Fields of Fire
is a historical novel by former Virginia Senator James Webb, who ran for president in the 2016 presidential election. Released in 1978, the book is loosely based on Webb’s experiences as a Marine during the Vietnam War. The book is widely regarded as one of the best fictional accounts of the war, The Washington Post
calling it one of the “great American war novels.”
The novel begins in 1969 and focuses on three main characters: Snake, Hodges, and Senator. The Vietnam War is in full swing and soldiers either enlist voluntarily or are drafted. Senator, a Harvard student from a well-to-do family, is drafted, unlike his friends who find various ways to dodge. Although he doesn’t know what he is in for in Vietnam, he faces the challenge head-on.
Unlike Senator, Snake enlists on his own. His upbringing has been considerably more difficult than Senator’s, growing up on the wrong side of town, going from job to job, and experimenting with drugs. He is also a good fighter. One day, after getting a tattoo that says, “Death Before Dishonor,” Snake walks into the recruitment office and enlists in the Marines. He shows promise at boot camp and other recruits look up to him.
Hodges enlists as well. His decision largely rests on the weight of his ancestors, who fought in wars in the past. His father had fought as well and died fighting the Germans in France before Hodges was born. Every Sunday, Hodges visits his grandmother and they talk about his father and the other brave ancestors who fought for their country. For Hodges, there doesn’t seem much of a choice. To go to war is in his blood.
Hodges is processed in Da Nang. One night, the camp is attacked. At first, Hodges is excited to finally be part of a battle, but his taste for war soon sours when a dismembered hand falls near him after a bomb explodes. Meanwhile, Snake is quickly thrust into bloody battle.
The three main characters’ stories intertwine throughout battles and their duties in the An Hoa Basin. Snake finds Hodges amusing. Senator is upset by the smells and horrors he faces in the jungle, and by the injustice done by some of his fellow Americans. This puts him at odds with Snake, who tells him that no one likes war but he should get over it and fight.
Meanwhile, all three, along with a colorful cast of supporting characters, must outwit the enemy in ruined villages, trenches, and steamy forest. Friends are hit or run into booby traps. They also must survive the elements, wading in high water with leeches and cutting through sharp elephant grass taller than them, which hides ambushers.
Hodges is injured and sent to Okinawa to recover. When he returns to Vietnam, he reunites with Snake who treats him like a brother. Meanwhile, Snake is coming up to the end of his enlistment term. With nothing at home worth returning to, he signs for an extension.
The soldiers face intense opposition in what they call the Arizona Valley, which they must again cross deep water to get to. Senator and his men are pinned down in a cemetery. Snake’s team goes to their rescue. When Snake finds Senator in a hole, he is in rough shape. Hodges and his men come to their aid, but by the time they arrive, the fighting has intensified. Snake pulls Senator over his shoulders and runs out of the hole, but he trips and is completely exposed. He is killed immediately by machine gun fire in front of Hodges’ eyes. Hodges is also killed. Senator loses a leg.
Senator’s homecoming is tough for him. The war and his new mechanical leg make him bitter. When his parents arrange a homecoming party, Senator gives a horrific speech that sends everyone out the door within minutes. He apologizes to his parents, but they don’t know how to accommodate him. He sits alone in his room in the dark doing nothing.
Since Webb was a Marine himself, the book’s style is a boots-on-the-ground account of soldier life in Vietnam. From this angle, Webb explores how the atrocities of battle affected the young men, drafted or otherwise, during and after the war. Although the themes of loyalty and bravery are prevalent throughout the novel, the book is decidedly anti-war. Instead, it is pro-human. The focus is on the people rather than the politics or strategy of the war.
The book also explores the question of whether or not the Vietnam War was worth it. The historical consensus from Americans seems to indicate that it was a waste of resources and men. However, the book asserts from the Asian perspective that had the United States not intervened, communism would have spread throughout the continent. Because the communist forces were forced to commit so many resources to the Vietnam War, the ideology did not engulf Asia. In that way, the sacrifices made by American soldiers were not in vain.