If you watched the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night, you probably heard the closing comment by my father, Jim Webb. Without hesitation he answered that the enemy he was “most proud of'” was the Vietnamese soldier who wounded him with a hand grenade. He then added that “… he isn’t around anymore.”
While there were those in the media and around the country who were a bit stunned and, perhaps, even put off by this answer, my fellow veterans and I were not. If anything, his blunt (and perhaps a bit brutal) honesty was much appreciated and further endeared him to us as a candidate. We veterans are also more likely to have a fuller picture of my father’s record. He’s the man who gave us the post-9/11 GI Bill. We also know him as a highly decorated combat veteran who earned the Navy Cross for the entire episode surrounding that grenade, not just the snippet that has been focused on.
As a Marine infantryman myself, I have experienced the complex emotions of combat. On the one hand you may not even see the face of an individual who fires a round so close to your head that your ears ring, or blows up the improvised explosive device next to your vehicle that potentially kills or maims your friends. On the other, there’s an intensely personal reaction. After all, this isn’t a person who is besting you in a debate about gun control or some other social policy over a beer. This is a person whose intent is to end your life, and that is as clear-cut an enemy as you can think of. Additionally, many, if not most, of the veterans I have talked to have read the Navy Cross citation that chronicles the incident surrounding my father. For those unfamiliar, it states:
Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body.
We who know the complexities of combat understand the character displayed in the above sentence. When put into the proper context, it is clearly far more than the sound bite being dissected by political pundits.
In fact, seeing the reaction to my father’s story in recent days has highlighted for me the almost stunning level of ignorance that the general public has about war. CNN introduced him as a “war hero,” and yet people were surprised and even uncomfortable when they were given a glimpse of what that might have entailed.
Yes, the man who threw the grenade isn’t around anymore, but more important, the man whom my father shielded with his own body lived to see another day. For a Marine and as a leader, that is the important part. To me and many other veterans, we have a sea of presidential candidates who seemingly have only personal interests in mind. Yet, here is a leader who has not only endured war, but also demonstrated that he is willing to sacrifice his life for his people. Is that really something to be sneered at?
This country has been at war for almost 15 years, and as I think about the ridicule leveled at my father since Tuesday, I can’t help but imagine what these same people must think about the service of my own generation. In their eyes, did we simply spend some kind of twisted “semester abroad” in a place with plenty of sand, but no ocean? Or conversely, do they ignorantly dismiss our experiences, as they have my father’s, as those of cold, callous killers?
Jim R. Webb served as a Marine infantryman from 2005-2010. He lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.