Paying the price of Reagan's nightingale song

July 06, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Robert Timberg has written a book about the true believers of the American warrior class. It's called "The Nightingale's Song." It's about five men who translated their love of country into serving it with good intentions. But something got lost in the translation.

The book arrived just in time for the Fourth of July, which is a day for the sunshine patriots, who salute the flag and head for the shopping malls. Timberg's patriots, who are named Poindexter and McFarlane and Webb, and Ollie North and John McCain, whose faces are so familiar that we thought we knew them when we didn't, were the best and brightest and the most aggressive and often the most passionate and sometimes the most manipulative of their generation of elite fighting men.

"The Nightingale's Song" shows us how their sense of mission blesses the country and sometimes doesn't. These five came of age when America was learning to be cynical. They went through four years at the U.S. Naval Academy when kids were first learning to get stoned, and they went to Vietnam and one of them to a prisoner of war camp when the rest of America was choosing up sides from a safe place.

Timberg takes us back to confrontations most of us ducked when the going was rough. Patriotism's easy on the great holidays, when we celebrate with bunting stripped across used car lots. It's tougher when they ask you to wade through rice paddies.

"The Nightingale's Song" is about the price the whole country paid, and still pays, for Vietnam, for good intentions that get twisted, for the politicians and the military types doing their various power moves, and how these five men brought their problems home to some of the worst entanglements of the Reagan years.

Timberg, deputy chief of The Sun's Washington bureau, knows the turf. He graduated from the Naval Academy and served in Vietnam. His book is a marvel of scrupulous reporting and writing that shakes us two decades after the fact.

The numbers still divide us. About 27 million men came of draft age during the war years, Timberg reports. About 16 million escaped military service through deferments, exemptions, legal technicalities, military alternatives, physical or emotional problems real or imagined or faked, all of it done with "background, wit or money."

Timberg's men went to war. This doesn't make them saints, just true believers. A democracy depends on such people, and also on those who stand on the sidelines and express honest doubts. The scraping along the edges gives the country its fine tuning, even when it feels like grinding.

But Timberg's book shows us what it was like for those who paid the price most young men of that generation avoided -- and what it cost the country, too.

His John McCain is the Republican senator from Arizona caught in the web of Charles Keating's savings and loan scandal. But before that, he's the kid whose plane is shot down over Hanoi and lands in a small lake, where McCain "sank to the muddy bottom, then kicked back up gasping for air. As he sank again, he tried to manipulate the toggles of his life vest to inflate it, but discovered that his (broken) arms were useless. . . . Fighting to hold his breath, he managed to pull the toggle with his teeth . . .

"An angry crowd . . . had gathered, all seemingly armed. Stripped down to his skivvies, he was kicked and spat upon, then bayoneted in the left ankle and left groin. Suddenly the pain from the injuries he incurred on ejection, muted until then, flared through his body. He raised his head, was stunned to see that his right calf was nearly perpendicular to his knee (when) an onlooker slammed a rifle butt down on his shoulder, smashing it."

Days later, McCain awakens in a medical facility. The room is infested with mosquitoes and roaches, and rats scuttle across the floor. And McCain's years of torture and deprivation were only beginning.

We treasure such men for fighting the good fight, for believing in the ideals the rest of us mouth reflexively and without being tested. But Timberg makes us wonder about the system that produced them, which lets an Ollie North manipulate and lie, a Bud McFarlane and a John Poindexter arrange the worst secrets of the Reagan years.

True believers they once were, who heard the nightingale's song of Ronald Reagan. Yet Reagan, Timberg shows us, was only a front man. Others paid the dearer price.

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