Air & Space Power Journal

The Nightingale's Song by Robert Timberg. Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the America, New York, 10020, 1995, 544 pages, $27.50.

Robert Timberg--Annapolis graduate, Marine veteran of Vietnam, and now deputy chief of the Baltimore Sun's Washington bureau--has written a book that is fascinating and flawed. The book is a study of five extraordinary men, all Annapolis graduates, whose names and faces are well known to millions of Americans.

Timberg provides five small biographies of John McCain, who suffered terribly in a North Vietnamese camp before entering the world of politics where, if we can believe him, he suffered even more (p. 459); of Robert McFarlane, a truly decent and humble man, finally driven to a suicide attempt because of his Annapolis honor sullied, in part, by his own confusion in the Washington power game (p. 421); of James Webb, a courageous combat leader and later lawyer and novelist, who served for a short time as Secretary of the Navy, but who could be "mean, vindictive, self-important, and overbearing" (p. 457); of John Poindexter, by all accounts a worthy officer with a brilliant mind, yet one who never understood politics and politicians (p. 247); and of Oliver North, described by McFarlane as "deceitful, mendacious, and traitorous," as well as "devious, self-serving, self-aggrandizing and true first and foremost to himself" (p. 472).

This is a powerful and provocative book. It deals strongly, even arrogantly, with five strong and often arrogant men, all of whom, in different ways, were bright and talented, supremely ambitious, and deeply courageous. A generation after David Halberstam's book The Best and the Brightest, which described the American entry into Vietnam, comes this volume, which describes these five men, more "best and brightest," all of whom were involved, directly or indirectly in that war, and in its wake, which Timberg sees as the Iran-Contra imbroglio.

Although Timberg seems to treat North with contempt (pp. 352, 475), he is also quick to point out North's courage, dramatic flair, and teaching talent. At a time when so many seemed to dodge their duty, North, after all, served--as did the others, often with great distinction and valor. Meanwhile some of their countrymen thought of themselves as "people who can do more good in a lifetime in politics or academics or medicine than by getting killed in a trench" (p. 90). That theme runs through this book like a red thread: The McCain-McFarlane-Webb-North-Poindexter generation served our country in war, or turned their backs on the war, the country, and those who served (pp. 90, 163). Reconciliation, Timberg seems to say, will never come to pass; the chasm is too wide.

What has brought grief to these five men, aside from their own hubris, is their Annapolis education, which taught them to obey without question (p. 25). "They knew," Timberg writes, "there were times when a subordinate must say no to a superior, but as the Iran-Contra affair makes clear, their threshold was appallingly high" (p. 416). Their lockstep educations and their personal ambition made it virtually impossible for them to ask the question, during the Iran-Contra scandal, that Timberg wanted them to ask: "We're not going to do anything stupid here, are we?" (p. 417). But does any university offer its graduates an education which effectively vaccinates them against moral myopia?

This is an extraordinary volume, of immense possible value to senior officers. It suffers, however, from Timberg's tendency to write caustic prose. President Reagan, for example, is dismissed as a man "with the attention span of a fruit fly" (p. 448). Yet Reagan is the "nightingale." Therein lies the chief difficulty of this book. Timberg desperately searches for some kind of hub around which to make the spokes of his book revolve. Thus he settles upon the nightingale, which Timberg fecklessly attempts to use as organizing force for the book (p. 16), arguing that Reagan's example helped the young nightingales of his story finally to sing their song. No ornithologist seems to have told Timberg that nightingales are not found in the United States.

The book is Procrustean. That is, it jams together too many characters. One can see the connections among McFarlane, Poindexter, and North, but he force-fits McCain and Webb into his mold, attempting "to use all five men as metaphors for the emotions, motivations, and beliefs of a legion of well-meaning but ill-starred warriors" (p. 18). That is known as the fallacy of composition, and Timberg is constantly at pains to weave together one fabric from too many threads.

I can think of no one who will come away from this book entirely pleased with its arguments. That may be its chief strength, for it once again calls into question the oldest arguments about duty, about honor, and about country. Timberg quotes with approval John McCain's June 1994 speech at Quantico, in which he said that "my happiness these last twenty years has not let me forget the friends who did not return with me to the country we loved so dearly" (p. 462). "The first duty," Jim Webb said at Arlington in 1987, "is to remember" (p. 457). This book cogently reminds us of honor and shame, of virtue and vice, of courage and cowardice. We see them all reflected in the joys and sorrows of these five remarkable lives about which Timberg writes so compellingly. And we see them, too, if less distinctly, in our own lives.

James H. Toner
Professor of International Relations &
Military Ethics, Air War College
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


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