Exclusive Interview With 
Mr. James Webb

 Mr. Webb is a  former Secretary of the Navy, Assistant Secretary of Defense, and full Committee Counsel of the U.S. Congress.  He is also the award winning author of Fields of Fire and many other best selling novels on Vietnam and Asia.

Question 1. You recently published a new novel entitled Lost Soldiers.  The book has  now been out about three months.  How has the reception been so far for the book and what led you to write this new book on Vietnam?

Answer: The overall reception for the book has been excellent, and among those who have a connection with Vietnam it's been incredible.  This includes veterans, but also those who have visited or lived in Vietnam over the past  ten years or so.  I actually began writing the book in 1994, when I was first doing business inside Vietnam, but put it aside because I didn't feel  ready to write it.  Then about two years ago I became seized with the idea  of doing it.  One reason was that my emotions about Vietnam are so strong that I simply had to write about it.  Another is that the impressions of  modern-day Vietnam have been shaped largely through the eyes of media elites and other luminaries who don't have a clue as to what really goes on in the country.  It was a fun book to write, and I love the characters.

Question 2This is your first novel in sometime and comes after a long period of  U.S. government service, does this signal a move for you to return to a full-time career as a novelist?

Answer: Actually I published a novel in 1999 titled The Emperor's General, set in  the Philippines and Japan at the very end of World War Two and the beginning of the Occupation.  The novel was very successful, and is being made into a film by Paramount Pictures.  I also have worked extensively in Hollywood over the past twelve years, including writing and executive-producing the film Rules of Engagement, which came out in 2000.  So I have continued to straddle the two rather bipolar worlds of government and literature for some time.  I don't think I'll ever do one or the other full-time, although right now I'm enjoying the literary side very much.

Question 3. The main character in your new book is a Vietnam veteran who can't seem to kick his fascination with Vietnam.  I know you have been a frequent visitor to Vietnam because we met in the past in Hanoi during one of your visits.  How much of this same fascination with Vietnam also applies to the Author and why do you think Vietnam has such a hold on many of us who served there?

Answer: I have always believed that Vietnam is one of the most important countries in Asia in terms of America's national interest.  I became fascinated with the country as I was preparing to serve there as a Marine infantry officer.  I also have worked with the Vietnamese community in the United States regularly since the late 1970's.  And I've been back to Vietnam many, many times since my first return visit in 1991.  I am an admirer of the culture and the people.  I learned to speak Vietnamese as an act of will rather than being school-trained.  So for me, this is only partially about the war, just as my long-time interest in the Japanese is only incidental to the fact that we were once at war.

Question 4. Also in the book, the main character and the Vietnamese colonel he works with come to understand each other and if not become friends, establish a camaraderie that might seem to others as unlikely.  As I observed in over three years of helping try to build a new relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam, it often is the veterans on both sides who despite being former enemies often achieve a rapid rapport.  Why is this so and in your opinion is it true of all former combatants or specially true in the case of Vietnam?

Answer: I would venture that former soldiers in most wars have an easier time making peace than a lot of others.  This isn't always true, but it seems to be more often than not.  William Butler Yeats wrote a poem entitled The Ballad of an Irish Airman, which, to paraphrase, said "I killed men I did not hate, on behalf of politicians I did not love."  I find it much easier to talk to soldiers than to politicians, in both countries.

Question 5. In researching background for the Lost Soldiers, how many times did you travel to Vietnam and can you give us your impressions as to how you see the atmosphere in Vietnam changing over the last 10 years?

Answer: I never actually researched the novel.  I simply experienced Vietnam for a decade, and the novel came naturally.  Since I can make my way around speaking Vietnamese, I never needed a government "interpreter," who often is more than that, and as a result I've been able to wander all over the country and simply absorb my surroundings.  The country has changed a great deal since my first return visit in March 1991, and most of those changes have been for the better.  But we should also be honest with ourselves and admit that the government still has the power and the willingness to take serious actions against anyone who questions its authority or opposes it. And I do worry about the present government's accommodations to China.

Question 6. As a frequent visitor to Vietnam and someone who is deeply interested and care about the country obviously you are aware that Vietnam and the U.S. have finally put into effect a new Bilateral Trade Agreement which is intended to promote trade between the two countries.  As a frequent visitor to Vietnam, what is your impression of Vietnam as a place to invest and as a place to do business?

Answer: If the Vietnamese government is serious about allowing American investment, Vietnam is an excellent place to do business, due to the energy of its people, their literacy, and, not incidentally due to their anglicized alphabet, which makes for easier contract agreements.  But to be frank, this is a big "if."  I spent more than two years bringing American companies into Vietnam, during the period 1994 through 1996.  I put together a consulting company after careful preparation, with the support of some of the best investment banks on Wall Street.  Those years were interesting, as quite frankly the country went from optimism to disillusionment.  We brought in some world-class companies who took a look, gave the Vietnamese government and bureaucracy a chance to demonstrate that it could function in a transparent business environment, and then decided to put their money elsewhere.  The Vietnamese government is wrong to blame these failures on the lack of a free trade agreement.  They could have made things work if they had been more sophisticated and forward-looking.  They now have a second chance.  I believe it is very important for both countries to make this trade agreement work, or we run the risk of seeing Vietnam slowly becoming a vassal state of China.  This would not be good for Vietnam or the United States.

