WASHINGTON -- As usual, Jim Webb is spoiling for a fight. As usual, he has found one. He is seeking the Democrats' senatorial nomination in Virginia against the incumbent, George Allen, a presidential aspirant.
Webb, a varsity boxer at Annapolis, was wounded twice as a Marine officer in Vietnam where he earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. His six novels include the best written about Vietnam, ``Fields of Fire.'' In 1988 he resigned -- more feistiness -- as President Reagan's secretary of the Navy to protest a reduction of the Navy's force structure. He is a product of the turbulent Scots-Irish diaspora that has given America Kit Carson, two scrappy Jacksons -- Andrew and Stonewall -- Robert E. Lee and Reagan. The title of Webb's history of America's Scots-Irish? ``Born Fighting.''
Now he has picked a fight with a fighter. Allen, a former governor running statewide for the third time, is a terrific political talent. Even if Webb wins the Democratic primary June 13 (his opponent, Harris Miller, is a former lobbyist and longtime Democratic activist), Allen will be heavily favored. But Virginia will have a contest of heavyweights, and Allen will be a better presidential candidate for having gone 12 rounds with Webb.
Webb, who says he was ``pretty much'' a Democrat until President Carter ``pardoned the draft evaders,'' endorsed Allen over Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb in 2000, after supporting Robb -- another Marine veteran of Vietnam -- in 1994. In 1992, Webb supported the presidential campaign of another Vietnam veteran, Nebraska Democrat Sen. Bob Kerrey, who now is national finance chairman of Webb's campaign. Webb says, ``I wouldn't shake John Kerry's hand for 20 years'' because of Kerry's anti-Vietnam activities but ``I voted for him'' in 2004.
``It was Iraq,'' Webb says, ``that convinced me the Republican Party has gone crazy.'' He says: ``I warned them early, they went in precipitously. We need to get out carefully, we do not need to be an occupying force.'' Carefully, but within two years.
Almost seven months before the invasion of Iraq he warned (Washington Post, Sept. 4, 2002) that before moving from ``containment to unilateral war and a long-term occupation of Iraq'' we should remember that the Soviet Union was defeated by patient, intense containment. As for the flippant calls, before the 1991 Gulf War, for taking Baghdad and installing ``a MacArthurian regency'':
``Our occupation forces never set foot inside Japan until the emperor had formally surrendered and prepared Japanese citizens for our arrival. Nor did MacArthur destroy the Japanese government when he took over as proconsul. ... Nor is Japanese culture in any way similar to Iraq's. The Japanese are a homogeneous people. ... The Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam.''
Long convinced that invading Iraq would ``empower Iran, the long-term threat,'' Webb thinks the administration's neoconservative nation-builders ``are so far to the left they seem to be on the right.'' His challenge will be to harvest financial support, much of it from outside of Virginia, from antiwar liberals, without forfeiting his appeal to Virginia's moderate Democrats and many military families. He is being endorsed by some of the retired generals now denouncing Don Rumsfeld. And he will attract attention if he continues to charge that the Bush administration is ``deliberately miscounting the casualties in Iraq,'' minimizing them by ``counting only those evacuated out of theater.''
Webb says, ``I'm pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-Second Amendment.'' Two out of three might not suffice, given that Democratic primary voters -- disproportionately, liberal activists -- often have little tolerance for heterodoxy. And he says, ``I'm not saying what antiwar people want to hear -- 'Get out last Tuesday.'''
Although Webb has concentrated his fire on Allen, Miller attacked Webb until Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and hates primaries, told him to desist. Over the years Webb has made impolitic pronouncements opposing women in combat and warning that some affirmative action had become ``state-sponsored racism.'' Today, Webb endorses affirmative action but not for mere ``diversity'' reasons. He says that as secretary of the Navy he tripled the number of women in ``operational billets'' and that he has been endorsed by the only woman to make it through the Special Operations course.
He campaigns in combat boots given to him by his son, who was a year from graduating from Penn State but now is a Marine lance corporal. He is due in Iraq in September.