Still Paying the Bill for Vietnam Story of Five Men from Academy to War to Iran-Contra Affair

By Reviewed Marty A. Marty | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 23, 1995 | Go to article overview

Still Paying the Bill for Vietnam Story of Five Men from Academy to War to Iran-Contra Affair


Reviewed Marty A. Marty, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


THE NIGHTINGALE'S SONG By Robert Timberg 544 pages, Simon & Schuster, $27.50

AN EXTRAORDINARY combination of circumstances cast five graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy as players in a great national drama - a musical, as the metaphor in this book's title would have it. Others in the cast played vital roles, most importantly the "Nightingale," whose absence while present was as consequential as his presence while absent.

In Robert Timberg's libretto, the craftiness of the Nightingale's protectors, the consummate lying skills of one of the five singers of the Nightingale's song and the genius of another in the art of strategic memory failure, kept a national embarrassment from becoming a full-blown disgrace. Had the public been aroused instead of dully indifferent, the drama's climax - the Iran-Contra affair - would have made presidential impeachment plausible, if not inevitable.

The five characters from the Naval Academy were Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter, both of whom held successive positions in the military and the Reagan administration that led to their appointments as National Security Adviser; John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years and later a representative and senator from Arizona; Jim Webb, a novelist, veterans' advocate and Secretary of the Navy; and Oliver North, a military officer on the staff of the National Security Council who stretched every leash beyond its limits.

To begin the tale of this quintet's coming together in Iran-Contra episodes of the 1980s, Timberg traces each member's origins to his hometown. Then come stories of their exploits at Annapolis. That Timberg himself graduated from the academy, after McCain, McFarlane, and Poindexter and before Webb and North, gives the stories an insider's touch. Although Timberg overlapped for one year with North, he says he never met him or any of the others until he began to cover their activities in the 1980s as a reporter for Baltimore newspapers.

The defining moments for each of the six Annapolis graduates (including Timberg) came during the Vietnam War. Their experiences, Timberg says, "illuminate a generation, or a portion of a generation - those who went." Each in his own way, he says, "stands as flesh-and-blood repository of that generation's anguish and sense of betrayal." They believed America, until then, to be "a seemingly unassailable certainty." The events that followed in their lives and the nation's, Timberg suggests, were at least in part the bill for Vietnam coming due. …

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