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Sen. Webb on Military Sons and Fathers

On this Friday before Father's Day, we take a few minutes to talk about the tradition of military service in families — about fathers and sons going to war. One person who knows about that is Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA). An outspoken critic of the Iraq war, Webb writes in his book Born Fighting about the political contributions of his Scots-Irish ancestors and their commitment to serving.

"They go into the military because they love their country, because they have family traditions — in the case of my family all the way back to the American Revolution," Webb tells Renee Montagne. "And when the time comes, there's a sense of obligation among many to live up to the people who went before you."

Webb's father entered the military in World War II. Webb himself fought in Vietnam, and his son has just returned from Iraq.

In his book, just reissued in paperback, Webb writes about his own, military father:

Watching firsthand the Johnson administration's dissembling to Congress and disrespect of military leaders, he urged me more than once to go into the navy, find myself a nice ship where I could, as he so often put it, "sit in the wardroom and eat ice cream," and not risk myself as a Marine on an ever-deteriorating battlefield. Once I did receive my orders for combat, my father put in his papers to retire from the air force, telling me he "couldn't bear to watch it" while still wearing a military uniform.

Webb talks with Montagne about his family's military tradition and about serving, even in conflicts they don't support.

What did you think when he said that to you?

Well, my dad and I had many, many conversations over the period before I went to Vietnam and he would get very emotional. In fact, that's the only time I ever saw him cry was when I went to see him just before I went to Vietnam. One of those odd, serendipitous moments where "Danny Boy" came on the radio.

You know, in a sense it was the way that I've looked at my son's experience. I'm enormously proud that he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps during the worst part of the Iraq war, to leave college because he felt that it was time for him to go do what we have generally done.

You realize of course, probably better than anyone, that you're the model and your father for what [your son] did.

Well, there's a whole lot to be said for, whatever the politics of a war are, for people who believe in their country, and who are willing to step forward and take those risks because they believe in their country. It sounds intellectually odd, but emotionally it's correct.

How do you reconcile that as a person in uniform and actually fighting?

You know, I got that same question from a young Marine a few years ago when I visited Quantico. His question to me was, "I don't believe in this what we're doing. I don't think it's the right way to go. What do I do when one of my Marines asks me that question?" And I said I'll give you the same answer that I used to give myself during Vietnam. And that is that the war isn't going to go away whether or not you or I like it — we're talking as young second lieutenants, not as senators here — and, given that, my instincts, my responsibilities are to do the job and to get as many people back as I can. And that's really the duty of a young military leader.

I'm guessing that you might have seen it coming yourself that your son would also want to serve. But when it became a reality during wartime, what did you think?

It's very, very tough. I mean, it's tough as a father, as you might imagine, and it was tough having to deal with it as a public figure, particularly because I was in the middle of a campaign. I didn't go through anything differently as a father than hundreds of thousands of other people, but it's harder, I think, to be a parent when someone is sent into harm's way than it is to be that person. I mean, in terms of how you handle the emotions.

I can finally understand what my parents went through when I was in Vietnam. It's probably the hardest thing you'll have to go through as a parent.

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