He heard the grenade as it detonated behind him. He was hit in the head, back, arm, leg and the concussion threw him down a hill into a stream. He survived with one less kidney, shrapnel at the base of his skull and a left knee that has given him trouble ever since. His operating surgeon commented on his powers of recuperation: "This man is highly motivated."
Indeed. But what then would you expect? A marine lieutenant in combat in Vietnam, James Webb came by this action naturally, he says in his recently published book "Born Fighting." He is a descendent of the Scots-Irish who are stubbornly independent, highly patriotic and never back away from a fight. In every American war, from the Revolution to Iraq, they have been heavily represented.
Mr. Webb says from an early age, he was aware of his fighting culture. "It was pounded into my head when I was a child. My father used to say: 'Never forget. You were the pioneers. Your ancestors laid the pipe through the mountains and the frontier.' The Celtic people in general, the Irish and the Scottish are the most argumentative people on earth, which is why Northern Ireland has all the difficulties that it does. And yet you put them in a military uniform, and they produce generation after generation some of the greatest soldiers you have ever seen."
For all its contribution, writes Mr. Webb, this particular ethnic group is largely unrecognized in America. But ignore them at your peril. President Bush seemed a mite fumbling in his recent campaign, but he knew the right words to appeal to the Scots-Irish vote: God, flag, neighbor, family, leadership. The Democrats, says Mr. Webb, hardly seemed aware of such people. "I'm pretty angry about the Iraq war. I think it's a huge strategic error, and the people from this culture are inordinately fighting this war, but I think the Democrats have ignored this group for the past 30 years. The Republicans are very aware of this group. I think they are doing everything they can not to offend it."
In the election, President Bush won just about every state where Scots-Irish are concentrated.
What does this group want? To be their own men and women, writes Mr. Webb. They value honor, courage, patriotism, and seek change from the bottom up. They introduced populism to America, he believes, and created the mores of the nation's working class.
While often living apart in their southern mountains, the Scots-Irish heartily welcome others to join their ranks. Oleg Jankovic is one recruit. A former U.S. Naval officer who now heads a small defense firm, he says his Russian ancestry was no hindrance. "In fact," he says "you can argue that the powerful assimilative aspect of American culture stems from the Scots-Irish because they will accept anybody who will hew to their standards. There is even yeta mystique about who these Americans really are the people of the mountains and the plains, central to the military, the heart of the working class beliefs and culture.
David Hackett Fischer, author of the much praised book "Albion's Seed," says he would broaden the term Scots-Irish to include other ethnic groups making up what he calls the "borderers" those from the outer edges of Britain. Together they share a common passion for liberty, as do most Americans, but of a particular kind.
"It was liberty from overnment, which is not the way New Englanders think. It was the rattlesnake that says 'Don't tread on me,' as opposed to the symbols of the liberty tree in the New England town and the liberty bell in the Delaware Valley. I think we can see a direct connection between these political attitudes and minimal government, the idea that the government is them and not us."
The Scots-Irish have paid a certain price for that attitude. They have not benefited, for example, from the various government programs that advance minorities in America. They do not have a fair share of their nation's wealth, says Mr. Webb, or of its governing bodies. They may be fighting wars they had no say in declaring.
James Webb is determined to give them that missing voice. He has written "Fields of Fire," considered to be the best novel about the Vietnam War and perhaps about any American war. In "Born Fighting," he brings to poignant life his Scots-Irish forbears struggling with adversity and usually overcoming it - a fine tribute to a forgotten people.
But Webb knows Washington as well as his own people. He served as an assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration. He wants the Scots-Irish to play a greater political role in America. Does that also mean a role for him? Time will tell, and as Webb makes clear, the Scots-Irish are nothing if not adventurous.