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“Fields of Fire” Book Review

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    Fields of Fire by James Webb is a historical novel first published in 1978 that takes place in the year 1969 during the Vietnam War. Although there are many characters that are significant to the story, the novel focuses mainly on three marines who find themselves in a platoon with each other; Robert E. Lee Hodges, “Snake,” and Will “Senator” Goodrich. Webb gives the reader a great, detailed background of each of these characters through a combination of both direct and indirect characterization.

    As the novel progresses, major events that occur include battle and violence, loss and coping, and learning. The themes that naturally accompany these events, given the setting, are leadership, a loss of purpose, and the effects of war on people. Being a veteran of the Vietnam War himself, Webb wrote this novel to demonstrate the real gruesomeness of war, in addition to showing that many soldiers involved did not even have a true reason for fighting. Before writing this novel, James Webb was an officer in the Vietnam War.

    Webb served as a Platoon Commander in the United States Marine Corps from 1968 to 1972. He retired after earning an exceptional range of awards as a 1st Lieutenant Officer. Webb has been awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts, in addition to a Navy Cross, which is the second highest decoration in the Navy and Marine Corps. Webb’s highly decorated military profile and experience easily gives him authority to write on subjects dealing with war, especially those dealing with the Vietnam War. In addition to his military history, Webb has a respectable background in education.

    Webb graduated from a high school located in Bellevue, Nebraska. While attending the United States Naval Academy, where he graduated from in 1968, Webb was a member of the Brigade Honor Committee. After serving time in Vietnam, he returned to college at the Georgetown Law Center between the years of 1972 and 1975. He graduated in 1975 with a Juris Doctor degree. Webb’s educational background helps to show, with the help of his military profile, that he is more than qualified to proficiently write on the subjects discussed in his novel, Fields of Fire.

    James Webb focuses on three main characters in his novel: Robert E. Lee Hodges, “Snake,” and Will “Senator” Goodrich. The inspiration for these three characters seems to be not the life of any particular historical figure, but rather the common backgrounds of real soldiers who served in Vietnam in general. Characters in the novel are most often developed only after their initial introduction into the story. After introducing a character to the reader, Webb will often follow this introduction with the story of the characters life before the military and how or why he decided to enlist.

    Those characteristics not mentioned at his introduction or those that change are typically revealed during or after intense, traumatic events, such as near-death experiences or witnessing the death of a friend. Although the novel centers on only three characters, these three characters represent highly prominent reasons that American’s had for enlisting; to continue a family legacy and protect his family’s honor, to escape the steep decline and unhappiness of his life, and by accident or unwillingly being drafted. In this novel, the characters are what really embody and portray the main themes.

    Robert E. Lee Hodges claims that he is fighting to carry on his family’s military legacy, for honor, and “mostly for the bench seat in the town square,” and is the primary embodiment of leadership. Shortly after Hodges arrives in Vietnam, he is put straight into the action as a platoon leader where he shows his natural ability as a powerful, but still likeable, military leader. “Snake” primarily depicts the lack of real purpose for fighting. Being a man with little purpose in life before enlisting, Snake is easily shown without purpose in Vietnam.

    He recovers from the loss of fellow squad members quickly and easily and does not have reason to be in Vietnam, except to escape his less than satisfactory life back home. Will “Senator” Goodrich enlists in the United States Marine Corps under the false expectation of being a part of the Marine Band, and ends up being put into the field of battle instead. As a young, scholarly student that grew up in a middle-class home, Senator is wildly unprepared for what he finds in Vietnam, which helps him to easily portray the effects of war on humans.

    Senator is scared and sensitive, so he is the first one to whimper or cry in times of danger and is affected the most when he sees other squad member ripped apart by shrapnel. The psychological effects from the Vietnam War, which persist for the remainder of a soldier’s lifetime, are portrayed through Senator. The main themes of Fields of Fire are embodied and portrayed through these three main characters. The writing style that James Webb uses is a significant factor in the experience of reading the novel. Webb uses a third-person point of view that moves from character to character throughout the novel.

    The purpose in doing this is to show what each character is thinking and how they act and react, which helps to reveal more information about each character, as well as being a means of advancing the plot. The dialogue spoken between characters plays a major role in establishing a connection between the reader and the novel. Terms used specifically in the Vietnam War are prevalent throughout the dialogue in the book, in addition to a certain dialect and manner of conversing with one another that makes a reader feel as if he or she is among the soldiers in the book receiving orders from commanding officers.

    The use of gallows humor, especially from Snake, in the face of what seems to be certain death is also important in helping the reader understand what the characters are feeling. Aside from the dialogue, the narration of the novel is less of a narration, and more of a dictation. Although Webb does give detailed descriptions of some scenes, many events and scenes are more told authoritatively to the reader. Webb’s combination of these different styles helps to make his novel come to life for the reader.

    The setting of James Webb’s novel displays exceptional historical accuracy and it corresponds well with the plot of the story. Fields of Fire takes place in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The weather is said to be hot and humid, and the area is described as grassy and forested with bugs and insects everywhere. These environmental factors make both battles as well as everyday life in Vietnam seem even worse than expected. The soldiers are also described to have poor living conditions and little or, more commonly, no access to hygienic products.

    Webb’s portrayal of the lack of sanitation among most of those who served in Vietnam clearly shows how disgusting and vile war often is. The setting in this novel is used well to convey the experience of war to the reader. Fields of Fire is one of the most powerful pieces of fiction to be written about the Vietnam War. Its author, James Webb, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, is without a doubt qualified to write this book. The novel focuses on three main characters that come from vastly different backgrounds and, through them, explores the effects and conditions of war.

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