Today marks the 45th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War measuring from the fall of Saigon. Remarkably, the death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. passed the death toll from the Vietnam War (58,220 by one count) this week. Jim Webb is better known around these parts for his entry in the Hillbilly Studies corpus, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, but he also wrote a very fine war novel that draws heavily from his personal experiences in Vietnam.
Hodges, the primary protagonist in Webb’s Fields of Fire is a young, cocky lieutenant fresh out of the Naval Academy (Webb went to Vietnam as a young, cocky lieutenant fresh out of the Naval Academy). Goodrich’s experiences when he returns to Harvard are reminiscent of Webb’s experiences at Georgetown University Law Center after he returned from Vietnam, as relayed in Born Fighting.
I would almost think either Oliver Stone stole from Webb in making Platoon, or Webb stole from Stone in writing Fields of Fire, had both not fought in Vietnam. The two are quite similar in their depictions of combat and daily life in Vietnam.
The characters are well fleshed out, from those that get multiple POVs to the more minor characters, in large part because Webb intersperses the story in Vietnam with short chapters giving the background of the secondary characters. Goodrich, a “Harvard man” who is not really sure why he went to Vietnam, grows the most over the novel and transforms from someone the reader naturally loathes to someone the reader, well, still loathes, but also pities and respects. The third main character, in addition to Hodges and Goodrich, is Snake, who represents yet another subset of the men who fought in Vietnam. He’s a tough kid from the bad part of town who never fit in anywhere nearly so well as he does fighting in Vietnam (although he would also be at home in a country noir novel).
I’m not a big war novel reader, but Fields of Fire is my favorite war novel by a considerable margin, and I like it better than any of the Vietnam movies I have seen.
5 of 5 Stars.