Fiction Imitates Warmaking Reality

By , Brad Knickerbocker is on the Monitor's staff.

SOMETHING TO DIE FOR. By James Webb, William Morrow, 333 pp., $19.95

IN the kiss-and-tell world of Washington politics, the motto of many officials who leave in a huff (or are pushed) is ``don't get mad, get even.'' For some, it comes through published memoirs - like Donald Regan helpfully explaining Nancy Reagan's fascination with astrology. For others in the American imperial court, the dagger comes cloaked in fiction. In either case they're generally two parts catharsis, one part history.

During the Reagan years around the Pentagon, one of the most fascinating characters was James Webb, assistant secretary of defense and then Navy secretary. A 1968 United States Naval Academy graduate and Marine Corps officer, he was one of the most highly decorated combat veterans of Vietnam. Webb went on to earn a law degree, then he began writing fiction before reentering government service. His r'esum'e seemed to show a smooth transition from war hero to successful civilian.

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But like a piece of shrapnel under the skin, there was something that irritated Webb, something that would not let him go quietly and obligingly into the world of bureaucratic and political manipulation, dissembling, and intrigue. After less than a year as Navy secretary, he resigned in protest over administration policy, leaving smoking holes of bad feeling behind him.

In ``Something to Die For,'' his fourth novel, Webb gets back at his former adversaries like a marine with a knife in his teeth - purposefully and not too subtly. Or perhaps more accurately, like the boxer he was as a Navy midshipman.

The scene of battle in this book shifts back and forth between Washington and (whether presciently or coincidentally) a piece of desert just across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. The military side of the story involves the civil war in Ethiopia over Eritrean independence, a war that briefly escalates to include Cuban and Soviet forces on one side, French and American on the other.

The battleground back in Washington pits a manipulative and amoral defense secretary against a manipulative and immoral chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Included in the fray are a rogue admiral, an ex-CIA operative who launches a deadly covert operation on his own, and a president who's main interest is the latest public opinion poll.

There is really only one hero here, the Marine Corps colonel who sees the danger and stupidity of what's about to happen to his amphibious unit.

Webb's style is like Tom Clancy's with differences: less military hardware and more sex, good guys and bad guys more clearly defined, more cynicism. But whereas Clancy likes to spin a good yarn around high-tech gear and tactics, Webb has something to prove and scores to settle.

He settles the scores in his not-so-veiled description of those inside the Beltway who talk tough but ducked out of service in Vietnam. While letting the country go down the tubes economically and socially, these ``chicken hawks'' prefer to ``busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels''(as the duke of Exeter in Shakespeare's Henry V put it). And in the end, it's the guys in jungle fatigues - or desert camouflage - who pay the price.

Webb's main point is that the arming and deployment of the US military has become dangerously politicized, ignoring as it does the real threats to national security, and that George Bush is only one of many who have a problem with ``the vision thing.'' It's the same point he has made in congressional testimony, in speeches, and in newspaper columns. In ``Something to Die For,'' Webb turns his sermon into a pretty good story.

Military men aren't necessarily the best ones to structure a national security apparatus, or even to decide when to use it. But if Webb is right - and my own experience as a combatant in Vietnam and in covering the Pentagon during the Reagan administration tells me that much of what he says is valid - then the country continues to be well-served by this military maverick.

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