Question 7. In your book, you realistically depict some of the problems of modern day Vietnam - a bloated bureaucracy, under-employment, corruption, etc.  How much of these are problems specific to Vietnam alone and how many of these are common of developing countries throughout Asia?  Further, how would you advise business people interested in Vietnam as to how these are likely to affect their own plans?

Answer: Although it should be resisted, corruption is common in Mandarin societies. The difference in Vietnam has been that the communist government put an additional layer of Eastern European economic models on top of the Mandarin system, which basically stagnated the entire business environment.  People on the street level in Saigon knew how to get things done, but the Eastern European trained bureaucrats in Hanoi didn't have a clue.  They thought banks were like wells - you put the bucket in and you bring out the money. It's taken them a while to figure out the notion of capital development and profits.  I hope they are willing to move forward with these models now that the Trade Agreement has been passed. But there are many good people to work with inside Vietnam, both inside the government and out.  My advice to people interested in doing business there is to find a good partner with whom one can develop a harmonious and open relationship, and to insist also that the business relationship must be transparent, devoid of bribes or secret payoffs.  I have never had a problem in this regard once I have explained that I need a receipt for every payment I make inside the country.

Question 8. Recently there has been much talk about your classic novel, which many term the most realistic novel on combat in Vietnam "Fields of Fire", finally becoming a movie.  Can you tell us what is happening on this, what your involvement maybe in this new project and when we all can expect to be seeing a cinematic version of the novel?

Answer: I signed an agreement with RKO Pictures in October of last year.  I am producing the film and also writing the screenplay.  We have been working on this project for nine years, off and on, and during that time I have kept a business relationship with the Giai Phong Film company, Vietnam's premiere production services company.  They've been great to work with, and very loyal to the project.  We have been promised the full cooperation of the Vietnamese government and also of the US Marine Corps.  I'm very excited about finally getting the film done.  Right now we have set a start date on shooting the film of August 1, 2002.

Question 9. Recently there has been what seems a mood swing in the U.S. to finally value military service to our country.  Your novels including the Lost Soldiers often deal with this issue.  What is your impression of this new development and do you think that a deeper appreciation of military service will last or is just a passing fancy?

Answer: I believe the average American has always appreciated the value of military service.  Even during the darkest of days for Vietnam veterans, our polling on the House Veterans Affairs Committee showed overwhelming support for those who served.  My concern over the years has been the negative images perpetrated by the media and other elites.  Few of them have served, and many of them look condescendingly on those who have.  It remains to be seen how long their attention will hold.  Perhaps the intimate nature of the September 11th attacks will make them finally understand the connection between national defense issues and their own well being.

Question 10. In addition to your military service in Vietnam, you also have served as Secretary of the Navy, Assistant Secretary of Defense and full Committee Counsel of the U.S. Congress.  Obviously your credentials as a "military thinker" are substantial.  Based on your observations of recent U.S. military operations in Afghanistan what is your impression of the Administrations policy with respect to projecting American strategic interests and where do you see room for improvement?

Answer: I've written about these issues extensively over the years.  Rather than going through them in this interview, let me suggest that readers visit my web page at, where I keep a repository of many of my articles.

Question 11. Given you own substantial past experience with the military and the obvious fact that you not only have the experience but deeply care about our country and those serving in it, is a return to government service at this point possible or have you gotten that bug mostly out of your system?

Answer: I think about returning to government service from time to time, although  right now I believe I'm contributing through my writing, and also continuing to experience the world in a way that one never can if he or she is in government service.  I used to joke that when I was Secretary of the Navy was locked up inside some of the best hotels in the world.

Question 12. The former Ambassador in Vietnam, Ambassador Petersen, a former U.S. Congressman and POW, played a crucial role in helping rebuild the U.S.-Vietnam relationship.  Many of those who fought in Vietnam are now coming into their 50s or 60s and are at the heights of their careers, including of course yourself.  Do you feel that former U.S. Veterans still have a critical role in Vietnam and would a future role as Ambassador be something that you yourself would consider?

Answer: US veterans certainly do have a role to play inside Vietnam, and I would urge those who care about the country to continue to connect with it.  As for myself, I will continue to remain involved with Vietnam and the Vietnamese people in any way that I feel is interesting to me and useful to the future.

About the Interviewer: Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School. He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board. Mr. Runckel is the principal and founder of Runckel & Associates, a Portland, Oregon based consulting company that assists businesses expand business opportunities in Asia. (

Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China. Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years. He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations. Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.

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