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The Nightingale's Song by Robert Timberg

The Nightingale's Song

by Robert Timberg

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I read this back when I was in college and thought it was a great story about some people who have all made history in one some form or another after the Vietnam War. ( )
  Charlie-Ravioli | Jan 18, 2016 |
Substance: A look at some of the men who had positions of authority in the armed forces and administration, who were influenced by the same cultural factors that produced President Ronald Reagan, "the Nightingale", and (in the author's view) "failed" some how because of flaws in their character.The men he looks at are John McCain, James Webb, Oliver North, Bud McFarlane, Join Poindexter. The jacket cover describes each man as if he were one of the characters in a movie about "The Lost Platoon" or some such war film: very stereotypical.
Here is the "subtitle" on the front of the jacket: "They are secret sharers, men whose experiences at Annapolis and during the Vietnam War and its aftermath illuminate a generation , or a portion of a generation -- those who went. They shared a seemingly unassailable certainty. They believed in America. (last sentence italicized.)

I don't know how accurate his "facts" are (however, they were clearly selected from the information available on each man to fit the author's thesis). His negative opinion of Reagan's politics colors the narrative to the point where I could no longer credit his analysis; I don't believe he understands these men as well as he thinks he does, because he never quite grasps why Reagan swept the elections, twice.

My take: We call some people leaders, because other people follow them. (And if you want to "analyze" some cults of personality, you could pick almost any President and find men and women who (1) follow them uncritically because they are all crazy; or (2) make a reasoned choice to follow them because they have the same goals. From the outside, it's hard to tell the difference.) ( )
  librisissimo | Nov 28, 2014 |
A fascinating and piercing look into the lives of five prominent Annapolis grads, and the effect the Vietnam War continues to cast over them and America. ( )
  ChocolateMilkMaid | Jun 17, 2009 |
Timberg, an Annapolis graduate and Vietnam veteran, was struck by some odd similarities, as he watched Oliver North, John Poindexter, and others happily lie to Congress (North still brags about it even though when Clinton did it, lying became less fashionable – maybe it’s only OK to lie if you are in uniform).
By now a journalist, Timberg wondered if the Iran-Contra scandal did not represent one of the long-term effects of the Vietnam War. He researched the careers of John McCain, Robert “Bud” McFarlane, James Webb, Ollie North, and John Poindexter to investigate whether the Naval Academy culture and the impact of Vietnam might have influenced their lives in such a way as to lay the groundwork for political maneuvering in later years.

This is a brilliant work that seamlessly melds together the biographies of these five men, drawing out the influences and implications of events that helped to shape later decisions. Intriguing detail is vital to the story he is telling. One interesting tidbit occurred in 1958 when “Bud” McFarlane was on a training mission on the carrier Essex. The ship was ordered to quickly leave its Italian port and sail to Lebanon where the Marines would be landed in support of the president. He watched mystified as Navy Skyraiders (older propeller-driven aircraft) were loaded with atomic weapons. When he inquired why the jets on board were not being readied with more conventional bombs, he was told that the Skyraiders were the only planes available with the range to reach the Soviet Union, and they were making preparations in case the Soviets made a move into Berlin in retaliation for the Marine landing in Beirut. This was heady stuff for the new midshipman who now realized it was no longer a game. Fortunately the Soviets showed restraint.

Poindexter was a methodical, orderly man, naïve in many ways. After graduation from the Academy, he was on a game show just before the Van Doren scandals, and he realized the show had been rigged in his favor to win. He lost only by a fluke. He applied to Cal Tech as part of the Arleigh Burke Scholar program to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. Admitted provisionally because of his deficiencies in math, he collected all the books he needed to learn the math he needed, a stack over three feet high, placed them in order of difficulty and proceeded to work his way through them in order to learn what he needed to know. Had he taken the same approach later when he arrived in government deficient in American civics past the high school level, he might have had a better understanding of the give-and-take required of political leaders. He also trusted his subordinates implicitly, assuming they had been properly trained and indoctrinated. This would come back to haunt him later.

McFarlane revealed in 1994 that, on orders from Kissinger, he passed on highly sensitive intelligence information about the Soviets to the Chinese. In return, the Chinese let us have listening posts close to the Russian border. Presumably the Russians knew of this exchange, which had to cause “enormous ambiguity” (McFarlane’s phrase) in the minds of the Kremlin leaders, making them even more paranoid having to face two world powers rather than just one.
Webb left Vietnam a certifiable hero, having been wounded so severely that he was forced to leave the Marines. Of the five, he had the most combat experience. He also left with the realization that civilians fight wars. Professionals hold terrain until wars begin and civilians can be mustered. He noticed in Vietnam that only certain classes of civilians were fighting, unlike previous wars. If you were rich or connected you didn’t have to go. His book Fields of Fire is still considered a classic of Vietnam war literature.

