One of the last questions that moderator Anderson Cooper put to the candidates at Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas was which enemies they were most proud of making. Martin O’Malley said the NRA; Bernie Sanders said Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry. Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran, said it was probably the man he killed for throwing a grenade at him.
“I would have to say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me but he’s not around right now to talk to,” said Webb.
By way of explaining that remarkably unexpected answer, here’s the official text commemorating the presentation of the Navy Cross, a decoration for bravery, to Webb:
On 10 July 1969, while participating in a company-sized search and destroy operation deep in hostile territory, First Lieutenant Webb’s platoon discovered a well-camouflaged bunker complex which appeared to be unoccupied. Deploying his men into defensive positions, First Lieutenant Webb was advancing to the first bunker when three enemy soldiers armed with hand grenades jumped out. Reacting instantly, he grabbed the closest man and, brandishing his .45 caliber pistol at the others, apprehended all three of the soldiers. Accompanied by one of his men, he then approached the second bunker and called for the enemy to surrender. When the hostile soldiers failed to answer him and threw a grenade which detonated dangerously close to him, First Lieutenant Webb detonated a claymore mine in the bunker aperture, accounting for two enemy casualties and disclosing the entrance to a tunnel … Continuing the assault, he approached a third bunker and was preparing to fire into it when the enemy threw another grenade. Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body.
Webb, who has said he felt like “a pawn” in Vietnam, in fact wrote a short (fictional) story published by Politico this summer in which a veteran remembers a situation very similar to the one depicted in the Navy Cross citation. “The enemy soldier had been smiling,” the narrator says in the story’s conclusion. “Every time he did stop to think about those few seconds that had forever changed his life, he could still see the soldier smiling from inside the trap door of the bunker as the soldier threw the grenade and he shot him in the face. And he wondered why the soldier had seemed to be so happy.”