James Webb’s FIELDS OF FIRE

I am usually accused of reading too much crime fiction but my favourite genre would actually be war fiction. The only problem is that not a lot of quality fiction examining combat in war is written or published anymore. I have been trying to think of the last great combat novel to be published and cannot come up with anything. There has been a plethora of non-fiction books dealing with war, particularly Iraq, but not a lot fiction. This is a shame because fiction can be less constrained in informing us about the grim reality of war. The reader can be witness to multiple points of view and gain an insight to the inner thoughts and fears of men in combat. This is why MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes has resonated with me so much.

Before MATTERHORN the last combat novel I read and loved was FIELDS OF FIRE by James Webb, first published in 1978. I discovered James Webb when I read THE EMPEROR’S GENERAL in 1999, and as I often do, promptly ordered all his backlist. And in keeping with my tradition they sat in my ‘to read’ pile untouched. I finally read FIELDS OF FIRE last year and promptly kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Set in 1968 the novel follows a company of Marines focusing on three main characters. Hodges is the most central of the three and his story is of a young man whose father and grandfather have been war heroes and he feels obliged to follow their example and do his duty in Vietnam. Snake is the combat experienced and weary Marine who everyone looks to. He volunteered for the Marines to escape the path his life was taking. And Goodrich is the intellectual who dropped out of Harvard and got drafted. Webb presents the war in all its twisted glory and shame but without breaking the bond the reader quickly develops with the lead characters. You are immersed in the jungle and its claustrophobia, the monotony and futility of life as a soldier and the fear and insanity of being in combat.

I doubt there is going to be a revival of the combat novel genre. I think the scarcity of quality books adds to the uniqueness and intensity of the genre. Writers like Tim O’Brien, James Jones, Norman Mailer, James Webb and Karl Marlantes are shaped and formed by an experience few writers ever encounter.  Hopefully the classics of this genre remain in print because they are just as important as the non-fiction books on the subject.


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