Timberg’s book is filled with interesting detail about the political machinations that go into judgments that affect all of our lives. In 1983, following the terrorist attack that killed more than two hundred Marines in Lebanon, Reagan was furious. He was just about to invade Grenada, so the U.S. reaction was postponed. Unfortunately, the signals Reagan gave to his advisors were unclear at best. Initially, the French were to participate. They had lost several soldiers in a terrorist attack the same day. At a meeting on November 14 attended by McFarlane and Caspar Weinberger, the two advisors left with very different versions of what they heard. McFarlane was positive that Reagan had been adamant in ordering a retaliatory strike on the Syrians. Weinberger, then Secretary of Defense, flatly denied that Reagan had ever given an order to attack. Weinberger had worked with Reagan much longer than McFarlane, and while he would never have disobeyed a direct order, he “was adept at recognizing or creating wiggle room in presidential pronouncements, especially those he viewed as unwise.” The authors of Best Laid Plans, an analysis of the Lebanon debacle, laid the blame on Reagan: “It was not unusual for two of the President’s closest advisors to come out of a meeting with completely different impressions of what Reagan had decided. Although he projected an image of a strong leader, Ronald Reagan frequently relied on ambiguity to resolve — or bury — the conflicts within his administration. Never one to master the intricacies of a problem, he was dependent upon his advisors to tell him not only the facts but also what they meant. When his advisors gave him conflicting opinions, and the time came for him to make a complex and truly difficult decision that only the President could make, he frequently failed. The President’s involvement in foreign affairs was episodic, anecdotal, impulsive, and rarely decisive. It was no wonder that the staff of the National Security Council later concluded that the best way to serve Reagan was to do the job for him.”

The result was a completely botched raid that killed no enemy but destroyed several American planes. It was rushed and the pilots were not adequately briefed. One captured pilot of a downed plane was released finally to Jesse Jackson, which led Secretary of the Navy John Lehman to remark that they should modify aviators’ survival packs to include a “roll of quarters and Jackson’s phone number.”

The Iran-Contra affair was a mess. Timberg suggests that what they needed was not a McFarlane, North, or Poindexter, who were too eager to follow orders and then lie about the result, but someone like Navy captain Al Krechich. He was Fleet Chief of Staff, when the Navy was trying to test a new missile in the Pacific. They were being harassed by Greepeace. The Greenpeacers would buzz around the test area in fast little Zodiac boats. The staff meeting held to decide what to do began to discuss rather severe methods such as shooting at them with real ammunition. Krechich simply said, “We’re not going to do anything stupid here, are we?” After all, the idea was just to test a missile, not start a war with Greenpeace. His innovative solution was to bombard the Greenpeace boats with balloons and condoms filled with laundry detergent. Their rubber craft became so slippery, the operators had difficulty standing up to control the boats. One lucky hit went down the stack of the mother ship, effectively disabling her engine.

The book is filled with similar amusing and instructive anecdotes that effectively tell of the legacy that Vietnam had on several of her authentic heroes and our government.

As to the question of whether Reagan was informed or knew about the whole affair, perhaps Robert McFarlane’s comment is the most accurate. “Reagan would have taken that knowledge and would have said, ‘Great! Gee, that’s terrific,’ And with the attention of a fruit fly, it would have been out of his mind in about thirty seconds.”
3 vote ecw0647 | May 4, 2009 |
3413. The Nightingale's Song, by Robert Timberg (read March 3, 2001) I know this book came out in 1995 and I should have read it earlier but I found it still an amazingly interesting book. It studies the careers of five Naval Academy graduates: John Poindexter and John McCain from the Class of 1958, John "Bud" MacFarlane from the Class of 1959, and James Webb and Oliver North from the Class of 1968. Though the events dealt with may seem like ancient history to us I found the accounts really absorbing and the book really easy to read. There are no footnotes, but source notes for each chapter are given. The nightingale in the title is Reagan, and the revealing portrayal of him and his style of operation alone would make the book worth reading. This book started my March 2001 reading off in great style. ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Nov 24, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0684826739, Paperback)

Robert Timberg weaves together the lives of Annapolis graduates John McCain, James Webb, Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, and John Poindexter to reveal how the Vietnam War continues to haunt America. Casting all five men as metaphors for a legion of well-meaning if ill-starred warriors, Timberg probes the fault line between those who fought the war and those who used money, wit, and connections to avoid battle. A riveting tale that illuminates the flip side of the fabled Vietnam generation -- those who went.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:48 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Robert Timberg weaves together the lives of Annapolis graduates John McCain, James Webb, Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, and John Poindexter to reveal how the Vietnam War continues to haunt America. Casting all five men as metaphors for a legion of well-meaning if ill-starred warriors, Timberg probes the fault line between those who fought the war and those who used money, wit, and connections to avoid battle. A riveting tale that illuminates the flip side of the fabled Vietnam generation -- those who went.… (more)

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