad they were. And I'm ba-a-ad, he laughed to himself. We belong.
The complex had not yet opened. He sat on the steps near the Marine Corps office, huddled inside his father's coat, watching the wind whip trash along the sidewalk. By the time the first recruiter came he was raw from the wind.
Snake checked the recruiter out, grooving on the bright blue trousers underneath the green overcoat, digging the shaved head and face reeking with discipline. He chuckled to himself. Only a Marine would dare to look like that around here. He must be a bad-ass dude.
He stood when the recruiter reached the steps and began to follow him through the door. Only then did the Marine seem to realize that Snake had been waiting for him. He turned and gave Snake a devouring glance.
Snake nodded, anxious to get inside the building. He was freezing. "Yup. Wanna enlist, man." He followed the man inside, tapping his forearm. "Already got my tattoo."
The Marine suppressed a grin. "That was your first mistake."
Then down there in the knee-deep sand, inside the sweatbox that was boot camp, underneath the roofs of endless gray tin buildings and the canopy of sultry southern sky, something happened. He found a way to win.
It was nothing as magical as discovering some secret part that had lain dormant, but rather that his energies had finally found their outlet. He had always fought, and now it was right to fight. He had never been coddled, and now it was weakness to have been coddled.
And there was that hard core, the nucleus of ferocity which sustained him, and which no one else could dent. He could not be broken. He sensed the difference after three days. He came with no false prides, no sensitivities that a drill instructor's words could damage.
The trivialities of boot camp rolled off him. At worst, they were more of the same. He was beaten, but did not flinch. He sensed from the start that if he stuck it out, he won. When a drill instructor began to punish him he would stare impassively through the man, as if he felt nothing. Beat on me, Sergeant. Wear your goddamn arm out. It ain't any different. You can't squash me, and if you can't squash me, you lose. More, sir. Harder, sir. Faster, sir. I love it, sir.
It created a mystique about him. His ability to endure, that iron shell from which all other traits derived, was also a magnet that drew the other recruits to him. In the dark of the squad bay after lights out, during field problems, on the bivouacs, his calm assessment of each threat and crisis, his reasoned suggestions without regard to pain, caused him to be the man they sought for guidance.
And he loved it. To merely endure, to accept the pain that others feared and dreaded, was the ticket to a dignity that had eluded him all his life. And to fight, to grant his natural ferocity its whims, now brought him accolades instead of trouble.
He would take on anyone, do anything to perpetuate that respect from the others. Early during training the recruits learned pugil sticks. They fell out onto the athletic field and formed a circle around their drill instructor, who paced inside the circle, an angry demigod, holding what looked to be a broom with a sandbag on each end.
"This here," he chanted, "is a pugil stick. What you do is try to kill each other with it. Now." He looked slowly around the circle, staring coolly into each quivering face. "I need me a couple bad-ass hogs. Who's the meanest hog in this here platoon?"
A tight-muscled Gargantua stepped out. Snake had already nicknamed him Statue Body. "The Private is, sir."
The drill instructor nodded once, then looked around the circle again. "Don't anybody else think he's a bad-ass? C'mon, girls. We can't let him play with hisself, can we?"
Nobody moved. Statue Body was standing cool inside the circle, looking like John Wayne. Snake checked him out, and finally shrugged. What the hell. The bastard can't kill me.
He stepped into the circle. "Sir," he announced, playing the DI's word games, "the Private is the meanest motherfucker you got."
He stood motionless inside the circle. The DI peered down at him, hands on hips, unspeaking. Then his head went back and he laughed uproariously. The platoon had been silent but when the drill instructor laughed, everyone laughed: God had spoken.
The drill instructor became enraged and screamed at the circle, pivoting to froth at them all. "Shut up." They were immediately silent. He paced the circle, just in front of the recruits. "You goddamn girls. You cowards. That little shit is the only one of you that had the balls to come out here and fight. You should be laughing at yourselves, you dippy pukes!"
He returned to Snake. There was a sparkle of warmth in his expression. Some day, Snake mused, standing at a rigid attention, he's gonna like the hell outa me. It's the tattoo. Every day he dumps on me for not rating it, but he digs it. Pretty good move to get it.
He tossed Snake a pugil stick. "O.K., Private. Let's see how bad you really are."
A football helmet and a groin protector were passed down and Snake donned them, then picked up the pugil stick. It was heavier than he had expected. He held it tentatively, took a secret deep breath, and moved over to Statue Body.
Statue Body was grinning widely, waiting for Snake to come into range. He carried the stick lightly and bounced on his toes like a fighter. What the hell, thought Snake. He moved in after the man and started to swing.
Pow. Next thing he knew he was on the turf. His head spun as if he was one toke over. He shook it, clearing the buzzing circles, and stood again. Statue Body grinned like a taunting Muhammad Ali. Snake moved after him again and Statue Body took one step to the side and popped him up the side of the head. Pow. Down again. Everyone was screaming.
The DI stood over him. "Get up, you little turd." He booted Snake lightly in the ass. "I thought you said you were tough."
Up again. Pow. Down again. Up again, dizzily, wobbly. Pow. The DI stepped back in and started to take the pugil stick out of his hands and he looked coldly at the Sergeant with steady blue invincible eyes. "Sir. The Private ain't finished yet."
The DI spoke quietly, privately to him. "He's killing you, boy."
"Give me a break. I'm wearing him down."
The DI checked the area quickly for officers. "O.K., Private. You got two minutes."
Up again, swing and miss. Pow. Down again. Up again. Pow. Statue Body seemed embarrassed now. The circle of recruits was silent. Up again and swing, Statue Body let it go by as if he were parrying a weak jab. Pow. Snake was back on the turf, trying to find is head. It was scrambled at his knees.
Statue Body was uneasy. He turned to the DI. It wasn't fun any more. "Sir. The Private "
Snake moved as quickly as a pouncing cat, holding the stick near one end like a baseball bat. He aimed for the back of Statue Body's head. Pow. Statue Body dropped like a stunned elephant. The platoon cheered wildly.
Statue Body was on his knees, still stunned. He started to get up. Snake knew that if he made it up Statue Body would kill him. Pow. He dropped him again. Take that, motherfucker. Statue Body bowled over, rolling like an egg. Balloop. Balloop.
Snake pounced again and stood in front of him, determined not to let him up. He peered into Statue Body's face with the same grin that Statue Body had used earlier.
The DI finally stepped in, stopping it. He raised Snake's hand to the cheers of the circle of recruits. Champion. As the platoon yelled the DI whispered to Snake.
"You little shit. You are mean."
Meet the Author
James Webb, a 1968 U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served as Secretary of the Navy from 1987 to 1988, is one of the most highly decorated Marines of the Vietnam era. He is the author of the bestsellers Fields of Fire and Sense of Honor, among other books.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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.
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.
Extreme but great book....captures the reality...USMC vietnam vet
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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